Maisy, my son’s irrepressible 7-year-old daughter, is learning to ride. Every Saturday morning, she takes a lesson at a stable out in Davidsonville.
Maisy’s brother took lessons as well for a time, and it was from him that I learned correct riding posture is “back pocket to the earth, chest to the sky.” I liked that and immediately exchanged “chest” for “heart.” Writers. We look for meaning in everything; how can you live with us? And I, for one, want that meaning to express something beautiful because I’m convinced that what is true, real, and everlasting is just that. Beautiful. And why would you write about anything else?
So. Heart to sky.
We boarded a horse named Cinda the summer I turned 12. A chestnut mare with a white blaze from ears to muzzle, she’d been underfed and needed pasture time to recover. Hoping we would buy her, the local stable loaned her to us for 3 months. She arrived with a complete set of English tack, but we were told not to ride her until she’d put on more weight.
I loved horses because all romanticizing sixth-grade girls love horses. (We galloped at recess like mustangs, right? Ponytails flying? Wild and free?) But I loved horses mostly because my older sister did. She was turning 17 that summer, and the boarding-Cinda arrangement was probably for her. I was simply the younger sibling appendage who made that a package deal.
It was a season of new experiences, some more pleasant than others. Watching Cinda drink for the first time, I was incredulous that she didn’t lap like a dog but gently placed her muzzle in the water and seemed to silently inhale it. Who knew? If the world doesn’t amaze you, we have work to do.
A hallmark of my childhood was a lack of adult supervision so when Cinda had gained enough weight to ride, I went out alone to the pasture one morning to give it a try. I was able to hoist the blanket and saddle onto her back by standing on cinderblocks, and although the idea of placing a bit into a horse’s mouth today scares me to death, those teeth! Those rubbery lips! I made myself do that as well. From that moment on, I’d ride her through the pasture or to the apple orchards at the end of Eagle Hill Road, where there was enough open space to get her briefly into a gallop, transitioning in one magic moment from the up and down rhythm of posting to being rocked in the cradle. To be clear, this was a pretty gentle horse who kindly let me live. Until she didn’t.
Our place was surrounded by a marsh, woods, and river, and on this steamy August morning, I had ridden her into the cool, dark forest. We were making our way through tender saplings and prickly undergrowth when she bolted. Stung by a bee, spooked by a snake? She tore off at a gallop, zigzagging at breakneck speed through the sassafras, dogwoods, and locust trees. I hung on, branches snapping in my face, tearing at my tee shirt and shorts, entirely out of control, until I looked ahead and saw we were on a direct collision course with a huge pine that had fallen horizontally across our path, snagged by the understory trees like a balance beam. I could see that Cinda was going to race under it and that I was going to be scraped off her back like the 100-pound nuisance I was.
So, I slipped free of the stirrups, let go of the reins, and jumped. I landed on my back in the loamy pine needles with the wind knocked out of me, gazing up at patches of puzzled blue sky, listening to the crows talk to the jays about the morning’s disruption. When I could breathe again, I staggered to my feet, brushed off the seat of my pants, and set off in search of my mount. I found her standing calmly in the sandy lane that edged the woods. The expression on her face was the innocent horse equivalent of, “Wassup?”
I lived out my childhood being my own grown-up and, therefore, anxious most of the time. A low-grade worry caused by unidentifiable adult dramas happening around me attached itself to scary things I could identify — tidal waves, quicksand, leprosy. (The danger of leprosy had been verified both in Sunday School and on an episode of Wagon Train).
So, I created a mantra for those times when something was really scary—like learning to dive off a diving board (counterintuitive to plunge blindly headfirst into anything, yes)? When I needed to do something hard without help, I’d vow, “I’m going to do this if it kills me.”
“I’m going to learn to do a cartwheel, to ride a two-wheeler, to audition for this musical, to put a bit in a horse’s mouth,” if it kills me.
The thing is, in losing the fears of childhood, I’ve lost the courage, too. Now what scares me is encountering a dead mouse in the basement or making that split-second decision at 65 mph whether to take the exit for 895 or 695. Or encountering the emptiness that lurks existentially in most of us if we are not actively filling it up with the companionship of someone we live with, or the comfort sustained by children, travel, books, chores, creative work, and exercise.
Once, I was willing to jump without a net, to saddle and bridle a 1000-pound horse who did not love me. I’m inviting back to myself that determined brave-heart I could once call upon as needed. As I do, I’m wondering if I’m going to do this if it kills me is just another expression for whatever happens, I’m going to be okay. You’re going to be okay, too.
Not that I actually fear that I will die trying whatever the current challenge is. It’s living with the conviction that it’s all right if I do. It’s fine to go. Perfect, even. How can it not be? It’s on the road ahead for all of us. The downed pine across the path that can’t be avoided whether you’re 45 or 95.
I’ve never been a resident of the country of courage, but maybe I can learn to visit again. Come with me. We’ll go together. Jump, let go of the reins, dive headfirst. Believe that whatever is true, real and everlasting is not only beautiful, it is holding us forever safe in a state of grace.
Hearts to sky, beloveds, hearts to sky.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.