At the Horse Sanctuary

Three Months

Three months ago today, I lost my horse after a battle with laminitis. I finally wrote about it.

~

I have turned to words as a means of self-expression for as long as I can remember. The first thing I ever wanted to be in life was a writer. From the time I was a little girl, I loved being able to document my experiences, my reactions, my feelings. In a way, writing was how I made sense of the world around me.

But for the first time in my memory, I didn’t want to write about this.

For so long, the idea of putting words to paper and documenting what was one of the most painful experiences of my life was more than I could bear. I didn’t want to relive the cruel reality that was losing my first horse at such a young age. I didn’t want to find words because doing so made it permanent, done, irreversible… in my grieving mind, anyway.

Time, however, is unforgiving and ever-present and everlasting. And as the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months, I found that my waves of grief grew shorter and struck with less of a vengeance. Little by little, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, day by day…. I wrote our story.

The story of my first horse and the short time we had together here on Earth.

The story of a mare who died too young and too full of life.

And most importantly… the story of how horse rescue can either make you or break you.

And I suppose it all starts at the beginning, as stories usually do, when Tierra Madre got a call in December of 2014 from a woman down the road who owned a very strong, very spirited mare she needed to rehome immediately.

At first, I remember, we said no. We were full as we always tend to be.

But the situation grew perilous as this mare began to truly frighten her owner with her erratic and aggressive behavior, which was bad enough for euthanasia to be considered. Without even knowing or seeing this horse, something in my spirit stirred upon hearing these words. In my heart of hearts, I knew we had to get the mare to safety. We all did.

So Jim, my boss, called her owner and said, “We’ll take her.”

The day this dangerous horse was to arrive at Tierra Madre, her owner called me midmorning, hysterical.

“She won’t go in the trailer,” she said. “She knows something’s different, she can sense it! She’s gone crazy. She’s scared…”

I didn’t even think about my answer.

“Where are you located?”

Fifteen minutes later, I was on her property, greeting her and her sister who was helping with the situation. “We’ve tried everything,” they said. “She just won’t go in…”

“I’ll help as much as I can,” I said, fully aware that both of these women were far more experienced at loading than I was. But hell, we had nothing to lose.

As we stood and talked, I looked just beyond them and saw her: a beautiful red mare, with a white blaze and deep, expressive eyes, standing in a little pen.

My heart skipped a beat as our eyes met.

“It’s the alfalfa,” her owner was saying nervously. After spending a good hour attempting to get this horse into the trailer, the poor woman looked completely distraught. “I can’t believe I didn’t have her tested for PSSM. That’s it. I know it is.”

I listened, but kept me eyes on the mare, mesmerized. She was gazing at us unblinkingly.

“It’s like she knows she’s going away for good. She’s different,” the woman continued as we stood watching the mare shake her head a little. “She’s been different for two years. I’ve never been afraid of her before. But she’s just out of control. I just—”

“Can I go in with her?” I asked her, and she sucked in her breath and looked at me with fearful eyes.

“Oh, yes, yes, whatever you want. As far as I’m concerned, she’s your horse now. Go meet your new horse.”

I took a brief second to explore all my options as I walked over to the mare’s pen. I could avoid any potential accident by not going in with her. Of course, after working with Chance, anything this horse had to offer would be a walk in the park. And this woman had said she was ready to put her down if she couldn’t get her to another home.

And all the while that mare kept watching me with uneasy eyes. I couldn’t decipher them.

There was no other option. I threw caution to the winds, slung the halter over my shoulder, and went in with her.

She immediately came over to sniff me, more curious than aggressive. As her owner and her sister continued talking about the horse’s current behavior, things they had noticed, tests she’d undergone, that horse and I just looked and looked and looked at each other as the world moved on around us. She was nervous. She was in perfect physical condition and her mane was nicely combed, but she couldn’t keep still and her eyes kept wandering. Every now and then she pinned her ears back and tossed her head a little. But as I stood calmly in her small pen, her amber eyes would keep settling on mine.

And just like that, I fell head over heels in love.

I haltered her and walked her around a bit, or rather she tried to walk me as she pushed me around in what I would soon come to realize was her typical fashion. I worked with her for an hour while the trailer sat ahead of us. And all the while, I talked to her.

I told her about Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary.

I told her that at our ranch, she could just be a horse and not have to worry about pleasing others. She could run around to her heart’s desire by herself or with as many friends as she wanted. She could be nobody but herself, and no one would prevent her from being anything else.

Again and again I brought her to the trailer and let her explore it.

But she wouldn’t walk in. She didn’t want to get in that trailer.

After an hour of us walking in circles, nearly all of my hope was lost. We were all exhausted and while the mare had put a tentative hoof in the trailer once or twice, she still didn’t want that much to do with it.

Finally, as she hemmed and hawed and twitched and laid her ears back and looked around anxiously, I played my last, craziest, desperate card.

I put my head against hers, closed my eyes, soaked in every ounce of her wild energy, and whispered in her ear.

“You have no reason to trust me on this,” I said, hoping against hope she would listen. “But I need you to trust me now.”

She looked at me, looked at the trailer, looked at her owner and sister nearby helping with the attempt, and looked at me again.

And then…

“Okay.”

And after a few more hesitant steps, in she went.

We drove her down the road to Tierra Madre and when I opened the trailer door, she charged out like a bat out of hell, taking in her surroundings with a fierceness I’ve never seen before or since. And the first thing I did was turn her out into the arena. Around and around she flew, mane flying, tail streaking out behind her, a blaze of red as she galloped with joy in her heart for a good twenty or thirty minutes.

On that day, when Jim saw the two of us together, he pointed at her, pointed at me, and said, “She’s yours. You saved her. That’s your little girl.”

Later, we stood watching her in her temporary home in the round pen. And I took in the craziness of that day, not knowing that my next few days and weeks and months would be spent working with her and letting her ease out of her nervous habits, not knowing that she would be more than a handful, not knowing she had no intention of learning ground manners or ever tolerating a saddle again, not knowing that by the end of that week she would be following me around in her pen and putting her head against mine in something damn near devotion.

