A Pilgrim Rests

I thought of her in that exact moment, when life itself went still. I had been running through a forest path and stopped at my favorite bridge, the one with stone lions guarding it on both sides. I took a moment to stretch and when I did, I saw a gorgeous, snow white egret frozen still in the water. Except he was upside down. Or rather, my view of him was. I was stretching down to reach my toes and saw the bird through the gap in my legs, my narrow field of vision filled with that lovely sight. I would have missed it otherwise, and gone along my run perhaps without this breath of stillness. She, the only pilgrim I really knew, reminded me to appreciate these simplicities. 

Susanne and Jonathan at Moçambique Beach in Florianópolis, Brazil, January 2016.

Susanne and Jonathan at Moçambique Beach in Florianópolis, Brazil, January 2016.

On the flight line in March 2010 at Langley Air Force Base. Photo by Paul Hassell

On the flight line in March 2010 at Langley Air Force Base. Photo by Paul Hassell

We said goodbye to her, my mother-in-law, Susanne, three months ago. That is hardly enough time to heal a broken heart. I don’t think the right amount of time even exists. So you do what you can. That often means remembering the good moments she gave us, even after she was gone. 

Susanne and Jonathan enjoying the view from the Palacio Cruz e Sousa in Florianópolis, Brazil, during her visit in January 2016.

Susanne and Jonathan enjoying the view from the Palacio Cruz e Sousa in Florianópolis, Brazil, during her visit in January 2016.

Here is another.

The year was just halfway gone and it had already been a long one, both sad and joyful. It was the year of Jonathan coming home from war, the year we welcomed our first nephew to the family, the year Susanne was diagnosed with something she didn’t ask for. It was also the year she bought a home. It was the place where she would grow many things. Flowers became the most visual sign of her work. Hibiscus flowers the size of plates in burgundy and soft pink. Sunflowers that grew taller every year. Mums, rich in orange and red and magenta. And, of course, the roses tucked along the back porch. 

Yayas house.jpg
Yayas flowers
Yayas house.JPG
Yayas butterfly

She also grew the hearts and spirits of those who came to her home and her ministry, Holy Paths. This soul work bore fruit unseen but with great impact. I can’t imagine the number of prayers she led or the hearts she helped heal. But I could feel it when I came home for family holidays. That joyful warmth, welcoming at all times. The home’s location was also a blessing, situated on a horse farm with a view to the Smoky Mountains on a clear day. Susanne always kept food for the horses, and it was a great joy for me to have them close every day I stayed there.

Yayas house.jpg

She kept a photo of her backyard view next to the refrigerator, pinned on a board with thank you cards and invitations and baby announcements. In the photo the horses are relaxed and grazing, the sky painted in slate-blue clouds. Despite the overcast weather, sunlight floods the trees, which have just begun to welcome fall. I always loved this photo. Looking at it now from my home in Brazil, I think about this mix of sunlight and shadow. Fall is upon her old home, a place she filled with love and light. I would really love to sit with her on the porch, steam rising from mugs of tea, while we watch the horses graze and the leaves turn. I imagine she can do that now, see the glory in that moment when a leaf’s green gives way to its new color. 

Fall
Yayas house.JPG
The swing in her front yard.

The swing in her front yard.

A favorite view from her home.

A favorite view from her home.

Here is another moment she gave me.

I had never seen a swing so grand, at least not in person. I waited impatiently until the smaller, younger children were called away to other activities and I could have my adventure swinging from this decades-old giant. I grasped each side of the swing’s ropes, right hand, then left. Hold tight, I thought to myself. I backed up a few steps, then let my feet fly. The wooden plank seat held firm as I landed on it and felt that familiar freedom of the ground dropping from beneath me. After some extra pushes from Jonathan I was able to soar twice or thrice my height off the ground. This is where things could get scary. But they didn’t. The view was too stunning for that. With every crest of the swing, acres and acres of green and trees flooded my vision, broken only by the splash of pond to my right and the occasional dotting of the property’s white fencing. I found myself on this grand swing, in a Sunday-best-like dress, because of her. After my mother-in-law passed, some very kind, dear friends offered us a retreat to the stunning Blackberry Farms in Walland, Tennessee. This gift came from her deep friendships within her community, and at our moment of need they came together to give us a time of rest. Susanne was a great advocate for that, and I believe she is resting well now.

Thank you, Susanne, Mom, for this special parting gift. I am certain it won’t be the last.

A quiet afternoon at Blackberry Farms

A quiet afternoon at Blackberry Farms

Visiting one of the original fishing villages in Florianópolis.

Visiting one of the original fishing villages in Florianópolis.

Floripa.jpg
Jonathan and Susanne taking in the view of Diamond Head in Oahu, Hawaii, August 2013.

Jonathan and Susanne taking in the view of Diamond Head in Oahu, Hawaii, August 2013.

Waiting for the luau to begin in Waikiki, Hawaii.

Waiting for the luau to begin in Waikiki, Hawaii.

Gone in the Morning

“Where in this wide world can a person find nobility without pride, friendship without envy or beauty without vanity?” - Ronald Duncan

I waited as long as I could. But the tighter I held on, the more desperate he became. So when the time was right, when my choice was between crashing into a fence or letting go, I let go, and hoped the ground would be kind as it caught me. 

This was my first fall from a horse.

Bonito and I on my favorite beach.

