I will be writing more short stories in 2020 and my hope is to update here when/if they get published. I promise The Faming will be worth the wait. After scratching this short story itch, I hope I’ll have time to do the most exhaustive part of good writing: editing.
I remember the first time a boy kissed me. I was in second grade and we were standing in line at school. The boy turned and planted one on me. I was so shocked I started crying. The teacher asked me what was wrong and I told her. She told me to get over it.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that when I was sexually assaulted at 13, I told no one but my diary. When I was raped at 16, I told no one but my diary. It took nearly a decade for me to admit to close friends and my future husband what had happened to me. I still don’t think I’ve told my parents outright, but I’m sure they know something is up given my recent social media posts, especially in the wake of the Stanford student’s weak sentencing.
At the time, I didn’t even know what happened to me wasn’t my fault.
It’s a strange thing to be in your 30s and read your own words about these incidents. I had picked up my diaries while writing the first draft of my debut novel The Wilding. I wanted to remember what it was like to be 13 and 14 years old. I found a girl that needed that teacher back in second grade to have told her that no boy should have kissed her without her permission. I found a girl that, when she was 13, had a witness intervene and ask if she was OK (because she really wasn’t).
These assaults have a way of snowballing. No one seems to tell you that. Well, maybe they would have if I had felt I could talk about them. I recently told a man about the first, the second and … He stopped me. He said, “So you started attention seeking and putting yourself in those situations?” I actually felt myself start to agree with him. I wanted to say yes. But no, that would make it my fault. That would be me accepting some of the blame for what was done to me. And I refuse to admit guilt. It was not my fault for not telling someone. It was not my fault for not kicking the guy in the balls. It was not my fault for being alone and separated from my friends.
I brought my assaults into a scene in my book to break the isolating feeling I have felt for so long. I wanted young girls to read it and see that it happens to a strong, fierce person.
In Part 1, protagonist Aideen’s childhood friend forces himself on her before the race begins. Afterward, Aideen wonders why she let him do that to her. Did she actually want it? What was wrong with her? That self-blame came straight from my diary entries.
The truth is that for Aideen, for myself, and for many girls (much more than statistics will reveal because my assaults went unreported) this happened and they don’t know how to make sense of it all. And they will often blame themselves because they should have been smarter. They should have known what to say. They shouldn’t have put themselves in that situation. They shouldn’t have flirted.
What takes forever to learn — if it’s learned at all — is that it isn’t your fault. You did nothing wrong.
What happens to Aideen is more than an individual moment. It’s more than an internal struggle for Aideen. It’s a reflection of the society in which Aideen lives that this happens and she tells no one. Maybe if she was back home she could tell her mother or tell her close friends. But in North, after leaving her family behind, she has no community and no way to deal with what has happened to her. She’s all alone for the first time in her life, and that’s where these things fester.
Later, Aideen reacts with a resiliency I’m sure others have but have never had myself.
A few months back, I was the victim of a road rage incident. The man chased me through traffic and tried to run me off the road. Panic seized me and I couldn’t think straight for days afterward. I cried spontaneously and found myself unable to breathe. When my husband was holding me and I was sobbing endlessly, I said: “I can’t believe I let him scare me so much.”
Because it felt like my fault. Why couldn’t I do anything to stop the situation? Why didn’t I think to stop at the police station? Why didn’t I brandish the gun, stowed in my glove compartment box, and tell him not to mess with me?
But as time went on, the line changed to, “Even if I cut him off (which I didn’t), he had no right to come after me the way he did. He had no right to scare me and try to attack me.” And that stuck. Not because I kept saying it, but because my husband listened and said I did nothing wrong. And because the cops listened and said I did nothing wrong. And because my friends listened and said I did nothing wrong.
Aideen might have been able to overcome her feeling of blame without the help of close friends, but I’m not made of such strong stuff and I’m willing to bet that most of us just need to have someone listen and say we did nothing wrong.
Let’s get one thing straight: I despise apologizing for not making something a priority.
“I’m so sorry I haven’t called!”
“I’m sorry I didn’t get around to doing that.”
People do it because they feel like they’ve let you down, so it is done with the best of intentions. But the apology is hollow because it’s not an apology at all. It’s an excuse.
I have plenty of excuses. But if you’re after an apology, I’m not going to offer a hollow one. Mostly because I know I don’t mean it.
