5 February 2015

When the Horse Knows Best

Home stretch

This could not have happened in the kingdom of Health and Safety.  Nor would it have happened if the extent of the challenge had been fully explained.

It was late September in the Lecrin Valley, near Granada.  I had signed up to go for a horse ride – by 'ride', of course I meant ‘sit', for I had never had riding lessons despite having been conveyed by pony from A to B with minimum disruption on holiday trundles.  Picture a beach, with a bored quadroped being led by a string.  That is the level of my horsemanship.

My details had been handed in to the riding school: 1. no, not experienced 2. have only gone at walking pace - trotted (accidentally) once.  Meeting my steed, I was pleased that it had neither satanic stare, nor  dimensions of a battle-Percheron, astride which a body would rip in half.  In reality, this was a tiddler, and I was truly thankful.  It bode well for the one-hour session.

Again I emphasised to the owner:  no he galopeadoNo soy experta.  By which I hoped to imply that I had never galloped and was not an expert.

We set off in a small band - our leader Rodrigo, inveterate Canadian outdoorswoman Jean, and Englishman Robert who had trekked the length and breadth of South America on horseback.
‘Have you taken your painkillers?’ asked Jean.


‘Yes.  This is going to hurt like hell.  I’ve already taken two Ibuprofen.  At the very least, make sure you take some tonight and tomorrow.  You’ll really be aching after this two-hour ride.’

Two hours?' 

And so we set off, through the village streets, towards the side of the valley, and before long, were winding up a steep twisting path.  The horses' hooves slid in the narrow path's dust, inches from the sheer drop beside us.  My palms went clammy.  Vertigo came in hot waves.

'Don’t worry,’ said Jean, ‘your horse knows what it’s doing.’

Small consolation.  At each hairpin bend, there was no telling whether my animal might be seized with a lemming wish, or simply miscalculate and stumble, or whether I, in averting my gaze from the chasm, might lean the wrong way as my pony hopped up, yes, hopped up over rocks.
This was not the time to adhere to the Spanish style of riding, in which you hold the reins in one hand only.  Yet, during the midst of the perspiration and dread came a moment of utter clarity.  Here, between heaven and the boulders far below, it was no good panicking, or wishing I hadn’t come.  There was no way out, but forward.  I had no choice but stay on that horse’s back and have faith in its ability to get on with the business of climbing.
As we reached the top I breathed a sigh of relief to see the path opening out on to a flat plain  overlooking the town of Albuñuelas.  Things would get easier.  My beast, on the other hand, was of a different mindset.  Seeing the others racing ahead, and paying no attention to my hauling back on the reins, it sprang to action - first breaking into a trot then, Dios mio, a brisk gallop.
I bounced up in the air and slapped down as if on a bucking bronco.  If there was a preferred method of timing my landing on the horse's spine, which minimised the chances of falling off, I had little opportunity to finesse it.
Jean and Robert rode hard to catch Rodrigo.  'She’s never galloped before,' they said.  He glanced back at the spectacle of me see-sawing on the horse’s back.  'Sure she has.  She’s fine,' he replied.

Hang on, I told myself through clenched teeth.  Trust.  Trust the horse.  And gradually, over the length of the route, I began to learn to do just that.  To tune into to its rhythm.  To be firm, but not to fight.  I also constantly checked in with my own muscles – tensing this one, flexing that one, slightly twisting my body one way then the other to take tension off my back.  By the time we had ridden across the entire ridge, through olive groves, down through the village of Saleres and along the riverbed, I was non-plussed when, without warning, my horse staggered on a rock. 
After a total of two and a half hours I finally dismounted, cocky to be still in one piece.  Oddly, though I took no painkillers at all, nor the next day, there was not one twinge in my body.  

Would I do this again?  I’m not sure.  For a novice it was risky.  

But it left me with an exhilaration - and a keener sense about surrender and letting go, about trying to get into harmony with an animal, with a moment, with an experience.  Magical.

12 September 2014

Scotland - Please Stay

It is my fervent wish that the title of this blog will not ring hollow in a week’s time, in the way of a book I found a few years ago, written pre-1947, whose title was Must England Lose India?  Well, yes, I said at that point, tossing the book aside without so much as a glance at the pages of erudite argument.  

So much for faits accomplis.  Yet I feel compelled to admit a very present anxiety in the pit of my stomach.  Standing on the sidelines in the final run-up to a momentous decision which will be taken by residents of Scotland next week is a hard thing to do.  Quite simply, I don’t want Scotland to separate from the rest of the United Kingdom.   And here are the reasons.

First, the things I am not qualified to speak about.  I cannot comment on future revenues for Scotland and need to leave it to industry spokespeople to elucidate, for example, to what extent North Sea oil might be dwindling and whether new discoveries are financially viable.  Nor do I have an economist’s handle on the anomalies inherent in seeking to keep the pound while severing links with the UK – or the protracted turbulence the pound may experience in the period immediately following a Yes vote for independence.  But I am disturbed at the prospect of poor financial health for Scotland as much as I am disturbed by the tendency for some in the Yes campaign to pass off genuine statements given by (non-political) experts as ‘scaremongering’ or ‘bullying’.  

