Two weeks later: finding space and a big announcement

Two weeks ago I left Ridgway in the company of one of my sweet new friends from the Running Wild retreat, and started the long journey home. It was a gruelling one, in distance and time and in the degree to which I longed to be home with my babies back in my arms, but it was made much better by the opportunity to spend time with two of my oldest friends, both of whom I haven’t seen in a couple of years. But in the context of friendships that span decades, what is a couple of years? Just a reminder of how everything and nothing always changes, and everything and nothing always stays the same. I’m so grateful for these friendships — and how time and distance only seems to make them deeper & more dear.

Since arriving back home, which for now is a campsite on the edge of a northern lake full of loons and trout, I’m slowly assimilating the experience of being away and coming back — and trying to feel conscious instead of helpless about the slow part. For the first week home, I did nothing but unpack, clean the trailer, organize inside & out, laundry x infinity, snuggle the kids, walk the dogs, and read stories on demand. I probably spent an average of about 4.5 hours a day reading, mostly from the series of Disney stories I brought back from our storage shed (Cinderella, Snow White, Peter Pan, and 101 Dalmatians), but I made a kind of unofficial policy to say “yes” every time Au asked me to read. So last week, no matter what I happened to be doing, if she asked, I dropped whatever it was and sat down and read her a book. It was kind of amazing for both of us (she’s a different kid when she’s getting all the attention she wants 100% of the time). I wish I could keep it up forever, but I knew it was a temporary thing — both my new 30-hour/week job and Au’s Kindergarten homeschooling started on Monday, although I technically started preparing & planning for both much earlier than that, because that’s how I roll.

I’m trying to roll consciously, though. I’m trying to create a good balance between how I work and how I parent and how I stay both grounded and inspired with the things I need to do and the things I want to do. And the things I have the capacity to do, which is another thing entirely. Sometimes recognizing and accepting my limitations is the hardest thing of all. How do I balance my aspirations with the practical realities of my daily life? How do I keep my dreams alive when it feels like such a struggle to do the basics: staying on top of the laundry, the shopping, the momming, paying the bills?

I don’t have any wise insights on that, but I have realized the value of chasing the audacious and impossible dream, one small step at a time. Honestly, the more I reflect on it, the more I can see exactly how miraculous and unlikely it was that I even made it to the Running Wild retreat. And now looking back on the experience I can also see exactly how much I needed it. To be away from everything in my normal, everyday life. For the first time in 18 months, to have this little piece of space and time to actually begin to grieve the loss of my oldest child. To do that in a place where I was surrounded by mountains and horses and this incredible little circle of women, each one on her own journey of healing.

This amazing group of humans ❤ (that’s me, third from the left)

I am starting to get it now. How grief and loss takes time to unfold, and how I am just at the beginning of a process that will last for the rest of my life. How for the past 18 months I’ve been holding it together for the babies and L and for the sake of just getting through, and how that is just a survival mechanism. How I can’t keep on doing it without finding some space for release. Some space to feel my grief. To cry freely. To feel utterly broken. To sit with it, in it.

I’m starting to understand how necessary it is for me to somehow carve that time and space out of my everyday life so I can keep doing what I need to do to carry on. Beyond the magic of horses and mountains and hot springs and wise women, attending the retreat gave me a taste of how it can be when people gather together in a time and space apart to learn and grow and heal. I didn’t know how much I needed that space and time — even now two weeks out, it is all still just sinking in. I’m so grateful for everyone who gave me the nudge and encouragement (and tangible, practical help) I needed to get there: Katie, Melissa, Grannie, my parents, all my friends near & far who chipped in — you will never know how much you’ve helped me. The poets have always understood how words are at best the smallest approximations, the smallest gestures pointing towards the most ineffable experiences of life. Still, thank you <3. I love you all <3.

