I Can’t Believe You Did That

Sitting in church∗ the other night, my mom leaned over and said, “Your first riding instructor told me that you were a good rider. She thought you would go far.”

I stared at my mom.

“What? I watched you ride every now and then,” she whispered.

It was news to me!

It was news to me!

It was news to me, this Good Rider bit. My childhood riding instructor was old-school. She told me I sucked, and she laughed when I fell off. I’d rush to catch my horse with her voice calling after, telling me to brush off, get back on, try harder. So I did, each and every time.

A recent NPR piece about childhood praise and narcissism states:

When a kid does something amazing, you want to tell her so. You might tell her that she’s very smart. You might tell her that she’s a very special kid. Or you might say that she must have worked really hard.

On the surface, they all sound like the same compliments. But according to Brad Bushman, a communications and psychology professor at Ohio State University, the first two increase the child’s chances of becoming a narcissist. Only the last one raises the child’s self-esteem and keeps her ego in check.

I took my mother’s news, offered some 30 years later, and wondered what my life with horses would have been like if I had grown up hearing and thinking I was a good rider. I know that I am a serviceable rider. I know I like to ride, and something in me knew, at nine years old, that I HAD to ride. But what if I had actually thought I was good? I’m pretty sure my life with horses would have gone very differently, and I’m not displeased that my mother took this long to ‘fess up.

When I showed my mother my first short story, a glorified fanfic of my middle-school, barn life with the names barely changed in order to protect the innocent (this was around the same time my instructor would have been secretly offering her praise) my mother’s first response was not ecstatic. “Did you really write this,” she asked. “Are you sure you didn’t copy it?”

Banging her head against a wall.

Banging her head against a wall.

That sideways compliment made my nine year old heart glow, as it still does today when someone reads a piece I’ve written and holds their hands up in a caveat before saying, “I really liked it, but I had a hard time believing you actually wrote it.”

I know I’ve accomplished my task when someone looks at the thing I’ve created and they’re awed that I did it. That means more to me than any standard compliment. Their words tell me I’ve superseded a benchmark. I’ve outdone myself.

I’ve outdone myself.

Think about those words. The Self is changing, growing, evolving, every second. Who you were this morning is slightly changed from the person you are when you go to bed. It may be worse for the wear, or better. It may be scared/scarred or a little more brave. Whoever you tuck in for the night, whether that new incarnation is accomplished or defeated, it is something slightly more than what you started with when the sun rose.

You’ve outdone yourself.

Which is six thousand times more important than remaining stale, like a loaf of bread resting on the counter for a week, gathering dust, until you have to toss it to the birds.

How do we outdo ourselves in the saddle?

For me, today, it was nothing more than hopping on a new horse we purchased for our lesson program. I played with his transitions; I searched for the arc of his bends like a human protractor. We worked together to discover the scale of his trot, smallest to largest. His canter, I found, was abysmal, but we’ll work on that tomorrow. I discovered that he loved to have his face brushed and he likes touch, my hands offering praise after a halt. I gave him my Wednesday best and he outdid himself, all canter aside.

This is the new horse.  His name is Hero and I think he's grand. We're going to start a barn fundraiser with two jars: one in support of shortening his mane, the other to keep it as is.  The jar that has the most cash wins.

This is the new horse. His name is Hero and I think he’s grand. We’re going to start a barn fundraiser with two jars: one in support of shortening his mane, the other to keep it as is. The jar that has the most cash wins.

The walls of my childhood bedroom were littered in fourth through sixth place ribbons. If I were a sports team (which I often like to think I am) my colors would be white, pink and green. The blues and champion ribbons were hard won, and I can tell you where I achieved each and every one of them, who I was riding, what the weather was like that day.

I don’t gauge my success in ribbons anymore, neither do my students. My praise is meager, if I tell you that you did well, you know I really mean it. The benchmark days, the ones where the horse and rider really outdo themselves, are measured in sunlight and clouds, the time of year, the temperature: it was hot the day that I came off, I had sand in my breeches; it was cold and windy, but I had the perfect jump.

