Thursday, July 15, 2010

On grace, and becoming, second chances and pulling on hip waders to walk through your own shit.

Sometimes, I think I've got it all figured out. Its just at these moments that I often am presented with a puzzle, which turns out to be a lesson, which I must solve before I can move forward in my life.

It reminds me of these old video games, the ones that were text-only (does anyone remember these?) which operated just the same way. If you didn't solve all the puzzles in one level, you couldn't move on, or if you did manage to move on, when you got to the final level, if you were missing some essential piece of information, you couldn't solve the game.

Now, I've come to realize that my life is not a game that I'm going to solve, and that takes a LOT of pressure off of me, I've come to realize that its one lesson at a time, with no goal at all, enlightenment will happen in some other lifetime, when its time for that to happen. Whatever cosmic end there is will handle itself, my human self is not concerned with, nor can it effect the reason I am here, or solve that riddle.

And so I find myself much comforted by that, walking one foot in front of the other, often re learning the same lessons, finding the same parts of myself that I "thought I fixed", but each time I come back by those lessons, I find myself being a bit more tollerant and gentle with the process of learning, and the lesson goes deeper. As I pass the lesson again (for instance, communicate well with your bosses and other people so that people feel like they can count on you and you aren't flaky), I find myself saying, well, here is how I am going to approach this next time, not so it never happens again, but so that next time it happens, the impact won't be as big. Goodbye, old friend lesson, part of my human self, I'll see you again, I'm pretty sure.

When I manage to remove judgement from that thought, and I'm simply observing parts of myself that I hope to evolve, I seem to let go of more of the negative that keeps me repeating the pattern, and I have a better chance of jettisoning some of that old habit, and leveraging some healthier behavior.

With this in mind, I think about how many times I've come up against a moment in my life when I have an opportnuinty to "become". To let go completely of old patterns that make up some part of "me", and just walk into the unknown, not wishing for anything, just knowing that the old didn't serve me or my family or friends any more, and it was time to get naked and become.

Its happened hundreds, thousands of times. And when I emerge, I feel giddy, and shy, and strange, and new, and the same, and old, and when I was younger, I used to want to show my new understanding and self to people, like my mother or my step father and say, "See, I've learned that it was a habit which I was repeating, which I thought would keep me safe, which was hurting all of us. I've learned to let go of that habit, and so now, I am standing here, minus one coping mechanism, and I hope that will make me healthier, and able to make better choices in the future."

This didn't always go so well, because you can only tell someone, as a fourteen year old juvenile deliquent, that you've had a life changing experience, and you see the world differently, and you will walk forward from here with new eyes so many times before they don't believe you any more.

And that's really the jist of it. I always wished that the people in my life would believe that I could become, rather than waiting for me to prove it to them over the course of months, years, or even decades.

I have, in my life, needed a lot of grace. I have, in my life, made rash, hurtful decisions. I have, in my life, examined who I am, looked carefully at my own shit, none of which is pleasant to look at, and made the decision to pull on hip waders and walk on out into it and really muck around until I found the root.

This kind of hard work is hard, unpleasant, and painful. And if you have a lot of that work to do, as many of us do, just because you make progress doesn't mean you are any closer to "doing it right". I have come to accept that I am still going to disappoint some people, including myself, and that I also don't believe that there is ANYONE who "does it right". I have given up measuring myself against some ideal of perfect responsibility, and rather, look at people in my life who "do it well" and ask myself "What is it about that person, and the balance that they appear to have in their life, that you can learn from?"

And I have been thinking about this really intently again for about a month now. I have a friend in my life who has gone through a major change in his life. His understanding, his life experience has been shaken, ripped open, and laid at his feet. He has pulled on his waders. He has walked with a smile into his own shit, and looked around happily, calling out bravely to the shore, "I'm sorry!" to all of us who are standing there, not quite believing that he is taking this step.

He is choosing to become.

And I can not help but be proud of him, believe him, and be grateful. It is not all of us who choose to become, when the journey is such an arduous one. And I think of all the times I could have used a witness and a champion and just a little grace while I made my journey, while I am making my journey still today.

And so I choose not to wait for proof. I choose to believe. I see you out there in your Hip Waders. And I'm proud of you.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Meeting you where you need to be met... only you are a horse. Part Two

So what I was trying to say last night about working with Doc is that it occurred to me that he's not any different than a person. I mean, there is horse language, body language, but in the end, someone hurt him, and we don't know how.

He is wary, untrusting, and has been trained to be afraid by someone who handled him poorly. I think we can all relate to that. Anyone who has ever trusted and had their heart broken knows what it is like to become wary.