Before the baby wakes up (because the sun is up and he is tossing and making sounds already) I need to make an Important Announcement — to bring to light an idea that I’ve been holding close for some time now because I haven’t been sure if I’m ready. Now I know that there is no such thing as being ready — there is only listening to the call, trusting in the journey. I have decided to say yes.

Riding on Playa Coco. That sky <3.

I am organizing a retreat. April 18-25, 2020, seven days of rest and healing beside the ocean in a beautiful B&B with daily satsang focused on being present with the grief of losing a loved one. This is a risk for me. A first. I will be co-facilitating and also participating in my own healing journey, inviting a small group of others to join me in practices oriented toward creating space for grief and healing: pranayama and meditation, yoga, writing, being with horses. I’m very excited to have Dr. Pamela Richardson joining me as a co-facilitator to lead contemplative writing and offer her gentle wisdom and experience as a counsellor. Our group will stay together at the beautiful Villa Star of the Sea, located on the serene and powerful Playa Coco (which just happens to be one of my favourite places to ride to a beautiful hidden secret beach). All meals (with the exception of one dinner out) will be cooked and provided on site, and optional activities include yoga (2 daily classes focused on pranayama, meditation and restorative asana), massage (1 included, more can be booked on request), horseback riding (2 scheduled rides), daily contemplative writing group sessions, private counselling, beach walks, napping, sun bathing, swimming in the pool… In short, 7 days of bliss, whatever that means for you.

Since I need at least a few people to sign on so I can put a deposit down on our accommodations, I’ll be creating a poster and promotional materials soon, which I hope you’ll share with anyone who needs something like this. In the meantime, if you are interested and want more details, please contact me at playacocoretreat2020 [at] gmail.com.

I couldn’t be more excited (and nervous) to bring this dream to reality, to take that big step to create the space I need for my healing, and to be able to share it with others. ❤

Playa Coco happy place.

Day 10: sad goodbyes and the long journey home

The last few days of the retreat went by so quickly that I think all of us experienced a similar, head-spinning thing when all of a sudden it was the last day and we were wondering how it happened so fast. I had a handful of nice short & easy sessions with Lulu, and in the last session as I was working on shaping her nose to fist targeting, she started to linger a bit with her nose just *barely* touching my hand, which was super cool and made me feel all warm & fuzzy inside to think that she was starting to be comfortable enough with the contact that she wasn’t pulling away and stepping back immediately. I have a feeling that she’s going to progress rapidly with Maddy and I’m really excited to keep following her journey.

We ended our last day with a gathering at the teepee Maddy has on the bottom pasture near a pond where a couple of beavers live. We hung out by the fire for a bit under an almost-full moon and then held our closing circle inside the teepee with the sounds of the beavers splashing in the pond and the horses close by. There’s something so magical about sitting in a circle inside a teepee, listening to those sounds of the creatures outside and sharing space with a group of people who are each in their own way undergoing a metamorphosis, getting ready to step off this bridge between before and after. We’re all connected now, having come together as strangers and parted as friends, and in a way that is the best gift of all.

And while it was sad to leave my new friends, and to say goodbye to the mares and the ranch, and the stunning landscape surrounding it, I am so ready to get home to my babies. I still have a long journey ahead of me, and lots of time to reflect on what I’ve learned & all the magical things I’ve received through this experience. I have a feeling I will be back here one day… In so many ways, this feels like the beginning of a journey and not the end. ❤

Day 9: taking it easy, zebras and hot springs

It’s super late so this will be another short post to say that today was a good day. I’m loving our little group of women & the ways we’ve become so connected over these two weeks, and I know I’m going to miss everyone who has been a part of this amazing experience. It’s a remarkable thing when a group of strangers can come together to create a space this warm and supportive and inspired in such a short span of time. I suspect that we will be keeping in touch <3.