This was a lesson in control and the so obvious loss of it. As anyone who has been riding horses for a while will tell you, falls are part of it. Mine came while riding a gelding, named Bonito bareback. Looking back, it was rather obvious that I wasn’t ready for this challenge. A few moments after mounting, Bonito realized he could be in control instead of me. He sped up and my efforts to calm him were ill executed to say the least. I had ridden him before but never without a saddle, never without the normal control mechanisms. After failing to calm him down, I knew I was going to fall. From a horse. And probably land on my back. It’s a stomach-dropping feeling when you have time to anticipate it, but I held on at best I could until we at least got to a grassy part of the farm to soften the blow. And then I simply let go. Bonito ran off and I knew my friend Eduardo would catch him for me. I dusted off my back, tried to dust off my pride and walked up to the barn.

The barn. I’ve spent many of recent hours in Brazil here, learning the loss of control and how to regain it. Learning how to get back up from very embarrassing falls. I have always wanted to spend more time horseback riding, and this is the place I've been able to do it. I’m sure my Christmas lists as a child had the unrealistic request of “pony” written at the top for many years (it still does). I was like many young girls and thought horses were a romantic and free-spirited creature. They certainly are, but there’s much more to them than just a pretty mane and tail. 

The person who has taught me this and so much is my Brazilian friend Eduardo. We met while he was a guide at another farm where I had decided to rent a horse for the first time. He was kind and patient with me, and his passion for taking the best care of the horses was so evident. When Eduardo switched jobs to work at a private family farm, he invited me to see his new home. 

I immediately fell in love. It is a simple place, but it is also simply beautiful. A wooden barn and a strip of land that stretches almost to the sea. Best of all there was a place for Eduardo’s own horse, Gaúcho. 

Gaúcho

Over the next months I was invited time after time to enjoy this space, which we call the sítio, or the farm. Eduardo taught me the very simplest of tasks, like leading a horse properly. I relished the opportunity to be outside, to help with the animals, to learn more about caring for something other than myself. The horses of course were the main attraction, but I also came to love all the creatures in our care, like the little bull we had. We called him Bobby and I’ll never forget the time he almost knocked me off my feet at feeding time. The cat, too, became part of the family. I named her Zoe and remember when Eduardo called to tell me she was birthing her litter of kittens, one of which I’ve taken home with me. The chickens, too, were a source of joy. One day Eduardo found a lost hen wandering in the field. She was blind in one eye but Eduardo took her home anyway. To say he has taught me a lot about kindness is an understatement. He has taught me we always have more to give.

I have given a lot of my time to the sítio but what I have gained in return is far more valuable. Eduardo let me ride his own horse, Gaúcho, more times than I can count. He let me treat him as my own, and I tried to do what little I could to return this favor. This often can in the form of carrots for Gaúcho and brownies for Eduardo. I saw how Gaúcho’s condition improved in his new home, where Eduardo could care for him better.

Our adventures often took us to the beach, where I would walk Gaúcho just a little into the water. He never spooked at the noise or the rush of the waves, and it was as if he was at peace on the beach just like me. His disposition as a horse was remarkable. He was patient, calm enough for kids but adventurous enough to give me my first ride bareback. On one of our last rides Eduardo braided his mane and tail. By coincidence, I had braided my hair that day, and these simple things made us both smile. I tucked flowers into his mane and Eduardo feigned his disapproval. The truth is that Gaúcho was Eduardo’s pride and joy, but he was generous enough to share him not just with me, but with anyone who cared to ride him.

One of the many rides on the beach with Gaúcho and Eduardo.

I’ve introduced another dear Brazilian friend, Mari, to horseback riding, and I remember her beautiful smile when Eduardo and I put her up on Gaúcho on the beach. Sharing Gaúcho with others was a selfless joy for Eduardo, something I admire greatly. 

It would be impossible to share all the memories of him, but I will always remember the lazy flopping of Gaúcho’s ears and the gorgeous reddish-brown color of his mane, and how it always reminded me of my sisters’ auburn locks. Gaúcho was willing to carry me in all kinds of weather, through both physical and emotional storms. He led me safely through the rain and thunder more than once, and carried me to see the sunrise on the beach. In short, he allowed me to see innumerable wonders, both around and within me.

We said goodbye to Gaúcho last month after he battled colic for some days and didn’t improve, despite lots of medicine and love. Eduardo called me in the dark hours of morning, saying he thought it would be time to say goodbye. He was right. Gaúcho made it just long enough to enjoy one more sunrise in a place that we both came to call home. 

Eduardo and I buried him later that day, on the trail that we take to get to the beach. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard digging the final resting place of a friend. It was the kind of work that exhausts your soul. But I was so grateful I could be the one to help in that difficult task after all he had given me. Eduardo let me put flowers in Gaúcho’s mane for the last time, and we thanked him for the adventures. In the end that’s all we can ever do, thank someone for sharing a little bit of their light with us. 

The Horse 

Where in this wide world can man find nobility without pride,
friendship without envy, or beauty without vanity?
Here where grace is laced with muscle and strength by gentleness confined.
___

He serves without servility; he has fought without enmity.
There is nothing so powerful, nothing less violent;
there is nothing so quick, nothing more patient.
___

England’s past has been borne on his back.
All our history is in his industry.
We are his heirs;
He is our inheritance.

by Ronald Duncan