A. You’ve fallen down a hole so deep, you’re standing at rock bottom. That’s assuming of course, that you are still standing. You tried to climb out, but scaling the sides seems impossible from such a low standpoint, and each superhuman effort barely makes a foothold before sliding back again. You continue trying to scale the walls, getting more frustrated and more demoralised until you give up trying and instead, find diversions that stop you noticing where you are. Each time the walls come into peripheral vision you think about ‘something nice’. Then you cry, because the nice somethings are just thoughts; they aren’t tangible and they don’t last.
Doing the same thing repeatedly is comforting. You don’t have to face a new set of problems because you’re stuck in the ones you already have, but Rational You knows it’s pointless; you never get a different answer. If you cared to think (which at this moment you cannot) you would realise doing the same thing repeatedly is what tripped you up. Nothing used to faze you. You were so busy being strong for your family, strong for your animals, and strong for the entire human race, because strong women are strong and busy. So busy, you never noticed the straw that broke the camel’s back until it broke yours too. Did the hole open up and swallow you both, in one massive gulp, belching out the camel as you tumbled free-fall down its steep sides? Has the weight of the camel landed on top of you? He’s a heavy beast to shift, and an unwilling participant in anything that involves action. But you’ve probably already discovered that.
Perhaps the slippery slope got so slippery your footing simply disappeared; you didn’t have a chance to stay upright did you? Down you went like a luge in a speed competition, and yes, you won! Congratulations, you beat the camel by a mile.
Or was your downfall the one that gets us all eventually; the stealth of years quietly tugging at your ankles, until every step rolled into a ball and chain. And one day the ball and chain said no. No more. Not. One. Step.”
When I’ve been on chemotherapy my world sits in two dimensions; cognitive thought and complete arse-about-face mental mayhem where my brain can’t function and things don’t make sense. It took my horse to point this out by politely, but completely, ignoring the miasma of confusion that is ‘chemo me’, and retreating into a safer world of his own. Luckily, my husband has learnt to manage chemo-brain-on-steroids, although I’m sure his safer world also provides a welcome respite.
During a chemo break, Stacey asked me if I wrote down my coping strategies. When Stacey drops something into the conversation, I’ve learnt to sit up and take notice, and writing how I got out of various predicaments proved invaluable. When my whereabouts on the mental map were obscure, or finding the way home was difficult, someone just like me had written an exit route in plain English. So yes, I’ve been in a hole; not like yours because holes are tailor-made, but I know what its like down there. I know what its like to focus on how strong you are, and say a little mantra to reinforce superhuman powers, but discover superhuman powers are distant memories, and strength no longer belongs in the present tense.
So, if you don’t like where you are, what is there to lose? At least a change of scenery would distract you for a moment, which your current thoughts do not. But how do you do it? Well, we (because you’re not alone in this) do it one frigging step at a time and the first step is to recognise where you are. In a hole. Yes, actually LOOK at those walls, FEEL that oppression, and breathe in the stale air. Wallow. Stop trying not to think about it because it needs such complete saturation that even with your eyes firmly shut, you know you are down a hole. Miserable isn’t it? You would not even want your dog to live there would you? (Your cat would have left long ago) and yet you’ve been dwelling in this hole for so long, you’ve ceased to notice how inhospitable it’s become. It is uncomfortable, cold, the layout no longer works for your needs, and the décor is so eighties it looks positively retro.
Decide today if you want to stay there and if the answer is Yes, that’s absolutely fine. You need your hole, you need to hide a little longer and recover in peace. Décor and damp do not bother you right now, you have a snugly blanket, and your dog will be forever loyal. When you’re ready, you’ll know. However, if you want a change, then decide its time to re-decorate, and you hate the smell of new paint so maybe consider moving out for a while? If life on the outside gets too hectic you can use the space as a holiday hole, so choose the colours carefully and leave the snugly blanket behind for another day. You never know . . .
Stand up tall on tippy toe, step on the large rock that forms rock bottom and open your eyes; you can just see some light at the top of the hole. They call it ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ and I promise you it’s not the light of another train hurtling down the track. It’s real honest clean light, and that’s where we’re heading. The next step is to take your notebook, and write everything you achieve in one day. Even if it’s something you wouldn’t previously have countenanced as achievement, it deserves noting. Even if it you don’t consider it worth the pencil lead, WRITE IT DOWN. You can’t be trusted to judge accurately what is and what isn’t, so trust me when I say everything you do is an achievement, and you can find plenty to achieve even when you’re in a hole; cleaning your fingernails, being nice to spiders and laughing at yourself. Three achievements for free before you’ve even started.
Your notebook is filling quickly, you didn’t realise you achieved so much in one day did you? You were so busy distracting yourself from your predicament, you didn’t notice anything except the predicament. The next step is to focus on now. We’re going to consign the past to where it belongs, in the past (the clue is in the name). No more penance because you can’t change it. Like everyone else, you’re far from perfect and things probably never happened how you remember they did. Nor can you control the future because you are not omnipotent, so stop trying because like worrying, it’s a waste of energy. Instead, use that energy making the present interesting; happiness is not a given, but interesting is something you can create from scraps. Now is a probably good time to mention the voices in your head, the ones that keep shouting at you. Did you know that if you stop listening, they stop talking?
Notice things; notice your breathing. I am breathing in, I am breathing out. I am doing it all over again. In and out. Nothing fancy schmancy, nothing structured or yogic, just plain old breathing which you’ve been doing ever since you were born, but might not have noticed. Breathing is your new go-to tool. Every time you need a moment to process something, relief from a rising panic attack, fluttering thoughts, just breathe. It’s simple it’s free and you already know how to do it. No brainer huh? Oh, and did I mention you’ll climb out of the hole on your breath?
Now you’re recognising achievements and breathing, you’ve stood up and stretched, you’ve seen the light, you’re part of today instead of somewhere else, the voices have stopped chattering so loudly, and you’ve made a decision that you don’t like your current surroundings (don’t forget to write down these achievements). You’ll leave this day. I don’t advocate packing a bag, everything you have down there can stay there. Just like Vegas, what happens in the hole stays in the hole. So, you breathe in. Just in, that’s all, and on the out breath you take a step forward, a normal everyday step. Breathe in again, and on the next out breath, you take a step upward. Forward, upward, in and out. It has its own rhythm doesn’t it? You might feel a bit lightheaded with all the breathing, so any time you want to rest you rest, and if you feel a bit emotional and want to cry you cry, and don’t forget that anytime you want to laugh and smile, you do that too. Forward, upward, in and out, until gradually the light gets brighter. Forward, upward, in and out until your steps get lighter. Forward, upward, in and out, don’t look back. Forward, upward, in and out and you’re at the top.
And what you do now is up to you, but remember, today you accepted help to get out of the hole, and accepting help is the biggest achievement of your life so far. Write it down before you forget.
I’ve gained much horse knowledge and human support since Anna Blake opened the doors of her Relaxed & Forward Barn. I was very anti on-line horse groups because of the bitching and showboating that goes on, and shy about airing my dirty horse laundry in public, but I soon discovered most horse laundry has the same stains and the same whiff of human failings, no matter which continent it is on. The like-minded people in the Barn don’t include force in the same sentence as horse, and are humbled by what their horses choose to give them; I found my tribe. Anna’s training methods are always unique, and last week she suggested dancing with our horse as a way to be more interesting, lift our spirits, and see calming signals as the horse processed this different ‘us’. Barn members have posted videos of themselves in rhythmic sways, and while many horses watched with a mixture of awe and disdain, quite a few joined in the dance. Loving a challenge and accustomed to making a fool of myself, I decided to have a go.
Nothing worth doing is ever plain sailing. The dancing drawbacks were obvious but not insurmountable; I don’t have a playlist on my phone, or access to make music at the stables so the only alternative was to sing as I danced. However, I am profoundly tone-deaf and cannot carry a tune, and the last time I sang aloud, in church on Christmas Eve, the entire congregation cringed at my caterwauling rendition of Away in a Manger. Even the ancient church organ, creaking its way through malfunctioning chords sounded more tuneful (and quieter) than me.
My dancing partner Bruce oozes charm and gentlemanly manners, and has the countenance of Cary Grant in his heyday (although Bruce is a little more rotund in the girth area), but I wasn’t sure my music choice would be to Bruce’s taste. His reaction would be very interesting! I was also unsure if my creaking joints would be able to dance, but at the very least, I would sing and sway. The only video I have is on my phone, and the star of the show was the underside of my chin if I filmed and danced simultaneously. Inflicting my singing (I use the term loosely) on another human as they filmed would be mental cruelty, so the only solution was to write about it.
