Twilight over Tioga Lake

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"Everywhere I Look, There is God"

This wise and beautiful statement was not made by anyone famous. It was made by Marc, a five year old in my class a couple of years ago. Every year I ask my kids to draw their own interpretations of God, making sure they know there is no wrong way and they can believe whatever they want. I have seen a person with a heart shaped head, clouds, monsters, burning buildings, nebulous light, and a picture of "God inside of me." My point is that God is indeed open to interpretation.

I also like the band Neutral Milk Hotel's take on the subject: "God is the place you will wait for the rest of your life."

As for me? I don't even know if I believe in God. Or gods. Or anything. I certainly have mixed, mostly not too fond feelings for most religions. But that is a whole other thing I won't get into now.

It may sound cheesy, but the closest way I can describe how I interpret God is as the Force from Star Wars. An all pervading energy that exists in every living thing and everywhere in the universe.

(You may be interested to know that Jedi is an actual religion in Britain! My Scottish friend Andy told me enough people wrote in "Jedi" on the Census that it became an official religion.)

What I do believe is that God, or the Force, or whatever there may be, certainly exists in certain moments. We have a great book at school called Where is God? that talks about all the places one could find God--at the beginning and end of someone's life, in hugs, tears, enjoying nature, etc. I agree with most of the moments, and I have had my share of them as well. For me they tend towards being out in nature. For example, one time while hiking in the Sierras, a little snake came slithering across a pond right up to me and my friend Anna. I swear it was looking right at us, completely unafraid. Another time I was "baptized" by a very powerful waterfall in New Zealand. It was kind of scary, but I felt insanely happy and refreshed afterwards. So many other moments could have a trace of God in them--being swept up in the energy of a concert, running a marathon, teaching someone all depends on what it could mean for you. Think about it, regardless of your relgious beliefs or non-beliefs.

I am casually working on a novel. It will hopefully be a memoir of my childhood spent literally at a barn with horses and all sorts of fascinating people who strongly influenced my life. Here I present one of the chapters to the public (well, whoever reads this) for the first time. Ashberry Hill, mentioned in the chapter, is the name of the barn. Any strange names like "Tango" you come across refer to horses. Terri is the owner of the barn and our instructor. Andi and Cathy were other girls who rode there, slightly older than me. Jenny is our vet. Arthur and Aurora are younger students. Dan and Em are my brother and sister. Hopefully everything makes sense.

The chapter focuses on a moment I was certain God or the Force was present, more that almost any other in my life. Enjoy, and I'd love any feedback.

Faultless Angel

The name was perfect. For that is exactly what she was. Sure, Faultless grinded her teeth when you brushed her, giving her the appearance of a grumpy old lady. But really, what else could you find wrong about this many miled equine?
Faultless had jumped countless obstacles in hunter-jumper competitions; ran hundreds of miles in competitive trails.
She had been many a child's and adult's first horse they ever rode, and given them the confidence to continue.
She had patiently endured heavier people awkwardly learning to post, put up with scared children unnecessarily pulling on her mouth.
She was the horse that got my mom to try riding again.
Faultless had never spooked, never ran away with anyone, never bucked or reared. The one "vice" she had was taking off at full gallop and soaring over a jump placed in front of her. Or even a ground pole. It was an amusing trick to play on unwary passengers.
Faultless was Grandma. She was Autumn's first companion. She was Grandma like Tango was Grandpa. She was part of the Ashberry Hill permanent family, part of what made us US.
And she was dying.