My success is measured by the riders who leave my farm with the confidence and the knowledge to gauge their own achievements, to take responsibility for their direction, realizing those paths will be littered with mistakes. They’ll do it, they’ll do it for themselves, for their horses, and the people on the sidelines will say beneath their breath, “I can’t believe they did that.”

Just do your thing.

Just do your thing.


 

∗I’m a lapsed Catholic. My mother and I have never attended church together until recently. We discovered a local cowboy church and go there every Monday night. All we need are old gospel songs and horse metaphors to find our religion.

Wayfaring Stranger

As I said in my last post, I drive around on Saturday afternoons when riding lessons are finished, the few hours before hay is last pitched and the horses tucked in for the night.  When I first started teaching I spread my Saturdays between several barns, so there were miles to drive between. This is a continuation of the commute, keeping the truck between the lines while I’m craning my neck to stare at an ancient farm house.  Usually there is nothing to be found other than a new back road, a new field.  But this past Saturday, I hit gold.  I found a LAKE.

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A lake, with a park.  A public park, at that.  Not knowing the rules or the habitation, I crept the truck up row by row until I secured a parking spot smack dab center, the front row.  And then I stared.  I’d just taken an Advil, so it could have easily been that, or the coffee I’d just purchased from the gas station, but the more I stared, the less I ached.  I stood outside the truck and breathed.  I watched the gulls swoop.  I’d spent the entire day outside, but this outside was different.  It had no expectations from me, no tasks to complete, nothing at all to do but watch and listen.  So I did for a while, until the park neared closing time.

I went back this evening with my notebook.  I walked the paths and stood on a pier.  I said hello to the strangers I passed as I wandered. I kneeled on a bench and watched the movement of the waves across the water. I don’t know what I felt, but it was something necessary and freeing.  There needs to be more of this, I thought.

And then I remembered playing Emmylou Harris on a radio station in Istanbul.

Sometimes we just have to go and look, watch and listen, and see where it takes us, just this, nothing else. I’ll be visiting this place again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Belts, Elders, Oak Trees and Gardens.

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I’ve worn the same belt for fifteen years, ever since I started teaching people how to ride horses. It’s thick and wide, unadorned, brown leather, the finish of the buckle worn off ages ago by sweat. I’ve alternated between three different holes on the belt, weight fluctuating through happiness and stress, but the median hole, the balance spot, the fulcrum where I always return, is starting to wear. I know the tell-tale signs, like the stress on a stirrup leather; this belt is going to have to be replaced soon.

IMG_5501I paced the aisles of the Pickens Flea Market one frigid morning before Christmas. I found a man who did leather work, but his belts only came in one size, for men. I scored a leather shipping halter and some rope to tie rope halters, a nice heavy gauge for the leads, but I came back belt-less.

It’s when something is about to end, something comfortable and familiar, that I generally flip out and try something I’ve never attempted before. This belt reminds me of my grandfather; I don’t know why. Maybe he purchased it for me. Maybe I bought it on one of our many trips together. Did this belt come from the flea market outside Moscow? It could have. A mall in Canada? A shop in Washington state?

My grandfather was politically active and a successful businessman, but he always built his own fence and chopped his own firewood. If something needed to be done, he engineered a way to do it. His home was on the wooded side of an urban mountain and there was a routine to our Saturdays together. We’d drive to his office and open mail. We’d drive to his mother’s house to pay her bills. We’d eat lunch. He’d take me to my riding lesson. I’d come home and sneeze for three hours because I was/am allergic to horses and try to do something like put a saddle on Beau, the Labrador, while my grandfather chopped wood. In my memory, he is the scent of hardwood chips and woodsmoke, the stove he was so proud of on the ground floor of his house blazing us all out of doors. His stove burned too hot.

Perhaps he was hardening me for winter. I’d carry the smaller pieces of wood for him, splinters in my hands because I was always losing my gloves. He was humming, always humming, beneath his breath, the thick cotton canvas of his overalls, a mirror of the ones I don now when the weather dips below freezing.