Getting up especially early is easier now the mornings are light. I had a quick cup of tea, and when I went out to the truck, the mist was just rising, bathing the countryside in calm. I was at the stableyard before anyone else arrived, and found Bruce still asleep in bed. He scrambled to his feet and whickered a quiet, personal greeting. I brushed the bed-shavings from his coat with my hands and picked out his feet with the hoofpick; knowing the picking order by rote he lifted each foot in turn. I presented his halter and waited as he began his routine, first putting the noseband in his mouth, rattling the buckle in his teeth, chewing the rope, and then having a brief think before dropping his head for me to put the headband over his ears. This routine is one of the remaining habits of his anxious past, and I feel he’s entitled to the comfort if it helps.
I led Bruce out of his stable, down the concrete path into the arena. He stood as I shut the gate and took off his halter, but looked confused as I stepped away from him. Finding comfort again in routine, he turned and walked along the arena fenceline as if we were warming up together. At the top corner, he changed direction across the diagonal and came to a square halt at the centre, flapping his lips together loudly while he questioned why things were different. This was my cue. I told him he was a good boy and asked if he would like to dance? His ears flicked back and forth; good boy he recognised, but dance was not a common word in his vocabulary. I walked to the fence, mimed the action of lifting the top of my imaginary record player, selected three 45rpm vinyl records (remember them?) and placed them on the central stacker arm. I turned the imaginary ‘on’ switch, placed the stylus on the first record and replaced the lid. Ever hopeful this action might be food prep, Bruce moved close behind me, breathing hotly in one ear. I told him again how good he was, and gently ushered him a few steps back so we had more room. Then, being careful not to face him directly, I started singing.
“Lets Twist Again, like we did last summer dum de dum de dum lets twist again woo hoo like we did last yeeeeear” and as I launched into my best Chubby Checker moves, Bruce leapt in the air, let out a huge buck and an even huger fart and flew round the arena, prancing and dancing along with words. “Up and down and round and round we goooooo again” I sang, clapping and dancing and laughing, “YEAAAAAAAHHH lets twist again, twisting time is here. . .” I got low to the ground and was really rocking when Bruce stopped, pawed the ground and as his knees crumpled he flopped down with a huge exhale, rolled over to one side, then rolled all the way back over to the other side and waved his legs in the air as I danced round him. He got up, shook hard twice from head to toe, as I told him what a very good boy he was. I think he liked Chubby Checker.
Before the second record started up, I sat on the ground for a breather. Bruce stood over me with his nose on my shoulder; he’d stood like that when I fell off him, and I don’t think he liked seeing me in this unfamiliar position. Our second number was Gladys Knight’s Midnight Train to Georgia. I stood up and took Gladys’s imaginary microphone and bah bah bahhhhdd the intro as tunefully as I could (it sounded okay to me), singing aloud while Bruce stood a few feet away looking at the ground. He raised his head as I did the Pip movements, moving sideways and spinning round just like they do “sooper star but he didn’t get far” and he was quite interested in choo-choo-train arms chugging away. “Dreams don’t always come true. . .” I sang “oooh oooh I’d rather live in his world than without him in mine. . .oh, I gotta be with him. . . his world my world our world my man, his girl.” Bruce was now standing by the fence thoughtfully chewing a blade of grass and watching me while detaching from the action. The Pips did one last synchronised turn and Gladys did one final flourish before bowing graciously and leaving the stage. Phew! It was exhausting!
People were starting to arrive at the stables to do their horses, and I although I wasn’t entirely sure how Bruce felt, I’d had a really good time. I decided the last record would wait for another day and in the spirit of continuity, I walked back to the record player and switched it off. Then I sat down on the mounting block with my back resting against a fencepost so Bruce could re-acquaint himself with ‘normal’ me. It had been such fun!
Afterwards, I noticed Bruce watched me more intently. He thrives on routine and habit, and I had a niggling feeling dancing in the arena had given him an anxious situation rather than a good experience. A week later, I was mucking his field, and as I pushed the barrow from one poop to the next, I began humming The Harlem Shuffle, which was our third record. No-one was around, so the humming turned into a low song, and then, wheeling the barrow to and fro, I moooooved it to the left and moooooooved it to the right. . .and shuffled up and down the paddock, sliiiiiiding to the left and going low as I continued poop-scooping. Bruce loved this! We grooved it right yeah yeah, we did the monkey shine, we hitchedhiked baby across the floor, and whoa whoa whoa we couldn’t stand it no more! When we got to ride ride ride little pony ride, he really did shake like a tailfeather baby, and we ran round the field together shaking and shuffling until I landed in a heap on the barrow because I couldn’t breath anymore, and Bruce was snorting and puffing, all big eyes and flared nostrils. Now I know he’d had fun! Spontaneity worked better than fixed ideas.
Dancing with horses definitely lightens any mood. Bruce gets apprehensive in the arena about being unable to do something he’s asked, so a gradual introduction would have been better. Dancing in the field ‘just because the mood took us’ was completely different because we were both relaxed and it didn’t feel like a training exercise. We just goofed around in that special way partners do when no-one is watching. And I guess that’s what dancing is all about. Being partners.
What I call honesty, you feel is tactless. What you call caring I say is control. And one woman’s fabulous-dahling taupe is another woman’s plain old mushroom. Where do we find common ground, why can’t we agree, and what is the answer?
Each week during construction, I read my blog post out loud to Mark. The difference between reading on the screen and saying words aloud is profound; try it and you’ll understand. After I read him last week’s post he quietly commented, “and where was I in all this?”
“Well. . .you were there” I replied a tad defensively.
“Yes” he said. “I was there. A horse, a HUSBAND and cancer. . .remember?” I re-read it and he was absolutely correct. I had obliterated him from the picture, assuming everyone would know he was by my side, making things happen and loving me, because he is as much a part of me as life itself. But from Mark’s perspective you didn’t already know that.
Then I had a brainwave. I would re-write the post from his point of view by thinking how he thought and giving those thoughts a voice. It wasn’t an easy exercise, and as I set to work, I realised being with someone for thirty years does not mean you know very much about them at all. I translated Elaine into Mark and got something back that was neither; I got it completely utterly up-sh*t-creek-without-a-paddle wrong.
I love writing my blog and your reciprocal comments have boosted my confidence, and pushed me into taking writing more seriously than I anticipated. Ego is a strange thing; when common sense screams NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO ego smiles its sly little smile, claps with glee and says oh yes, yes yes YES, and I became mere putty in its hands. Without considering the content realistically, I read aloud what I was writing about Mark. To Mark. And his perspective was not as mine. Pride cometh before a fall? Never have I fallen so far, so fast, and without a handrail in sight.
Perspective is borne of upbringing, experience and personality. Internet trolls and political fundamentalism are an outcome of free speech, but like everything else we humans do, we flout the boundaries of respect. However, respect is only a perspective. We all have different starting points so it’s not a competitive sport; all we can offer is our interpretation. It’s another of those intangibles, but this week I have learned that to understand someone else’s perspective, mine needs a lot less ego and a lot more flexibility. Life. A learning curve or what?
Ever since I began buying and selling antiques in the mid seventies, it’s been part of my life and not just a job. The hard beauty of visual things that shout ‘look at me’ are easy to appreciate, but my heart belongs to tactile treasures that want to be touched and felt. The words Faded Grandeur are my muse and my favourite items are those showing signs of having lived a life. If the choice was a between a skilfully and needfully darned silk stocking, and a collectable porcelain dish, the tat would win every time. I specialise in selling antique and vintage fabrics, quirky fashion and timeworn home accessories to my girlie customers, and at the other end of the scale I cannot resist the lure of architectural pieces; weathered garden stoneware, ironwork with original chippy paint. . .you get the picture. We once sold two rustic beehives to the set designers on a Harry Potter movie!
Over the years, I had bricks-and-mortar shops, but mostly sold at large London antique markets. Antique dealing is a tough game, full of knocks and surprises and the need to think quickly, but most of all, it’s full of very early morning starts, and bleary eyes were the norm! My buyers were mainly London dealers finding things to tempt their own customers, and Americans and Japanese on overseas buying jaunts. Being able to source items at home here in Dorset, and make occasional trips from our local ferry port to the French brocantes, meant I always had fresh stock to bring to market. As cancer came and went, business-breaks were unavoidable. Surgery often meant it was enough that I simply survived the day, but recuperation brought the benefit of time to potter about, re-framing old pictures, repairing needlework and turning unloved scraps of cloth into patchwork covers. Chemotherapy dictated energy levels, but good days meant a trip to the local fleamarket was still possible, and buying a few pieces to re-sell gave me back the sense of normality that illness loves to eliminate. My horse and my work have always provided stability; the two things that need attention every day and allow respite from the chattering voice of cancer.
