Turns out that not having to take chemo every six weeks frees up a lot of your time and energy to do other things. It's been four years since my journey through cancer began, and I am beginning to feel as though I am finally to the other side. But it's not the place I started, in any way - it's brighter and much more open to possibilities. Each day is much less of "Here's what I have to do today", and more of, "I wonder what exciting things will present themselves today?" Some days, it's even, "Look what I'm creating today!"
This story illustrates my point best. Late last year, after having finished my chemo, I was feeling pretty lost - as miserable as taking poison to kill your cancer can be, it had been my routine, my job, for three and a half years. Then it was over - what now? I wasn't feeling well yet, but I didn't have the chemo to point to as an excuse for not getting on with life. As somebody who likes to feel useful, I helplessly watched our finances flatline, then bottom out right around Christmas - "the most wonderful time of the year". Holiday tunes, celebratory soirées and decking out our cabin in the woods did little to lift my spirits as we struggled with rent. I questioned whether my pre-chemo energy would return. And my little brain struggled to hold on to the lessons of cancer as real-world reality and all of its responsibilities returned. My spiritual studies were being pushed aside by fear, anxiety, and even a little envy as our bank accounts dried up.
So many things I wanted to do, but we needed money - fast! I could I sell my art, but I hardly had time or the creative juices to paint, much less find a place to hang them. I want to teach riding lessons, but no one is calling me for help with their horses. Maybe I have to get a job in an office, or making coffees, or waiting tables - I have hardly any experience with any of those things, but whatever I can to to contribute to our income...
In a last ditch effort to find work in horses, I went to a handful of Santa Barbara riding stables. Most of them were busy, but when I was able to speak with someone, "Sorry, we're not hiring instructors," was the most frequent response. That's okay - I'm not ready to get back into a show barn anyway. So I stopped in at the local therapeutic riding center, Hearts Therapeutic, Kirby at Hearts sat down with me for a few minutes and told me that their program only hires PATH certified instructors ($$$) and depends solely on volunteers for other jobs. She invited me to volunteer, because "there are a lot of folks from the local horse community who volunteer, and you might make some connections."
Volunteer? But I need to make money! True, but I might die of equine-deficiency disease in the meantime, rent money or not! I NEED horse time, so what's a horse girl without a horse (or lesson money) to do? So back to Hearts I went for Volunteer Orientation and Training. And I remembered - horses, learning, helping people - this is what feeds my soul! These are the reasons I was put on this planet, and I'm back at it!
And you know what? Two weeks later, I was already having the time of my life, learning lots of new things, meeting lots of new friends, and yes, making lots of connections, when Kirby pulled me into her office.
"I hear you're looking for a job," she said with a smile.
Okay, so I'm only going to walk, but Boyfriend and I are raising money with some friends as Team White Horse for the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara's 20th Anniversary Walk/Run Fundraiser on October 14, 2012. All the donations for this event go directly to the Cancer Center's Clinical Research Programs. In other words, directly to help develop new cancer treatments, just like the one that saved my life.
We're doing this because it's what we can do to support an organization that supported us when I needed it most. When I first needed treatment, they gave it with no questions asked long before I was awarded Medi-Cal.
I'm also nearing the very last of 24 rounds of chemo so it's a big thing for us. The Cancer Center's goal for this fundraiser is only $200,000, which is not much when you consider that today's best treatments are developed in clinics like CCSB. As most of you know, radiation and chemo obliterated my tumor, but it's not like that for everyone. While it sounds funny to say this, we feel a large part of my success was because of the positive attitude everyone at the Cancer Center has. For us, that has as much to do with treating cancer as anything else, which is why we're asking for your help to support them.
The people of CCSB go above and beyond to treat everyone with the very best care possible and our support means they can continue to help develop better and less risky treatments. They're a not-for-profit, so your donation will be tax-deductible.
I will be walking with a group of friends as "Team White Horse". Our goal is to raise $3500 for the Cancer Center; my personal goal is $500. You can submit your pledge directly to Team White Horse on the Cancer Center website. Click on the link "Support" at the bottom of our team's page and make sure you fill in the "participant" section with my name.