It’s the giant pink horse in the room: Book 2 hasn’t come out as promised in Spring 2016. And I’m not sorry despite feeling like I’m disappointing a lot of readers. I hate disappointing people, but an apology now would only further disappointment in myself because it wouldn’t be genuine.
How did I make this discovery about my wrongness? Well, June 2015, my husband and I embarked on a crazy journey from suburbia to building an off-grid homestead. This sounded like a lot of work back in early 2015, but I’m used to hard work and it didn’t scare me.
I might have been scared if I had known how much work it entailed. Not just hard work, but creative work. I’m a fairly good laborer for my short stature and I consider myself of adequate intelligence, but driving every nail into a barn, lifting huge 6×6 beams, and determining the rise over run for the roof pitch has tested both those qualities. For a journalist, I’m good at math. For a builder, I can barely understand how to do this stuff.
So, dear reader (to steal an address from Stephen King), Book 2 is not done. It’s not even that close to being done. I finished the draft for Book 1 in 60 days and then it took me about nine months to edit. I haven’t even finished the first draft for Book 2, and when I do, who knows how long before Book 2 will be finished editing?
I hate disappointing you, but I’m still not sorry. I’m building my dream life out on the homestead. If you’d like to follow our progress, you can search for Oldfield Homestead on Facebook. I’d be happy for you to look in on us there.
The book will come, and when it does, I promise, you will know what happened to Finn and Daisy (I really left you all hanging there!). Please don’t be mad. I have too much respect for you to rush it or to not have my heart in it or my attention divided. Thank you for your patience. I will not waste it.
This is part 2 of this question I get a lot about The Wilding (other than, so what’s it about? Which is about the time I awkwardly mutter about how it might be about a girl and, oh yeah, her horse). Read part 1 here.
I’m going to answer this question with a horse-related analogy. After all, I wrote a book that has horses in it. This makes sense to me.
I look out into the pasture. My bay mare Mocha is starting to look scruffy, so I make a mental note: time to pull her mane.
This is repeated every day for about two weeks.
Finally, one day, when I can’t take it any more, I pull out the razor. Why a razor? Well, Mocha is one of those thoroughbred mares that won’t cotton to a real mane pulling. She let me do it exactly once: the first time I ever tried. I cooed with delight and eagerly sent off texts to all my fellow thoroughbred lovers with sensitive thoroughbreds that they can’t pull the manes on. Mine was special — unique! — and clearly most awesome. Suffice to say that was the last time she let me do that. Use your imagination.
I get the stool (well, it’s a stump because I’m retro like that) positioned just right. No, that’s not right, there’s a wobble. There — no, try again. There it is.
I climb up to face the mane and Mocha side steps, pulling just far enough away from me that I probably could thin and cut her mane but my arms might fall asleep in the process. I get off the stump and move it forward, repeating the same process as before to make sure it’s just right.
This time, Mocha scoots just one step forward and, this time, I deal with the distance because I’ll be damned if I’m going to move that stump again.
The process begins. My plan is always the same: go down the entire length of the mane and trimming it to about an inch below the desired height (which is about a half inch above where I’d like it so that I can stretch the time between trimming the mane and procrastinate longer; of course, I always fool myself by saying “If I just do a little every day, or maybe a little every week …”).
I start at the withers on Mocha. Don’t know why, but she prefers it and if you’ve ever owned a mare you know you spend a lot of time not rocking the boat. If she doesn’t like something, okay, simple, don’t do it. Find another way. Make her happy because she’s a mare that deals with at least some of your BS (or possibly none at all) and … look at those gaits!
I get about six inches from the withers when the unevenness begins to claw and whine at me.
“Hey, you there,” it says. “Hey, look at me, I’m all uneven. It looks like you’re taking a weed-whacker to your horse’s mane, and you say you love her. What will the neighbors think?”
I grit my teeth and make it to eight inches from the withers. I try to ignore that whiny voice that is kind of like the tag in the Hanes-Michael Jordan commercial. Speaking of Michael Jordan, I bet he still kicks ass on the basketball court. I’ve got my phone handy, maybe I should look up a video? Dude’s a rockstar.
The good news is that the uneven mane has stopped speaking to me (I guess Michael Jordan has that effect on annoying things), but now I’ve spent about 15 minutes looking up MJ videos and for some reason now I’m on Facebook reading Horse Collaborative posts and the comment sections.