My grandfather, like me, made a lot of mistakes out of pride, but he was genuinely proud when I decided to go into horses full-time, years later. My last months with him were spent driving around the county looking for land, scouring the real estate listings, talking to builders about the best spot to erect a barn. Should the riding ring go there, beneath the oaks?

I found a soft landing from the pain of my grandfather’s sudden and swift diagnosis of bone cancer when the owners of Foxcroft generously offered a home for my horses and the program that would go through many incarnations as Bramblewood. I go for long drives on Saturday afternoons in my grandfather’s memory. I gaze at fields at sunset. I ask him questions. I tell him my plans. In the legacy of countless southern farmer’s superstitions, I take wild things as answers: the sudden appearance of a crow, a break in the clouds, the way the mountains emerge suddenly at the horizon of treetops past a bend in the road. I take these things as Yes or No, my magic eight-ball of the landscape.

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I am grateful beyond measure to have the ability to keep horses and cultivate our extended family of riders on this land. I mourn the passing of so many things when I see another field turned into houses, but I know there are people moving into those houses that will one day join us and ride horses. The cycle continues as we carve out our forests of peace, whatever they are.

But this was supposed to be about belts and firewood.

There are certain tasks I have always done for myself and others that I have waited for others to do for me. Firewood is one of the latter. Chainsaws mystify and terrify me. I’ve asked a dozen people to teach me how to use one, and one day I’ll take them up on their generosity. An axe, I can swing. I can drive a wedge. I’m really good at wedges.

Fed up with ice and snow and rain, and just a little crazed from the cabin fever that hit after three weeks of weather, I stared at the massive, rotted oak that had been felled by professionals a few years ago. It rested on the spot beside the barn where I used to grow vegetables. I missed having a garden, running the dirt through my fingers and obsessively plucking weeds. The oak was three foot in diameter, larger at the hollowed base.  The stump would make a great breakfast table if we were taken with the spirit to throw a mad hatter party in the dog days of summer, delicate sandwiches and salads from the bounty of my now-defunct garden. Something had to be done. The fallen tree had to be moved.

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I texted the last person who had handled the splitting maul. “Try the shed,” they said. So, I did.

I started with the delicate logs left over from the tips of the oak branches. With a wheel barrow, I carted the logs to my truck. The tree guys had left the remnants in fireplace-sized chunks. The ones I could lift, I moved, the ones I could not, I rolled to form a rudimentary perimeter around the garden space. All the others, I split.

I found earthworms and grubs and ants, but the heart of the wood was solid and as a wise cowboy named Bud told me, “If it’s wood, you can burn it.”

I Googled “splitting wood” and changed my form.

I Googled “wood suitable to burn” and found a hundred different opinions, but decided that Bud knew best.

I stopped Googling and turned off my phone.

Then I set to work.

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I tested my aim with a soft dive of the axe-head to the wood. I used the larger logs as chopping blocks. I let the tool do the work, lifting straight up and dropping rather than swinging behind my back and letting it fall as it would.

Ninety-eight percent of the time (we like averages) the splitter barged to the right or left and either missed entirely or lobbed off a piece of bark. The other two percent won me over, splitting the wood down the center with a single swing. I decided that firewood was a metaphor for everything and decided to write a blog post.

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A post that ended up, somehow, starting with my belt and then my grandfather, my continuous secret shadow. I had forgotten how much the scent of split wood reminded me of him. I hummed while I moved and discovered the bone-deep satisfaction of physical work, the therapy that had brought me to farms in the first place, that ten year old girl with splinters in her fingers, a nose that wouldn’t quit running and thighs that ached from learning to post the trot. The one that put a saddle on the Labrador. The one that watched her grandfather build fence when he could have hired any number of people to do it for him.

With each load of logs I placed on my truck, I gained a little more faith in the fact that I could find the answers for myself, with enough time. I could figure it out.

One day I’ll own it, I’ll know it. But for now I’ll just scour the woods for fallen oaks and repurpose them into warmth. I’ll scavenge the woods for blackberries in the summer. I’ll grow ginseng and goldenseal and use them to tend my bruises. I will run the dirt through my fingers and feast on the harvest of the soil. I’ll stare at the dwindling light on the fields and ask my grandfather if this is good work.