One Tuesday in September the bottom fell out of the world as two towers crashed to the ground. We all know how we felt that day; we may have forgotten what we did and said, but how we felt will remain forever. The only certainty was uncertainty, and we plodded through each new day failing to process the calamitous crescendo of events. Trying to earn a living in such circumstances seemed an obscene triviality; overseas buyers had stopped travelling so my business simply stopped. I had plenty of stock but with no buyers coming to us, I took a leap of faith and went to them; I switched my business on-line to the newly created UK eBay. I must mention here that I’d never touched a computer, so I asked a savvy friend to buy me the set-up and then I taught myself how to use it; my first hurdle was to find the ON switch!
I had recently bought a stack of early 1900s postcards, and in honour of my favourite, an old Steiff teddy bear with his toy bunny friend, we used the eBay ID Ted and Bunny as a trading name. eBay proved incredible, and I spent days glued to the computer in a cycle of photographing, listing, packing and shipping my inventory. There were only a few of us selling vintage fabrics in those days, and I’m still in touch with my early compatriots. Life had changed, my favoured workwear was now pyjamas, and my jetlagged appearance was less from driving miles on the motorway to antique fairs, and more from late nights celebrating auctions finishing. For me, an unexpected bonus of selling on the internet was that as cancer diagnoses and treatment came and went, I could continue working as best I could, no-one ever knew, and I could bury my feelings in work, obliterating worries and fears with the rhythm of writing item descriptions.
Next to the rural church and farm shop behind our house is a very picturesque village hall, which was originally a pre WW1 scout hut. Driving past it each day on the Post Office run, I mused what a wonderful venue it make to hold a vintage fair. In the middle of the night (when all my best ideas happen), I thought of the title Vintage at the Village Hall, and we all know that once you have a name, you have a project; the next morning Fab Fairs was born and I started a new career as an events organiser. Later that afternoon as Mark and I stood inside the village hall, I visualised creating the fair I would most want to sell at, with carefully curated wares providing a cross-section of vintage and antique finds, together with contemporary crafts from artisan designer-makers. Everything must be affordable, the sellers must be people who would interact with the public, and there would be an old-fashioned tearoom with mismatched vintage chinaware and homebaked cakes. I’d sold at enough fairs to know the highs and pitfalls, and if I built it I knew They Would Come. The only hiccup was that the hall was booked for events every Saturday. No problem, I would hold the fair on a Monday; it was an unheard-of idea but hey, why not?
My first task was a publicity blog to tempt sellers and buyers. At that time, there was a real blogspot family of vintage traders, with everyone sharing posts and links to each other’s businesses, and the response was amazing. Then I sent press releases to the local papers, and spent weeks visiting local businesses with printed flyers. As the blog grew I moved it to facebook, which I felt was more accessible, and gave a mention to everyone who helped us by taking flyers, displaying posters etc. It was a hard slog and I made it up as I went along, but I loved it and the fairs we held at the village hall were legendary. We decked the hall in flags and bunting so it looked like a Victory party in wartime England, and buyers who arrived to queue an hour before opening were given free cups of hot tea. Traffic queues formed two miles along the road, stalls sold out of wares, and my homebaked lavender muffins were an instant hit. A local newspaper reporter came to take photos, but couldn’t fight through the throngs of people, so I had to email him photos the next day! My dream came true, but eventually and with much sadness, we outgrew the premises; I had a huge waiting list of potential stallholders, visitor parking was a nightmare and it was time to find a bigger venue.
Our nearby Georgian town of Blandford Forum has a splendidly large Corn Exchange building, steeped in the history of historical gatherings. We had space for fifty stalls, and we moved the Monday fair there with seamless success. Oh, how that building loved the bustle, the glamour and the spectacle of antique beauty; it literally absorbed the heady atmosphere and shone with renewed purpose. I enlisted help from all the local shops to advertise and promote the event; there were banners, posters and flyers displayed everywhere! In return, I said I would get out-of-town buyers to visit the shops, and we disbanded our own tearoom so people would filter out to the town coffee houses. They truly were glory days and I wish I could still be living them but alas, stage 4 cancer arrived and once again, business stopped. I ran the final fair while having radiotherapy on my neck, because I didn’t want to disappoint everyone by cancelling, but it was a silly thing to do and once the adreline dropped so did I! In the spirit of giving, I packaged the fair, detailed the day-by-day process and bequeathed it to an interested friend, along with introductions to journalists, online sites and other fair organisers with whom I worked so well. She said it was too much work, and discarded my gift with disdain. Bittersweet memories.
These days I still buy and sell within restrained boundaries. I have an Etsy shop to serve my distant contacts, and a little bricks-and-mortar Vintage Barn shop, set in the grounds of a country Garden Centre adjoining the stunning Cranborne Manor House, ten miles from home.
I’ve never been very keen on facebook; I have friends whom I talk with, and see, and I like them without the constant need to give a thumbs-up. A facebook profile has always been useful for business contacts, but (this blog aside) I’m not a show-and-tell person. Back in the days of the Village Hall blog, I came across someone who mentioned Anna Blake’s training, and Anna was one of the first fb pages I followed. From devouring every word she published, I jumped at the chance to join Anna’s fledgling writing group; I’ve always enjoyed writing, it was my best subject at school (despite horses being my only topic) and I’d loved composing the business blog and publicity copy. What I hadn’t realised is how liberating writing can be, how it aids processing and clarifying a busy mind. Anna and the writing group bore the brunt of my gruesomely cathartic prose with patience and encouragement, as I gradually found a way to express myself that was less brutal on the reader. And here I am, some years later, confident enough to share my experiences in a weekly blog, without sacrificing my integrity for the drama that is cancer. You see, cancer has interrupted me for too long so it is important now that I speak directly, and not let the disease shout me down; we all want to be heard, but this is my voice.
All cancer treatments have side effects, and my current meds are no exception; I try to think of it as a yin-yang thing. This time round I get to keep my hair, but I have debilitating muscle fatigue, inflammation of the blood vessels. . .and constipation.
You do not often see Writing and Constipation mentioned in the same sentence, but this week, I’ve been suffering blockages at both ends.
“Prunes” you suggest, with a knowing nod.
“Strong coffee” you recommend, with a wry smile.
Orange juice, spinach juice, warm baths, warm water, Epsom Salts, Himalayan Salts; you name them I’ve tried them. Everyone has a constipation solver that works for them, but soaking in warm salts whilst sipping warm spinach juice takes the clean eating trend to extreme lows, and I beg you not to try it. Fibre has become my middle name; stuffed with so much roughage, I have forgotten the taste of smoothage.
I have also forgotten how it feels to write. The title Constipated Writing seemed amusing on Sunday, but has lost its allure by Tuesday when nothing flows and the laptop screen remains stubbornly blank. I forget about ‘flow’ and settle for a word. Alas, a word is still too much, so I type a capital letter followed by a comma and look for hidden meaning, but all I see is the blank paper staring back at me.
In search of ideas, I go for a walk and in a show of solidarity, the cat trots alongside. He has writing inspiration in abundance, and tummy tickles are all he asks in return for sharing. I sit on the grass, he lays on his back in the sunshine and as I tickle, he gradually seeps into endorphin oblivion, with a purr reverberating deep in his throat and a drool of pleasure dribbling down his chin. He tells me nothing, except to never believe a philanthropic cat.
Next stop is Bruce. The wise old horse has the answer to most problems, and while they sometimes take a bit of translating, I’ve learnt that a single ear twitch is worth a thousand words. He is in his field feasting on spring grass, and eyes me with equine insouciance. I perch on the edge of the water trough waiting for his attention, so I can begin the dialogue. I’ve obviously picked the wrong day, because today his dialogue is all about eating, and it takes precedence over anything I might have to say. He makes it abundantly clear he has no wish to engage with a constipated mind, before walking away to continue grazing at the far end of the field.
When I began my blog, I set myself a weekly deadline of Thursday publication. It is now Wednesday and the page remains blank. I’m spending a lot of time doing not much in the bathroom, so I decide to set aside my moral scruples of reading on the toilet, and hoping for writing inspiration, I revisit the classics. It’s not a good idea because the classics are too beautiful to browse, so the next stop is poetry, and favourites ee cummings, Thich Nhat Hahn and Christina Rossetti are prised from the bookshelf. They all have a beautiful rhythm, but still no go. A short, pithy magazine is next. Alas, numbness of thighs and brain (who writes this stuff?) kicks in before inspiration.
While I’m at the bookshelf I come across a copy of ‘Healing Back Pain’ by John Sarno, and remember his theory that physical problems are often protective avoidance of focusing on the real issue. Present life is full of events and decisions way beyond my understanding. Is the inability to release anything physically or creatively a need to keep everything ‘in’ because containment is all I can control? Is constipation less a gut imbalance and more about giving my brain something safer to worry about than what is happening in the real world. Is sharing the truth to a page too painful at this sensitive time?
Now it’s Thursday morning, and I’ve been sitting at the laptop since I woke at 5a.m. These precious early mornings are my writing time, but not today.
When Mark comes down for breakfast, he says “What’s up, you’ve been staring at that screen for days.”
