After five quiet rejuvenating weeks protected in the solitude of the great north and the Canadian winter, I reluctantly emerged into civilization for a horse expo at Michigan State, where I had the honor of presenting and selling my book on behalf of Joy Beginners School in Kangemi Slums, Nairobi, Kenya, Africa.
Friday at the expo was a whirlwind of kids and students, and on Saturday, I was lucky enough to catch up with the blacksmith who grew up in boy scouts with my dad and has been my friend and deeply revered horseshoer for more than half my life. I also got to see my dressage trainer (who is also brave enough to be the zebra’s vet) and my very first horse trainer—who I am proud to say taught me everything—and her kids, who were just babies when I last saw them and now they are in middle school and beyond.
But come Sunday, too many nights in a hotel and the roar and busy commotion of anxious, frenzied horse people had me rather worn out. Someone had walked off with the entire box of birch-tree pencils the kids love to use to write pen pal letters to my students in Kenya, the book had been thrown in my face twice because “there are needy kids right here in Detroit” which somehow makes my cause obsolete and worthy of my book thrown, and two women accused me of charging too much after moving on to the for-profit author next to me and buying those books, which cost the same and have less pages than mine.
My faith in humanity had been expended for the day, and I just wanted to go home, see my horses, and re-think this whole author thing. Because maybe my dad was right. Maybe I should have gone to medical school.
And then, the most wonderful thing happened.
But let me back up first, by fifteen minutes.
There was a little girl who had bought my book with her allowance money that I had overheard her mom say took her three weeks to earn. She was there at the expo as a volunteer with some brownie scout troop she didn’t want to be a part of, and they shoved her in the back bay of the expo and placed her next to a drafty door to re-direct any exhibitors that came in the wrong way. Really, she was just put out of the way. She was too shy to be up front, so they put her in the back where she was in no danger of needing to talk or show assertiveness. She could just sit there and wait for the weekend to be over, fulfill her commitment, and earn a patch she didn’t want. What they didn’t know is how much she loved being back there so near to the horses because one riding lesson a week was never enough time with horses.
I’d seen her eye my books from a distance the day before, but it wasn’t until I had tried to invite her to the coloring table with the other kids, as if she was any other kid, that I realized she wasn’t just any other kid. Before I could correct my mistake, she quickly retreated back to her little chair and sunk into it as deeply as she could, as if I had just suggested she walk outside into the stormy, freezing wind and snow without a jacket. Just from the deep look in her eyes, I realized my severe mistake.
But it was too late. Or so, I thought. I hadn’t been paying close enough attention, I’d blown her cover. There were so many screaming kids and their parents demanding attention. I had to get back to them. So that was that.
To my surprise, she reluctantly came back the next afternoon—which was Sunday, the last afternoon of the expo. I thought maybe she just wanted to try coloring again, but she came up to my booth and meekly picked out a book, the cover of which she had already memorized from her careful distance. As she silently handed my mom her crumpled up fist of money and purposely avoided eye contact with me, I felt so compelled to talk to her—encourage her—say to her what I wish someone had said to me—but I was afraid of scaring her away again, so I wrote her a note in her book instead. Because there she was, a reflection of me at eight years old, and at that age, that’s how we speak and listen best—through silence. Through writing. And that’s the way it will be for our entire lives, though she won’t know that about herself for quite some time.
I knew there was one thing, however, that we could talk about.
“Did you see that big Belgian around the corner?” I asked her.
Her demeanor completely changed and her eyes lit up behind the big glasses she normally hides behind.
“Oh, I did!” she exclaimed. “He’s so big. I just can’t believe it.”
“I saw his owner fill up a trash can full of water. Can you believe that’s how much water he drinks?! Did you get to pet him?”
“Oh yes, he’s soft.”
“And gentle, huh?”
“And quiet. I like that.”
“Me, too.” I watched her for a moment as she thumbed through her new book and then turned her head for another look at the Belgian. We could hear him pawing.
She doesn’t fit in. She probably gets bullied. She dresses like the characters she reads over and over in her favorite books, which are books from the 19th century…or earlier. She doesn’t have many friends. Her parents don’t know what to do with her. They think she’s too serious. She can’t tell them what she’s thinking because she hasn’t yet learned how to communicate in a world that seems so loud and aggressive and blunt. She’d find this world ugly and dark if it wasn’t for horses. Horses ease her into the interface of her world and this one. Horses are the only creatures in this world that make any sense to her, and so, she made perfect sense to me.
“He wants out,” she said to me, with a long, frank sigh.
“He’s probably ready to go home. All this commotion wears him out, I’m sure.”
The little girl looked at me in agreement before she fell back inside herself. We both knew how the big Belgian felt—I hadn’t needed to say it—and I knew she had imagined a thousand wildly exciting ways to free him, hop on his back, and gallop (run) far, far away because that’s what I’d dream and write about after coming to expos like these and meeting horses like the Belgian and surrounded by what seemed like drones of unfeeling, uncaring, unobservant people. She looked at me again to say thanks for the book, and then quickly left. She was just as afraid of getting in trouble for leaving a post no one cared about or bothered to check on as she was anxious to be left alone to bask in the warmth of a new book.