I did know one thing. The mare I was now to call my own was as wild and as utterly, breathtakingly beautiful as the desert around us. And it made naming her that much easier.

“Sonora,” I said, as we watched the mare eat contentedly and look around at her new home. “Her name is Sonora.”

Her first day.

In the two and a half years she spent at Tierra Madre, Sonora – or Nora, as I nicknamed her – blossomed into one of the most unique, strong-willed, loving horses I’ve ever known.

A month or so after she’d been with us, our farriers tried to trim her. She fought them tooth and nail, going so far as to rear up on them and make an effort to charge.

I didn’t know it then, but that was the earliest sign of her problems. And boy, did she constantly have problems with her feet.

For as long as we had her, Nora always struggled with abscesses no matter what we did to her stall. We tried her with shoes, then without, then with again, then without as we tried to figure out what worked and what didn’t. Within a year, I learned she’d had an acute case of laminitis with her previous owner, and the owner before that one.

Isoxsuprine. Ichthammol and bandages. Hoof supplements. Bute, then previcox. Diet changes. Special booties. We all spent hours and hours on her feet. Whatever she needed during a sore phase, we did. Sometimes, she would be sore for weeks. Sometimes, whatever we did one day would bring her completely back to normal the next.

And when she was feeling her best, she was a force to be reckoned with.

She charged out of her stall when it was her turn to go out in the arena. She hopped and jumped and leapt and ran and kicked with fearlessness, with reckless abandon.

Twice at this ranch I’ve been in life-or-death situations that would have ended in disaster had it not been for a few inches of space. Twice, she was the cause of those incidents – one in which she kicked at my head in irritation at not being taken home first and another in which she turned, knocked me down, and nearly ran me over in haste to run.

But within the untamed wildness of her heart lay kindness, and trust, and an intuition that was always right on target.

Everyone who walked within our gates loved her. And she humbled us all by loving us back.

In the spring of 2016, I was absolutely terrified for her when it became clear that her abscesses were not the problem but rather another flare up of laminitis. After several months of corrective trims, booties, supplements, a cushy stall, and more prayers than I can count, she flew around that arena again by the end of the summer.

I had no idea then it would be her last.

August 31, 2016

In March of this year, the soreness came back. Our new vet and new therapeutic farrier – who’d worked on laminitic horses at our ranch before – came out to diagnose her with severe, acute laminitis.

Going through the downfall hurts even now and blurs together.

The little sole depth she had that kept decreasing. The day the solar corium began to rupture through the sole. The brief 24 hours we thought she improved and her attitude was good and we really, really thought we were going to make it. The day she sunk to the ground in pain rather than stand on one foot while we checked the other. The weight she lost. The way her legs shook. The look in her eyes – determined and strong and fighting pain every instant of every day.

The awful, awful day before we ended it, when we realized there was no saving her.

We always wait for them to tell us they’re ready.

But this time, our vet said to general agreement that Nora was the type of horse that would keep fighting even when she was walking on bone.

This time, we had to be the ones to decide for her.

And I hate that.

July 24, 2016

We made the call and scheduled it for noon on May 4th. I gave the volunteers a heads up the day before. And that morning, she was surrounded by so many people who loved her and wanted to send her off with love.

We gave her everything she wanted: alfalfa, watermelon, carrots, apples, peppermints… hugs and kisses and pats and scratches. In my haze I was under that morning, I remember getting a bucket of anti fungal shampoo and water and washing her legs one last time, because I couldn’t bear the thought of her leaving without perfectly clean legs. She was so grateful for everything and returned the love that was given to her without hesitation.

After feeding at 11, everyone left one by one, leaving me alone with her in her stall.

And just as I’d talked to her on our first day together, I talked to her on our last.

I told her about the Great Herd.

How the horses in it didn’t live in fear. How they could walk perfectly and jump and buck and run across fields of grass as fast as they could for as long as they wanted. How they lived forever in happiness, with no fences or terrible heat or restricting booties or terrible pain.

I told her that in the Great Herd, she could be nobody but herself, and no one would prevent her from being anything else.

Far too soon, the vet and her assistant pulled through the gate. Nora was quiet, accepting. I was aware of every breath entering and leaving my body. The two of us would only be breathing together for just a little while longer.

Our vet looked at me with complete sympathy and compassion when I walked over with a halter. “You don’t have to watch,” she said. “You don’t have to be there.”

Breath in. Breath out.

“Yes, I do.”

She nodded. I walked. Walked to Nora’s stall. Opened the gate. Haltered her. For the last time. The very last time.

I looked at my little girl, so different from the mare I’d first walked through our gates. I took a breath, one that took all my strength.

And I repeated the words.

“You have no reason to trust me on this,” I whispered in her ear, and it was then I felt my heart break, truly break. “But I need you to trust me now.”

She looked back at me, strong and confident and calm and impossibly beautiful.

“Okay.”

The vet was worried Sonora wouldn’t be able to walk up the lane all the way to the spot where we’ve always sent horses to the Great Herd. “She will,” I said.

And Nora walked – sore and in pain but never stopping, never hesitating, never turning back.

We started up the lane up which we’d walked together a thousand times, exploring the ranch, learning to trust one another. We walked slowly, with purpose, as we had during all the days I’d spent showing her the trees, and the cacti, and the desert around us for which she’d been named and all the days she spent showing me what it meant to be living.

We walked past the barn where she had spent her first year with us before we moved her to the field side, where she lived when Sunny was born. I remembered how we switched her and Bentley so she could be the one living next to Rain and the new baby and how she and Sunny used to groom each other over the fence.

We walked past the nearly-gone sand pile she’d play in and over the woodchips she’d occasionally attempt to eat. The day I rushed off the ranch to save her, my volunteers were spreading eucalyptus wood chips on the driveway. To this day, whenever I smell that tree, I’ll think of the day we first met.