He hands me a cup of tea and waits while I explain everything that’s going on; I’m reluctant to discuss constipation with my husband. By the time I’ve finished the tea he has the whole sorry story.
“Simple” he says. “Write down what you’ve just told me. They’ll all understand because they’re human too, and its okay to be normal. You don’t have to be profound every week, you just have to be you.”
Being honest is one thing, being human is another; or is that just avoidance of being mortal? Either way, so long as things start flowing again, who cares?
You know me well enough to excuse my warped sense of humour; if there was a support group for Poor Humour Addicts, I’d be the leading light.
“My name is Elaine and I find the darkest things funny.”
Alas, it’s a familial trait so I’m both helpless and blameless. My maternal family had genetic cancers and my paternal side had cardiovascular heart disease, so throughout my childhood, relatives dropped like flies, and visiting family homes for Shiva gatherings was a social norm. I became a dab hand at arranging fruit platters and baking kosher biscuits. I also ate of lot of cheesecake. And I mean a LOT. I’m sure it helped the heart disease enormously.
It hasn’t escaped my attention there’s a virus doing the rounds, and in a crisis situation, a sixty-five year old woman with terminal cancer is not going to have much luck in the ventilator lottery. This doesn’t feel as dramatic as it sounds because while I’m in favour of women and children getting first dibs at the lifeboats, I can see the logic that healthier people gain more bucks per breath from mechanically aided living.
The corona explosion has given humanity a glimpse of how a cancer diagnosis feels. Full of shock, awe, disbelief and grief, you can neither see nor think a way around the words tattooed on your eyeballs; I AM GOING TO DIE. Statistics gain new meaning; depending on your situation, you either cling to them for a lifeline or disregard them with contempt. The alien language of diagnosis leaves you as speechless as the prognosis leaves you breathless, and trying to control the engulfing catastrophe is as pointless as panic buying for the apocalypse.
Self Isolation is not unlike chemotherapy, except you get to keep your hair. With an exposed immune system to protect, the norm is staying home, adapting to shrinking boundaries, dodging unsolicited hugs and finding out who your friends are and aren’t. Vulnerability and panic are just feelings, they have their own agenda. My answer is to be exactly where you are, without considering the future or mourning the past.
My only concern is that I didn’t see this coming. In my attempt to organise a painless demise I’ve prepared a hundred good ways to die, and becoming a virus demographic never even made the top forty. Four years ago, I had an appallingly bad reaction to a chemotherapy drug. As I lay in my hospital bed connected to bleeping hardware, I was pleasantly surprised how easy it would be to die; you just had to let go. Letting go of the bad things was simple, and the good things slipped out of reach once you had absorbed them internally. The thing I could not quite manage to do was take my hand off Bruce’s neck. He stayed with me through the long night, supporting me with his horse strength until I was safe. We counted the bleeps on the bedside machine until our breathing became united. You don’t have to ride a horse to be carried by one.
When I left hospital a week later, I stopped all treatment; what cures also kills, and I felt safer with the cancer. After twenty-five years of cancer treatment, I won’t even try to describe the relief of knowing there would be no more drugs, nor the guilt I felt (still feel) for leaving Mark hopeless.
I had a lot of time to think, recuperating in bed at home. As the chemotherapy toxins exited my system, the skin completely peeled off my hands and feet, and I knew I’d made the right decision. When the Macmillan Nurse visited, we made a plan; I didn’t want my heart shocked to oblivion on a hospital bed so I signed a Do Not Resuscitate order. I like being ready. A few weeks later I was out of bed, waving my list of Things That Need Doing Before I Go. There was so much more time in the day without chemotherapy constraints!
Top of the list was my burial and funeral; I didn’t want to leave the organization to Mark, so we made a surreal trip to the nearby Woodland Cemetery. A director greeted us at the door. He had the perfect balance of being businesslike and human, and as he showed us funeral plans, brochures and prices, neither of us felt it was anything but ordinary to discuss my coffin, and sojourn at the mortuary. He took us on a buggy tour of the cemetery, and we chose our burial plots in a section overlooking fields where I have had many beautiful rides. Mark’s burial plot is at the end of the row (to give him a bit more legroom) and I’m next door. We have yet to decide which native trees we will plant. We have never owned land before, so I semi-seriously asked the director if we could make use of the space until we needed it, and perhaps plant some green beans or potatoes. Laughingly, he said that wasn’t allowed, but we were welcome to come and sit on the bench and picnic. Sitting by your own grave eating egg sandwiches might be too morbid even for me.
I’ve chosen the music and orators for my funeral; it’s going to be a sombre affair with a solo violinist playing the Ashakan Farewell. I don’t want brightly clothed mourners and happy-clappy music, because I think funerals are an occasion for grief, and we don’t give ourselves many other chances to express that as succinctly as we do at a graveside. On my last journey from home to the burial ground I want to travel in the back of the pick-up truck (which Mark isn’t keen on) or in a horse and cart. Not a posh glass coach with plumed horses, just a plain old cart like the one in which Captain Troy brought Fanny Robin home, in the 1967 (best) film of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. The only problem is, I’ve chosen a wickerwork coffin and I’m not sure what happens if it rains. Do they wrap me in plastic?
Take it from me that planning and paying for your own funeral is very liberating. In times of immense uncertainty, its good finalise something so final. I had accepted my situation. Mark did not feel the same, but I try very hard not to carry the weight of his burdens too.
Have you ever thought what your last words would be? Probably not, but it might be worth considering. I want to say something profound, something witty that people would repeat with reverence. I would become an internet meme. A greetings card quote. Be immortalised in cross-stitch on an heirloom sampler! But when it comes to it, I’d probably struggle to recall any line I’d previously practised. The drugs would blur cognitive thought, and stop my mouth forming coherent speech. In a last semblance of elegant wit, I’d lift my head, pause and dribble, smile my most enigmatic smile, and Ta Da! just as the room fell silent and all attention was on me, I’d crack out the most enormous fart. How do you embroider that?
A couple of weeks after booking the funeral I started to get restless about dying. Nothing much was happening; the ‘last treats’ had stopped being treats, and eating ice-cream for breakfast quickly loses its allure. Waiting to die was a bit boring. I felt very robust, had an inkling of an idea for a new business venture, and Bruce was looking particularly well in his summer coat. In the early hours of the morning, I began wondering if I’d made the right decision. When I came down for breakfast Mark was sitting on the arm of the sofa looking sombre.
“You okay babe?” I asked, unable to avoid the sorrow in his eyes.
“No,” he replied quietly “I am not”.
I moved his coffee cup to one side and perched on the table opposite him. “Tell me?”
“I don’t feel you’re ready to give up. I don’t think you’ve reached that time yet, and we’re talking ourselves into something that shouldn’t be happening.”
“No, I mean yes” I said. “You’re right, I’m not ready”.
His eyes flicked in surprise as his head did a little double take shake.
“I was thinking about it last night” I continued “and I think maybe its worth one more shot with a different chemo. Dr Chakrabarti said he had something new, we’ll go talk to him.”
Mark and I had reached the same decision separately but together. The oncologist and all the nurses hugged me, and then Mark, when we told them we were back to continue treatment; I think he got huggier hugs than I did. Eribulin was the new chemotherapy drug, it worked, and I stayed on it for three years until I swapped to a specifically targeted treatment nine months ago. I’ve always taken an active part in my treatment, and feeling I have options and a degree of control have served me well. I’m extremely fortunate that my chosen oncologists have treated me, as well as the disease.
Coming off all treatment at that time was the right decision for me. Facing up to the nitty-gritty of death, and knowing I wasn’t ready helped process the reality of living with cancer, and not dying of it. An elective death is no longer a priority, I would rather it was a chance meeting, and I’m in no rush to have the last word.
I am a consummate saleswoman, it’s what I do. I expect it’s another genetic trait I’ve inherited, like curly hair and cancer. I could make a healthy living selling assisted dying packages (payment up front of course) on a commission-only basis, and believe my spiel sufficiently to buy a package for myself. I might even stockpile. I’ve managed to sell myself to myself all these years in a convincing game of smoke and mirrors, so could I also sell myself a life without fear? It was a challenge I could not resist.
Like all horses, Bruce has a strict moral code that does not trust sales pitches. My friend Tessa calls her horse the Truth Serum Horse, which is a perfect title. Bruce shut the door in my face each time I presented myself with a re-invented mask and new set of false dialogue; he knew it was still the same me. Eventually he stopped bothering to answer the door, and pinned a notice on the front window that read ‘come back when you tell the truth’. That horse speaks his mind, he is no schmoozer. In the end, the only resource left was to strike a deal and agree we would both tell the truth. Bruce is a stoic horse and he’d chosen to shut down rather than dump the burden he carried, so it wasn’t easy for him either.
