Ask Me Why I'm Smiling
On the surface he’s not much to look at: plain Jane, average mover, too big to be cute, too short to look sturdy. He didn’t even have a name. But he had the one true gift of life: potential.
When I fasten his harness, slip in his bit and hitch him to his cart, it might appear mundane. I might look like I’m going through the motions and he’s an old plug accustomed to monotony.
The truth is, it took an incredible effort to get to this moment.
First I needed a sleigh. I don’t mean that I physically had to find one and manifest a way to make it my own. I mean I needed the desire to need a sleigh unequivocally. This was years in the making.
It required being born with an equine mind. It required a devotion to mastering the ride. It required a painful hiatus from what I loved, a customer who whole-heartedly offered a place to board and a pony that needed a home. Then a question from a friend: “Why don’t you teach him to drive?” Then ground driving, then voice commands, then the woman who offered the use of a cart, the purchase of a cheap EBay harness and a guy with the balls to take a seat on the inaugural ride and say, “Walk up.”
Then road tests.
Not so enthusiastic dogs.
And one beer bottle hurled in anger. It missed.
We needed forge-shaped shoes with borium welded to the steel for traction and special pads to prevent snow from balling in hooves making passage impossible.
And time. Lots of time. Time to train, time to regress, time to re-evaluate. Time for frustration and effort—incredible effort. Sweating and whipping and yelling. Pushing and pulling. Demanding.
Fear. I was thrown from the cart; I got back in. We’re talking hard stuff, really hard stuff. Arguments with an animal that doesn't do English, who’s determined to do what he wants, and believes with all his heart that sooner or later you’ll give up.
But you don’t. And he comes around. He figures it out. He has a moment of great clarity and realizes that surrender is the easiest thing to do and he commits to it. He relaxes, builds courage, gains confidence and becomes your “go-to-guy.”
Then more time. Time to hitch him over and over to flush out his weaknesses and find his buttons. Time to work through them. Time to keep him physically fit to pull. Time to pick stalls, feed, clean tack, mow, maintain, restock, groom, and vet.
And finally winter. You need snow. And not just any snow—heavy, soft falling flakes delivered at a perfect thickness that rival the plow’s round for clearing.
Finally a test drive.
It wasn’t pretty.
He knew how to pull a cart. He had the perfect spatial arrangement with it. He knew he was pulling something and what it would do. He knew the load would sling the breeching into his butt on a decline and he knew how to thrust his chest into the breast collar to haul a cartload of kids up what looked to him like a mountain.
But a sleigh is a bully. It doesn't do anything easily. It’s a constant tug-o-war to pull, stop and turn. And his size was the biggest obstacle. I was asking a half-pint to perform like a gallon. It was a high order but he delivered.
Then a neighbor said, “I’ve always dreamed of going on a sleigh ride.”
Then finally, another irrefutable snow day.
Seven years is all it took. Seven years from the moment my pony and I met, my neighbor was smiling her way down our snow crusted roads on silent tracks on a still morning, just moments before the dawn on an extraordinary adventure.
For a moment, we were our own Christmas song.
Nineteen years ago, my husband and I went on our first date on the shortest day of the year. The only reason we remember the day is because it was my birthday. Otherwise it’d be lost to us. (We’re not the sentimental type.) For the same reason we got hitched the day after Christmas.
Recently we celebrated our fifteenth anniversary. Maybe “celebrated” is a strong word. I’ll stick with “acknowledged.”
But this year we “acknowledged” it with much less contention than before.
In the beginning, we had potential. He was a talented horseshoer building a successful business. I was the devoted wife (for all practical purposes). Our future was resplendent with opportunity and adoration. If you saw us today, you’d think it was fifteen quick years. You’d think we had a few ups and downs like any couple; thick and thin, better or worse. But the truth is we peaked early and spent the better part of our lives digging in our heels to keep from falling in. In retrospect it seemed like a slow, painful slide.
Death of a child.
Breakdown of communication.
When things are pitch black, it’s impossible to see. You’re flailing in the dark, calling on senses you've never honed, begging for a sign you’ll never find because you don’t know how it should look.
So I went inside. I needed to pull on the root of my conflict.
I knew what I knew: I could take a pony from a place of insecurity and confusion; a place of hardship and rebellion and patiently bring him to a space of clarity, a place of purpose. I could do this without verbal exchange and express silently the simple message: surrender to me. Trust that we’re going down the road together and I’ll be right here at the end of the reins, holding firmly, our route intently patterned in my mind. Anything we encounter is not above us. Nothing is beyond us.