So it feels to me like even though I think I know what would be good for Doc, I can't force him to take it. I can't bully him into accepting my guidance, or my love, I can't tie him up and force him to pick up his feet. I mean, I could, but I don't think we'd get anywhere in the long run.

I feel like my job here is to meet Doc where he needs to be met, and then ask just a little bit of him, give him more, and then ask a little more, so that he wants to come to me. So that him giving me his feet is where he needs to be met eventually.

This reminds me of working with a ski client, or a massage client. They've come for something, they want some help to ski more challenging terrain, or do a better job skiing it, or they want their bodies to let go, they want some help to ask their body to let go. But I can't just force them to take what I think is the best for them.

To be succesfull, I need to listen somehow to where they need to be met. I need to look for the heart piece or the head piece that is keeping them from becoming and hold that space for them gently, while they take a step toward me. And then its my job again to say thank you for their trust by listening to the new space they are in, and meeting them there.

I'm off to the stables, I'm so excited to do a good job with Doc that I had dreams of picking up his feet and riding him bareback. But that's where I'd like to be met, not where he needs to be met. So we'll probably just go for a walk and eat some carrots today.

The next step is to reinforce "come", see if it stuck, and work on touching him all over his body, being able to crawl under him and lean on his backside, get under his tail and down all his legs while he stands happily, untied. We've got head, ears, eyes, neck and chest so far.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Meeting you where you need to be met... only you are a horse.

I got a new job this week, working with the Maroon Bells Outfitters here at the T Lazy 7 Ranch in Aspen. Its a dream job, really, and another one of those awesome coincidences from my past life. I've worked with horses on and off forever, first, I went to camp at a ranch camp, and fell in love with a horse called 37 who was a retired army horse.

No one else could ride him, he was scared of all loud noises and sudden movements, and so, of course, I decided that even if I couldn't ride him, I'd love him, because he needed to be loved, and I had love to give. I was six when this started. I was ten the first time I got on his back.

I joined Gymkannah when I was seven, gymnastics on horseback, where the first thing you learn is how to fall off a horse, immediately before you learn how to ride a horse standing up with no saddle. I was lucky enough to do this for five years or so, every summer for about nine weeks, on a gentle beast named Reno. His back was broad enough to play cards on, and if I fell off, it was because I fell off, not because Reno was spooked. We climbed all over him, and practiced on an oil barrel with handlebars. The candlestick, the shoulderstand, standing, sitting, three person manouvers... it was the circus in the dirt in the pine trees in Awanhee California with no audience, and it was just awesome.

A few years later, our family went on vacation at the Marr ranch in Susanville, California, and I found myself unable to leave. I begged for a job, and came back at calving season, and found myself in the dirt branding and castrating 10,000 head of cattle, the only girl on the crew. Rocky Mountain Oysters were cooking on the top of the branding fire as I cut them off, they'd pop open and the coyboys ate them like popcorn. Absolutely disgusting. I fixed a lot of miles of fence that summer, and came back for more the next season. 

After that, I found myself in Mexico one spring, renting a house in La Bufadora, where there were horses for rent on the beach, but they were all sick.  The wranglers all rode bareback, and there was no medicine. I went home and quizzed our local vets, started reading up on colic and issues with feet. I learned quick and dirty remote vetting, and brought a ton of drugs accross the border, but its not what you think, it was penicillin in huge syringes, from America to Mexico. Turns out the horses were colicy because they were eating pig slop, including corn husks. We did the best we could, I rode bareback and did quite a bit of wrangling with nothing to help me but a braided rope harness for two summers.

Later, I met Frizall, the first of a couple of Arabian horses that I was to work with. He hadn't been ridden in a decade, he was atrophied, no shoes, teeth hadn't been floated in years, his whithers were high and he was on the batty side.

His owner was nice enough to let me work with him, and after about six months, we had him out of his small pen and onto the trail, two months after that, he was going over low fences in the public corral. But we started with me on the ground, trying to get him to follow me willingly with no halter.

It was a whole lot of seat of the pants, but it was always rewarding, and it was awesome to work with these old, spookey, set in their way horses, Frizall was 28 when I met him.

Today, I had the honor of beginning to work with Doc, a part Percheron horse that was rescued by the Maroon Bells Outfitters. He's a beautiful animal, and for some reason, he's spooked like crazy. He won't pick up his feet to be shod or for any other reason. I'm kind of desperate for work, and I heard that they had a wrangler who didn't show.

I started pestering the owner for a job, and lucky me, he's open to being pestered. He told me if I can get Doc to pick up his feet, I've got a job. Today, we started our work. No feet, no touching. We are starting over.