Today my training with Lulu continued to be exactly what the doctor ordered for me: soft & slow, quiet & calm. We haven’t made any great leaps forward — in fact, I’ve taken a few small steps back just because I wasn’t sure that she was ready to advance in any of the behaviours we’ve been working on, and I’m glad that I listened to that little voice urging me to take it easy today. I’m learning how to see the subtle signs showing that she’s not quite ready to move on to more advanced/scary things, and it feels good to think that I’m building her trust in humans by respecting her boundaries. I would love to have months to work with Lulu to see her come out of her shell, but I’m reminding myself to be grateful even for this small glimpse into her world and the opportunity to share this time and space with her.

Since I was taking it so easy today, I had a bit of extra time to observe the other horses, especially Mirror, who is looking 100% better with a more confident and knowledgeable trainer. It’s amazing to see that much of a change — from the scattered, nippy mess that I was creating with her, to this really beautiful and calm relationship she has with someone else. It’s a good lesson in non-attachment: sometimes success is knowing when to stop and step aside to let someone else take over. Although in the moment it was really hard, I’m so happy with how things turned out for all of us (and I think the feeling is mutual, which makes it extra nice).

Our day ended with two amazing things. First, an observation session in which Maddy kind of spontaneously worked her two zebras first, and then as she was getting them out of the arena (they did NOT want the training session to end), two other horses broke into the arena, so we saw her work with each of them in turn before she got them out (again, these animals just want to be with her 100% of the time, it is so mind blowingly amazing), and then she ended the session working with a fifth animal, which is the one she was planning on working in the first place. It’s hard to put into words the experience of watching Maddy work with her animals. The connections she has with them seem absolutely magical, but after seeing the time and thoughtfulness she puts into her work with them I can say that it’s not just magic — rather, it is the result of serious dedication and discipline mixed with love and pure passion. So much respect for that incredible young woman.

Maddy working on the Spanish walk with Finn the retired racehorse (photo by Emilee)
Practicing the lay down with the zebras (photo by Emilee)

As if all this wasn’t fantastic enough, we topped off this great day with a visit to the local clothing optional hot springs, so I got to strip down and float around in hot mineralized water, which was just about the best thing ever. And now that I’m all charged up and mellowed out, I’m looking forward to an amazing sleep & a heart-full last day in this magical place with these magical creatures (both human and equine) <3.

Day 8: much better

I had four training sessions with Lulu today: two in the morning and two in the afternoon. The first session this morning had a major breakthrough: she started to eat hay from my hand, which is a big deal for this very shut down and frightened horse. But I feel like I’m building a connection with her that I wasn’t able to find with Mirror, what with the biting and bossiness and all. Lulu’s energy is so completely different, and it has been really nice for me to be in the quiet and calm space that she occupies, moving at her gentle, slow pace. So much better.

So where I’m working with Lulu right now in a nutshell: the follow (with an extendable bouy target stretched quite long) in both directions seems to be her favoured B (less challenging) behaviour. However, she also sometimes chooses to target the cone, allowing us to use it as the start button for other more challenging behaviours: targeting the bouy (shortest length) with her nose and now targeting my fist with her nose quite consistently as well. I introduced a new variation: low target to the bouy (longer extension), but it proved quite challenging for her so I didn’t push it much today.

The hand feeding is the really exciting thing for me. I tried it on a whim, not sure at all if she would go for it but she surprised me. After just three approximations (stepping towards the hay in my hand), she took a bite, and then another, and then she was consistently taking hay from my hand with a handful thrown into the feed pan in between each single hand feeding to allow her a bit of space to eat comfortably while I waited, a bit closer to the feed pan every time (but in a crouched position facing away from her). I was surprised and amazed how comfortable she seemed with the whole thing, and once she even finished the hay from my open palm and touched my hand in the process, which made her jump back terrified. After reaching that threshold, I dialled it down considerably because pushing too far at this point isn’t useful.