We walked past the arena, whose side gate she’d broken with a spirited kick to the handle, the arena into which I had turned her out the moment she came off the trailer, the arena she had torn to bits time and time again in her eagerness to run and kick and buck and leap in happiness. It was the arena I’d lunged her in frequently, where she listened to my thoughts rather than my commands. It was the arena where we’d played together, time after time, after everyone else had gone home, where we could run and dance and chase each other and she would follow me, trustingly, every which way.

We walked up the lane and I saw the round pen in the distance, where she’d lived for her first few weeks and where we would oft return to goof around. Someone once took a video of us playing together – me skipping and her trotting happily at my heels.

We walked to the place where she first took in Tierra Madre and her new life and stopped. We stood still, waiting. Breathing.

Jim followed along with the doc and her assistant, armed with the two pink syringes. To this day I hate that bright, sickly color of pink with every fiber of my being.

As is protocol, she was sedated first, so she wouldn’t feel a thing. And after a few minutes that lasted hours, as the sedation began to take effect, the vet looked to me. I nodded.

The injection went in. The first, fast. Her knees buckled. Then, the second.

I put my face on Nora’s for the last time. Breath in, breath out.

And when she went down, I went down with her.

Her eyes reflected such a state of peace and contentment that I gazed into them as she left me, as we had gazed at each other the day we met, as Jim murmured, “Love you, angel,” over and over again so it would be the last thing she heard.

It was quiet for those few, peaceful moments – or minutes or hours or days for all I knew – as the vet listened for the final beats, the final breaths.

Then she said, “She’s gone.”

And every fiber of my being cracked and involuntary sobs burst out of me and just like I had so many times before during my hard days, I buried my face in Nora’s mane and held her to me and cried. Only this time, the final time, she wasn’t there to comfort me.

Fourteen years old, of which I’d gotten two and a half, in the prime of her life, gone to the horrors of laminitis.

Gone.

Nothing broke me like that day.

Losing Nora – a mare with whom I’d made a soul connection at first sight, the first horse I could ever actually call my own – so rapidly, and after so many ups and downs when she was so, so young… it almost turned me.

I’ve never once doubted my commitment to horses and my desire to work in rescue and help them and make their lives better… until that day.

I’m not proud of this. But that day, I searched for other jobs. Desk jobs. Office jobs. Any jobs. Anything that would take me away from this.

I wanted to lock my heart away and throw away the key and just up and leave, leave behind every possibility of heartbreak and never again have to feel like my heart was ripped out of my chest and scraped against every rough edge on the planet.

I wanted to leave behind the ranch and find a job where I could be numb to pain, numb to unfathomable grief, numb to the unimaginable suffering of innocent, beautiful spirits with their lives ahead of them.

I spent the next several weeks drowning in grief, questioning my will to be in the horse rescue/sanctuary world.

Who does this? I thought to myself.

Who does this?

Who keeps pouring every ounce of love into such incredible spirits over and over and over again only to have them ripped away?

Why would anyone do this?

Why would anyone go through agony such as this? Why would anyone in their right mind do horse rescue?

Why does anyone work in animal rescue?

I wish I could say that a shining realization came to me all at once, that I had an a-ha! moment that made me realize how silly I was being and how I could never quit.

But the truth is, the area is so gray that there are times I still ask these questions just as I simultaneously see their answers in the form of 31 other horses living at the ranch. And selfish as I am, I know deep down that to turn my back on them and all others for the sake of guarding my heart would be an insult to Nora’s memory.

Furthermore, it would be an insult to Moosie.

The Moose at Tierra Madre was our Medicine Man, a wise horse with an ancient soul who I only knew for four months before he died in his sleep in September of 2009. And the day before his death, I made him a promise that I live by every day of my life, a promise to be brave in the face of anything.

Moose taught me that life was worth living, that I was a person with a purpose. Sonora taught me what that purpose was.

It’s because of her I know that we rescue animals for the shining glimpses of hope between the storms.

We do it to watch them savor their first good meal after being starved or get the diets they need to keep them healthy.

We do it to watch a medical team fix the fractured bones, the torn ligaments, the open wounds, while we fix their broken hearts.

We do it to watch them gallop for joy after being locked in a stall or sprint across the grass after spending life on the end of a chain.

We do it for the new beginnings, the wonders of self discovery, the unbreakable, unspeakable bonds we forge with spirits we’d otherwise never meet.

We do it for the look of peace in their eyes when they leave this world, surrounded by love, knowing love, feeling love.

We do it knowing we’ll get knocked to our knees again and again, knowing there is no reprieve between heartbreaks but that there is no end to the hope we can offer if we rise again.

The blessing and curse of life is that grief is the price we pay for love. Living means we agree to accept the bad that comes with the good. And in the end, living means accepting that no matter how short a life is, it is still a lifetime. 

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My Travels

London Take Two: Day 8 – May 30, 2017

You know that feeling you get when you’re trying to grasp at something barely there, how in your half-asleep stage in the morning you’re trying to remember a dream that is fading fast from memory? Or when you have a sudden thought surge through your brain when – just before you can put it into words – it vanishes and you’re left scrambling to describe it?

That’s how I feel now.

I’m holding tight to the feeling of my last day in London – May 30th – the magic that was walking through the city, drinking in everything so acutely and solemnly and joyfully for the last time – and this past week I’ve felt that putting the pen to paper would make it all disappear.

Every minute of my trip is still fresh in my memory, and somehow writing down the last day makes the fact that I have been home for a week final, absolute. It defines my days as nothing more than what they are now: memories.

So it’s not that I haven’t had time to write. I just haven’t been able to. But, if I wait until the day I stop wishing my time in London was still happening, and more than just happy memories in my head, I don’t think my last day there will ever get blogged.

So… here we are.

~

On my last full day in London, I woke up with both the reality of knowing it was my final day and an eagerness to get out and explore just one last time.

I got out of bed and ate breakfast, taking my time getting ready, then – after getting some tea at Pret – walked to the Old Street Tube station.

My first stop was – of course – Parliament Square, which houses Big Ben (and the rest of the Houses of Parliament), and Westminster Abbey. This day, I walked across Westminster Bridge to look at the Square from the other side of the Thames. I wasn’t disappointed!

Very sweet memorial.