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When the crow calls, I’ll have my answer. Until then, I’ll search for a new belt, tightening the old one until it finds the end of its use. I will burn the fallen tree, tossing the junk mail to fuel the embers, collect the wood ash and return it to the garden.

Slowly, slowly, I will learn how to grow. The farm will point the way and I will follow. Or in the words of Rumi: “Let the beauty we love be what we do, there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

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Hearing Your Horse Through the Noise

Today, for the first time in my life as a riding instructor, I asked my students to consider what should be the most fundamental question: What does your horse need right now?

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Because we know what we need. We need them to trot. We need them to canter. We need them to go over that jump — no, I’m serious, go over that jump right now . . . wait, back her up, control her shoulders, I’m serious, get that mare over that jump. Right now.

What does your horse need?

To answer that question, we have to find a point of stillness. In the words of Lao Tzu, “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.”

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My co-trainer, Sarah Boudreaux, has been through a lot this past year. We prefer to think of the year as fiscal rather than calendar at the barn, which gives us the freedom to say things like: “I know 2015 will be better than 2014 — but it begins on February 1st.” Sarah had some broken ribs and a concussion from a fall in 2014, and she started the New Year off right with a car accident that required the reconstruction of her knee. That’s a lot of time out of the saddle, and Sarah is the sort of rider who takes her riding time seriously. She arrives at the farm early in the mornings to get a ride in before training starts in earnest and she’ll pencil a lesson in for herself weeks in advance. Sarah doesn’t cope well with downtime.

But, let’s face it. Horses like down time. A lot.

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As the manager of the farm, I’m the co-pilot in Sarah’s misery, minus the aching pain and anesthesia and memory lapses (though it was great fun convincing her my name was Michelle on the drive to the urgent care center after that fall, and we like to blame all scheduling problems on Sarah’s pain pills — and will do so well after she recovers). Her journey is my journey because we’ve elected to do this horse thing together.

Sarah and I have spent a lot of hours over the years dissecting the trot, puzzling over hips and footfalls, perfecting canter departures and measuring bits. I can honestly say that no piece of equipment has changed our lives, whether adding or subtracting a piece of metal or leather, securing a spur or removing a noseband. We’ll keep doing all those things as long as we have horses in our lives.

But let me tell you about the moment that changed the way we ride and train from the core, from that secret place that all horse people store their passion. For me, that place rests right behind my solar plexus.

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Sarah and I were stumped. We’d reached a training impasse with her big, draft mare Matilda, who in the manner of all big, draft mares, enjoyed throwing her shoulder and barging wherever she wished. I always like to blame things on heat cycles (people roll their eyes when I use this excuse on the geldings) because hormones are secret and mysterious and invisible and they’re good for blaming a whole lot of behaviors on.

We took the saddle and bridle off and allowed Matilda to roam free in the big jumping ring. Sarah and I stood in the center as Matilda milled around and ate grass along the edges and explored the poles and standards. It was a beautiful, sunny day, all warm sand and blue skies. We discussed heat cycles. Maybe a stronger bit?

We watched the use that Matilda made of the ring, given the choice to do whatever she wished. She used it like a turn-out paddock, doing what horses were designed to do: wandering, nibbling, snoozing.

Sarah and I sat down in the dirt and closed our eyes. Being a human with all our wondering and speculating and busy-ness is hard work. It felt good to sit and shut up for a change. It wasn’t planned. It just happened because the day was warm and a milling horse is a comforting sound for people who like the sort of thing.

Maitlda is fifteen hundred pounds of pure love, but I tensed as she walked over to me and shifted around on her giant feet beside where Sarah and I sat. Matilda sniffed my hair and snuffled my shirt. She did the same to Sarah. And then she just stood with us, the big arc of her neck covering us in safety. We hung out in the arena for a very long time.