Terri had "retired" Faultless--stopped using her for riding--about a year ago. Since then, she had enjoyed a peaceful and easy existence hanging out with Autumn and Tango. We brushed her in our spare time, and gave her treats.
But then we noticed the change. Terri increased her food, wet it so she didn't have to chew, but weight wouldn't stay on her. She didn't bother to swish away flies. Her eyes looked duller.
One day Jenny was here giving some routine shots to other horses. Terri had Jenny take a look at Faultless. Aurora and I were cleaning tack as this happened. Steph walked in and said, "Is something wrong with Faultless? Why is Jenny examining her?"
"You know, Terri said was getting really thin and stuff," I replied.
"I know the real reason," said Aurora rather precociously. We looked at her, asking silently. "Mom is deciding if Faultless should be put to sleep or not."
Steph gasped. "Don't say that! There is nothing wrong with her!" Yet Steph's eyes showed doubt. I wanted to shout at Aurora too, but had been thinking the same thing.
"Everyone gets old and dies," said Aurora, calmly cleaning her bridle. “It’s sad, but it’s part of life.” I admired Aurora's matter of factness about the situation. I guessed that is what happens when you grow up a veterinarian's kid. We continued cleaning tack silently. A ball of anxious unhappiness started forming in my guts.

Evening. Diffused yellow light, warm breeze. Terri, Andi, and I sat on hay bales. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore. “What’s going to happen with Faultless?!” I blurted, not hiding the emotion like I had planned.
Terri calmly looked at me. “Nothing,” she replied, smiling. I frowned. Maybe she didn’t know what I was talking about.
“But...wasn’t Jenny looking at her to see if...she should know...”
“Put to sleep?” Andi finished for me tentatively.
“I knew Faultless was coming near the end of her life,” Terri said. “I wanted to make sure she wasn’t in any pain. And Jenny said she wasn’t. Technically, there is nothing wrong with her. She’s just...old.”
“So we’re not putting her to sleep,” I stated, internal tensions relaxing.
“No, we’re not. Faultless is not in pain or sick. She is dying. We are going to allow her to die.” Terri did not seem to be in any distress about this.
“But isn’t it almost better to put her to sleep?” Andi asked. “Then she can just die peacefully, and...we can know when it will happen?” Andi's face was a worried question mark.
“That is what I was thinking before I talked to Jenny,” said Terri. “But Jenny and I started talking about Faultless’ life. That horse has done so much! Who are we to decide when her life ends? We don’t do that to people. Imagine if someone said, ’Ok Grandma, time to die! Goodbye!’”
Andi and I laughed despite the morbidity of the idea.
“Jenny said Faultless deserves the dignity of a normal death,” Terri continued. “And that is what we will give her.”

As I sat in my pink beanbag that evening, thoughts of Faultless, death, and the bizarre notion of choosing when someone’s life should end kept distracting me from my book. I had not yet experienced the natural death of a horse. Pasha’s untimely one was a horrid shock. He had to be put down; there was no question. Dead gerbils and hamsters had been discovered in their cages by me and Dan and Em, always an unpleasant surprise. But a horse, who we sometimes call our children, just dying? I wasn’t sure if this really was better than her being put to sleep. For me, at least. Would we see her die? What would it look like? The idea of seeing anything dead was scary, but something the size of horse as dead ran into terrifying territory. But for Faultless, I did agree with Terri and Jenny that a dignified death was the least we could allow her.

Faultless’ condition remained the same over the next couple weeks. My fear of her suddenly dropping dead eased somewhat. But the knowledge that it would happen soon seeped into everyone's thoughts and conversations, at the barn and at home.
As we were cleaning stalls on a Saturday morning, Andi put down her pitchfork and addressed anyone who could hear.
“You know, it is really weird!”
“What?” I asked.
“The whole concept of putting an animal to sleep. I mean, even the wording. You’re not letting them 'sleep'. You’re...killing them!”
I stepped out so we could see each other. “It’s true. But I mean, sometimes it is better to put down an animal. Like with Pasha.”
“Yeah, but Terri said there are a lot of barns that just put down horses because they can’t be ridden anymore. And that happens with race horses all the time.”
“It’s true,” I said thoughtfully. “Terri always says how lucky Bay is.” It is a known fact that Bay would have been considered damaged goods and a finacial drain anywhere else. He would be long dead most places. “Those places are so messed up!”
Terri walked into our conversation. “It’s easy to label such places as cheap or evil. But usually, these people love their horses. Most likely they were heartbroken as their horse was injected. They just believed they were doing the “kind” thing. But is the kind thing to do always the right thing to do?”
Andi and I sighed, and continued picking out stalls. I had a momentary panic that someday I would have to make a life or death decision for a living creature, and not have the guiding wisdom of people like Jenny and Terri. I silently thanked God for still being young and immature.