Then I went back up to Parliament Square to just sit and look at Big Ben and Westminster Abbey for a while. And, of course, admire the statues they have there.

This shot of Westminster Abbey might be my favorite I took throughout all my trip:

There is nothing like Westminster Abbey. I’ll travel the world in my lifetime and will never find anything that makes my heart skip a beat quite like this place does.

After drinking in every second I could in Parliament Square, I decided to head back towards Buckingham Palace so I could walk the Mall again. Buckingham Palace is about a 15 minute walk from (20 if you’re slow like me) and I thought it was the perfect time to take that walk through the city.

Loved this shot of Big Ben through the tree!

A shortcut is to go through the beautiful St. James’s Park, which naturally I took.

And while I was just stepping into the park, about to get onto the path that would take me towards the Palace, I caught sight of a cool little cottage a few hundred feet away so I turned right to check it out.

And while on this little detour, I came across two families of ducks that absolutely stopped me in my tracks.

The first flock had three babies, with Mama Duck resting and watching them pick around in the grass while Papa Duck strutted between them and kept a lookout for trouble.

The second family was waddling around together, Mama and Papa Duck keeping order while they walked, little ones following and looking around with wonder. One little guy kept lagging behind, curiously picking at the grass every now and then, then hurrying to catch up to his mom and siblings while Dad Duck chided him for being tardy.

It was fascinating. They were fascinating. I couldn’t watch them long enough, couldn’t marvel enough at the perfect little family units that they were.

It was so clear – so clear! – that each little member of the family had a role to play, a different place, a unique personality… and yet they all fit together perfectly.

Finally, I walked away to keep moving towards Buckingham Palace – the ducks, waddling as a unit, perfectly together, and me, headed down my path… but alone.

Such a cool bird!

Loved the markings on this one!

Knowing it was the final day made everything that much more special.

Knowing I could only wake to the sounds of the city one last time, see new buildings and statues one last time, experience the living, breathing culture of London one last time… it made me wonder just a bit. What things at home would I do if my time there was limited? What every-day occurrences would I experience while thinking, I just did that for the last time?

I had one last place to which I had to say goodbye before leaving. And the sky darkened with rain as I walked closer and closer.

Piccadilly.

Back on the Tube I went. I explored a few other stops, including Kings Cross Station again, in a quest to find a few more postcards to take home.

Then it was time to head back to the Old Street Tube station, closest to my Airbnb flat, me completely aware of the bitter fact that I would only have one last Tube trip to make tomorrow.

As I packed my things that evening, cramming clothes and books and gifts into my backpack and suitcase and realizing Paddington Bear wouldn’t fit in either… I thought of the duck families again.

And as I reflected on my week of traveling solo – freeing and wonderful as it had been – it occurred to me that for all my wanting to embark on this journey alone, I knew exactly what had been missing the whole time.

My Travels

London Take Two: Day 7 – May 29, 2017

When I rolled my suitcase off my plane a week ago and made my way towards the Tube, full of happy anticipation for what lay ahead of me, I knew that it would feel like no time at all had passed before I had to do it again, this time headed the other direction.

Rather than focus too much on the fact that tomorrow is my last day, I’m really trying to just live for each and every moment that I have left in this place!

Today, I spent another morning just sleeping in, writing, and leisurely strolling down to grab a latte and chocolate croissant and pomegranate seeds from Pret a few blocks away from my Airbnb flat. After almost an entire week of blue skies, London weather finally kicked in yesterday afternoon and it was drizzling this morning as I walked.

There is something about London in the rain during the summer (or, technically, late spring) that takes my breath away. The damp smell of the trees and the cobblestone, the old buildings darkened with water… Maybe it’s just the simple fact that I’m there to witness it.

In the afternoon, I took the DLR train down to Greenwich to see the Royal Observatory.

It was so fascinating to learn more of the history of setting longitude and latitude as well as using them to tell time. Plus, I got to stand on the Prime Meridian!

On the way back to the train, I stumbled across the church in which Henry VIII had been baptized. A single red poppy grew next to it – something I thought was amazingly cool.

I had to walk through Cutty Sark to get back to my train station – it was quite a view.

After the Observatory, I stopped by the flat to make myself dinner then headed back out around 6 for a little more exploring. While on the Tube, I decided to get off at Kings Cross station to poke around a little (and of course to see Platform 9¾).

Then, I spent one of the last few hours of daylight going to Green Park and looking at Buckingham Palace again, just because I could.

I’m going to miss that desperately, just going things here because I can. Going anywhere I want, exploring what I want.

A Canadian war memorial is in the park, and I stopped by for a few minutes to stand in silence in honor of Memorial Day and those who gave their lives for their countries.

 

I still can’t believe it’s been a week since I landed here in London and that the day after tomorrow, I’ll be flying back home to the desert.

Can I have two homes?

Can’t I just go back and forth between here and the desert forever?

My Travels · Uncategorized

London Take Two: Day 6 – May 28, 2017

Where did the time go?

When I wake tomorrow morning, I’ll only have two full days left head of me to explore London before I make my way to the airport Wednesday.

Part of me feels like I’ve been here forever. I’m so used to the Tube, the sounds of the city, the traffic, the little eatery places on the corners, being just a few minutes from Big Ben and Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey….

But, all the more reason to just soak in every moment I get in this amazing place.

Today I went to the Tower of London, the famous military fortress and a place of imprisonment that is centuries old and has seen the rise and fall of monarchies. The place has witnessed accusations of treason, actual treason, redemptions, battles, and dire consequences for some. Its most famous prisoner was Anne Boleyn during her final days as Henry VIII’s second wife.

Last time I was there, I only saw the Crown Jewels and the famous scaffold site, but today I spent over four hours wandering around, exploring all the different towers and battlements.

There were the apartments of Edward I and his father, Henry III:

the royal beasts “exhibit”:

the fighting platforms and the extensive armory display in the centered White Tower:

and so much more.