What’s in my hand? Oh the razor. Right, I’m supposed to be trimming Mocha’s mane.
I get about nine inches from the withers and the voice picks up where it left off again. This time, I look directly at it. Not to give it satisfaction but to throw it a glare to make it shut up. And besides, it can’t be that bad, right?
Oh, my Lord, it’s atrocious. Have any of the neighbors been by? What if one of my horse friends makes a surprise visit and she looks like this? Well, I can just fix that real quick. And that. Yeah that piece is longer than the other. The thickness is … just … right? Nope, thin more. That looks a little too thin. But thin is good right? Sure, yeah.
Okay, I need to stop. I’m not even at the halfway point yet in bringing up the length. Focus: I need to go all the way to the top of the poll and then I can come back to this.
How’s Mocha doing? Awwww her little lips are dangling. She’s so relaxed and happy for her little spa day. She probably needs a sweet potato slice. While I’m in the feed room getting the slice, I notice that it’s about 20 minutes until feeding time. Perfect, I can totally finish the mane in 20 minutes. I’ve done more with less time.
I get back to Mocha and she takes the sweet potato slice. Maybe I should have brought her another? No, no, remember the task at hand: trimming that mane.
Oh my God. It really does look like a weed-whacker got a hold to her. I glance around like someone might be hiding in the bushes, ready to snap a photo. No one here, at least that I can see.
I step up on the stump, which is now clearly too far away for me to do any meaningful work. I step back down and rearrange for the next five minutes.
But now I only have, realistically, like ten minutes to finish trimming. That’s clearly not enough time, right? Okay, here’s what I’ll do: I’ll finish the nine inches I’ve already started and that will MOTIVATE me to finish the rest of the mane tomorrow. Great plan. I’m so smart.
The first nine inches looks so sharp and beautiful. I could put some hunter plaits in these. Maybe I should just do two or three and see if I’m still on my game? No, no, it’s feeding time. You need to go feed but just one little braid won’t hurt.
The thickness is wrong. All those horse forums are right saying you can’t thin a mane correctly without pulling! And then I remember: I don’t show hunters. I breathe a sigh of relief.
I put Mocha back in the pasture. Now she has one partial, globby braid, about eight inches of neatly trimmed mane, and the rest up to her forelock is a scrubby mess. But I’ll get to it tomorrow and pray that no one will see her tonight.
It’s now Thursday, and this is a retelling from Saturday.
That, my friends, is exactly how you write a book.
Disclaimer: I may be a YA author but I do tend to cuss from time to time (I would blame my day job of being a journalist but I’ve long had a potty mouth). This blog post has some bad words in it, so please don’t read if “colorful” language offends you.
Yep, that’s me. I was so adorable back then. Just look at me: My eyes are glistening with happiness! It was my lifelong dream realized: having coffee with my horses right outside on MY property. This all happened six months ago. I don’t think I’ve “had coffee” with my horses since, and I’ll tell you why.
It’s because my equines are assholes. Don’t get me wrong, I love them, but they are total jerks. It’s just like finally rooming with your best friend and realizing she’s a total asswipe.
She doesn’t do her dishes. She tosses her clothes all over the living room. And she has impromptu parties the night before a big test.
I digress, because this isn’t about her. It’s about them.
For those of you thinking and wishing and hoping to bring your horses home: do it, but do it knowing these things first. No one told me these things and, even if they did, I wouldn’t have listened anyway.
First, here are all the things people hear about keeping horses at home: you never have time to ride, you stop seeing your horse friends and feel lonely, and it’s a lot more expensive than you were expecting.
I’ve heard them all my life and always rolled my eyes. I had horses in my backyard when I was in elementary school, I know what it’s like. I have kept my horses at self-care facilities and I have worked at barns, I know what that’s like. I knew exactly what I was getting myself into.
Experience and knowledge are two different things, however. Now that I have six months of experience, I am going to share what I’ve learned:
1. Your horse is an asshole. Oh sure, he loves you when you come visit him at the barn right now. You bring him cookies and give him a good grooming session. He canters over to see you (if you have a mare that cantering may look more like casual walking). When you leave, he whickers and you kiss his muzzle and think: “If only this could be every moment of every day!”