My side of the bargain was that if I didn’t understand something I’d say so, stop pretending, and allow us to work together. I promised I would become my authentic self so that what he saw was what he got, although I had no idea who or what that was. He made no such promises because horses aren’t that needy, but basically we were both going to cut the crap, and I would always listen if he wanted to say something. Living with a horse is like living with a four-legged lie detector, and Bruce was definitely going to tell me if fearlessness became another pretence.
When I started my blog, I posted about how changing narrative helped me cope, so the first step for me was to change fear’s name, and see if that diluted the connotations it evoked. I renamed fear Early Warning System; a positive name for something facilitating a safer life and not an inhibited one.
One of the comments on my previous post about feeling fear, was from Susan who asked “Did you know your fear is afraid as well? Your fear is afraid to stop trying to protect you”. These words really struck a chord with me, because I was a born people-pleaser; my job was to make things better. By fighting it, I’d inadvertently upset my fear and made things worse! Now the dynamic had changed I could be the prime motivator, making amends by helping my fear protect me, because as we all know, it is easier to help someone else, than to help yourself.
Ten years ago when I first had Bruce, I found myself adrift in a minefield of fear and broken dreams. I’d expected my rescue horse to relax and rejoice in his liberation, but misplaced adoration was no substitute for structure. As he took the necessary steps to safeguard himself at all costs, he grew more anxious and bullish and I grew more scared. We were both in a situation we couldn’t handle, and in a misguided struggle to regain the upper hand, I thought false bravado would give me power. I didn’t, but it began the journey towards giving me something much better. Understanding.
Confidence Coach Cathy Sirett had a blog which I began reading, and she wrote about a scale exercise for enabling change. If grade number one is the best, and grade number five is the worst, find what you can do to move one-step back and lower the grade. It was the first time I considered my thoughts unemotionally, and probably the first time I took a breath; it gave me something constructive to do (direction not correction!) This method has worked in many aspects of my life, and I had a brainwave, tried something different and did the scale from my fear’s perspective. Boy, did that hit the spot! My fear didn’t get more anxious as I got more confident, because it WANTED me confident. It wanted to take a backseat and only went into overdrive when it felt unheeded. My Early Warning System simply wanted to protect me, and then it wanted to sit with its feet up and enjoy doing nothing.
As all good horses are wont to do, Bruce led me towards different teaching methods and better insight. How horses do this is one of the great unsolved mysteries of all time. After a life-changing introduction to Kirsty and her Mark Rashid teachings, he deposited me at Anna’s Relaxed & Forward barn in a cloud of dust. My debt to this horse is infinite, not only did he facilitate my momentous personality overhaul; he also gave me two of the deepest and dearest friendships imaginable.
In a transatlantic Messenger chit-chat with another R&F barn member, Kimberley asked me if I thought at our age, fear was the trade-off for wisdom. De-cluttering books always tell us to discard something old when you bring in something new, but I don’t think fearlessness needs to shuffle aside to make room for wisdom. Maybe wisdom arrives so slowly because we’ve been looking for it in the wrong places? Fear is just a feeling, the same as happiness and sorrow, its part of us and I think we need to celebrate that fact. Selling myself a life without fear isn’t the answer, but I would like to live alongside what I now understand is an ally. I am not pretending (to you or myself) that I’ve suddenly become brave or confident. I’m not telling my horse I can do this, because he knows what I can and I can’t do before that information reaches my own brain.
There are no set plans how to deal with fear; it’s a suck-it-and-see situation because what works one day may not work the next. Everything in life changes; right now this is how fear presents itself, this is where I am, and it feels exactly the right place. Mindfulness teaches us not to hang on to feelings good or bad. All we have to do is acknowledge them and let them pass. Something so simple should be easy but we all know it is not. I think working on letting fear go, and not trying to quell it with dominance is the way forward, however difficult that might be. This morning I talked it over with my horse. He was busy doing the important stuff of eating spring grass and scratching his nose, and didn’t say much while I spoke. As I finished my explanation, he lifted his head, flicked his tail and studied me for a good few seconds, with ears pricked forward. Then he went back to eating. I consider that a yes, because this time, the door stayed open.
We all arrive at fear with real and imaginary experiences that are as unique to us as our DNA.
Unlike any other marathon, fear has no common starting-place, no midway point of motivation, and no perceivable end, but if we can gain succour from refreshments offered along the way, we can survive. If we can hear the shouts of encouragement through the deafening cacophony of self-doubt, we have hope. Moreover, if we can accept that our personal best is simply putting one foot in front of the other, we’ll stay the distance, and the absence of a finishing line will become irrelevant.
What are your greatest fears? Mine are incapacitating illness, living without Mark, and I’m fearful when riding my horse. I have not listed them in order of greatness.
Life without Mark is self-explanatory. Being incapacitated means I don’t want to helplessly linger on the edge death; I want to say a quick “Goodbye”, grab my coat, and leave while you still have something bad to say about me.
My most closely guarded secret is that I’m a fearful rider; I could never say riding frightens me, so is there a difference between feeling fearful and frightened, and where do these feelings originate?
I love my horse with all my heart, I love riding, and the joy it brings is like nothing else in the world. Yet, every time I climb into the saddle, all pleasure is obliterated by the voice of fear screaming relentlessly in my head. It tells me I have just signed my own death warrant. Like a spit roast over an open fire, my fear rotates continually, basted by terror and dread. The juices are so intensely flavoured I can taste them dripping down the back of my throat.
So what do we do with fear? I can’t predict what fate has in store for Mark, any more than I can arrange my demise as a speedy episode between breakfast and lunch. However, there’s surely a way to restore the equilibrium of riding my horse?
The fear has been with me for many years; I just chose to ignore it. Ignorance was bliss but it wasn’t constructive. Mind and muscle memories have replayed past events so many times in a vain effort to warn me of the peril, that what started as a feint speck of anxiety has become an overwhelming stain of panic.
When I mount my horse, I breathe deeply, and focus mindfully on my actions. I smile as my body lightly greets the saddle, and sigh like a granny settling into her favourite chair. I thank my horse, check my girth, wriggle my toes, shrug my shoulders and thank my horse again. All is good.
Lightly and politely, I ask my horse to move off. Bruce responds (as always) with a quick snatch of the reins, and a wobbly hind step as his dodgy hip adjusts to my weight. We both breathe through his momentary anxiety, and I thank him again for his compliance, and for being him. We walk down the track to the arena, his steps are guarded as unshod hooves tread on stones, and he re-sets his balance to negotiate downhill with a slanting camber. We’ve done this hundreds of times, and don’t deviate from his favoured route, arriving at the arena in the correct place to neatly open the gate, enter and shut it behind us with well-executed sidesteps and turns.
We begin our swinging, relaxed walk up the long side of the school towards the top, and as Bruce raises his head and pricks his ears to better see the horse grazing beyond, I feel my hands tighten, my face redden, and I’m like a stuck pig in a slaughterhouse, with the blood of fear oozing from every orifice. I have a lucid moment of trying to regain composure, before the panic in my gut rises to meet the panic descending from my eyeballs. I start to sing aloud, and Bruce’s ears flick back to me, as the familiar words of ‘Ten Green Bottles’ follow him around the school perimeter. He walks mechanically forward as if I wasn’t there (which I’m not), and I try to let his solid body soothe me. My panic swirls around, before joining forces with a heartbeat that’s faster than speeding time. It’s a gamble whether I’ll implode or explode, and I grit my teeth awaiting the outcome.
“Breathe…breathe…green bottles…” I gasp “hanging on the wall…” gasp “if breathe breathe green bottles…” gasp “should accidentally fall…” two gasps and an outbreath “and there’ll be nine green bottles” outbreath “hanging on the frigging wall”.
Throughout all this, I smile and pretend. My stoic horse rubs his nose on his knee and pretends; the critical fault-pickers who watch surreptitiously would never know how much each ride costs. When I’ve put myself through enough penury to prove we’re both ‘ticking over nicely’, we halt squarely to dismount, and as my leaden legs reach terra firma, the frustration of my feeble fear kills me slowly once again. I can’t even manage a walk around the arena. Its been a year since we ventured out of the farm on horseback, and two years since we trotted. Once I’m standing on the ground, Bruce shakes himself from head to toe, ridding his body of my burden, and rests his nose on my shoulder; he knows a placatory peppermint will follow the litany of apologies.
Where did this fear begin? In the beginning is the only answer. Countless horses over countless years have done things that scared me, but I always coped with whatever they did. Bruce added his substantial weight to the fearload; from the start, he had an unpredictable streak that belied his steadfast appearance, and when he accelerated from fright to flight quicker than I could anticipate, it took a chunk of courage to sit still. When I recall the events without emotion, I clearly see I coped competently, if not entirely effectively, but fearful feelings cloud logic. I’m not frightened of the horse; I’ve managed the worst he might do. What frightens me is the feeling of fear.