Knowing I might not get another chance, I stood in line to get into the Bloody Tower and see one of the biggest attractions: Torture at the Tower. What I’m sure many people take as a cool touristy room was nothing but completely sickening to me. The torture devices were so awful, I couldn’t take pictures of them. Yet so many people are desensitized and snap their pictures and move on to the next room without comprehending the horror of what they see.

Speaking of desensitization, allow me to have a mini rant here for a second.

Parents took children into this tower; their small, innocent children with no comprehension of the horrifying concept of torture.

While I was eating in the café, I actually overhead a family discussing their next plans and the mother said to her kids, “You want to go see the torture chamber?” And the kids, with all the enthusiasm of those agreeing to go on a ride at Disneyland, responded, “Yeah!”

Like no.

No.

I firmly believe that if kids are old enough to ask the questions, they’re old enough to know the answers, but that doesn’t mean we should give them the entire truth when they’re so young. Until they’re old enough to understand and fully appreciate the severity of topics like torture, they shouldn’t be exposed to it in the form of being brought in to examine devices that were used to carry out such crimes.

Okay, rant over.

As terrible as the Bloody Tower was, the place that gave me the most chills was the Salt Tower, where prisoners were kept and wrote messages on the walls.

I reached out to touch the messages at one point and was struck with so. many. questions.

Who were those people who lived within these stone walls? What were their stories? How did they come to be imprisoned at the Tower? What happened to them?

What must have run through their heads as they waited in that room, as they ticked the days on the walls and waited for their fates? Did they stick to their truths or redeem themselves in the hopes of being forgiven and released?

Studying history is putting yourself into the shoes of those who came before you and trying to know them, to make sense of their circumstances. I wish everyone around me at the Tower had acted with reverence and respect. Several were the stereotypical loud, self-entitled tourists (sad to say most of these people were my fellow Americans) that blew through each room and got visibly impatient behind me when I was pausing to read the plaques on the walls and let their kids run wild like they were at a theme park.

I moved on to the White Tower after the Salt Tower. I couldn’t take pictures (although I snuck a few) but it was cool to see the armor used by kings of the past! There were plasters of horses on display, too, with their armor, and I found myself automatically looking at their hooves and thinking how they needed to be trimmed differently, or looking at their eyes and laughing at the round pupils (horses have horizontal pupils). Once a rancher, always a rancher!

I grabbed a biscuit and jam at the little cafe before heading over to see the ravens. Legend has it that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall!

It started to rain!

Finally, there were the Crown Jewels (actually did this before the ravens, but who’s keeping score).

Pictures aren’t allowed inside, but I didn’t care. A photo wouldn’t have done those amazing jewels justice.

Last time I saw the Crown Jewels four years ago, I wrote that if I closed my eyes, I could still see them sparkling. And that remains true today.

Nothing in the world comes close to the brilliance of those crowns and scepter and robes. Nothing.

Then, there was one last thing worth seeing…

The scaffold site!

Finally, it was time to head home.

Got to see the London Bridge open for a ferry!

Though of course I had to go through the gift shop too. And I saw this display – among many other cool things – which did not help my baby fever….

I may or may not have bought one of those squishy red buses for my cat.

Overall, it was an amazing day of rediscovering history and exploring and learning. And it also turned into a day where I reflected on how I want to raise my future children to behave around tourist attractions with such grave importance and how I want to take them by the hand and show them everything they can handle given their age.

Tomorrow (or today, which is when I’m finally publishing this) I haven’t decided if I’ll spend just wandering around Piccadilly Circus or Green Park or the Westminster/Big Ben Square or if I’m going to take a bus to Greenwich to see the Royal Observatory. We’ll see what happens!

My Travels · Uncategorized

London Take Two: Day 5 – May 27, 2017

Today, as per my new plan to slow down a bit rather than pack as much sight-seeing as I can into one day, I chose one main adventure: my favorite place in all of London.

Westminster Abbey.

For those of you out there who aren’t history geeks (but I mean, come on, you should be), Westminster Abbey is a huge, gothic church right next to Elizabeth Tower/Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament and it is one of the most famous places of royalty in the world.

Over a thousand years old, the church has seen the coronation of over 20 English monarchs starting with King Harold Godwinson, whom William the Conqueror defeated in 1066, and has chapels and tombs and memorials galore. Elizabeth I is buried there as are many other monarchs of the past: Henry VII (father of Henry VIII), his wife Elizabeth of York and his wife Margaret, Edward the Confessor, Anne of Cleaves (fourth wife of Henry the VIII who got off easy with a divorce and not a beheading!), Queen Mary (Elizabeth I’s sister), Mary, Queen of Scots, her son, James I and Elizabeth I’s successor, Charles II, Mary II….

But monarchs aren’t the only influential beings buried at Westminster Abbey. It is also a burial site for Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, Robert Browning…. And while coronations and funerals have taken place at Westminster, so have the royal weddings, the most recent being Kate Middleton’s marriage to Prince William.

I could go on and on. Westminster Abbey is a conglomeration of all things English history, a fleeting glimpse into the past.

And walking through a place so incredibly rich that has witnessed so much, walking in the steps of monarchs of centuries past, touching the tombs of that hold the bones of the great kings and queens that have shaped history… I mean, there are no words. There are none.

I started off my morning slowly, sleeping in late then going out to grab tea from the little café/organic food take away spot around the corner from my Airbnb flat. I spent the morning relaxing and writing about yesterday before eating lunch, gathering my things, and setting off for the Tube to get to Westminster. And that morning of relaxing was exactly what I needed after the craziness of the past few days!

Because it’s a holiday weekend, things were insane as I made my way through three different Tube lines (Northern, Piccadilly, and District) to what could be called the heart of London. But I loved the feeling of knowing exactly where I was going.

Last time I was at Westminster, the line was very long and there was no security that I remember. Today, there was a shorter line, but several guards checking bags and waving scanners over everyone. The guard who check me asked where I was from. Interestingly, I was asked this upon entering Westminster the first time, too.

“Arizona,” I told him. “U.S.A.”

He nodded. “Say hi to John McCain for me.” And he waved me on my way.