If you're more comfortable sending a check, make it out to Cancer Center of Santa Barbara and contact me as soon as possible for a mailing address, so I can turn in all the checks together on October 14th.
Please submit what you can, because every little bit helps people like me when they need it the most. Of course, feel free to pass the word along if you know anyone else who would want to help.
Show your support with a Team White Horse t-shirt! We have a limited number of shirts available - for every $20 shirt you purchase, $10 goes to the Cancer Center. Please email me for details.
It was your last day on the planet, and you knew it. What did you want to do? Eat, obviously. Carrot puree, coming right up. Did you say applesauce? Got it. Chew some grass, spit it on someone's foot. Of course. But did I know that you wanted to run away one last time? Probably. That must have been why I put the lead rope down, just for one second. One picture, and you were gone. Oops.
Maybe you wanted to make me look silly one last time, but I didn't care. Because I didn't mind watching you run off, shiny, white tail over your back, mane flying and green grass under your hooves. Down the hill, around the front of the barn, just so everybody could see what you did. It's how I wanted to remember you - reminding me that even on the last day, you still had one more trick up your sleeve. You were still the teacher, and I wasn't through learning the lessons you have to teach.
One last lesson from the great teacher. A reminder that we're not through, not yet. A timely kick in the pants: Pay attention. You have more to learn. And you learn best by teaching. So, "Trot! Kick! Go! Now!" And don't forget to have fun!
One of the first horses I ever rode (got my first blue ribbon on him, actually!) was a little, flea-bitten grey Arabian gelding named Najan. As I little girl, I thought Najan was the fanciest, most beautiful horse I'd ever seen, and I had all the Arabian horse magazines to prove it!
As a riding teacher I see that Najan was one of the great beginner lesson horses: adorable, gentle, arthritic, didn't mind routine. Not that he was a "dead-head" - he was smart and would occasionally provide his own entertainment with the occasional buck or "accidental" canter depart with a student who didn't yet know how to canter. Sometimes at a rider's first horse show: "Blue ribbons are neat, but did I just CANTER?" So, Najan was safe and quiet and wonderful, but not lacking personality.
Shortly after I opened my riding school in Colorado 12 years ago, I began a quest to find the perfect beginner lesson horse. I must have had Najan in my head, because the horse that landed in my lap was as close in physical description as I could have possibly have imagined.
I shared my need for the perfect lesson horse with a friend of mine who was familiar with the local Arabian horse scene and she came back the next day with news of a wonderful 19-year-old Arabian gelding she'd heard needed a home. And a job. His owner felt like he had many years of use left, and that he was probably still many years from retirement.
"The owner is trying to give him away - he's just living in an abandoned building in Colorado Springs, babysitting an even older, blind, Appaloosa gelding." So we borrowed a trailer and drove down to Colorado Springs the very next day to meet him.
As a youngster and newbie in the horse business, I'd already made plenty of mistakes buying horses based on price, color (I've always liked Palominos!), breed, cuteness, and whatever other factors make it really expensive to run a business with horses, so despite the fire-sale factor, I tried to be cautious about the possibility of finding just what I was looking for on the first try. I remembered a long-time horse trainer's wise words, "There is no such thing as a free horse," as I contemplated the odds of this give-away gelding being perfect lesson horse material on my hour-long drive to Colorado Springs. Don't get your hopes up, Lisa.
As soon as we arrived, the owner went to fetch him from the pasture as we waited in the dusty, worn-out building. Stalls empty, it was mostly inhabited by birds and spiders now. Dusty bridles hanging on dusty hooks in a dusty barn aisle. Then, footsteps as they appeared in doorway: she was leading the Arabian gelding, followed closely by his blind friend.
She handed me the Arab's lead rope so she could close the gate between the two horses.
I led him into the light and sized him up. He was flea-bitten grey. He was little, but sturdy; just the right size for a kid's lesson horse. He was quiet, his eyes soft. He was ADORABLE. I shook it off - I hadn't even ridden him.