The Belgian pawed again and drew my attention back in his direction. The crowd hovering around his stall ooooohhhhhed and ahhhhhhed because they thought he was showing off and being charismatic and I couldn’t take it any longer. I forgot all about the little girl because it irritates me when people don’t understand horses and I had to go do what the Belgian could not. I had to walk. Move. Pace. Roam.
Thankfully, my mom was there with her enthralling sales pitch and a new found love for the credit-card square, and I was free to go for awhile.
I walked up and down the aisles of frantic shoppers. The mindless chatter about garlic supplements, halter charms, and that bind you get into when you find out your horse has inferior bloodlines compared to the horse of the stranger bragging to you was intolerable and suffocating. Of course, not all horse people get caught up in such trifling matters, but a lot of the people that came on Sunday sure did. I wondered what my own paperless, un-registered horses (and rejected zebra) were up to, and I got lost in the loss of being here for people purposes and not horse purposes. Every time I’ve come to something like this, I’ve always had a horse with me. My mind raced with all there was left to do. Sell the book for another few hours. Pack up. Get Gabriel at the hotel. Turn in a paper. Drive home. Home. I was almost home. After 5 weeks, I’d finally be with my horses again. But at this point, another 5 hours felt like 5 endless years.
As I tried to distract myself by browsing the oilskins (I was actually just feeling them and smelling them because they feel and smell like Montana), I overhead a woman who was trying a dressage saddle inform her shopping companion that Judy-so-and-so trains with Rachel-so-and-so, and so, neither of them should talk with either of them from now on because their trainer doesn’t talk to Rachel after a client left their barn to board at her barn. And did it look like this saddle fixed her shoulders? Because Luci-the-grand-prix-clinician says she hunches over and that’s why Sparkles is on the forehand but she thinks it has to be the saddle because her old trainer never said she hunched over and the horse whispering psychic from California told her that Sparkles blames the saddle, too.
That’s show business for you. The horse kind. Not the film kind. Though it seems the two operate similarly, sometimes.
Anyway, the conversation continued, but I couldn’t take it anymore.
Thoroughly worn out and immensely tired, impatient, and upset (which was not exactly justified), I became extremely consumed by my own distraught. The time away from the horses finally caught up with me. I flew around the corner in a blind fury on the way back to my mom, no longer caring if my anger showed and scared everyone away from my booth because then the sooner I could pack up and leave.
But something caught my eye, and I was so captivated, I stopped. Right there in everyone’s way.
There she was, that little girl again, sitting with one leg folded beneath her, while the other was bent upright, with her chin resting heavily on her knee—on that little chair of hers by the drafty door, facing the wall and reading with her back to the fluster of activity. She was reading my book. The bay was growing louder and more crowded by the minute, but there she was…silent. Invisible. Lost. In my book. A cloud of silent, peaceful solitude swirled around her. She smiled as she turned a page, her eyes ready and excitedly searching for the new words to come. And then, for one beautiful magical second, as she absorbed that new page, she laughed. An adorable, innocent, thoroughly delighted eight-year-old laugh. I don’t know what sentence she was on or which character had struck her so. But she laughed. She was no longer stowed away in a corner or trapped like the Belgian in that loud, rowdy bay. Instead, she was free. Free by way of a book. My book.
Tears came to my eyes, and I couldn’t help but smile, too. She was in a world I created. And she was living that fairytale. That farm fairytale. With the same flush of wonder and excitement that I get when I’m there, myself. “Look, Mom!” I whispered. “She’s reading my book!”
It was one of the happiest moments of my life. For the first time, I learned what it is exactly that being a writer really means. I used to think it just meant telling a story or opening up a new way of thinking or looking or understanding for someone else. But it’s not about that at all. Instead, it kind of feels like being a magician. Or what I imagine being a magician feels like. Making something ordinary disappear, and exchanging it for something wonderful. Creating something extraordinary for someone to experience—and to take them someplace entirely new—if only for a little while. I didn’t know moments like seeing that little girl with my book existed. But it’s made every single moment before that one worth it.
But when I smile and think about it now, I am equally flooded with gratitude for all the people who got me through all those moments leading up to that one, and who continue to meet me in the middle…or even farther…when I (sometimes, quite often) get like that little girl who is used to being in the back and on the sidelines, just watching. Belonging in a world that’s someplace else…lost at the farm or in Kenya or somewhere even farther away…with a back facing away and weary of the outside world…easily startled….easily scared off. Sometimes with nothing but horses able to coax her out and help her make sense of things and convince her to try again. Of course, I’ve learned and I’ve grown and I’ve changed a lot since those days, but the old days aren’t always far away. And I’m grateful for the people who wait them out.
Those people are people like my mom. And Cody and Hallie (who just braved emergency surgery like the warrior she is) and Bradley Michael (Michael Bradley) and Jess and Justin and so many others who will never read this, so I’ll tell them in a different way.
I have more people than horses now. It didn’t always used to be like that and that’s a testament to them. Not me.
So, I just wanted to say thanks, guys. For putting up with me and helping me get to where I supposed to be.