Pictures are not allowed inside the Abbey, and of all things this is something I am actually pleased that they did. When I take pictures I always obsess over getting the perfect shots and don’t focus quite as much as I should on my surroundings. By forbidding pictures I’m forced to soak in every detail with my mind, to remember them always.

The first time I walked into the Abbey I swear heaven and Earth moved as I stood there at the entrance, looking up at the decorated ceiling, framed by gothic architecture, that was so high up it could have very well been part of the sky.

And yesterday was no different.

As I said before, walking in the steps of generations of royalty, seeing the grandness of the detail, walking on stones engraved with the names of those buried beneath, reading the plaques that memorialize so many influencers of history, approaching the high altar where all the monarchs have been crowned (picture here if you’re interested), walking through the quire…

I didn’t take a single second for granted. I walked around in a happy daze for close to two hours and nearly cried when it was time to go. Before I did, I lit a candle and wrote a prayer request for the prayers that are said twice a day in the Shrine of St. Edward the Confessor.

There are a few sections of the Abbey where pictures are permitted – the outdoor areas and the Chapter House that shows some of the history of the Abbey (plus its future).

Then I took the Tube one stop northwest to Green Park, which I strolled through to look at Buckingham Palace again before heading home.

(By the way – I walked by some political pictures and posters on display by Green Park while walking through it at the end of the day. Just so y’all know, this is what the U.K. and much of the rest of the world thinks of us right now. Embarrassing.)

Overall? It was a perfect, perfect day.

Finished with pizza!

Tomorrow (or today, as I finish this blogpost at 9:30am on Sunday – 1:30am Arizona time) I plan on going to the Tower of London! Last time I was there I only saw the Crown Jewels. Today I plan to explore all of it.

This trip is halfway over now and I just know it’s going to be incredibly painful to leave. London has a piece of my heart which it will keep forever.

My Travels · Uncategorized

London Take Two: Day 4 – May 26, 2017

Be warned: This blogpost – very much like this entire day – is a long one!

I’m beginning this at 10pm London time (2pm Arizona time) while sitting at my Airbnb flat’s dining room table with the terrace door open behind me so I can feel the fresh air and hear the sounds of the city.

It’s amazing because even though it’s dark, there’s still the faintest hint of light near the horizon… London summer days are long! Even though I woke up at 6am (11pm Arizona time), there wasn’t just a faint bit of light – there was tons of it. Sunrise here is before 5am!

(EDIT: I finished this blogpost a little after noon, 4am Arizona time!)

I got to my station at Golden Tours a little ahead of schedule which turned out to be great since it took some time to find the right bus. We headed off around 8:30am to Windsor Castle first, taking the bus out of London completely and heading into the seriously green English countryside.

And before I talk about Windsor… let me just get real here for a minute.

Even in the early morning today after a good night’s sleep, I was tired.

Exhausted, really.

And to me it was finally a wakeup call about the reality of packing so many adventures into each day, or selecting quantity of quality, if you will.

Honestly, it was a wakeup call about who I am as a human being.

I’m sure there’s a little jet lag I’m getting over but really just the excitement of being here has been pushing me to walk miles each day, to travel literally all over the city via the Tube, to see everything my eyes could soak in before it’s time for me to go home. The excitement is still there and it will always be there – and not just about London, but about life in general, I think – but now the tiredness is sinking in.

And this trip has taught me more about a side of myself I think I have always known: that I am always trying to do more and I tend to think that no matter what I do in life, it’s not enough. I strive for perfection, which as we all know is a fruitless path as it just doesn’t exist. And while it’s good to want to be the best and do the most… there have to be limits. There has to be a time where you stop and say, “I’ve done all I can do, and it’s enough!” There has to be a time where you stop and say, “I am who I am, and I am good enough!”

So for the rest of my trip, I’m slowing down. And part of that starts tonight, where I can debrief and write about the whirlwind trip that was Windsor and Bath and – my favorite –  Stonehenge. Where I can reflect and savor every moment that made today so amazing without hurriedly planning what I’m going to do tomorrow.

On the way to Windsor Castle our guide told us a little bit about its history. As a lover of English history, this was heaven for me. Apparently, Windsor Castle was built along with nine (?) other castles around the Tower of London so that if the Tower needed troops, they could be sent for within a day. He talked a bit about William the Conqueror’s defeat of the Anglo-Saxon King Harold during the Battle of Hastings (by “cheating” a bit, apparently) and how the new king set up the site for Windsor. It’s one of the oldest castles in England and apparently is still the summer home of Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth. Apparently, in 1992, a fire broke out in the castle and her own son, Prince Andrew, was among the heroes who dashed through the flames to save invaluable paintings and furniture.

That, by the way, is a leader to me. It got me thinking of the days kings rode into battle, leading their troops rather than command the forces from behind a desk. Someone who risks his or her life as much as – and even more than – those who follow.

We pulled up to Windsor and I was abruptly reminded of the touristy side of exploring when it took over an hour to get into the castle. My guide handed out our tickets and maps and we waited to get through the hefty security measures that many sites are imposing after the bombing in Manchester.

Another random thought that hit me as I stood in line: I think I’ve heard just about every language possible here (though I know I’m sure I haven’t yet heard hundreds)! It’s amazing to me how nearly everyone speaks at least two languages fluently. My tour group was so diverse – Chinese, Korean, German, Hindi, and other European dialects I didn’t recognize (probably Slovakian).

Then, finally, we made it inside.

It was absolutely stunning. I am always blown away by the fact that I get to walk in the steps of thousands before me, many of them such incredible influencers of history. And Windsor Castle is a thousand years old.

I loved seeing Windsor but I do wish it hadn’t been so touristy. Parts of the castle were blocked off that I would have loved to explore.

I couldn’t take pictures inside, where the state and private apartments were, but it was absolutely stunning and rich with detail from the paintings to the carpets to the cushioned seats to the engraved, painted ceilings. But again, there was a walkway tourists were to stick to and I was among hundreds of others listening to their audio guides.

There was the king’s bedchamber, his closet, his dressing room, the queen’s bedchamber and dressing rooms, the receiving rooms, the king’s writing room (adjacent to his bedroom), royal halls… My favorite was the long, narrow great room, with a thick red carpet and the walls lined with saluting suit of arms and the ceilings full of sigils that probably go back a thousand years. (I found a picture of it here if you’re curious!)