The little gelding had been shown Western pleasure, but I rode English, so I'd brought my saddle and put it on. I'd brought a bridle, too, just in case, but we threw on the bridle he may or may not have worn last time he'd been ridden. When was that?, I wondered as the owner fumbled with the dusty, cracked leather. I got on and rode him around in the empty end of the barn; he had all the right buttons and knew just what I was asking every step. Not many first rides go like this. But I was a pro, and the friend I'd brought with me was an inexperienced rider. The true test would be with a student. So I stepped off, and put my friend on for a lesson. No problem there, either. All he needed to do was get on the trailer, and I had my very own Najan.
And he did. Followed me right in, put his nose right in the hay I'd brought, and the rest is history. That little flea-bitten grey Arabian gelding is Reggie, the White Horse of my Dreams. Lesson Horse Extraordinaire. Painted Indian Pony. Reluctant Unicorn. Comic Relief. Business Partner. Master Teacher. Healer. Friend.
Preface: I said goodbye to my dear, 29-year old Saddlebred lesson horse, Stevie, last week. I'd known him for over half of his life - I met him at William Woods University in 1996, where I was a student and he was a donated lesson horse.
My dear, brave, sweet Stevie,
It's hard to imagine how reluctant I was to buy you, considering that we've had twelve years together. I still remember the first time I rode you my first semester at William Woods - it was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, and it happened right in front of world-famous riding instructor Gayle Lampe! We had to canter a figure-eight, my saddle slid sideways, you went hopping around, sporting a trimmed mane and nothing to grab onto, and you weren't interested in helping me one bit! You never did have much interest in figure work - you were a Champion Three Gaited Saddlebred with a mission to take those victory passes on your own terms, often leaving your young riders in the dirt as you trotted out of the ring with your blue ribbon!
You taught me a very important lesson that day - I had a lot to learn and I didn't ever want to ride you again! Your constant antics in the stall, your hunger strikes, your epic victory passes, your habit of eating students - you were a perpetual source of disruption in the William Woods barn, at the horse shows, and in the classroom as we learned that there are exceptions to every rule. Especially with Stevie.
So when Gayle Lampe called me the year after I graduated to ask me if I needed a lesson horse, because you were for sale, I told here that I was not interested in a lesson horse that eats students and bucks people off at horse shows. And she replied, "He doesn't do that anymore - he's older and more mellow now." Or something like that. But I was not a fan of the Getting Even Steven, so I told her, "No, thank you."
But a month later you were for sale again. The phone call went something like this: "Lisa, it's Megan, from William Woods - I bought Stevie, but I need to sell him because I'm taking a job that won't let me have a horse, and Ms. Lampe said you might want to buy him."
Sigh. Who was I to argue with Gayle Lampe? At least not twice, anyway! So I sent Megan a check and she put you on a trailer from Ames, Iowa to Oshkosh, WI.
By the time you stepped off the trailer in Oshkosh, you had taken all of your shoes off and ripped your tail out. You didn't have a mane the last time I'd seen you and it had grown in nicely - on the wrong (left) side. I don't really know what I was expecting.
But hey - I'm a lefty, too, so maybe we had more in common that I'd thought!
I quickly learned that mellow wasn't your style. But I admired your spirit, and thought I could teach you a thing or two, and we'd figure out how to teach lessons together. Ha! Turns out I was the one that had some stuff to learn, didn't I?
You were far more patient with me than I was with you. After all I was just a dumb kid and you already knew EVERYTHING, right? By the end of our first summer together half of my students hated you, and the other half were kind of afraid of you. But I was merely annoyed with you, and didn't figure I could convince anybody to buy you, anyway. So off to Colorado we went...
Where I quickly learned that you already had quite a reputation. When I proudly told the trainer I was going to work for in Denver that I was bringing a horse named Getting Even Steven, she startlingly exclaimed, "You can't bring that horse here! He's completely crazy! I've seen him try to kill people!" Whilst wrapping my head around the fact that you'd already made a name for yourself as an outlaw in the horse community to which I was scheduled to move the following week, I explained, "He doesn't do that any more - he's older and more mellow now." Whoa, channeling Gayle Lampe!
