I grew up in an intimate corner of intersecting mountain leaps. My Utah hometown was then bucolic and rural. I was too much a part of that world to notice that we were a pack of political and religious fanatics – which is why I yet nurture a wary love for characters easy to dehumanize. My father, despite his bone-level patriarchal principles, tended to contradict himself (and me) in his admiration of capable women. As a result I had more freedom than most girls my age to try personal limits. I tried them most gloriously on the powerful, high-spirited black horse we kept in patches of pasture near our subdivision home. I don’t know whether Dad encouraged me, or just didn’t stop me – but by my early teens he’d taught me how to catch and saddle the horse. Sometimes he’d help, admonishing: Don’t ever forget that a horse is stronger than you are. You have to respect that. You have to understand how he thinks.
And, sometimes: Stay on the horse, no matter what, and nothing on that mountain can hurt you.
And, sometimes, after I’d tumble, and once after a flying leap from the saddle before the horse went from dead run to dead stop, inches in front of an approaching wall: Well okay then, you’ve got to get back on. Don’t let trouble scare you for good. Get back on and ride him home.
Pounding heart, broken thumb be damned.
The glory-monster was nearly unmanageable as I made him walk toward the mountain along neighborhood asphalt, but once we reached the dirt roads, he’d go from five to fifty in a single leap, running for the pure athletic joy of his own strength. And when the terrain angled upward, sudden and unmitigated for nearly six thousand feet, he could climb like a sweating, snorting machine.
How am I now? I haven’t mounted a horse in thirty years. To my children, such fables sound like fairy tales. But right now I’m thinking about how profoundly my horse-riding origins anchor my current reach for courage. We all need metaphors.
I read recently that COVID-19, quarantine, and white-capping unrest at the brink of sea-change have set the whole nation to strange dreaming. When the black horse died soon after I was married and irrevocably turned toward another life, I made myself shut him out of my waking and sleeping mind. But suddenly again, in my dreams, the black horse returns to me. He’s beautiful and terrifying. He stands, bridled but unhitched. He approaches, sidestepping the hanging reins. He retreats, tossing his head to taunt and beckon.
For years I’ve shut my dead father, too, from my nocturnal dreams. But the other morning, just as I reached for the horse’s warm black shining neck, I awakened to the vivid, almost audible memory of his familiar voice. Get back on that horse. You’ll have to stay on. He’s stronger than you, but you know how to ride.