Now, flash forward to having your horses at home. Your horse doesn’t give a shit about you unless you’re bringing the feed buckets out. He sees you every single moment of the day and you don’t have cookies 99 percent of the time, which means he doesn’t care. About the only time he does care is when you are about 5 minutes late feeding.
2. Your horse is an asshole. That’s not a typo. I’m talking about more assholery here (no autocorrect, I do not mean “gasholder,” though that might apply too). Your horse breaks shit constantly. Those reasonably priced $10 feed pans? Gone within weeks. That beautiful fence you spent three weeks building? Gone in a day. And he gives zero shits that you have an 8 a.m. meeting and don’t have time to rebuild an entire fenceline and then stepped in manure and mud in your brand-new work shoes.
3. SPEAKING OF FENCES. I don’t care how good your fence is: your horses will get out. And when they do, you will be overcome with embarrassment because, for years, you have lauded your expertise in fence building and made claims like “People obviously don’t care enough about their animals if they escape the fence.”
Let me tell you how fun it is to get the knock on the door at 5 a.m. from someone yelling that your horses are out on a busy road in the dim morning light. My advice: don’t sleep naked for the first three months of bringing your horses home. Those assholes will figure out a weakness.
That said, you will not need coffee the morning that happens. In fact, you won’t sleep for about a month straight. And then after that month, you will set an alarm for every three hours to check on the horses just so you can sleep for an hour or two in between alarms.
I cried recounting the tale to a fellow equestrian about my animals getting loose. Her response: “Oh yeah, they always get out the first few months of a new place.” News to me. I’ve taken these horses to numerous barns and they’ve never left the property, even with shoddy fencing. Again: they’re assholes.
4. You actually won’t get any work done. Let’s take this day-in-the-life-of moment:
I wake up, feed the assholes, feed more assholes (chickens and turkeys, don’t get me started), check water for all the assholes, try to guzzle coffee and eat breakfast quickly, get ready for work, try to leave for work but then there’s my adorable donkey wuffling at me. She obviously needs kisses. So I go to the fence and give her kisses, then the two mares saunter up demanding they have itchy spots that only I can help them with. By the time that’s all done, my hands are black and I have snot marks on my clothes. Back inside to change. This time, on the way to the car, I don’t look over at them. Now that I’m in the car, I’m flooded with the horrible sensation that I didn’t check every single gate and latch. Sure nothing looks open, but I better go check. So I get out of the car and walk over and then the equines are there again begging for scritches and kisses. Then I get back to the car. Did I check the latch? Maybe? I don’t remember. Get back out of the car and go check, making sure to ignore the needy looks. Turns out, the gate is unlocked. I breathe a sigh of relief, latch it, and get on my way. On the way to work I am panicked that the gate was unlocked to begin with. When was the last time I walked through that gate? Two days ago? I don’t remember. That’s really scary. So when I get to work, I pull up on Google self-latching gates with spring loads. Wow, those are expensive. Maybe I just need some memory-helping herbs. Then somehow I end up researching what herbs horses like to eat, which leads me to researching diet and mega-calories and, for some reason, a new saddle even though my current saddles work perfectly fine and I rarely ride in them anyway (who has time?). Before I know it, eight hours has passed and it’s time for me to go home. But I can’t just go home, I have to pick up feed or something else (I forget …). I stop at the feed and seed, can’t find my list, so pick up some feed and some minerals and head home. At home, I have to feed the needy horses again and realize that I have actually forgotten feed for the chickens. Unable to reach my husband, I try to remember to go get feed after I’m done with chores. While doing chores, I find the horses have destroyed something, so I fix that. Then I run to the store and grab the chicken feed and run back. Now the sun has set, which means I can’t ride. But that’s OK because I didn’t pick the sacrifice paddock and have my trusty headlamp. So then I spend about 30 minutes spotlighting poop in the pasture while my donkey tries to knock over the wheel barrow and my horses follow me around putting itchy body parts in my face (especially fun since Buttercup has a very itchy butt). Then my husband comes home and it’s time to try to finish building the barn, in the dark with headlamps. The barn is slow going, but that’s probably because you have to keep fixing something the horses have destroyed.