Many students and blue ribbons later, including Arizona State Pleasure Driving Champion, you were a local superstar, and turned that ugly old reputation for being naughty (mostly) on its head! In the eight years we taught lessons together, I had about as many people offer to buy you as ask me, "Is that old horse really worth all the trouble?" "No, he's not for sale," and "Yes, he most certainly is worth it!"
Our adventures were never boring - you had a way of taking any sure thing and adding a Stevie Twist, usually in the final moment! There was a surprise outcome to everything you did - you made me think on my feet! You were still teaching me how to train, teach, trust, and love while giving many young students the ride of a lifetime. You taught me a lot about hard work, determination, and courage. And that you don't do trail rides.
You were the original Energizer Pony - when the going got tough you never, ever quit. You had more try, more heart, and more soul than any horse I've ever known. You were also the sportiest, most athletic horse I've ever known, and I'm including your trail riding gymnastics and carrot-trick yoga games with all of those enthusiastic victory passes. And yours was certainly the proudest blue ribbon I ever received - Open English Pleasure Champion - when you were 20 years old!
I know now that you put up with all the beginner students, summer campers, and Halloween costumes because you liked hanging out with me. I was your mom, your cheerleader, friend, and your human counterpart. And if you behaved, you got to go to horse shows, where everyone could admire you as you trotted out of the arena with another blue ribbon. I remember watching you size up the competition before your classes - you really did know everything, didn't you?
Neither of us handled your retirement very well. Pasture life clearly was not up your alley, but you eventually learned to live outside in a "private" run - it was easier to torment your neighbors when you could actually reach them, anyway! The first time I caught you picking up your rubber feed pan to wallop the horse next to you, I couldn't help but belly-laugh, you were very seriously hilarious in your distate for horses not quite up to "Stevie standards". Which includes most every horse you've ever met. Especially geldings. And horses with spots.
I could write forever about my spunky little white-faced horse and our adventures, but I'm afraid any attempt to summarize your life, a life lived so powerfully, so purposefully, and so profoundly could only fall painfully short of describing the once-in-a-lifetime, larger-than-life, rockstar- superhorse-companion-partner-teacher-healer-and-friend that you were to me. So I'll stop here for now, but I'll write more later, because there's just so, so much more. I am honored to have had the privilege of sharing almost half of your life with you. Thank you for reminding me to laugh at myself, live with relish, love hard, and be myself, no matter what anyone else says or does.
I said goodbye to my dear Stevie this week, just a month shy of his 29th birthday. While my heart hurts to think that I won't get a chance to scratch him under the chin or run my fingers through his mane again, I'm taking comfort in knowing that the days suffering in a body too old for his young spirit are finally over.
So many Stevie stories - I've written pages and pages about my "little horse that could", never publishing most of it, because there was always more. Stevie's life was a never-ending stream of anecdotes, where would I start? And he seemed to have nine lives - we'd had so many near-misses, so many rebounds, I figured his story would never end. I suppose it really hasn't!
I do know that Stevie's ability to overcome the impossible wasn't exclusive to his twelve years with me. There are thirteen previous owners listed on his American Saddlebred Horse Association registration papers before mine. I got to meet one of them in Colorado several years ago, and she recounted the story of how close she had come to putting Stevie to sleep following a seemingly unsuccessful colic surgery. She and her veterinarian couldn't seem to manage Stevie's pain with a common pain reliever, "Banamine", as he was waking from the anesthetic, and he was thrashing around violently, unable to get up. Afraid that he would fatally injure himself, she decided to put him out of his misery as soon as the "pain relievers" wore off and her vet could give him the lethal injection. She had a horse-sized hole dug on her property and prepared to say her goodbyes, when Stevie suddenly got more comfortable and stood up with a big sigh. Happily stunned by this reversal of the inevitable, she changed her mind, the hole was filled, and a conclusion made: Stevie would be fine, but no more Banamine!