Later that week, on a trail ride after school. Horses on the buckle, striding eagerly towards home from the pond. I grabbed at leaves, starting to turn tapestries of colors before they became brittle and fell. Terri was in one of her provocative question moods.
She turned around on Court, who was in the lead as always. “Would you risk your own life to save another person’s?”
“Depends who it is,” said Andi, in the middle on Spidey. “Someone in my family, or one of my good friends, yes. One of the bitchy popular girls at school, probably not.”
I laughed. “Yeah, same with me.” Of course, I couldn’t comprehend what a situation like that would be like. I thought of myself of particularly moral, especially in the junior high years.
Terri stayed facing us, and smiled the slightly evil smile. “Now what if it was an animal? A pet or horse that you really love?”
“Hmm” pondered Andi. “You know, I think I would. I definitely would for Spidey,” she said as she patted him. “Would you?” I was always glad when someone asked Terri’s questions back at her.
“Not for any animal, but for someone like Court, I think so. You mentioned family, Andi, and our horses are like our family. There is no rule that says human life is more valuable. That is something we have decided.”
“You’re right!” I said. How does Terri think of these things? I always wished I had thought of them first. “It’s like we humans think we’re gods or something!”
“And it is kind of like we’re playing god when we put animals to sleep,” Andi said. God, what a confused species we were.

That night, Dan, Em, and I bounced on the trampoline under twilight. The bats flitted and chirped above us, gulping mosquitos. I decided to try out those questions on them.
“Would you save an animal’s life, even if you might die?” I asked panting, jumping and landing on my knees.
“Yes!” shouted Dan. “I could never let Heidi die. Right, Heidi?” he said to Heidi’s freckled face watching us through the window.
“Yeah me too!” I gasped as I ran around the edge of the trampoline and collapsed in the middle. Emile narrowly missed me as she finished a flip. “Em?”
Emilie let herself plop down, bouncing to stillness. “No,” she shrugged.
“Why not? You think humans are better than animals? Well, we’re really not! We just think we’re God or something!” Self-righteousness barreled through me.
“Yeah, we’re animals too,” said Dan, also sitting down. “We just think we’re the smartest. But who knows! Maybe we’re not.”
Emilie simply replied, “I’m just not like you people.” I did not have the will to push my beliefs. And we all silently contemplated the darkening sky.
Now that I’m older and very slightly wiser, I’m more in the league with my sister. I do still believe humanity in general sees itself despots to the planet. I don’t usually believe one life is more deserving to live than another. But I’m sure my family or other loved ones would be pretty pissed if I sacrificed myself to save an animal, even a beloved one. Have I become more selfish? Perhaps. Having now experienced the death of humans close to me, I have realized that life is a near death experience for all of us, at every moment.