We only have two more days left (!!) and then the retreat is over, but even if we don’t get much further than we did today, I’d be totally happy with it. I really like working with Lulu — even though she’s way further back in the gentling process than Mirror, the little breakthroughs with her are really exciting. I’m happy to report as well that Mirror seems to be doing way better with her new trainer, so that is cool to see. I guess horses are like people: sometimes you run across someone that just doesn’t mesh with you, and that’s okay. We don’t need to love everyone all of the time. I can appreciate Mirror and reflect on what she taught me, and accept that I’m just not the person for her right now. I’m really grateful that she has someone working with her now who appreciates what she has to offer and is able to take her where I wasn’t.

I’m sad that the retreat is coming to an end so soon, but I’m also really starting to feel ready to get back home to my loves. It feels like it’s been so much longer than two weeks that I’ve been away, and I’m missing them hard now. Nothing like a bit of time away to really appreciate what you’ve got waiting for you back at home. ❤

Day 7: feeling defeated

Ugh, and a little bit of okay today, but I’m not out of the woods here yet. We only have three days left of training, and I hit a block with Mirror. I could feel it before I even started working with her in the first session. If I’d been feeling this way at home with my own horses, it would be one of those days where I would go back inside and cry and come back when I was feeling better and stronger, but it’s hard to do that in this type of context. So I went out with her and felt a bit meh, but okay, until she took her first air nip at my arm when I was feeding her a reward and my brain basically said: “okay, that’s it for now” so I changed directions, did a couple more behaviours, gave her a jackpot and ended the session.

I gave up.

Ugh, those are hard words to roll around in your mouth or your mind, especially when you want something to work so very much.

But you know what? I think it’s okay to give up sometimes. I also think maybe it’s even a little bit brave to swallow your pride and your tears, especially if you have to do it in front of an audience (however lovely and supportive that audience might be). But man, all I can say is: shit fuck that sucked. It still sucks, reflecting on it.

But for the afternoon session the person working with Lulu offered to switch with me. She likes Mirror and was happy to work with her, and I got to work on an entirely different level (Lulu is just touching the target with her nose and starting to follow) with a completely different energy (so quiet, so calm, so relaxed), and it was really good for me. I felt less like crying afterwards, anyways.

So that’s where we’re at today. I still have a lump in my throat when I think about it all, and maybe I’ll need to have a good cry later to let some of this out because I’ve been holding it all day. I’m grateful for the chance to work with a different horse, and maybe that’s what I need to keep doing. Right now I don’t really know. There is a part of me still that feels bad about not working through my block with Mirror — it feels like a failure, and it kind of undermines the confidence I had hoped to build up here.

I don’t have anything insightful about this right now. It feels like I just have to sit with this disappointment and sadness for a bit. At least I’ll have a glass of wine and a spectacular view and a group of sweet humans to keep me company through it.

2 days off, Day 6, and circles of women

Two days off horse training in the middle of this retreat was a good idea. It worked really well for me, anyways — I needed a bit of down time, time to absorb and take a few breaths and reflect. On Wednesday morning I got some work done that had been weighing on my mind, and then caught a ride into town to hit the thrift shop and look for something to read since I’d finished the book I brought with me: Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje — which was a lovely poetic, meditative story that I was sad to finish way too early on my train ride here. I found two books at the thrift store: one that I hadn’t heard of before (Cavedweller by Dorothy Allison) but chose because it was pretty much the only one that really spoke to me, and then I also grabbed a copy of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf just in case. Back at the lodge I did a bit more work and then had a massage. I’m SO super glad I signed up for that even though I had to think hard about spending the money. But a good massage is always worth it. Afterward I caught another ride back to town to meet up with 3 of the others who had gone in shopping. I followed them around and browsed a few shops, then we had dinner together at a really nice Mexican restaurant.