My confidence waxes and wanes with the stages of my treatments, but I recognise the real Me differs from the chemotherapy-induced wraith, who wouldn’t dare put foot in a stirrup. I no longer have anything to prove, least of all to myself and in a skewed way, fear reminds me I’m still alive. Perhaps its time to accept that fear is as much a part of riding as limbs aching the next day? My fear is mine, and I’m grateful for the reminder not to do something dangerous, but like an auto-immune condition, fear doesn’t know how to stop. So is the answer to work on its responsiveness and not its potency? A stronger bit is never the answer for a horse, but perhaps walk-halt-walk transitions would work, direction not correction? Partnering Bruce began when I learnt to sit still, breath and trust, instead of trying to control with dominance; as simple as it was difficult. Could fear be diluted by guiding it to a place of acceptance, rather than obliteration?
Today I’ve shared my secret, aired my fear, and I feel lighter. Life is a work in progress, and perhaps by keeping our enemies closer than our friends, we can chose when we visit them, instead of having them hammer on our door demanding entry. My horse, my ride, my fear. My choice.
From the beginning, books and ponies were my entire life. I read every book I could find on how to look after ponies, ride ponies and train ponies, and every storybook about girls who had ponies. Today my imaginary pony was Black Beauty’s friend Merrylegs. Merrylegs and I flowed through our paces with effortless movement, schooling over jumps made of twigs. We were as one, and I could effortlessly see a stride.
With small hands holding double reins, a willow wand stick, a silver trophy and the biggest rosette imaginable, we cantered our winner’s lap of honour around the garden; physically and mentally moving as one entity.
I dismounted and put my arms around my pony, thanked him for being the best, and led him, prancing, and dancing, to the make-believe stable. We squeezed through the narrow gap between two trees, and I re-arranged the bracken bedding and settled him for the night. After feeding him a ‘bucket’ of mash from a flowerpot, I went indoors for my dinner.
Donkey was grey, and had an unusually broad brown Jerusalem cross, reaching from tail to withers, with crossbars that ended below his knees. Such vivid markings made him a church favourite at Easter and Christmas, and although he was not heady with fame, he certainly knew his own mind. Donkey lived at the pig farm where my school friend Maureen kept her pony. I helped her in the evenings, and the farmer thought we might like to ride together. I found riding Donkey a mixed blessing, but he was REAL, and a huge improvement on imaginary predecessors.
I put the grooming kit I’d bought especially for him in my bicycle basket, and cycled twenty minutes to the farm, lifted his felt saddle-pad and bridle from the hook in the barn and carried it out to the field. Wherever Donkey was standing in the field was where I brushed and dressed him, because I quickly learnt it was pointless to suggest somewhere different, no matter how many times I told him he was handsome and good. The first time I put his bridle on I thought he was going to die; as I slipped the headpiece over his ears he began to splutter and heave, with huge internal bellows pumping overtime. I stood back thinking his sides would explode, until he turned his head towards me, and uttered one huge monotone out-breath bray, which was loud enough to split the atom. He did this at every bridling, moving closer and closer to my own ears, which seemed to amuse him. Once mounted, we trotted round the perimeter of his field three and a half times. He was intransigent about the pace, direction and number of laps, and it was a while before I questioned his authority. . .
One morning I decided we would like to go for a walk outside his field. He decided we wouldn’t. As we walked though the gate, he planted three hooves on the ground and one front hoof directly on my foot. Half in and half out, I was trying to hold him, hold the gate which swung towards us, and move him off my foot. No matter how much I pulled, pushed, cajoled or chastised, he remained motionless and stood with his ears pricked and eyes fixed on me. I can clearly remember his look, and I swear he was smiling. The pig farmer walked past us, with a sow on its way to the slaughterhouse, and nodded in our direction. Not wanting to lose face, I pretended I was petting Donkey, and standing mid-gate was a predetermined destination. Some time later, the farmer walked back, and didn’t seem surprised we were still ‘petting’. Without saying a word, he took hold of the gate so I could move my aching arm, and made a hissing noise at Donkey, who swished his tail, turned round and walked back into his field. I un-tacked him, hung everything back in the barn and placed his grooming kit next to the saddle pad. I limped to my bike and pedalled slowly home.
Elizabeth was horse-mad too, so she was my best friend at school. When we turned eleven, our parents agreed we could have riding lessons every other Saturday with Miss Bush. We lived and breathed for those Saturday lessons. Built like a tiny sparrow, with weatherbeaten features and curls of soft white hair, Miss Bush was a dynamo of wiry energy. Born into a wealthy family, the Victorian family house and stables became hers when her parents died, but there was little money for upkeep. Everything had an air of neglected grandeur, but she was a local legend and her teaching was superb. Along with a string of patent-safety ponies, she kept three chestnut thoroughbreds stabled in the old cobblestone coach house. We girlies worshipped the big horses, and if we rode particularly well in our lessons, our reward was to groom them; it was joy beyond words to touch that velvet skin, and brush the silken tail of a proper horse, like the ones who showjumped on television. I saw Miss Bush again years later, shortly before she died, and she didn’t look any different to that first day in 1966. She was eighty-seven, and she died wearing her riding boots just as she wished.
My grandmother died when I was twelve. Nana lived with us and knew that horses were my world. She bequeathed an item of precious family jewellery to each of my cousins, but left me the most precious gift of all; one hundred pounds to buy a pony. A pony!! A pony of my own!! None of my family is, or ever was, in the least bit horsey. Mum used to take me to the saddler so I could spend my savings on a brush, or halter, or saddlesoap in readiness for my own pony, but when I began to look at local ponies for sale, Elizabeth and I cycled to see them on our pushbikes. We rode the pony and asked pertinent questions, but most suitable ponies were above my budget. On the cycle ride back home, we discussed the pros and cons, and as soon as I was indoors I wrote concise details in my Pony Book; sitting and writing that book at the dining room table was a hidden memory, that came floating back as I type this on the laptop.
The advert for Jimmy appeared in the Saturday edition of our local evening paper: 13.2 h.h dark bay New forest pony gelding for sale, 7 years old. Good with traffic, farrier etc. £75.00 including tack. I phoned the seller and arranged to see him the following morning. Elizabeth was going to church so I cycled there alone.
Something intangible connected me to Jimmy the first moment I saw him, and it gave me a sharp rush of adrenaline. None of my pony books had mentioned this happening. Its a pattern that’s been repeated with all my best horses, leading to logic being chucked on the muck heap, and the famous words “I’ll have him” being blurted without forethought. Jimmy was a neat stamp of pony, true to type for his New Forest breeding. He had a small white star and mealy coloured muzzle, and of course, he had the sweetest breath and kindest eyes ever bestowed on any pony. The woman selling him saddled up her own horse, and took me for a ride to try him out. His steering was very wobbly, his balance ungainly, and I fell off as soon as we started cantering. (I later discovered he was actually rising five and just broken). But I adored him and he was within my budget so I got back on and said I would have him, and next day Mum wrote the cheque. My life was just about to begin; I owned my very own pony. I found a field and stable to rent for him, and a week later we rode the eight miles to his new home, with mum following in her car. Today, the very thought of riding a four year old just-broken pony with no steering, along those busy roads makes me cringe, but back then belief triumphed over everything, and no harm came to us.
Life with a pony settled into the routine I had meticulously planned in my dreams. Every evening after school, I cycled to Jimmy’s field; my favourite journey because everyone would know that a bucket balanced on the handlebars, and saddle strapped to the back of my bike meant I had a pony. I fed and groomed him and loved him more than anything in the world. At the weekends, we went riding on the heath and that was where my fantasy abruptly ended. In reality, riding Jimmy scared the daylights out of me. Loving a pony doesn’t stop you falling off, and nothing had prepared me for riding an uncouth, unschooled bundle of nervous energy. Time after time I lay winded in the heather, watching him gallop home, and gradually I realised he would never be Merrylegs. Sadly, his sweet breath and mealy muzzle didn’t make that realisation hurt any less.
With un-horsey parents and nobody on hand to help, I took him to a Pony Club rally hoping for tuition. I bathed and brushed him and trimmed his hairy bits. Despite having a new white school shirt to wear with my jodhpurs and shoes, we were still the scruffiest among a field of expensive show ponies, immaculately dressed little girls and matching mothers. Nobody picked us to join their teams, and none of the instructors sensed my problems, so we never went again. Instead, I decided we had to work this out ourselves. We ignored all the pony books and made it up as we went along, spending rides doing what felt right for us. Eventually I learnt to sit and he learnt balance; more of an achievement than I knew. We taught eachother to jump which wasn’t pretty, but like everything else, it worked for us and that was what mattered. Jimmy never became Merrylegs; he became something so much more, and the only dreams that became reality were that we moved as one.