I thought about what he must have been through, this huge loving, wary animal, and decided to start from square one. I'm not going to ask him to give up his power. I'm going to help him decide that he wants to be with me, to follow me, to lean into me, to be touched by me, and eventually, that he wants to give his feet to me. For now, we aren't touching his feet for at least two weeks. (Everyone has been trying to pick them up, so I think he must be feeling like at any moment, someone will come at him and try to get his feet.)

If he doesn't pick them up willingly by the end of August, we are going to do it the hard way, with a rope. But I don't think we'll have to go there. Today, we had our first three sessions. Brian, the owner, gave me a corral in the back to work in with Doc, and when we started, Doc didn't really like the halter, didn't really want to be caught, didn't like to be rubbed, and didn't know how to "come".

His body felt tense and wary all the time, high head, pricked ears, unsure. Just barely on this side of willing.

My goal was by the end of the week to have him following me around the round pen with his head in my back with no halter.

For our first thirty minute session, I put my backpack, full of carrots, in the pen where he could get to it, so I could say "no" to him when he nosed it. I put carrots in my pocket and just hung out with him for a while, pretending like I didn't care, I wasn't there to work with him, walking by casually and petting him, and then walking away, turning my back on him.

He would stick his head out as far as he could without moving to get the carrot, but was soooo reluctant to walk to me. Eventually he took a few steps.

In our second session, I decided to up the ante. I got a small bucket of soft feed, (yum!) and brought him out to the pen. He followed me around the pen at my shoulder a few times while I held the bucket and fed him, then I diched the bucket and took just a handfull. We practiced like this for about thirty minutes, and at the end, he was following me all over the pen for a handful of grain.

I came back tonight, and a couple of people came out to watch, which was distracting, as Doc is IN LOVE with one of the female wranglers, my kids were climbing on the fence, three or four horses had their heads over... but eventually, everyone left, and Doc and I fell into rhythm. It was time to add and relieve pressure, and reward him with pets and love, and just a few carrots, rather than gluttonous grain.

By the end of our thirty minutes, he was on my shoulder, following, every step I took, he took. He put his head down, and I rubbed his ears, over his eyes, his chest and neck, he smelled my hair and nibbled it, and he did it all just for praise. At the end of our session, he had learned "come" and followed me out of the pen, into the corral, past all the distracting horses, the mares in heat, the feeders, and all the way to the end, where he put his head down on my chest to be pet. We had made huge steps in just a day.

I'm dumbfounded and grateful to have the opportunity to work with an animal like this, to have my kids around this incredible crew, the trust that Brian has shown me by putting Doc in my care is huge and humbling. Heather, the wranger who Doc is in love with, is an incredible source of inspiration, her spirit is light and lively, and she's shown me the ropes at the stables. Greg, who has worked there for six summers, gave me a huge hug today and said welcome aboard.

Once again, I find myself wondering how I landed here, grateful for the incredible, knowledgeable people who I work with, and excited for the challenge ahead. But what's really exciting is that it is Doc's challenge. I get to watch as he decides to join the working ranks or not. To trust and open, or not to. I'm grateful for the opportunity to be with him while this happens, and really happy to be taken on by such a cohesive, knowledgeable crew.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Bill Briggs says Goodbye: Acceptance Breeds Possibility Pt. 1

Earlier this spring, I had the honor of spending a few days in Jackson Hole with Big Mountain Skiing legend Bill Briggs. We all know Briggs (and if you don't, you should) for his heroic and single minded ascent and first ski descent of the Grand Teton. This seminal event in skiing opened the minds of people in the US to what skiing could be.

Bill said it beautifully in the movie, Steep, when he said, "Its not that I thought I would be the only one doing this. My thought was everyone should be doing this."

When I went out to spend some time with Bill, I joined him  at his favorite lunch spot, where he was working diligently on his next installation of ski maneuvers for training ski instructors. Its a fascinating project, one that pulls from Bills long history of curiosity and investigation. He carefully culls his experience for movements which were relevant in skiing as far back as the fourties, and are still relevant today, as well as looking at "modern" movements. Nothing is thrown out in favor of the new, things are shuffled and examined for their efficacy.

To be honest, I wanted to ask Bill what it was like to climb up the West Face by himeslef, how it felt to fall in a no fall ski, if he watched the avalanche... I wanted to know what it felt like in his heart to fly in a plane the next day and see his ski tracks. "The beauty of the mountain, enhanced a bit by human contact."

On the other hand, everyone asks him these questions. And I knew that while he was an extraordinary pioneer for all of us, that he was also a person outside of that singular accomplishment. I was taken by his intense intelligence, his acrobatic and creative thinking, and his willingness to be his own person, outside of the rules and boxes that everyone else wants to define as "right" (read as "comfortable to me, because I can understand you this way.")