Thursday was my birthday. It was a really nice day from start (a Skype meeting about an exciting new work opportunity) until finish (a call with my love, a bit of my current favourite show, and not too late to sleep). In between I spent the day wandering around Ouray, a super scenic little town with amazing shops. I don’t do a lot of shopping on a normal basis but it was so much fun to wander around all day looking at all the things and not buying anything (with $16.00 in my pocket and $62.00 in my bank account, it wasn’t too hard to resist). But I did spend a bit on lunch (a glass of delish brown ale and an amazing warm, cheesy corn dip with tortilla chips) and I bought a stick of santo palo ($2) and I would have bought a shampoo bar if I had found one — I asked in pretty much every store but no dice. When we got home just before dinner I was surprised with carrot cake cupcakes with candles, a beautiful rendition of Happy Birthday, and a lovely gift, followed by really nice evening visiting at the lodge with my new friends.

We’re at the point in the retreat when friendships are growing and solidifying, and I feel so lucky to be spending time with this group of amazing women, although we’ve had one guy hanging out with us since last night, and that is also really nice. But being in a circle of women is feeding something in my soul that doesn’t get fed enough, and I have a super deep (and growing) appreciation for this opportunity to be here, in this company of women who are all so different and so amazing in their own ways. It’s a pretty great group, I have to say. Not that I’m really surprised by that…. there is a certain magic when women gather, and if you add some horses and some stunning landscape and a step outside of our ordinary lives into the mix — it is no wonder that it becomes extraordinary and healing and honestly above all, fun. So there is that.

But today, Day 6 of the retreat, was another hard/frustrating one for me. I’m struggling with Mirror — there’s no other way to put it. I think she’s a challenging case, but I also think things are coming up because of my lack of experience or inadvertent mistakes or … honestly, I’m just grasping at straws here because I actually have no idea what’s really going on or why. We’re having to back pedal to address Mirror’s nippiness, although her relaxation is a lot better. Today the set-up was a bit different and she charged at Calibri less (maybe only once or twice), and only wandered off a few times. But she’s starting to take the food from my hand with her teeth instead of her lips, and she’s nipping me in the process as well as getting nippy towards my wrist/arm, which feels like it might be frustration. Maddy worked with her a bit to see if she had the same problem (not really), and has come to the conclusion that I need to deliver the food reward in a different way: cupping my hand and kind of tilting it upside down instead of holding it lower, which allows Mirror to take the food with her teeth and nip me — probably accidentally, but still. Not fun for me at all. Maddy figures that I can avoid this by holding the food higher toward the top lip, and cupping the hand in a certain way so the food just falls if she tries to nip, thereby avoiding reinforcing the teethy/nippy thing. I’m struggling to master this different way of holding/delivering the food, however, because it feels quite a bit more awkward and I’m still not 100% sure about exactly what I need to do differently — it’s subtle and hard to see, but we captured some video that might (hopefully) help me figure it out.

Sooo, it’s another early bed time for me because I’m exhausted & a bit dejected, and I just want to curl up and be warm and drift off to sleep. Hoping for some insight and change tomorrow. I’ll keep you posted.

Day 5 and 10,000 ways that don’t work

I’m having to work hard to keep track of what day it is now, but it’s our last day before 2 days off, which I’m super grateful for. The second of these days is 08/08 and the completion of my 44th year on this planet. FBI/CSIS, you’re welcome. Astrologers, you are also ❤ (insights in comments plz).

Today a lot of things changed in my training sessions with Mirror. She got a hay net and an extra flake of hay in the morning. Maddy worked with her one session in the morning, and then I followed at the end of the morning rotation, so just before lunch. We worked on primarily relaxation: two steps and stop then c/t, instead of c/t for follow while walking and asking her to match a faster pace, which seemed to get her way too amped up to focus (hence the charging & wandering off behaviours). She charged away once (or twice, honestly I can’t remember) at Calibri, and walked away to drink water once for sure, but other than that she didn’t wander much. We worked on keeping her head lowered in home position (or TRM) worked on starting to weed out the head bobbing behaviour, which really varied throughout both morning and afternoon sessions. But I feel like for the next training session on Friday after the days off I’ll know better what to c/t (and what NOT to do, eg. wave the bouy wand when Mirror started to step into my space, which Maddy noticed IMMEDIATELY. I only did that once lol). I kind of love that about Maddy’s teaching style — she’s super grounded and kind and gentle and encouraging: “Do X…. YES, nice. Well done!” but she has no problem saying “Um, what did you just do there?” in a way that lets you know very clearly not to do that thing you just did. Hahaha. Sigh <3.