In 1976 I wanted to travel abroad, so my friend Sheila took Jimmy to use in her riding school. He became a firm favourite with the school clients, and forged a lifelong friendship with Mickey, a lookalike New Forest pony. When I came home from my year in Canada I used to visit and ride Jimmy regularly, and Sheila gave me the job of taking out experienced clients on a ‘fast ride’ while she accompanied the beginner walkers. No matter how many other people rode Jimmy, we never lost our bond or our own intuitive way of doing things, and the self-judgement of ‘proper’ riding never replaced the joy of free-wheeling. Jimmy died when he was thirty-four, shortly after Mickey.
By my mid-twenties, I was newly married and living in a North Dorset village nestled in the outstanding beauty of Cranborne Chase. Horses surrounded us, and my husband began taking lessons at the local riding school. Quite by chance, an acquaintance-of-a-friend told him about a mare for sale. We weren’t planning on buying a horse, but saw no harm in just going to have a look. Just a look, nothing more. . .
The following evening, we drove in through the huge gates of a very smart country house, which was like a photoshoot in Country Life. As we parked the car outside the stable block, the seller came to meet us. She said she was expecting an important phone call, pointed to Astra grazing in the paddock, gestured to the stables, gave us a halter and said to take as much time as we wanted, and come to the house when we’d finished.
Astra was a gorgeous mare; 14.2 Arab crossed with Welsh Mountain pony, like a dapple-grey rocking horse with fine features, elegant limbs, long flowing mane and flag tail. She was for sale as an unbroken four year old, so I thought there couldn’t be much wrong with her. As events unfolded, I lost count of the times I ate those words.
The mare seemed very complaint as we walked into the field, caught her, and led her back to the stable. She stood quietly as we inspected her, she moved backwards and sideways when we asked, and trotted up soundly with beautiful flowing paces. When we turned her back out in the field, the three of us stood looking at each other. My husband and I knew it was a done deal. I could complete her training, and if she wasn’t suitable for me, she would be easy to sell. I was at that wonderful age when failure was still an unknown concept.
Astra settled quickly into her new home, and we couldn’t believe our good fortune. I wrote a plan for her education, and showed John how to do everyday tasks. Astra was quite bossy around food, but I didn’t realise how bossy until the morning she came flying at me with her ears flat back. I flung the breakfast bucket at her, and exited the stable as quickly as I could, closely followed by a splinter of wood as her hooves double-barrelled the door. Mareish? I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Later that week I was grooming her as she dozed in the sunshine. As I turned to brush some dust from her quarter, searing pain tore through my shoulder; she had bitten me hard for no apparent reason, ripping my tee-shirt and my skin. I tied her shorter to prevent further accidents, but as the weeks went by, she began to cow kick with vengeance; she had perfect aim and a deceptively long range. Each time something happened, I made another excuse; that she was in season, ticklish, or maybe the flies were worrying her. One afternoon we were lunging in the arena when she stopped, looked me in the eye, turned and galloped straight at me. I threw my arms in the air and waved the lunge whip at her, but she kept coming, and I jumped out of the way just in time. Afterwards, she stood calmly while I gathered the lunge line, and walked back to the stable as if nothing had occurred. I even began to doubt it myself, until the same thing happened when I went to catch her in the field. Suddenly I understood why the seller had ‘been on the phone’, and given us the halter the day we went to see her.
After a thorough workout, the physiotherapist pronounced Astra ‘as sound as a pound’. The vet found nothing wrong with her teeth or eyes, and gave her an internal exam. She behaved impeccably for both people, and I suspected they thought I was exaggerating, so I carried on pretending her outbursts were normal because I didn’t know what else to do. Praising good behaviour and ignoring bad certainly wasn’t working, but if I shouted at her, she reared up and boxed at me with her front legs. The one time I smacked her, it was as if I’d unleashed Satan’s child, and I never did it again. In the end, I just tried to keep out of the danger zone, because when she was good she was fantastic. She took to saddle, bridle and riding without batting a long-lashed eyelid, which I put down to her quick learning, and my good handling. Many years later I discovered she’d been broken-in at three and turned away to mature, so she already knew everything I later ‘taught’ her. Unfortunately, the financial recession necessitated her being sold prematurely, and in the year before we bought her, she had changed homes four times.
Astra worked diligently in the arena and out on rides, and muscled-up into a stunning horse, an absolute showstopper. We had jumping lessons from a visiting instructor, who said she showed real talent. As she gained confidence, her cranky behaviour worsened, and I felt like an abuse victim; being bitten and kicked had become normal. Needing a professional opinion, and hoping Astra would benefit from experienced training, I chose a well-recommended schooling yard, where the owner agreed to take her for an assessment month. She went to Rosemarie’s with a danger warning!
Two weeks into Astra’s training, I made a pre-arranged visit to the yard, and found everyone praising her progress. Rosemarie suggested I brought the mare out of her stable and pop over a couple of jumps in the school. The moment I entered the stable alone, Astra turned her back on me and fired a warning kick. Her hoof made sharp contact with my knee, and I doubled-up in pain, stifling a scream. It was mortifying that a horse bullied me, I was certain it was my fault, and too embarrassed to ask for help. Trying not to wince, I led the mare to the mounting block and as I slowly swung myself into the saddle, Astra hunched her back, and turned and snapped at my leg. Rosemarie saw the snap, shouted loudly, and Astra went straight upon her hind legs. Luckily I had both feet in the stirrups, and I clung to her mane until she was back on the ground.
Rosemarie raised an eyebrow, and held the mare’s bridle while I steadied myself. “She’s not done anything like that since she’s been here,” She said with a grimace.
“No,” I sighed, “It’s just me”.
As we warmed-up in the school, Astra’s floaty paces felt more elastic and confident, and she trotted over a row of ground poles without missing a beat. She popped over a couple of rustic uprights like a pro, and Rosemarie pointed towards a spread fence, which stood about three feet high. As I turned my waist to see the jump properly, Astra gathered herself together and transitioned smoothly into a powerful canter. She approached the jump with perfect ease, and cleared it without breaking rhythm. I had a childhood flashback to watching Horse of the Year Show on television, and grinned from ear to ear.
“Crumbs” I said. “She’s good!”
Rosemarie smiled, nodded, and held Astra as I dismounted. “I’d say she could go far. I can sell her if you want, but she’s the best horse you’ll ever have. Why not give it a bit more thought?”
“I’m just so fed-up with her crankiness” I replied. “I’m covered in bruises”.
But I did as suggested and gave it more thought. The indescribable elation of her powerful paces was such magnetic motivation, and I wanted to feel it again and again. It stuck a primeval chord of connection between woman and horse, one that I had never felt before. Two weeks later Astra came back home. Unfortunately, rhetoric painted a rosier future than reality could create.
By the age of forty I’d had breast cancer twice, and a generous helping of the side dishes that came with it. I felt I’d done enough to appease the gods of unlucky statistics, and would live the rest of my life in boring equilibrium. Ha! Once again, the hand of shite reached down and pointed at my breast. While washing in the shower, I found a lump on my right breast. Rather than waiting for a doctor’s referral I phoned the oncologist’s office directly, and was admitted to hospital where guiding wires were inserted in my breast under ultrasound, and the lump removed with local anaesthetic. The procedure was every bit as unpleasant as it sounds! A week later, when the oncologist gave us fab news that it was a benign cyst, I asked him the chances of cancer occurring in my remaining breast. He replied the chances were twenty-five percent.
“Well, you know you offered me breast reconstruction” I said, sitting up straight because I felt I had to sell the idea, “I’ve been thinking if have reconstruction done, they’ll have to operate on the other breast to level it up, or else one will be pert, and the other pendulous.” I paused, and Dr. Goode nodded. I took a deep breath before continuing, trying to make what I was saying sound like a request and not a question. “As there’s a high possibility of still getting breast cancer, could you take the other one off and reconstruct them both at the same time.” This was seventeen years before Angelina Jolie made preventative mastectomy fashionable, and genetic screening made the reasons more obvious, and my request was breaking new territory. Dr Goode wrote some notes in my file, and said he thought a woman in Bournemouth had recently had a prophylactic double mastectomy, and he would raise the issue at the next oncology meeting. I knew I could trust Dr Goode to do his best for me, and three weeks later, I got an appointment to see Mr Hobby the plastic surgeon.
The plastic surgeon cupped my remaining 34DD breast in his hand and asked me what size I would like to be.
“A perfect 34C please” I replied, and he nodded approvingly.
He explained the lengthy procedure, which took pads of latissimus dorsi muscle from the shoulders and swiveled them around to the front, to give support for the breast implants while maintaining the blood supply. They would remove triangles of skin from the centre of my back to shape the breasts, and graft nipples from skin on my inner thigh, for an authentically coloured areola. He said he would insert the implants slightly above the breast line, allowing them to drop into their correct position. I was worried about silicone leakage and toxicity, and we had a lengthy discussion about my decision to have saline filled implants; my biggest concern was falling off my horse and rupturing them. He said he didn’t have another patient who rode after reconstruction, but reluctantly agreed with my reasoning. He must have been both baffled and amused by my priorities.