Matilda chose to be with us. Call that join up, bonding, clicking . . . whatever suits your discipline. In the words of Jayne Stewart, the big mare said “I see you.” And for once, Sarah and I said, “We see you back.” Matilda didn’t join us as a result of force. She came to us because she made a choice. How can we create a training environment where the horse can have a say in the partnership? By asking this question, I’m not advocating the absence of training or the dissolution of disciplines. I’m saying that maybe, just maybe, we should spend a little time exploring the world from their point of view before we ask them to step up a level or raise the jump.

That moment took the resentment out of my work. Whenever one of the staff called in sick, I started taking the time to enjoy filling buckets as the horses explored me with wet lips. I felt their joy at feeding time. Eat, drink, wander, togetherness. That’s what they are about.

But we all have to work. In order for me to share my life with horses and for the horses to share their lives with me, we have to be in this thing together. We can’t create a utopia where the wild horses roam free on the plains. Our world is too small for this and we humans tend to forget that every member of the herd has a purpose.

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Matilda’s training shifted after that moment in the ring. Her shoulders were still unruly, but the way she moved into the shedding blade for a scratch changed the tone of her lateral work. The steps back she took when asked to make room for a feed bucket developed into a backing under saddle. Knowing where her hind legs were improved the quality of her halt. Awareness. A dance. We finally figured out where ground work and riding merged. I wish I could find words to describe where that joining place is, but it’s as mysterious as hormones. It just is. And just when we’ve put our fingers on it, the connection recedes. So we have to keep looking for it, over and over, every time we step in the stirrup.

Sometimes life forces us to be still, as Sarah learned through recovery after injuries this year. Some of our best ideas were spawned in her convalescence. It’s a balance: work, stillness, pressure, release.

One of my favorite exercise for riders of all ages is to lead them around the arena as they sit in the saddle and close their eyes. What are they feeling? What is happening underneath them? What are they experiencing? Our minds become still when we’re forced to listen. I’ve never led someone around on a glorified, blindfolded pony ride that didn’t end in a deep breath and smile from all parties. You know that cool down breath your horse gives you? That one.

Sometimes we, riders and instructors alike, need to just shut up and listen.

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Always forward, never back.

It is never too late to be a working student.

For my fortieth birthday, I bought a new truck and I set out on a mission. Horses are my life, my career and my passion, but even though I teach people to ride every single day, I haven’t ridden for fun in nearly a decade.

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A neighborhood methamphetamine user put a slight damper on my plans by assaulting me in his vehicle (I outran him in my new truck), but by mid-summer I was making a weekly sojourn to Seneca to get myself back on a horse.

The first few weeks were touch and go with me frantically texting our barn staff from one of many convenience stores along the side of the road in Pickens county.

“I should turn around and come home.”

“Think of baby cows, the woods, the fields, the green grass. You’ve got this,” Sarah and Sara texted in unison.

“I should really come home,” — something could colic, the hay delivery could be late, the well pump might break, the entire power grid of northern Greenville Co. could go out, there could be civil war; we should become preppers.

It had been years since I left the farm for anything other than a routine errand or an emergency trip. I always left for a reason. I couldn’t think of a reason to be anywhere when I was sitting on gas station curb near lake Keowee. The sunlight glinting off the water wasn’t soothing. I tried to breathe. These trips were for me. They weren’t for business. I’d been working so long I’d forgotten how to live.

“Maybe I should turn around,” I wrote the cowboy. “I’m stuck.”

“Put it in four wheel drive,” he said.

“I think I’ll come home.”

“Try once to go forward,” Maggy texted. “You know where you’re going, remember? Remember the horse you ride, remember what you tell us: forward is better than standing still and safer than backward. However, if it is not a good day, that’s ok too. But just try to go forward. You know it works and it’s safe.”

Safe. The word wouldn’t leave me. My safety zone was a ten mile radius around the horse farm we called home. I’d encountered anything but “safe” in the years I spent as an active rider. What did safe even mean? I couldn’t answer that question but I was sick of living as if safe was a destination I could discover if someone would hand me the right map. I had to drive forward and find a new meaning.

So I went. My soundtrack for these weekly trips was Sarah Jarosz, who recently made a stop at the Peace Center in Greenville. Her song, “Dark Road”, became my anthem:

Miraculously, I picked myself up from the curb, put the truck in drive and placed my foot in the stirrup.

