December 2020 was quite a time, looking back on it. What happened to the year?
I hadn’t gone anywhere, from sheltering-in-place to losing my job and homeschooling, but yet it didn’t feel at all like life had slowed down.
Everything in life felt so slow – that is besides my mind, which was working in overtime trying to wrap my head around what the year had done to me and the people around me and what that meant in terms of finding a way forward.
My family had made it through the scariest part of the pandemic without infection, but it felt like the soul of my family was sick. Without the armor of busyness and distraction, the year had left us exposed. Our connection to each felt frail as we each endured such personal pains.
One of the first things I learned in Bandera, Texas, is the difference between brown wood and green wood. Green wood still has a little life left. Brown wood, the crackly, dried out sticks and logs, don’t have anything left to give but the warmth that comes from setting them on fire.
In Bandera, we walk around during the day and pick up sticks as we see them. Is it viable green wood or dead brown wood? Life stays in a rhythm from taking a look at things, one stick at a time, and knowing what to let stay and what to let go of.
I don’t really know how I came to know I was going to spend the last week of 2020 in Bandera, Texas, the Cowboy Capital of the Word. About a week earlier, I felt like life was closing in on me so fast that, truly, the right thing to do was probably run away from home in the middle of the night. Instead, I called the little white house at the front of a horse ranch I saw online once. I spoke my credit card number into the phone, thinking of what it took to even get ahold of these people and what one week with my daughter in a place this untouched by the times or bad news might do for re-centering my inner compass.
I was in Bandera for a break from it all, so I could gather myself and sort through my life. What was green wood, with a little life left in it? What was ready to burn?
I was drawn to the sparse beauty in Bandera, the tumbling tumbleweeds, the rocking chairs on wooden porches and, of course, the ponies. My Perfect Mom Doing the Most costume had hung in my closet, unworn so long as we stayed home that year. It had just been long enough where I couldn’t put it back on anymore. It was going to have to be a new me forward, someone both easier to wear out and live with at home.
Making things look easy had been so tiring and expensive. I wanted things to be easy. Easy because I was only letting the right things stay and letting the others burn. Easy because I felt capable, like a girl mucking in a barn or cooking over a campfire. Easy because when I looked around and inhaled, the things around me were simple and beautiful.
Most of my early life training on survival focused less on self-capability and more on the arts of being attractive and making other people feel good. These are worthy pursuits for sure, until I’m so dependent on them that I no longer feel good by myself. My sense of security becomes so external for me in this method. It’s left me feeling more safe around other people than when I was alone, especially when I knew I was making them happy.
But under the short term sense of security I felt from other people was an ambient fear. What if things changed between me and that person? What if The Worst Case Scenario happened? And, if I was too quiet, the really hard questions came in. What are the soul consequences of hitching my life on another person’s? I was fearful I was living a smaller life than was meant for me in the spirit of getting along with more people so I had to do less alone. The solution to this, spiritually and sartorially, was Cowgirl Camp.
Despite how much time I spent looking, there are not as many photo reviews for a Bandera horse ranch as, say, your average Chicago hotel. I told myself as we arrived that whatever was in front of me was exactly the plan. I told myself this trip was a gift to my daughter, who saw far more than her fair share of parental mental health breakdowns through the advent of a pandemic. It was time to demonstrate some tenacity and Big Girl Fun. Our cell service dropped completely out of range as we creeped down the long gravel drive up to our tiny cabin, outfitted with a fly swatter, mini refrigerator and a propane stove, I told my seven year old to bring her lovies inside while I unpacked the car. When I considered this was the jive for six days, a few panic tears swelled up in my eyes as she swung the front door closed, until I remembered my mantra for the week.
THIS IS FUN. WE AREN’T GOING HOME EARLY.
It was stunningly gorgeous. I just had a quiver of if I was cut out for it, especially with how we’ve forced rural escapes to accommodate our spoiled needs. This shit was not the Rough Creek Lodge, an escape near Dallas with three course dinners of quail and someone to hand your rifle to the range for you. It’s no wonder why we all have self-esteem and identity issues when even our rugged individualism-themed escapes involve us being waited on. I was way cooler than that, I thought to myself as I heard the owner, Diane, pull up to our place in her Dodge pick up truck. I flushed our cabin’s toilet, only to see it start to overflow.
As I thanked Diane for everything, I explained the situation inside the bathroom.
“Oh! Do you need a plunger?” she asked, “And a little rag to wipe up any overflow?”
She was so friendly, so polite, so Welcome to the Ranch!
How dare I respond with what I wanted which was, “I’d like a new room with a view and an upgrade immediately.” I told her I could take care of it, which she met with an approving look that said, “Look at you – big girl!”
You know what, I am a big girl. Just because I hadn’t done things since Girl Scout Camp in 1997 didn’t mean I couldn’t do it. We tidied up the commode, unpacked, and made some dinner sandwiches. Diane drove by as we were about to make our campfire, which was great timing because I had actually never made one before so it was helpful to just be able to chat with someone as I did that and just get a few tips, cowgirl to cowgirl.