I’ve watched and listened to debates with mounting disquiet.  I listen to reasons given for independence - amongst them the need for social justice, and to act against the bedroom tax, and child poverty.  Yet these issues are as live and heated ‘down here’ to anyone who seeks a just and caring society.  I listen to anger expressed over the fact that Westminster has taken the country into unwanted wars – yet recall my own incandescent rage when the Blair government, with slipshod justification, involved us in Iraq.  I hear annoyance about expenses-fiddling by MPs as though no English, Welsh or Northern Irish person also shares this opprobrium.   I hear voices countering arguments put forward by pro-unionists with cries that Scottish inventiveness and intelligence will win out,  as though any anxiety we express over Scotland’s future (and, yes, over our future because the Scottish vote will affect us all) even takes into question, in the first place, the proven creativity and ingenuity of Scots.  I hear sneers about the ‘Westminster Elite’ as though ideological distance from the Houses of Parliament in London is solely the preserve of (northern) geography.  In fact, I live just up the same river from the Houses of Parliament and can leap on a train and be standing in front of them in less than an hour.  But whenever a government for whom I have not cast my vote takes power, and only spitting distance from here, I too feel disenfranchised.  
I applaud strong self-governance within a larger framework, and hence am in favour that more powers are being offered to Scotland in the event of a No vote.   Having grown up in the province of Ontario in Canada in a federalist system -  where provinces are responsible for direct taxation, natural resources, hospitals, schools, welfare, intra-provincial transportation and the administration of justice, and where the federal government in Ottawa has jurisdiction over  international and interprovincial trade, communications and transportation, banking and currency, foreign affairs, and defence -  I am comfortable with the idea of power devolved away from central government.   I lived just across the Ottawa River from the province of Quebec whose vibrant character and culture, I would argue, have always been better protected within Canada with its professed commitment to biculturalism and bilingualism.  A Quebec flying solo would be not just overshadowed by the remainder of a still enormous Anglophonic Canada but also by its huge American neighbour to the south.   In the same way, I feel that Scotland is best served by staying in the union, strengthening its culture, its identity and with increased powers, but safeguarded from the economic vicissitudes of going it alone.  There are cold winds out there.

My prayer that Scotland will vote to stay part of the United Kingdom is because I also speak as a child of Northern Irish parents - with Scottish forebears - and as a person with a surname (by marriage) that sounds as Welsh as it is possible to sound who lives in the southeast of England.   I am by no means alone in this country with these kinds of connections.  The four corners that they represent are key to the strengths that currently exist in the UK.  We are linked like kin.  We have shared history and, I profoundly hope, a shared future.  There is, without doubt, much to be modified and improved, yet so very much more to be celebrated in this imperfect but nonetheless joint venture in which we find ourselves. 

1 July 2014

Just Off to Throw a Pot

Display courtesy of Ian White, Doreen Burgess and G and K Malin

Once, years ago, I was approached by another mother at my son’s school. 

‘You should volunteer for the kids’ activity next week,’ she said.

‘What activity,’  I asked.

‘They’re going to be doing ceramics.’


‘Yes. Didn’t you say that you did pottery?’

Well.  Pottery.  Poetry.  They do sound similar.

Ever since then I’ve liked to think I’ve been busy with all manner of crockery, out in my potter’s shed in which a mess of words gets thrown at a wheel then grappled with and smoothed into a serviceable object – now a rustic jug, now a knick-knacks bowl, now an earth-hued goblet ringed with blue.  And as the objects come off the production line, they are placed carefully on shelves according to type, and length of creation.  

Occasionally, people passing by press a curious nose to the window, others enter and engage in polite conversation, yet others handle the goods with long consideration and nearly make a purchase – just like last week when my collection My Shrink is Pregnant came joint second in the Pighog Pamphlet Competition.  

My Shrink, so nearly off to a new home, has gone back on the display case, but much closer to the door.  

And I keep at it, am back at the wheel, hands dirty from shaping wet clay, ears cocked for a shuffle of feet of a prospective customer at the entrance way.

25 April 2014

Inking the Heart

Recently, my heart began to speak loudly to me.  

I thought it might be attempting to shed its fetters, spread its wings.  

Doctors thought it might be acting up and certainly needing investigation.   

Last autumn I consequently underwent a perfusion test, which consisted in putting my heart under drug-induced stress.  The results indicated possible problems in two areas.

No, I was told by my amiable consultant as I sat in his room in early January, there was nothing I could personally do for my heart other than take the prescribed statins, the beta-blockers, the daily aspirin, and fix an appointment for an angiogram.  But in the weeks before the planned procedure - when a catheter would be inserted through the femoral artery then fed up to the heart, allowing the release of dye to show any narrowings or blockages - I felt I owed this vital organ the courtesy of paying it closer attention, and gleaning what metaphors it might conceal.

And so I tuned into my heart’s rhythm.  I posed questions of it, and hushed my chatter in order to listen for answers.   

I went to the Alpujarras mountains in Spain for a week in February to drink in pure light and spring air.

I visited a skilled and gentle healer in whose presence my heart quietened.  

I reflected on what might represent the opposite of fear, and then endeavoured to dream this antidote into all of my cells.

I wrote songs that had been brewing for years.

I sketched pictures of hearts in healing shades of blue.   

I scribbled words in notebooks.   I considered how any heart bunged with memory and emotion might come to sag, misshapen as a Christmas stocking.  

I acknowledged how the twin agents of sorrow and guilt could not so much whistle through a heart as leave gluey thumbprints all over chambers no longer  pristine and correct, where the  femme de ménage in this case, me – may not have exercised her duty to the full. 

And finally, mentally prepared for the possibility of the insertion of a cardiac stent, I showed up a couple of weeks ago at my local hospital to submit to the medically advanced probing and inking of my heart.  

On the huge screen beside me, the lightning strikes of my coronary arteries revealed themselves -  jagged, beautiful, breathtakingly visible.  'They all look fine,' said my consultant.  

So, am I out of the woods?  We are none of us ever out of the woods.  Am I fit?  My programme of fitness commences.  Is my heart all right?  I hope so – now that I have heard it, paid it homage, dipped buckets in its well, and seen the breathing imprint of its internal rivers.