5. You actually won’t get any work done. This bears repeating because it will get so bad you can’t complete sentences and sometimes it’s for non-asshole reasons. You’ll be having a serious conversation with your husband about where the wood stove should go in the barn, when you will exclaim: “Look how cute that horse is!” and he will look at you and say “Yes, very cute.” And you will look back at him and realize he totally did not look at how cute the horse is and tell him so, and he will admit he didn’t but the horse is just doing what the horse does. You disagree and tell him so. He looks out the window and sees the horse grazing and shrugs. “Isn’t she cute?!” you will exclaim and he will look at you like a crazy person. And you still won’t know where to put the wood stove in the barn.
6. You will need to increase the memory on your phone, and you will lose friends on social media. Like a new mom with a new smartphone, you will take a million videos and pictures of your horses. And they don’t look all that interesting or different from the videos and pictures you took yesterday or the day before. Your friends will no longer “like” your constant glut of photos on Facebook. So you start tagging them in photos, and then they start unfriending and unfollowing you. I literally have about 20 photos of one of my horses taken in a five minute time frame, from the same angle, with her standing in the same spot. They are special to me, but no one else cares. I’ve learned to keep my sharing on social media to a minimum.
7. You don’t ever doubt your decision. Sure you still don’t have lights or an arena or someone to watch your horses while you visit family, but those little money-sucking jerks are worth it.
I dismount from Esther and hand the reins to Ide, who takes them without moving her eyes from the torn-up horse on the path. I grab my skean from my saddlebag and hold it to the boy, hilt first.
He blinks again, like he’s trying to bring the hilt into focus. He doesn’t reach out for it.
“I can’t. I can’t,” he says, shaking his head. “She can recover.”
He’s panting. I continue to hold the knife out to him. Take it, I say without words.
The horse is not bearing weight on her left leg. Her back is hunched and she’s shivering harder now. She lifts the left leg higher and I can see—too clearly—the bones and white tendons moving under the muscles.
I take a step toward the boy.
“Listen to me: your horse is suffering,” I say. They are not my words. They are my father’s. I’ve heard this before. “She won’t recover. You need to ease her pain or let me do it.”
Aideen’s most powerful weapon in novel The Wilding isn’t a weapon at all. It’s her Mercy blade or skean, a tool for ending the suffering of a horse. The introduction of this tool in Eachann is so done deliberately because giving Mercy is one of the most meaningful things we do as horse owners for our beloved partners.
It is almost shameful for a horse owner to not end his or her horse’s suffering.
So shameful, in fact, I’ve been cyber-bullied over a perceived failure to act. I would be lying if I said it didn’t upset me, because, as a horse owner, I’m constantly plagued with the thought “What if I’m letting my horse suffer needlessly? How will I know when it’s the right time?”
My horse Buttercup was suffering from frequent bouts of laminitis. It took me nearly six years and numerous tests to determine a cause (turns out she’s overly sensitive to herbicides and pesticides used in commercial feed and hay production; she’s now an Organic pony). During this time, I made her into a public figure through a horse forum and a blog called Chronicle of the Hoof. I invited the public to follow our journey.
And it wasn’t a pretty journey. There were bad updates and few good updates. From the outside, it looked like a stalled effort that prolonged the suffering of a poor paint mare. But on the ground, I saw a horse that didn’t lose the light in her eyes. I talked to vets who said the pain was manageable and told me that euthanasia was not the option for this case.
But a handful of people decided they knew better than me and the team of vets. They even posted a poll asking people to vote on whether or not I should euthanize my horse.
I’m a journalist. I’ve been called a lot of things online. My skin is thick, especially when it comes to ignorant bullies. But I’m not ashamed to say I cried and felt a hurt deeper than when I found out my best friend in seventh grade was talking bad about me behind my back (thanks, three-way calling).
I stopped posting on that forum immediately. I didn’t even defend myself. I was already wrestling with trying to make the right decisions for my horse and every day asking if she had had enough. This was just more weight on my heart, because what if they were right?
But they weren’t right. I knew it then, and know it now.
I am a firm believer in not letting any animal suffer. While my horse certainly had bad days, I’d venture to guess she’s pretty happy to be alive. It was a journey I don’t think I could repeat, but I’m glad I advocated for her and figured out a solution that works for her.
But the day will come for all of us to decide on giving Mercy to our horses. And while we fear giving it too late, there is always the fear of giving it too soon.
The story of Jacob and Tiffany has uneased some of my fellow equestrians who have talked to me about The Wilding.