On December 29th Mark and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary with overflowing glasses of champagne and wry smiles; some year eh? If we were still laughing after that first year, we would conquer anything, and two days later, I was booking into hospital for six hours of breast surgery; Mr Rowe-Jones would do the mastectomy, then pass my body to Mr. Hobby the plastic surgeon for reconstruction. New Years Eve was the only free date in their schedules, and the nurse recounted later how they both arrived and left wearing their black dinner suits, ready to celebrate New Years Eve. Two suave surgeons, dressed in formal attire for my surgery!
A nurse with a kindly face held my hand tightly in the freezing cold pre-theatre room, as the anaesthetist pushed the plunger on his syringe. It felt cold inside my veins, and then the next moment, Mark was standing over me as I woke-up in the recovery room. There was a white pony wandering between the beds, which nobody had noticed, and I told Mark to catch him QUICKLY! Mark walked to the next bed, slipped an imaginary halter on an imaginary pony and turned to me with a look of real-life confusion.
“Tie him up to the end of the bed!” I said with exasperation. “What is it with everybody here”?
I remember feeling excruciating pain as they tried to move me from the hospital trolley to my bed. In a dreamy far-off land, I heard bloodcurdling screams and someone swearing vehemently. Nurses darted about holding tubes, moving wires and issuing commands, as they slid me in ungainly style onto the cold white sheets. Exhausted from pain, I couldn’t catch my breath with the oxygen mask covering my mouth, and was uncertain who or where I was (or even if I still was?) I saw Mark on my right side, jostling for space between the equipment and the nurses; he looked terrified. The nurse showed me how to press a button on the morphine drip for pain relief, then Mark showed me, then the nurses showed me again. “Press the button Elaine” was all I could hear, but I couldn’t understand it. What button? Then nurse Christine with the kind face took charge, and as I pressed the button she winked at me. I wished her Happy New Year before pressing the button again and slipping into cloudy oblivion.
I spent my birthday in hospital, and shared the ‘celebration’ with my new breasts, which were one week old. .I was napping on the bed when a nurse woke me. I’d barely opened my eyes when all the nurses came into the room, carrying a pink iced birthday cake with blazing pink candles, and sang happy birthday. Such a lovely gesture and I was deeply touched by their kindness, but I hated it; I was feeling grumpy and emotional and not in the least like being the centre of attention. I thanked everyone profusely and cut half the cake for them to take to the nurse’s station, but all I wanted was to curl-up, and stop trying to be strong. I knew I should celebrate every day but it was such hard work, and cancer clouded so much. I wanted to ride my horse, and breathe into his soft neck and feel alive again, but here I was, in hospital, on my birthday. It was one of the few times I’ve felt total, wretched despair, and I didn’t know how to climb out of it.
The despair got worse when the surgical dressings came off, exposing skin as pink as the birthday cake. The right breast reconstruction was neatly shaped, but the left implant sat extremely high, with a weird lopsided overhang at the top. The doctor explained again that the implant would gradually settle into the correct placing, but in later months it became clear this wasn’t going to happen. Eventually the consultant opined radiotherapy and surgery had compromised breast tissue quality, and the implant was unable to move. I knew things weren’t going to look perfect, but I wish I’d known about encapsulation so I could’ve been prepared. It was my first big lesson that you don’t get answers if you don’t know the right questions to ask; a lesson that set me in good stead for the future.
My daily excursion around the hospital corridors had progressed from a hunched, protective-mode shuffle to a brisk walk, made easier once the drains came out, and the bottles didn’t bounce around in my pockets. The incision and the skin graft on my back were numb, which meant sleep was more comfortable, and the elasticated bandage bound my breasts would stay on for another three weeks; I felt an uncanny empathy with Frankenstein’s monster. Pain meds made no impact on the hundred small knives stabbing my insides when I moved my arms, picked anything up or tried to push down. I imagined all the severed nerves irrevocably parted to front and back, frantically waving and calling in vain for their Other Ends. Eventually they ceased calling. With strict instructions to rest, I was discharged from hospital ten days after surgery. Pain was a compelling threshold to cross, and I did too much too soon. I still haven’t mastered the fact that recuperation takes time.
In the spring of 1998, a friend was staying with us, and we were happily sitting around the supper table, laughing eating and drinking, when for some reason I looked down at my bosom and saw only one breast. With an overwhelming sense of panic, I made an excuse, dashed to the bathroom, and tore off my clothes. My left breast was intact, still perched high above my bra but my right breast was just a fold of loose skin with no filling; the implant had ruptured. I phoned the hospital but it was ‘out of hours’ and there was nothing they could do except confirm I must have leaked, and tell me to call again in the morning. There was no pain, and the saline would just disperse into my body, but I felt so angry this had happened to me. For some reason I also felt embarrassed. I clamped my arm firmly across my chest, returned to the table and drank several large glasses of wine. Next day at the hospital, the plastic surgeon looked aghast. Yes, the saline implant had leaked and a pair of fresh implants would need fitting; he was adamant he’d use silicone, and I couldn’t really argue.
If only it had been that easy. Breast reconstruction following mastectomy is now a standard option with cancer treatment, but back then, it was a fairly new procedure, and the NHS were reticent to replace the implants. The implant supplier discovered a batch of implants had leaky valves, which meant the saline wasn’t completely sealed; if I wanted, I could sue them but litigation would take some time. I needed something done quickly, so I went on the warpath and phoned the hospital and plastic surgeon daily. I made allies of the medical secretaries who were tremendously sympathetic and helpful, and got the implant suppliers to reimburse the NHS. A month after Waterleakgate, I got an operation date, and spent four nights in hospital for what is now a day-case procedure. My stay was unmemorable except for the nurse who attempted to remove my drain without first removing the holding stitches; that pain was worse than all my surgery! I left the hospital with a new set of scars, but on the positive side, I had two evenly placed silicone boobs.
When I look back, wonky breasts were the least of my problems. Cancer came back in 2004, 2010 and 2011 despite extensive surgeries, and a steady supply of anti-cancer meds (all with their own side effects). Mark and I continued trying to live life alongside our foe, and not let it live life for us. Through a series of events that I’ll describe in another post, Bruce the horse came to me in 2010. He had anxiety issues that I didn’t handle tactfully, and together with my cancer recurrences and treatment, we both struggled. On New Years Day 2012, I had just completed a particularly harrowing course of chemotherapy, and I decided to take him for a walk in hand, across the fields. As the walk progressed, we both became extremely agitated; with eachother, with our circumstances, with the icy wind whistling though our ears. Eventually, in a field miles away from anywhere, we both boiled over. Bruce was bouncing sideways, setting his neck and using his shoulder to keep me as far away as possible, and I was terrified, gripping his bridle like a predator clinging to prey. As we turned to come back home, the Perfect Storm erupted; he reared up and I yanked him back down, screaming obscenities into the wind. He spun round and took off at a gallop, with me hanging on to the reins for what was only seconds but seemed an eternity. Of course, sixteen hands of Irish Draught strength won, and as I let go, he put his head down and bucked. I was directly behind him with a fence to my side, and had nowhere to go; in that strangely surrealistic way that one vision sums up a complete event, I remember how perfectly shaped the inside of his hooves were, as they came flying to meet me with unstoppable force.
I took the full impact in my chest. It shattered a breast implant, broke three ribs and punctured a lung, before hurling me to the ground. I landed forcefully on one shoulder and the back of my head, and as I lay looking up at the winter sky, I tried to figure out why I bothered to stay alive. At the hospital, the story has become legend; notoriety for all the wrong reasons. It took months for the damage to mend, and when I could eventually have yet another replacement implant op, the breast surgeon said she had never seen so much silicone splattered over such a wide surface. It seemed that being “fitted with airbags” had prevented worse damage to my lungs and ribs, and had possibly saved my life.
Strangely enough, the entire episode (for which I accept all responsibility) drew a line under my life before. In order to stay safe with Bruce, I had to find a new way of dealing with both our anxieties, because what I thought was ok wasn’t working for either of us. I had to find a better way of thinking, a better way with horses, and I had to help him find a quiet place in his mind. In doing so, Bruce led me towards finding my peace; he needed what I needed. They say you get the right horse at the right time, and a better phrase has never been said. To help him, I enrolled in a mindfulness course, practised Tai Chi and tried to meditate. I learnt to breathe, to pause, and to clear my mind; the simplest things but all so difficult to do. Bruce started to breathe out when I breathed slowly, we both became less reactionary, and Kirsty introduced me to a way of riding that focused on breath, energy and clear thought. Along the way, I found it easier to be around myself; I showed myself compassion, and accepted that the cancer wasn’t my fault. It took a very special horse to deliver a new future. He literally re-booted my life.