He’s pulling the cart, out there between blinders, waiting for my cue, focused on the subtlety of hard steel over tender gums and he needs to know I’m there, especially when things get hard.
That’s who I am to my pony.
That’s not who I was to my husband.
With reins in my hands, my intent is clearly defined and accepted with competence. But without them, I wear the veil of a doting wench. Why am I a capable reactionary with an unbroken horse but a disheveled spirit in my relationship?
Why am I a blank white page instead of a beautiful color?
There is a parallel here. A good friend lovingly pointed it out: With my pony I react to the stimulus he serves. That, unfortunately, is exactly what I do with my husband. He’s the stimulus, I simply react. I don’t know where I’m going. I have no plan.
With my pony I know what I want to accomplish. I’m seasoned in what can be expected and how to get it done. Once we move through the hard stuff, the world of potential opens up to us.
That’s where I failed my husband. We are pure potentiality he and I. We can climb in the cart and direct life with sturdy leather reins and a clearly defined objective, knowing when we’re hitched and ready to “Walk up,” we’re prepared for whatever comes our way.
But we lost it because I didn’t keep my end of the bargain. I didn’t take the reins. In a cart I prefer to be the person in control. I’m experienced. I love it. It’s my passion. I was born to do this. It was by design.
But when I stepped out, I faltered.
We became strangers. We wanted to be lovers.
We made the shift.
It was hard. It took time. Time to learn to communicate again, time to regress, time to re-evaluate. Time for frustration and for effort—incredible effort. Sweating and cursing and yelling. Pushing and pulling. Demanding.
Fear. Caring fell out of favor. We tried again. We’re talking hard stuff, really hard stuff. Arguments that failed to get points across in plain English. Two people determined to prove things that served neither, believing whole-heartedly that sooner or later someone would give up.
But we didn’t. Life came around. With time we figured it out. Moments of great clarity made it obvious that surrender to a universal source, a love pocket, was the easiest thing to do and we committed to it. We relaxed, built courage and gained confidence.
We went into overtime.
Time to flush out weaknesses and find buttons. Time to acknowledge and work through them. Time to keep spiritually and physically fit to endure. Time to bathe, nourish, mow, maintain, restock, doctor and most importantly, listen.
And finally opportunity. Not just any opportunity; the one that would take us to the next level. The message that confirmed we were on track.
We had arrived.
Fifteen years after we repeated “I do,” we were lying in bed in a great light and started an examination of our mutual life and where we wanted it to go. Which led to my career. Which led to breaking down the specifics of what we wanted next. Which led to a discussion of the task at hand. Which led to an agreement that I needed to first find an agent.
We knew to do this I needed a query letter—that one-page written innovation consisting of a few strategic paragraphs: ass-kissing, story synopsis, credentials—written to give our potential agent a feel for my writing style. Admittedly it’s a hoop. Maybe an impossible one.
I didn’t just need a query, I needed the query.
I’d already written and submitted a dozen, all equally witty, grammatically correct and representative of the story, but no takers. This time I needed a great presentation. I needed to be part writer, part editor, part PR agent, part actor and part miracle worker. My husband is brilliant, especially when he’s instinctual. I now needed him in animal mode. I needed him ready to pounce.
We wrote, hoping to appear well-educated. And we were brief, something extremely difficult for the Irish in me. We scrutinized what we had, focused on like-minded agents, devised a plan to flush them out, and lastly, re-wrote the query. And re-wrote. And re-wrote. And re-wrote. Hours later, our idea box had been emptied.
We sighed, sweated and hit Send.
Twenty minutes later we read a response:
Thanks for your submission. I'd love to take a look at the full manuscript.
I hollered. I freaked. I’m sure I said fuck repeatedly. We’d rolled the dice and earned another turn. We’d finally got my story in the door. Step two? “Check.”
Then I observed with great clarity exactly what had just happened. For an afternoon, my mate and I were perfectly aligned. And look what we accomplished. Given that fact, why would we ever choose differently? Why would we choose disagreement and contention and distraction from that which could manifest truly beautiful moments like this?
If I, a half-pint, can deliver a gallon…
If I can take a relationship from a place of insecurity and confusion, a place of hardship and rebellion, and patiently rein it to a space of great clarity; a place of purpose...
If I can accept the simple message: surrender to the moment, live to potential, trust that we’re going down the road together and I’m right here at the end of the reins, holding firmly, our route intently patterned in my mind, then nothing is beyond us.
It took fifteen years of peerless moments slung together on a stage of pure potentiality to reach this point. And for a moment we trod to the rhythm of life, setting down steps like seasoned dancers.
Each beat holds the potential for greatness.
Don’t dismiss one of them.