I believe we are all more like Jacob than we want to admit. We all have a decision to make when that time comes. We can let nature take its course, or we can intervene and end suffering quickly. At least in Jacob’s scenario, it was clear the horse, Tiffany, was not going recover. But still, he hesitates.
Why? I’ve even found myself getting angry with Jacob for not making the right decision. Here’s a fourteen-year-old, fictional boy, and I’m angry with him. If he was on Facebook, I might have even posted some nasty comment about him needing to “do the right thing.” But Jacob doesn’t deserve my anger. He’s a boy grieving the decision he must make and the loss of his lifelong partner. He needs our support, not our scorn.
A strong person can make the best decision for their horse. An emotionally weakened person will likely be unable to act. If we attack Jacob, we aren’t going to force him into the correct decision. Jacob isn’t a coward. He’s scared and alone for the first time in his life, and is now facing a horrible decision that is every equestrian’s deepest fear.
Strong women build each other up. The same is true for equestrians. We shouldn’t be calling sexually active women sluts any more than we should be calling a fellow equestrian a coward for faltering in the face of his duty. This is heavy shit we deal with. Literally, life and death. Of course any member of the peanut gallery can call into question what’s going on and say we made the wrong call, but a true advocate would be down on the field with us.
I hope we all make the correct call for our horses, and have our fellow equestrians there to offer a shoulder to cry on, because it’s a terrible reality we face. We shouldn’t have to face it alone or under a battery of comments calling us cowards.
When I was in elementary school, I got the best idea ever. I had quite a few best ideas ever in elementary school, but this is one that actually worked and stuck.
I was watching Beauty and the Beast, and noticed that Belle could read and walk at the same time. How wonderful! I could fit in a half a page from a current read before getting to the computer lab! Belle makes it look easy too. She gracefully avoids water dousing her and a herd of sheep, all the while having her nose stuck firmly in what must be an interesting book, considering the flash-mob dancing and singing around her.
If she could do it, certainly I could.
What resulted was a week of what would now be added to a “Texting and Walking Fails” compilation. I’m just lucky that video cameras weren’t as prevalent in the Stone Age. I’m also lucky that my town didn’t have herds of sheep to add more woes onto my undeveloped skill.
But, eventually, persistence won out and I got better at it. While reading about horses, I could avoid trash cans, instead of becoming quite intimate with them. I could envision galloping across a desert while standing in line without fear of running into the person in front of me.
I say all this to establish that I am incredibly bookish. Even now, as an adult, I go through at least a book a week, if not more. I don’t read and walk anymore (that’s what cell phones are for!) but I still have a voracious appetite. A book on the bed stand—or, at the very least, my Kindle on the bedstand—is a necessity in my household.
Here are a few of my favorite horse-themed books I’ve read:
Of course I’ve read more than I can remember, but these books stand out to me as special and memorable, all in their own way. I can’t tell you if The Wilding was inspired by any one of these books. More than likely, the answer is yes to all of them. I believe that reading a book creates a new vocabulary and new experience into your life that you are unable to shake. I am the product of all of these books and countless others.
Beyond being great books that I would recommend to any horse-loving reader (or any reader, for that matter), there’s a theme in the above list: most of the books, with the exception of Seabiscuit, are for middle grade audiences or younger.
This meant that I was done reading fiction books featuring horses when I was 10. Aside from training books, I didn’t read horse-themed books until I was in my 20s and read Seabiscuit. That’s a huge gap for someone who reads nonstop and is always around horses. I didn’t realize I missed reading about horses until I read Seabiscuit.
Since my childhood, even more horse-themed books have entered the market, especially for young adults. Most recently, Scorpo Races, geared toward young adult, has been released. I haven’t read it yet. It’s in my cue, and it looks like a pretty fun read. I’ve also heard good things about Blaze of Glory for young adults through Good Reads. I hope to read that soon too. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do!
Of course there are always books where horses are central that aren’t necessarily “horse-themed” that I didn’t mention on this list: Lord of the Rings, All the Pretty Horses, The Red Pony, any Wild West-themed novel (Lonesome Dove, comes to mind), and so on. And don’t even get me started on movies. Or maybe do get me started … that’ll be a topic for another day.
What are your favorite horse-themed books and why? What books do you want to read? Tell me in the comments!
The ground blurs beneath us. My horse’s hooves roar into a thunder. The wind moving past causes tears to stream freely from my eyes and I blink quickly to see the rolling grassland around us.