One thing I didn’t have time for was to make the Long Walk. But, another time!

We were told to get back to the bus by 11:40, so I was slightly stressed keeping an eye on the time. Again, I like to take my time with something as splendid like Windsor Castle.

Once we were back on the bus we started the hour-and-a-half long trek to Bath. I was so tired I fell asleep for a while. Then of course when I woke up I was even more tired and – unfortunately for me – slightly carsick. But, I powered through it and was happy when we drove through more gorgeous English countryside and into the historic town of Bath.

The Roman Baths plus the museum were interesting. When I’d selected the tour I did so because of Stonehenge and Windsor and honestly was not that excited about seeing the city of Bath, but it turned out to be intriguing. The Baths were built as a public bathing place on natural hot springs, and to this day the original architecture and aqueducts stand.

Our guide made it a point to tell us a) to be careful on centuries-old cobblestone uneven surfaces near the baths, and b) not to touch the water! I found it amusing that he immediately followed with, “But if you care to drink it, they sell small cups for 50 pence at the back of the restaurant.” (I didn’t spend 50 pence on a cup of gross, murky, god-knows-what’s-in-it water but I did make a wish on 50 pence and offer it to one of the fountains.)

Then again, by this point I still wasn’t feeling all that great (something I found ironic, because thousands of people would travel to Bath with diseases like leprosy or other ailments to be cured!), so I didn’t enjoy them as much as I could have. Plus, it was actually hot!

But then we got on the bus again and began another hour-and-a-half trek to our last destination (while I munched on some almonds to get something on my stomach – worked like a charm!). And this one, I’d been waiting to see for so, so long.

~

Let me have another moment of what I call getting real to explain how meaningful seeing Stonehenge was for me. And this time, this is a little more personal. But it’s relevant.

It was assumed by everyone I knew that my fiancé would be making this trip to London with me, and most were astonished when I said I’d insisted on going by myself. Because I quite honestly see this trip as a pilgrimage, if you will.

A time to just be. A time to just do things on my own and conquer my anxiety just like I did last time I was in London.

My friend from the ranch – who also recently got engaged and went through some of the same feelings I went through – recently lent me a book called The Conscious Bride. I’m not done with it yet but what I read on the plane really put things into perspective about what Western civilization has done to the life transition of getting married.

We’ve de-ritualized it. Weddings are no longer seen as a rite of passage but as large, expensive, detail-oriented parties that perfectly display the correct emotions of love and happiness and utter bliss.

Seriously though. From the moment a bride-to-be gets a ring on her finger, she is expected to be SO. BLISSFULLY. HAPPY. LIKE OMG OMG GONNA BE A MRS 4EVER!!!!!1 Everything has to be perfect, and any negative thought or concept that comes with a wedding is immediately combatted with, “Well then are you sure you’re meant to marry him/her??”

But the reality is, as this amazing book puts it, weddings are a rite of passage, and “all rites of passage – adolescence, the wedding, the birth of a child, a geographic move, a job change, midlife, old age – involve a transformation of identity as the initiate sheds the old way of like and makes way for the new role” (p. 12).

Women (and men) go through a separation phase, a transition phase, and an incorporation phase during their engagements because “If a rite of passage is to be complete, it must involve a letting go, a shedding, a separation, indeed, the death of the old identity before the new identity and the new life can take hold” (p. 17).

And now I understand the deeper complexity of my anxiety that returned with a vengeance upon getting engaged. The separation had begun. The Conscious Bride calls it the transition from ‘maiden’ to ‘wife’ and it’s one all brides must make if they so choose. And believe me, I so choose.

So this trip is a bit of a ritual for me. A time of transition and reflection and welcoming the new phase of life that is to occur.

As it happens, Stonehenge was a place of rituals, thousands and thousands of years ago. It was a place of many things. Maybe this was why as our bus got closer and closer to the site, I was filled with an anticipation that I couldn’t quite explain.

As our bus got closer and closer to the site, our tour guide talked briefly about the mystery of Stonehenge, and someone asked if it was ever truly known why it was created and for what purpose it was used.

“Ah,” the guide said. “Was it used to lay out the winter and summer solstices? To tell the stories of the stars? Aliens may look down at us today and wonder why humans are grouped around a bunch of rocks in the English countryside. No one knows.” And he smiled. “It can be whatever you want it to be.”

~

The countryside grew – if possible – even more magnificent as we drove closer. I was amazed by something so simple as the horizon between earth and sky. Such a stark, stunning contrast.

We parked the bus by the other coaches carrying tourists and our guide turned us loose, telling us to be back at 5:40. The parking site and visitor center/café/shop is a mile away from the actual site as so not to disturb such a sacred place, and free shuttle buses carried people back and forth.

I boarded a shuttle and watched the greenery go by, completely filled with anticipation and something else I couldn’t explain.

There are more than 80 rocks in the famous ring (you can see a map here). There’s also the Heel Stone about 250 feet away, which marks the spot on the horizon where the sun rises on the summer solstice. But the Stonehenge site isn’t just the main circle we see in pictures – it extends many meters around it. Recently, it was discovered that the mounds of earth around Stonehenge were actually burial sites, so the men and women who came before us must have found it important to have them buried in sight of the stones. But past being a burial site, the purpose of Stonehenge is not really known.

But as I eventually climbed off the shuttle bus and began my walk towards the stones, I realized that the possibilities were endless.

And that’s what makes them so magical.

It was more than awe I felt, looking at them, seeing something that thousands have seen and experienced and flocked to and have felt drawn to.

It was the energy of our ancestors who might have danced and sang and celebrated and mourned and birthed and died and healed around them. It was the possibility of miracles very much like somehow creating such a structure with impossibly heavy stone. It was the wildness of the human spirit that has sustained for over thousands of years, the wildness that still lives within us all.

I could have stayed there for forever and a day, and it wouldn’t have been enough time.