The following Saturday seemed perfectly normal. Stalls, ride, hay, water tubs. As I was filling the small paddock tub, thinking about not much, Andi came by to put Panga out. "Faultless is out of her stall," she casually mentioned.
Okay...I thought, not sure why she told me. Then I realized that we always left her door open because she never left. But now she had! This was weird. I went down to the barn to investigate.
Sure enough, Faultless was standing outside of Feather's stall. It occured to me how amazingly ancient she looked. Her broad ribcage pressed up against loose skin. She was fuzzy even though it was summer, never having shed her winter coat. She barely had a mane or tail to speak of. Her eyes were tired, yet still wise and calm. And she carried herself with a resolute dignity.
Faultless stood there for a while. Was she saying something to Feather? Then with creaking joints she turned and faced down the aisle. And a minute later, as if she had unlimited time, walked down the aisle.
Arthur had been sitting on the bench and jumped up shouting, "Faultless! She's loose, she's coming this way!" I couldn't help but laugh at him, as Faultless was not exactly charging out of control.
Terri barely glanced at her. "She's fine. Let her be." And continued brushing Court.
I watched Faultless. What would she do now? I had a feeling she would stop at the end of the aisle. And sure enough she did. Faultless stood there for a while, perhaps communing with Court, Spider, and the others. She turned in a 360 degree circle, taking almost a half hour.
And so this continued. Faultless went to the shed row next, near Dallas, Paradox, and Autumn. I sensed something way bigger than me, way more than I might understand, was going on. Rather numbly, I filled up water tubs and put hay out. Terri and the others went out on a ride.

Cathy and I were the only ones there. It was uncomfortably quiet. I wished for anyone else to be there. I would have even welcomed Arthur swinging on the crossties. From the mares' paddock, I could see into the shed row. Faultless was ambling towards her stall. Then with trembling care, she lied down.
For once I wished there was more to do, but all was left was sweeping the aisle. I did so roboticly, wanting and not wanting to know what was happening in Faultless' stall.
I didn't have to wait much longer. Cathy walked in. "I think Faultless is dying."
Was I afraid? Of course. I had never seen anything more than an insect die in front of me. But I had to look.
Faultless' entire body twitched and convulsed, and she took gulping breaths. Already her eyes were glazing over. Yet I didn't get the feeling she was in any pain. The strange behavior she showed all day was confirmed--she was saying goodbye.
I surprised myself at how unafraid I was. Faultess was probably not afraid. She was surrounded by those who loved her, she got to say goodbye--isn't that what we all want when it's our turn to go?
Suddenly I remembered I was supposed to put Paradox out. I knew Faultless would die any moment. Should I stay and watch? I decided not to. And honestly, I regret it. What a powerful and honored moment to see a living being's last breath...
Faultless was dead when I came back. Cathy was still standing there. There was no question that she could be sleeping--such a stillness in death. Her eyes were empty. It was just a body, no longer Faultless.
Just then the rest of the group came back. I hung back, and Cathy told them the news. A collective sad sigh came from them. All of a sudden I was hit by an onslaught of memories. Faultless befriending Autumn back at Withington's. My mom and I riding Faultless and Autumn together. Me riding Faultless in a spectator class at a 4-H show, as she calmly trotted around the ring as if a show was nothing.
I sank back against the wall of the shed row and started crying. A friend of many years was gone. Strangely, this was not the usual gasping cry of grief. Of course I was upset, yet I also felt a relieved peace. We had allowed her a natural death. There was an aching beauty to it.

At the end of the day, we talked about Faultless' last journey and her amazing life. We were quiet, and sadly smiling.
I didn't realize back then what a gift it was to have compassionate, wise adults like Jenny and Terri in our lives. But I never forget it now. If they had decided to put Faultless to sleep, she would not have had the chance to say goodbye--for I do truly believe that is what she did. And me and the other young people at the barn would not have had the chance to witness such a beautiful and extraordinary event. Allowing Faultless to die naturally was an enormous gift to her and all of us from Terri and Jenny. They were also allowing us to grow and expand our sense of the world.
I've always had a shaky relationship with God. I don't know if I believe in God or not. I feel that way to this day. But there were some days something else, some greater force or power, seemed present. And Faultless' last day was one of those. Whether it was a god or some sort of ever present energy, it was there that day. Incredible moments like this and many others that happened at Ashberry Hill resonate with me still.


About Me

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San Francisco, CA
Elissa is an east coast transplant making her way through life by way of San Francisco. This amazing city provides lots of fodder for writers of all types. I find inspiration for writing through life's little and bizarre events, such as grocery shopping for dog treats, salamander hunting, and insomnia. I am a preschool teacher in "real life."