A crazy thing about being away from it all is all of your energy is yours. No surprise texts or calls, no other people’s moods besides the team around you. The energy is like a flywheel – it starts in the morning before you’re fully awake, lighting the propane tank for the stove and brewing the coffee, then walking through the misty dawn to the barn for feedings, grooming, tacking up. During the day, there’s walking and more walking and looking for kindling while you’re walking. Energy in motion seems to stay in motion. It eats well and goes to bed at 9:00 p.m. We don’t need phones to tell us what to do next in the rhythm of caring for land, animals and ourselves. If I need to know the time of day or the upcoming weather, it’s right there in the sky. In Bandera, our energy can become so grounded in rhythm and nature and self that in the arena, we start being able to communicate as humans with horses through our breath.
From barely breathing in a Target parking lot the third week of December to this. With my daughter an exhausted heap in her bed since she finished dinner, it’s me and the stars and some back issues of Vogue, wondering how it ever got so complicated and how to keep it from getting back in.
In Bandera, Diane gave us Mother and Daughter riding lessons. The instruction is breath focused, grounding us with our horses so movement is intuitive and comfortable for everyone. In Bandera, breathing and knowing where you’re going does the work. There’s nothing to force. Diane tells my daughter and I she is so proud of us after every lesson, which does the work too.
The quality of thoughts that come into my spirit when my mind and hands have found silly little things to do with themselves – my Lord. It makes sense that people find peace saying the rosary and chanting. Worrying sounds less intoxicating when I have things to do – not things to get done on my computer, but things to do, things to make, tasks to complete. The deeper thoughts just can’t help but show up without me even having to look for them, what with such a nice open pathway in without the clutter of worry. There’s brilliant ideas or just perspectives I’ve never slowed down to see before. I would write them down in my notebook to look at that evening and then get right back to it.
The unexpected can happen in Bandera, but we were still all pretty shocked when it snowed on New Year’s Eve. With it being too cold to ride, that meant a casual 24 hours in the cabin alone with no Internet or cell service. No need to panic. I had been doing this for a week and was a pro. So when Cowboy Todd, the Houston doctor, pulled his luxury truck in next to our spot, unpacked his high speed travel router, fresh firewood, animal pelts (truly a Nora Ephron movie level of detail that didn’t go unnoticed), I didn’t even think of making my eyeballs do that thing I could do, where when I said Hello he would then invite my daughter and I in for some of the steak he was grilling, friendly adult conversation and Wi-Fi. I knew how to do that, but it wasn’t what I was there to do.
By 8:00 p.m on our winter weather advisory day, I was insane enough to let my daughter dare me to go swimming in the snow under the Full Moon. When we were done with our night swim, we ran up to the cabin in our sweats, bursting with giggles and shivering. Cowboy Todd was on his front porch chair, wrapped in a fur pelt and looking like a Ralph Lauren ad with a whiskey on the rocks. He took one look at me and laughed. I told him good night and headed inside. He didn’t ask me if I needed anything, because it was easy to see I had it handled. Just a couple of Cowboys, tipping our hats in passing as we started to turn in.
The next day, my daughter and I headed back to Dallas as official cowgirls. We promised life in Dallas would be more like Bandera. We would live with honor, run our ranch properly and celebrate the feeling of self-respect that comes from a job well done. We would be more wild and less available. We would run in snow and dance in rain and read whole books aloud to each other over the course of a day. We would take time to sit on porches and go to bed early so we could watch the sun come up in the morning. We wouldn’t let the busy win. We would lead by breathing and knowing where we were going. We wouldn’t have to force it.
As we got home I found this Code of the West. originally attributed to James Owen. I printed a copy and put it on the refrigerator – alone with all of our other important spiritual texts.
The crazy thing about finding the center was seeing the things I started being willing to give up to let it hold. There’s not a chance I could have told you in Bandera that my next move would be to Germany. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that’s what I wanted before time away from what I had.
It’s not home like Texas, but here in Germany we have a rhythm to life. We keep things simple and try to make them beautiful, really letting nature do the job with both of those wherever she can. There’s always little things to do, from going to the market and ironing to walking the dogs and taking down the recycling. Things hum and deeper thoughts come in, partly in thanks to finding the edge of the world where I have 7 hours a day to myself while everyone I love and work with in America sleeps. I have more time to breathe, and to read books aloud and watch the sun come up in the morning.
If I hadn’t put my phone down in Bandera that first week, would I know about this? Would I have insisted on a self-built life to the point of making a whole new one? It’s a wonder to think what might never cross my mind if I never allow the space for it. Today, I’m grateful to the older version of myself, scared and overwhelmed, who got out of town and out of her head, into her heart and back into what’s real. She gave me a whole new life.