The quotation above is from the first paragraph of The Wilding. That’s how the novel started in my head and that’s how it begins for readers.
Over and over and over again, I was galloping my horse in my mind. It was just about the only break I got from the crippling, chronic pain that racked my body daily. And from that one scene, I wrote an entire book to escape from the pain.
The pills never helped, only taking the edge off the knife but then made me frustrated at the impairment on my cognitive ability that I rely on for my day job at the paper.
Like so many other people out there, I was suffering chronic pain from an undiagnosed condition. The doctors seemed clueless at best, inept at worst (one even accused me of drug-seeking despite my refusal to take anything harder than ibuprofen for six months). Some told me it was all in my head, no cause. The pain led to depression and some of the darkest places I’ve ever been in my life.
And while the pain scared me, it was the thoughts that scared me the most. What if I never rode another horse as long as I lived? What if I’ve galloped my last gallop? What if I just let the car fall off the edge of the road and drive into that tree?
That’s what the doctors don’t tell you when you’re suffering chronic pain: Suicidal thoughts come out of nowhere. I wish they had told me because those frightened me more than anything else. It’s a strange thing to not be in control of your own body, even stranger when you’re not in control of your own thoughts.
As the months wore on and the doctors had poked, prodded, and imaged nearly every part of my body, it became clear to me that I was never going to recover. I would never get in the saddle again. I tried to find things at first to cheer myself up: it’s not over because you are breathing, and you can finally break Buttercup to cart! But nothing worked.
In fact, I felt more like an ass because I couldn’t appreciate anything. How selfish can you be? You have a steady job, a nice house, a wonderful husband, two great horses. You deserve to be in pain for not appreciating all of this.
I felt absolutely dead inside. Looking back, that still seems so incredibly selfish. That’s not who I am. But I won’t judge a person for their own dark thoughts, so I’m asking the same leniency. Until you’ve been there, you have no idea what thoughts and actions you are capable of.
About the only time I got a break from my own body and my own thoughts bent on self-destruction was when I thought about galloping. I became obsessed with the last time I galloped my horse Mocha. Like a 10-year-old girl listening to her favorite song, I hit repeat.
And then as I wrote down the galloping, and I wrote some more. I re-imagined almost every time I was on the back of a horse over 25 years of riding. Pretty soon, there was a story there. It was no longer me doing it. It was Aideen. Aideen wasn’t living through me, I was living through her. She became the person I fantasized about becoming. Nothing wrong with her hip or her back. Nothing keeping her in bed all day, crying because all she wants to do is be normal again.
I wrote scene after scene, sometimes shaking like I do before I go cross country because I felt like I was there jumping my horse from rooftop to rooftop, or being chased by a bear.
That’s probably why I finished the first draft in 60 days. It was my only escape from the pain at first.
I joked last posting about my therapist being my horse. My horses ground me, spiritually and mentally. But at the time, horses caused me pain. Going to the barn wasn’t a relief, it was torture. I couldn’t even stand seeing Facebook friends post horse-y things. It was like they were taunting me. And then I was warring with myself for being so retched and selfish, and not seeing my horses.
That seems so strange now: looking back at how hurtful it was to see anything to do with horses, and yet how liberating the thought of galloping was or designing an entire nation dedicated to horses. I can’t reconcile the dissonance; I can only say that it happened.
Even in the darkest moments, I knew it wasn’t me. I did the only thing I could: I sought real, professional help. I was diagnosed with chronic pain depression and given tools to help deal with it. The counselor encouraged my book editing process (which had stalled as the depression grew), and also suggested the book Managing Chronic Pain: A Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Approach. And the book told me what everyone is afraid to tell someone suffering from chronic pain: you can control it.
So I learned to shut out the pain. I made my pain zombies and I made my brain my safehouse. When the pain would start to increase, I would run from the zombies and get into the safehouse, and slam the door behind me. I could hear the zombies scratching on the door, begging to get in, but I would throw my weight against the door and hold them back. It worked so long as I wasn’t too tired to keep up the mental effort. I started coming out of the depression as I controlled the pain.
Then, because I was feeling better and could manage talking to doctors without breaking down into tears, I got a new doctor, who got me to the right specialist. He took one look and diagnosed me with a labrum tear in my right hip. An MRI confirmed and I was scheduled for surgery.