Endless loops against the wall of a round pen I rediscovered the four-beat cadence of the walk. My body remembered what my mind had forgotten: I was home. I was okay. I was moving. I was safe in the face of uncertainty. I forgot the what if’s and the questions and just surrendered myself to the little dun horse that was assigned the task of baby-sitting my first movements back in the saddle. The saddle was western but my legs were jacked up to an English length. I crammed my heels down and breathed and pressed until the pressure created response. I kept moving forward.

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I’d journal after every ride and stare quizzically at a page that was filled with short sentences. In this new journey, I’d lost the need for lengthy description, run-on sentences. I didn’t feel the need to explain myself. That was the first step in this journey.

About three rides in, the cowboy suggested we leave the safety of the fences and venture out through the fields and woods. I knew instinctively that if I rode far enough I would always find a fence, but I craved my comfort zone of round pen and paddock. I made it as far as the gate and this is pretty much how it went:

Me: No.
Cowboy: Get on the horse.
Me: No.
Cowboy: It’s just a trail ride, Kim.
Me: No.
Cowboy: You’ll be safe.
Me: NO.

I stamped my foot. “No. I bought a truck to start coming here and I made it, even though I was scared. The world has not fallen apart in my absence, but I haven’t been eating well and I haven’t been sleeping well and I’m trying to work through something here. I’m not ready for the woods.”

The cowboy motioned for me to give him my rein.

I stared at the little dun horse and the rein in my hand and I thought about what Maggy said about going forward.

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I handed the rein over.

The late July fields were green and there was a coolness to the woods and streams that promised relief from the thousand hounds of life that press us to always be doing and doing and doing. I followed the lead of the horse in front of me and put one foot in front of the other until my hips recalled the memory of the walk. The cowboy gave me my rein back.

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I have to document this journey. It’s never to late to be a working student. When we arrived back to the barn after the trail ride, I picked up a rope. I’ve worked around horses my entire life but have never tried roping. I thought about all those great teachers who always preached the value of being an eternal student: always forward, never back. On the drive back to my farm, I called all the mentors and trainers I’d lost touch with along the way.

“Teach me, let me watch you. Show me all the things I was never ready to learn,” I said.

And this is where my story starts.

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Arts Incubator

Sara Bouvier reading the first chapter of Khora.

Sara Bouvier reading the first chapter of Khora.

Something long overdue is happening in the stage light of the Greenville, SC arts scene. With Shea Bahnsen at the helm, the Dark Room Theatre Company’s inaugural events signal a shift from the arts as insulated disciplines, defined by tradition, to multi-mode collaborations. Missy Vaughan Kleppel, an actor and local theater teacher, has taken the project under her wing in the hopes of reproducing the safe, fertile environment she encountered while a student at Sarah Lawrence College where writers, actors, musicians and visual artists and were encouraged to create together.

The Dark Room Theatre Company is an arts incubator.

When presented with an opportunity to get my words out, it is my long-held belief that writers should tempt/coerce/bribe trustworthy actors to read their stuff. Writers prefer quiet corners and have a historical tendency to flee at a moment’s notice. I, personally, jump out of my skin if I see a weird shadow pass out of the corner of my eye. It only makes sense to employ the skill of an actor such as Sara Bouvier who has been performing and stage managing in the Greenville area since the age of twelve.

Sara literally jogged into our farm on a July Fourth several years ago and we decided to keep her. She’s a part of our staff, working tirelessly every week night to be certain all the horses are standing on all hooves and satiated, safe for the night. She tucks us in. When the hay is all thrown and the light switches are off in the barn, Sara graciously gives me even more of her time by being a first-reader for my fiction, helping me work through plot and characterization and the thousand questions that come from the insulated neurosis of a writer’s brain.

As an aside, Sara was recently going through her shelf and found a literary journal that I had edited almost twenty years ago.  We were supposed to meet.