So, overall it was a WAY better day. I had a better sleep, although I realized through a conversation at lunch today that probably the altitude is part of the reason I haven’t been sleeping super well. Still, we had a slightly later start so I slept another half hour and didn’t feel rushed. Other than the slow and short bursts of forward movment (2-3 steps max) it was a lot of stop and stand relaxed. A bit of back up with a nice head set (head low). Some target and hold on the bridge of the nose (I didn’t do any forehead to hand). No targeting to the mat, although I’m not exactly sure why (*mental note to ask Maddy b/c pretty sure there is a reason). And ending the session with targeting/sending to the cone, then start button and neck pets. Both sides are still good for neck pets (I’d say balanced actually) but moving lower or higher on her neck from the friendly zone (middle of the neck) still brings her closer to threshold, which I’m glad I was able to see. She seems to like & want the scratches but I think I need to wait a bit before moving back on her body.

It’s so interesting to see the shift in these horses in the 5 days I’ve been observing (and in Mirror’s case, playing with) them. I feel like Mirror is definitely NOT the furthest along in the gentling process of the 6 any more, although it’s hard exactly to gauge what “furthest” even means in this process, now that I’ve stepped into it a wee little bit. So since I just started watching Brene Brown (to stretch out my QE quotient), I’m observing the different stories I’m telling myself about what I’ve experienced with Mirror over the past few days. Was the Day 4 low following the Day 3 high a necessary “reset”? I think I learned a few things about what not to do, and a few things about what to do — like, for instance, how to look for & reward relaxation. When and how to move off to ask her to follow me. Maddy’s Facebook just posted this thing which speaks pretty much exactly to this (also, what sorcery is this? why do these perfectly-timed things keep popping up exactly as I’m writing about them? it’s the Russian algorithms on Facebook, right? But now that I’m here in Colorado, I am probably on the verge of finding out that it’s actually just an alien reality TV show or something, so I’m pretty excited about that).

So I think this is what Maddy is trying to teach us here: how can humans communicate with horses in terms that the horse can understand? And using these methods with wild horses I think probably shows more clearly what does and does not work in establishing this communication as both the horse and the human work out how we are going to move around together and who sets the agenda. I think I let Mirror set it too much of the time in the first couple of days because Maddy encouraged us to take the horses up on offered behaviours. However, Mirror was probably past the stage of needing to be brought out of that super wild frightened & frozen state compared some of the other horses. The stage that follows that super wild & frightened stage probably varies depending on the horse, but for sassy & brave little souls like Mirror, I think it’s a stage in which both the human and the horse have to come to some mutual understanding about the game (which must be safe for both players).

I’m really grateful to be here learning from Maddy directly, and it feels especially cool because she’s really open about how this is a learning process for her too. She’s trying stuff out and figuring out what works best, and learning from the struggles that we’re discovering with each horse and each trainer every new day. So I guess that’s how those low days are also a gift: they push us to figure out the things we need to figure out in order to keep moving forward. We’re just like a bunch of Thomas Edisons over here finding out our 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Now it’s time for our closing ceremony of these first five days, in which I’ve decided to allow the tears to flow if they want. I’m bringing Moon’s yo-yo to place on the altar. It’s my favourite thing of his — I think about the thousands of revolutions of that battered little aluminum cylinder wound up of his energy, and when I trace my finger around the inside edge of it I feel those vibrations again. I can’t think of a better place to share & amplify that beautiful spirit <3.