I feel it is just this singularity of spirit which must have given Bill the (pardon the colloquialism, but there is just now other word for it) cajones to look at that big rock and decide to go ski it. In a dress shirt. With a surgically fused hip. By himself when his friends chickened out because of the incredible danger.

Plus, he has the good fortune to posses the winning-est smile and ease of spirit that you would wish for in a friend, I found myself instantly at ease with him, and totally engaged by his youthful exuberance.

We went for a quick walk all over downtown Jackson, and by quick, I mean, Bill deals with a difficult issue with his hip, which causes him not to limp but to sort of pole vault over his fused hip with every step, and I had to walk at a brisk clip to keep up. Nothing is going to stop this guy.

We didn't really talk about the Grand, surprisingly enough. I thought we'd get around to it, but I found myself, when confronted with the reality of the man on my right, and the poster of the impossible feat he had accomplished on my left, and the pile of paper on how to turn your feet right and left in front of me, completely unable to find the courage to be like everyone else and ask, what was it like?

Instead, I dove into what was comfortable, the queries on how to turn, and we talked happily about that, the visage of his incredible accomplishment staring down at me all the while, and me trying to ignore it so I wouldn't just dry up, choke, and run stammering from the restaurant.

During our walk, we did end up talking about skiing adventures, Bill is certainly not at a loss for good stories, and I love to listen, so we made a good team. One of my favorites had to do with Bill standing on a snowfield in Alaska looking up at possible lines to ski from one of Mike Wiglies' helicopters in the 80s, when another skier came up and started harassing him. Noting Bill's seeming handicap of his hip, and the lines he was scoping, he scoffed at Bill, "Come on, man, you may be good, but you are no Bill Briggs..."

Well, actually...

But my favorite story was the story of Bill saying goodbye to skiing and the mountains forever in the late 1960s. Bill had been a ski mountaineer guide and a top level instructor for years. He had already accomplished more than the doctors ever thought he would, he was born without certain important structures in his hip socket, causing the incredibly painful situation of bone on bone every time he took a step. The doctors had told him he wouldn't walk, and so he did. They told him he wouldn't run, and so he learned how, and they told him he couldn't climb, and so he became a certified mountain guide.

But in the late 60s, the pain of his hip was becoming unbearable, he was on medication, and it was time, everyone agreed, for him to do the unthinkable, and get his hip fused together.

It was a known fact that Bill would not walk again after this surgery, but the pain would be greatly reduced. He certainly would never ski again.

For his last ski, several ski guides and his instructor friends;  John Ahern, Roger Brown, Gordie Butterfield, Joe Marillac, Roger Paris, Jim Whittaker and Lou Whittaker took Bill up Mt. Ranier, where they were going to attempt the first modern ski descent of that mountain. In this manner, Bill would say goodbye to skiing for the rest of his life.

The climb was brutal, Bill described to me this immense feeling of gratitude, it took a huge support party of eight people to get Bill to the top, and during the course of the climb, twice he thought he would not be able to make it. Once he gave into the pain and took another pain pill. They reached a crevasse which proved to be quick work for the rest of the party, but a major production to get Bill across.

With some ingenious rigging and the continuous support of the entire group, Bill made it across the crevasse and finished the climb. That day, he became the first person to ski Mt. Ranier, in the company of his mountain bretheran.

Bill said that getting back across the crevasse should have been much easier, he was planning just to jump it on his skis, it was only 10 feet across. But the group insisted on having him on belay, and they caught him short just as he landed. The scariest part of the whole trip should have been the easiest.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

West Maroon Pass

So I chased Kurt up to West Maroon Pass the other day. 11 miles round trip, back before lunch. Training is paying off, he didn't get more than a half a mile ahead of me this time, and I was able to jog some portions.

At the very end, going up the shale to the pass proper, which is up around 12,500 feet, I suspect he may have been dawdling and waiting for me while I sucked wind and pumped my slippery tennis shoes up the steps he'd kicked in the last small snowfield. I felt good when I got up there, not beat, so I think that the training is helping, I'm slowly increasing my speed, but I still can't perform in an anaerobic state for very long without caving and wishing I was stronger.

On the way back, the spectacular turquoise of the broken rock nested against the red and purple earth was pretty spectacular to look at, and we checked out the South Bell Couloir, which had two parties climbing in it. We've made tentative plans to boot right up that sucker this weekend, its steep snow, but its in great shape! 

If I thought I was challenged before, I've got another think coming. This climb requires crampons, boots and an ice axe. I found a pair of great soft boots made by Teva at the Mountain Sports Outlet in Glennwood Springs, and now I'm hunting around for flexible crampons and the axe that I can borrow. Hopefully the weather co-operates, and I'll get to stand on top of my first Colorado 14er. Fingers crossed!