So, when Shea and Missy asked if I would give a reading of my work for their Words and Sounds event I immediately signed Sara up for the task.  The evening included a selection of creative non-fiction by Jeff Levine along with the musical talents of: M. Lookwood Porter, Annie the Healer, and John Moreland.

Image by Shea Brahnsen

Image by Shea Brahnsen

We decided on the first chapter of my novel, Khora. Working with Sara in preparation for the reading was transformative to the editorial process of the work.  The story takes place in several locations: Istanbul, a small town in the mountains of NC, Russia.  Places become characters, as much as the characters who come from many places.  At its heart, the story is a mystery focusing on a missing work of art, a Byzantine icon, but as the characters — all outsiders who have suffered great losses — come together, they discover a community of outsiders and through it, many kinds of redemption, not always black and white.

Art needs community.

“Who’s your narrator,” Sara asked, and I realized that, although the story is written in third-person, I hadn’t defined who is chronicling the events as they unfold.

When I finally answered that question, Sara’s voice changed as she worked through the excerpt, as she absorbed the personality and nuance of the character relating the scene. This was art taken outside of its bubble of creation, art as a collaborative vocation, and far different from when Sara and I just tossed around ideas in the wee hours of the night (when not chasing off intruders, but that’s a story for another day).  We were making the story fit for the light of day.

This is how the story begins:

Two crosses, equidistant, a foot in diameter, flanked the altar of St. Anthony’s Church in Beyoglu, Istanbul.  The pews were tall and cumbersome, the benches too short for kneeling and the bones of Thomas’ knees too prominent to genuflect for any length of time.  The air smelled like wet wax and stale, whispered breath. Thomas stared at the flanking crosses for so long they merged together in the center of the chancel to form one cross:  proportionate, perfect, a compass of symmetry representing the four corners, as if time were a sextant and the intersection of the coordinates the center of the map.

Earlier that year he could not find a Byzantine cross anywhere in Istanbul, but as winter gave way to spring, he began to see them everywhere: in the crossroads of the narrow street beneath his apartment window, in the form of the basilicas, chains jeweled by tawdry stones in the windows of the specialty shops, in the merging of the jet streams high above the smog.  He believed he would find crosses in the currents of the Bosporus Strait, if only his sight was clear enough to gauge the movements of the water.

Thomas was in the business of finding the intersection of fact and myth. The city of Istanbul was a little bit of both, always changing like the seaside weather, one minute cloudy the next a shadow cast by the sun: a city divided by continents. Thomas knew that if he sat still long enough, the correct signs would find him.

I wrote the opening one grey, February afternoon in Istanbul because I needed something to do; I needed to occupy my hands.  An old friend was flying in that evening after an extended stay in Afghanistan and the character of Thomas was a way to pass the time, to chronicle my trip.  I picked the story back up when it was time to reconcile my recollection of Istanbul, a city that stores so much mystery and trauma for me, with the essential character the place had became in my head.  The novel grew from perception and heartbreak, a way to test memory, remove my blinders: a fixed point in an uncertain world.

“Is writing a compulsion,” Missy asked during a Q&A session with the authors after the reading.

It’s a safe compulsion, healthier than checking the light switches eight times before I close the barn for the evening, but my actor, my first reader, my Sara, acknowledges the compulsion and keeps me on track.  We all need someone that says, “What happens next?”

This is the sort of work that Shea and Missy are doing with the Dark Room Theatre Company.  Imagine if we all had that safe place to create, explore and produce our art, whatever that art might be.

Dark Room is temporarily located at The Wheel in Greenville’s Pendleton arts district.  They’ll be moving to a permanent location in the near future.  Until then, mark your calendars to join them Saturday, June 7th at 7:00 pm for a theatrical fundraiser: Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening and Other Plays by Don Nigro. “A night of dark, beautiful, intense monologues” starring Hannah Smith, Libby Ricardo, Shea Bahnsen, directed by Missy Vaughan Kleppel.

photo by Eric Kleppel

photo by Eric Kleppel

 

Words and Sounds: The Dark Room Theatre Company. Photo by Missy Vaughan Kleppel.

Words and Sounds: The Dark Room Theatre Company. Photo by Missy Vaughan Kleppel.