Stevie certainly had a flair for the dramatic, but in other ways he could be very stoic about pain, he always looked years younger in the show ring, because adrenaline would kick in whenever there was an audience. We won an Open English Pleasure Championship in a class of professionals aboard their best and brightest, when Stevie was 20. It was my proudest blue ribbon ever, not to mention a ride that I wish everyone could experience in their lifetime! He was as proud that I was navigating him through the class as I was to be riding him! There was no doubt that Stevie loved attention, seeking it out in every way possible, even if it meant toothmarks! "Hey! Are you listening to me?" I'm still sporting the remains of one of his "love bites" on my thigh from the day before he died - the little booger always wanted to make sure everybody knew exactly how he felt.
The consummate Energizer Pony, Stevie could outlast everbody else - student riders, other (much, much younger) horses, even me. And don't let him catch you feeling sorry for him - he had way too much pride for any such nonesense! Well into retirement, arthritic body failing him, he'd sense somebody watching and puff himself up, putting on a show that inevitably caused someone to ask, "How is old is that horse, again?" I loved watching their faces when I revealed his vintage.
Stevie was always giving me a reason to smile. Like right now.
PSST: Do you have a Stevie story? I know I have many more! Post yours in the comments, and I'll write more soon!
Stevie taught me something about being present when I was out visiting him at the farm today. I gave him a bath, and we went out to find some grass for him while I toweled him dry. After my towels were mostly wet, and my horse was mostly dry, I sat down on the lawn to watch him happily munching on green grass. As I sat back against a tree, I thought maybe I'd check my email, now that I had a moment, so I pulled my phone out of my pocket.
As soon as I held it up and looked down at the screen, the contented crunching stopped. I looked up to see my horse frozen in place, his eyes empty, staring straight ahead. Definitely an expression of resigned sadness.
"You okay, buddy? What's wrong, Steve?" I stood up, went over to him. The phone was back in my pocket. I put my hand on his neck and he didn't move. Where was my horse with the big personality?
Then I heard him, "You came all the way out here to stare at your phone? Really? Because that's crap, if you ask me." And as if to emphasize his point, he crapped, right there on the lawn.
Oops. Sorry, man. You are so right.
Next time the phone stays in the car, my attention on my horse, and my mind in the moment.
Okay, I'll admit it. In between thankfully longer and longer stretches of positivity, I still have plenty of bouts of uncertainty. So I keep a log of some of the best advice I receive from so many of the amazing people in my life, and check in with it when I need a boost. Here are some of the gems I've collected so far:
On getting back to life: Don't BE the disease. Get back to life. Get back to living. Got it.
On going back to work: Don't worry about going back to work just yet. You've still got 11 rounds of chemo, and I don't think you could work full-time until that's over. Just concentrate on staying well. Check.
On money: You will always have what you need, when you need it. Okay...
On stress: Cut yourself some slack - we've had a really hard couple of years. Right. It'll get better. Thanks, Dad.
On what to do next: You've been blessed with the opportunity to figure out what you really want in life. Take it! Yessir! Now's the time to learn something new. Take some classes, maybe go back to school. Doing it! Maybe you should write a book. Been thinking about that, actually...
On my horse career: You've got this crazy ability to read horses. Use it! Working on it! Why aren't you teaching riding lessons? You need to be teaching riding lessons! Yes ma'am!
On spirituality: When you remember who you are, and I remember who I am, we remember: We are ONE. YES!
On blogging: You might run out of stuff to write about on that blog of yours. Never!
The last couple of weeks have been tough. Busy, busy, busy - like a hamster on a wheel. Going nowhere - really fast. Working all the time, feeling like I'll never catch up, and it was really getting me down. Last month I got this tremendously great news about my health, but I've been catching myself in the throes of negativity more often than I'd like to admit. I was certainly off-track of my normally positive outlook. How do you practice what you preach, Girlbert? The answer wasn't coming as quickly as I would have liked, so I wrote this little reminder for myself. Maybe it'll be helpful for some of you, too.