I wanted to soak up that magic forever. The wind – something I have long associated with the universe speaking to me – was blowing fiercely, and I wanted to stand and listen until Time ended.

It almost hurt to walk away from them. In the end, I took a few blades of grass from the earth next to the stones, then on the bus back to London I was struck with a horrible thought, which was what if it hadn’t been right to take something from such a sacred site for the selfish purpose of wanting something for myself?

I wondered for a long time, then I thought perhaps that those that came before me had taken roots and herbs and other plants from the grounds for selfless reasons like to cure the sick or to feed their families. So I am resolving to use those few blades of grass to keep as a reminder of the wild, mystical energy I felt at Stonehenge, to inspire it in others – perhaps myself most of all.

I think in our society we try too hard to focus on the good and push away the bad. Be positive, and wave away anything negative. Celebrate birth with enthusiasm, and grow quiet when it comes time to grieve death. Plan the big, fancy wedding, and push away the emotional roller coaster that comes with it. Begin the next chapter of your life, and don’t take time to let go of the last one.

Transitions in life come with joy and responsibility and sacrifice. Seeing Stonehenge in person was somehow a reminder that life events – birth, early adulthood, marriage, children, old age, death – are gifts life has been giving mankind since the dawn of time. Deep down, I think we all understand this – only in our rush from phase to phase, we lose sight of the importance of slowing down and taking it all in, both the good and the bad.

But we are made of stronger stuff than we realize. And it took staring at a bunch of rocks in the middle of the English countryside for me to realize it.

Was that the purpose of Stonehenge, to make hundreds of generations of humans reflect on their lives and the lives of those to come after them? Who knows.

But that’s their beauty and their power.

It can be anything we want it to be.

My Travels

London Take Two: Day 3 – May 25, 2017

My brain and body were yelling at each other all day today.

Brain: “Let’s go here! And here! And keep moving, keep moving, we have to go there, over, and also there!” 

Legs, feet, neck, back, arms: “BUT WHY.”

Yep. Jet lag struck, and it struck with a vengeance.

I woke up around 7:30am (11:30pm Arizona time) feeling like I’d been hit by one of the Tube trains on which I practically live now. Everything hurt – especially my legs and feet that had covered seven and a half miles on foot and like forty flights of stairs the day before – but also my back, my shoulders, my neck…

Oops.

I hadn’t meant to completely wear myself out. As intent as I am to pack as much into this trip as I can, this is still a vacation. So, today I compromised. A bit. Kind of.

Because at first I was so sore it literally hurt to walk, I decided to spend most of the day at the British Museum, where (as my brain justified to the rest of me) I could walk leisurely around at my own pace and take frequent breaks to sit and relax. At the end of the day (well, as of 7pm) I’ve only walked….er…oh. Just checked. Six miles. Still less than yesterday.

I video chatted with my fiancé to let him know I was still alive (or rather he talked while I blinked sleepily).

Then I dragged myself out of bed, ate breakfast, and s-l-o-w-l-y got dressed while trying to stretch. When I was feeling somewhat put together, I set off into Shoreditch. It was 68 and sunny around 9:30 when I started my trek and I was actually a little warm throughout the day. (Even now, as I type this at 7pm, there is not one cloud in the sky.)

I took the Tube to Warren Street not only because it was relatively close to the British Museum, but because it was the closest stop to the dorms at which I had originally stayed four years ago. My plan was to first find those dorms for old times’ sake and walk a bit around the area I’d familiarized myself with the very first time I’d been here.

And – just like yesterday in Green Park – upon walking out of the station at Warren Street, without even looking at a map, I knew exactly where to go.

Time is an incredible thing. Four years ago, I’d walked out those doors with my backpack and suitcase and I’d looked back over my shoulder for a final glance, wondering if I would ever see them again. And there I stood.

I still can’t believe four years have come and gone and how much has changed since my last stay here. I’ll go more into this in another post, but this trip is more than a vacation for me. It really is a period of reflection.

As happy as it made me to see my old dorms, I was still pretty out of it. Jet lag, man. So I grabbed a latte from Café Nero before walking my way over to the British Museum. (And by the way – if Café Nero ever makes an appearance in the U.S. outside of Boston, I’d bet money on it running Starbucks out of business in a year.)

Harry Potter fans, anyone? 😉

I’d been to the British Museum before, but my group and I had blown through something like half the rooms in under an hour. This time, I could go where I wanted to go and stay for as long as I wanted.

It. Was. Awesome.

It was also overwhelming. Incredible, mind-blowing, humbling, but overwhelming. It will take me some time to fully soak in everything I saw today.

I’ll let the pictures talk. I didn’t want to run the battery of my phone out by taking too many pictures so I stuck to my favorite pieces and rooms.

Ancient Egypt – mummies (including Cleopatra’s!), the actual Rosetta Stone, early Egypt, Ethiopia and Coptic Egypt, Sudan and Nubia

Ancient Greece and Rome – Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, sculptures and vases and bowls and statues: Athena and Hercules and more

Then, I just started taking pictures of a few items in exhibits here and there as they struck me.

Early Americas – both North American and Mexico

There were rooms on the Middle East – the Islamic World

Sculptures from the early Spanish conquerors

The Enlightenment

There was also a room with the theme Living and Dying, which was intriguing.

It was beyond incredible.

I will be researching and reading and learning about these amazing things I saw today for a long time.

Also, a bit random, but I had to laugh over what I saw written in one of the bathroom stalls:

I had a fun time looking around the gift shop and getting some things before I walked to the Holdborn Tube station (pronounced without the “l,” I’ve heard). I headed back to Paddington Station because I had my heart set on getting a famous Paddington Bear.

And I did.

Then I grabbed a bagel from the station platform (an enormous area of space with shops and people bustling around to get to their subways) and sat to eat before finally making the trek back to the Airbnb flat on the Tube. I was exhausted – I still am, honestly! I’m writing somewhat quickly so I can shower and go to bed ASAP.

Tomorrow is going to be a long but amazing day. I’m taking a day trip out of London and going to Windsor Castle, the city of Bath, and Stonehenge!