It took more than eight months of going to doctors but we finally had it. Then I had to wait more than two months for surgery. But those last two months were cake compared to the previous eight months. There was light at the end of the tunnel! I was going to get to ride again.
There is that song that everyone references when something is taken from you and you appreciate it more once it’s gone. I don’t think that applies to me. I knew what was at stake. I think most riders know this. We are on borrowed time. If we’re lucky, we will ride in our 80s. If we aren’t, it ends today with a bad fall, or a car-wreck, or a financial situation where we have to sell our partners. Every ride is beautiful and unique because of this. It’s a butterfly.
But it wasn’t supposed to end like it did for me. I felt robbed and cheated and angry. I guess I’m not graceful in defeat. I can only wonder what I’ll do in my 80s when they try to hang my bridle up.
I don’t have a moral or an ending to this story. I don’t want to offer any sage advice, because I don’t have any. I have what worked for me through trial and error. The only thing I want to say with this post is this: You aren’t alone. Fight and rage on, even if you are so tired of people saying that to you. You know who you are.
I have been back in the saddle for a month now. I’m taking it easy, which is hard to do, although necessary. And I am so grateful that I’m almost on the verge of bursting into tears every time I’m at the barn.
Sunday, my husband rode my horse Buttercup for a few minutes, and like millions of horse crazy people all over the world, I found myself thinking: I wish my significant other would ride with me all the time.
Oh the fun we would have! We would go on trail rides every weekend! He could go to clinics with me and we would better our riding together! We could see who can best whom in dressage (or more likely get the funniest judge comment; I already know he would win with his long legs on my short horses)! He could get his own horse! He would stop complaining about the cost for hay and vet bills!
And then I remember: I dated a horse guy before. It was romantic for a time, but then came a feeling of intrusion in my chosen sport and hobby. It became a competition between us. It became “Well you know, you could be doing this instead.” In short, it became an absolute mess.
Luckily for me and the horse guy, we parted ways. He was the only horse guy I ever dated, so my experience is limited. But I have to say, I really LOVE that my significant other isn’t into horses.
For one thing, it makes me really happy to see him with my horses. Like stupid, ridiculous happy. Instead of me feeling jealous or nitpicking how he’s handling them, all I’m thinking is “Awww cute! He never spends time with them and look how sweet he is! He’s trying!”
For another, I need my own damn thing. You can have yours. I need my own. I need my alone time with my own special thing that is completely mine. I realize that is a personal failing on my part. I promise I talk to a very expensive therapist about it (she just happens to have hooves and agrees with everything I say so long as I have peppermints).
For a while, my husband was an avid golfer. This worked out extremely well: I had my horses, and he had golf. Sure, I’d try to hit a few balls with him, but he knew it was just me trying to enjoy his hobby, just like him hopping on my horse to walk around wasn’t going to be a full-time thing. We were a couple with very different hobbies who came home to each other. I’d ask him about golf, and he’d say (in his best Ryan Gosling meme impression) “Tell me about all the cute things your horse did today.” My husband is no longer golfing but that doesn’t mean he will impede onto my hobby any time soon. And for that, I am thankful, even if I love seeing him with my horses.
I get this question a lot. So I’m going to write this blog post with the hopes it will head off future questions.
How did I write the book? Well, mostly on my smart phone.
(Cue the shocked faces.) It’s true. Probably 75 percent of my first draft was written on my smart phone on a cloud document. The other 25 percent of the draft was written on a laptop or desktop. I own a typewriter, but I needed the cloud to make it work.
I get the question “how” a lot because, in this age, everyone is super ridiculously busy. They are waiting to retire or for the kids to leave the house before they sit down and write. They have great ideas but if only they had the time. My answer is this: you always have time for what you make a priority in your life. And certainly you have a few minutes throughout the day where you have down time. Maybe you are waiting for a meeting to start. Maybe you are sitting in the grocery store line.
That’s exactly how I wrote the book. I had three minutes here, five minutes there, and maybe, if I was lucky, 15 minutes another time.
I wrote the first draft of The Wilding in 60 days. It was messy and ugly, and I dread the thought of someone stumbling upon it one day and reading it. I should really burn it now that I think of it. I’m adding that to my to-do list.
But I had a first draft. And, to my surprise, there was a story there. It wasn’t very good, but it was there.
Then it took me 10 months to edit. But that’s another story.