Here some of the tricks I use to stay on track in the practice of a happy, healthy life:
I meditate. Every day - even if it's just for a few minutes. I try to stop and focus on my breathing: Inhale...Exhale. So simple, and does wonders for my stress level!
I journal. I never know when I'll need to jot something down, so I keep a small notebook with me. I tell people that good or bad, it's better to get it out of your head and on paper than let it take over your mind. Then you can look at it on page and determine if it's worth more of your energy.
I stop what I'm doing when I'm hungry and make food for myself. I make a point to consciously feed my body healthy food.
I get outside and enjoy nature. I appreciate all of the earth's creatures and taking the time to admire them renews my sense of wonder and humility.
Find the humor and laugh! There's something funny in every situation (I promise!), and if you can do that, you'll get through anything.
I cry if I need to, then pick myself up and move on. But most importantly, don't bottle it up - let it OUT! It's okay to be angry/sad/whatever, as long as you address it and move on.
I make time for the things I love to do. It's important to have a hobby or creative outlet. I started taking a watercolor class through the Cancer Center this fall, and I'm having a blast learning how to paint! Learning something new is so good for your mind, and being an art student reminds me that we're all students in the lesson that is life! I've also recently begun to take more time for my horse and my horse friends and that's been good for my spirit and to reconnect with the horse girl inside me. Reminds me that I'm still a horse girl, just waiting to get back in the saddle.
I exercise. Okay, not every day, but I try to do something to get my blood pumping at least every other day. Then I yoga or do some pilates at home on days in between. I admit I'm not a big fan of exercising for exercising's sake, but I've seen the results of with vs. without: My blood counts (taken every week) are more stable, my mood is better, and I definitely have more energy with exercise. (Don't they have some research to prove that, somewhere, too?) Not to mention I look better with a little muscle on, and who doesn't like to look good? A shaman once told me, "if you look good, you feel good."
And I have to give credit to so many healers, friends (animals, too!), shamans, energy workers, family members, doctors, holistic practitioners, and some people I've never even met; for inspiring me to be better, learn more, and HEAL. So put yourself out there - you never know who you'll meet, what you'll learn, or what you'll get back. Know that your energy, love, and support will be returned, times ten!
So there's more to the title of that last post - much more - but I opted to quit with just the facts last time. Just get everybody up to speed with the story, while taking a little more time to process and plan Part Two.
As I wrote the previous post, something struck me as I typed the words, "Believe It." They appeared on the screen before me, and I realized I had much more to share than "Just the facts, m'am". One of my mantras over my years of exploration into my own spirituality, my mission in this lifetime, on this planet; has been "If I believe it, well then it must be true," or "If you believe that, that it will be true for you." I'm always telling people: "There is so much power in what you think!" Also, "Write down what you want, and you'll have it."
I was really lucky to have this really great riding instructor, professor, and mentor in college whose mantra was, "There's no sense in practicing at all, if you're going to practice the wrong things. Practice correctly, or don't practice at all." She was, of course, talking about riding horses, but I've carried that mantra with me through all aspects of life. She's also one of the happiest, cheeriest people I know, so I'm pretty sure she applies this statement to her whole life, too.
I didn't realize how to apply it to more than riding then, but I see it so clearly now. I've been working for a long time toward the goal of being happy, and more recently, toward health. Obviously the two go hand in hand! So I practice happiness, instead of sadness. I practice making healthy choices, instead of unhealthy choices. This isn't to say I'm always happy or healthy, or that it's easy. But I make a conscious effort to practice correctly. If I get off course, I make a correction. And I learn from my mistakes. And I believe that I will achieve my goals. I write down what I want. I imagine myself succeeding. And I know anything is possible, as long as I believe it.
I struggle with doubt, sure. I have to fend off plenty of sadness. There will always be obstacles, but the point is to not let my mind be one of them. But I've made a practice of believing everything will work out in a positive way, provided that I stay focused on the positive outcome. I've had plenty of help from healers, shamans, and energy workers to help drive that point home throughout the years, and it's finally starting to stick. I'm still a student and life is one lesson after another, but practice makes perfect.