Fast forward to Death Valley Encounter 2020-21. Since before Tru was conceived, I wanted to do this ride. He was 10 now, and the insulated boots I bought specifically cold desert riding were worn out now. I took Tru back to Dr. Noel for a check on what was really a superficial irritation.
Dr. Noel said “He is one of the healthiest horeses in my practice. Ride!” That gave me confidence. After another saddle adjustment and pad change, I took Tru down to Death Valley with the question: “Do you want to do endurance?”
As we walked out in the rich orange light of the desert sunrise, Tru looked around at the other horses starting the ride, and said “Yes!” He powered to the front of the line, passing every horse he could smell.
I welcome everything that comes to me as an opportunity for further growth.
Swami Kriyananda, Affirmations for Self-Healing
Tru trotted out in the biggest, boldest stride I have ever ridden. I was moderating his speed as best I could, but he had a statement to make. He relaxed at the walk and drank from every trough as well. Only when I insisted on a short break to pee, and gave him my apple, did he acquiesce to another horse passing.
He won that 23-mile test ride with an hour or so to spare, walked back to the trailer, and ate his favorite PB&J sandwiches, along with about a 100 pounds of hay on that trip.
We met Susannah Jones at DVE. As we passed her that morning, she called out “That’s a Tevis horse!” From your lips to God’s ear, my friend…our dream is alive again.
Last year, March 6, 2021, my mother passed away (Shirley R. Sesna obituary and Kudo Board). I signed the certification of her trust on my 56th birthday. I didn’t expect her to go. Nor did I expect her to take away what she did: any habitual excuse for not living into my highest potential.
My mother had an adventurous heart and the soul of an artist, dancing and laughing with color. She made an eclectic assortment of friends around the world.
My mother also lived in a box of many self-imposed restrictions, old hurts, insecurities and negative memory tracts. Her Box-of-the-Past-Hurts did not contain her, I admit, but I ran into it’s walls a lot. I was one of the people to whom her Box was most evident, and the contradiction with her playful persona was hard for me to reconcile.
Shirlawhirl could regale people with stories of travel through Indonesia and Fiji with a backpack, dance to live music (the Blues preferably), flit through the Oregon Country Fair in flamboyant costumes, and render the sweetest Teddy Bear Contest Judge for the Corvallis da Vinci Days GRAAND Kinetic Challenge.
Shirley could also make the best contractor cringe with dread, just because she was already so scared, and convinced, that they would take advantage of her. She wore life heavy when she talked to me, when she wasn’t dancing.
I inherited many beautiful and valuable things from her, lovely memories of adventures in nature, Christmas and lands far away, as well as The Box. It was represented literally by two garages and a basement full of boxes. She printed, reviewed and saved every stock transaction and disclosure statement. Yes, she did. She saved the leftover rice wall paper from the master bedroom she shared with my father in the house they built together; and she saved the papers of the divorce and property lawsuits of 1979 with which their marriage ended. She saved her letters and journals from high school and from travel to cool places. She saved hundreds of satin ribbons won in horse shows, rodeos and parades, mine and hers. She saved incomplete creative projects (perhaps that’s what the plastic dolls were for).
She saved news paper clippings documenting family history, and several key items, like paintings by family artists, the violin that my great-great-great-great grandfather, Dr. Ring, played for he and his brother’s passage on the steamer ship from Norway when they were 14 and 11. Antique guns given to her grandfather, Paul Hunter, who was President Teddy Roosevelt’s personal orderly, appointed a Post Master, and helped to found Save the Redwoods League. A Hupa Indian baby basket given to our great aunt, who was a nurse and served the tribal community in the 1950’s. Handmade dolls carried across the new world in a covered wagon. A photograph of the family sitting on a giant whale bone across the front of the cabin in Camp Weott (a Native tribe in Humboldt County, CA) on the Eel River, before it was washed away by the 1965 flood.
I located all this really cool family history, and culled out the rest, so that I can someday soon create a legacy display of the family.
Much of the stuff was sweet to see. Some of it was incomplete and unsettled, an odd combination of mouldy guilt and anger with a big swirl of joyful nostalgia. Wow, she had moved these boxes with her across two states, two marriages/divorces, and at least seven houses.
I often felt smothered by the weight of the past she carried, and what she wanted from me. I spent a lot of my life running away from this feeling of being overwhelmed by her history, needs and opinions. I fought with her to breathe my own way through life. This fight restricted my relationship with her, and most of my relationships, actually. It’s been hard for me to trust that intimacy wouldn’t suffocate me. I always wanted her to truly let it go of the past. She always wanted to hold onto everything, to be respected for all she had survived.
“Memory was given to us to keep alive only life’s good experiences and lessons. Get rid of wrong thoughts by avoiding recalling them….To remember bad experiences and dwell upon them is an abuse of God’s gift of memory.”
Really, she seemed afraid that if she lost those representative bits of the past, she, herself, would be lost, and not matter…to me. That was the weight. She really needed to matter to me, and I really did not care…about that stuff. I could not carry the weight of her Box. I cared about her. It took stubborn determination to care for her. Caring for her made me stronger.
In the hospital, suspicious and cantankerous with the nurses and doctors, she said to me, “I’m not angry.” Incredulous as always, she really could not hear herself or feel the energy she was putting out at people. “I’m just protecting myself.”
So much in common
Strangely, I had just received a neuropsychological diagnosis for my son. “Non-Verbal Learning Disorder” (NVLD or NLD) puts him on a spectrum of “neuro-diverse”. There are common symptoms with high functioning Autism, and Aspberger’s Syndrome, but it’s not. No one I know has ever heard of it. Columbia University is studying NVLD to define it, put it in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Shirley had a successful life in many ways, but the inside scoop I saw was anxiety, relationship challenges, and an extreme effort to manage her life. Luc passes as a typical tween, but I’m living the tumult of his neuro-diversity every day. I feel the same emotional pressure and dis-regulation from Luc that I felt from my mother my whole life. It was an emotional disaster for me to be with both my son and my mother/his grandmother at the same time. They both pulled on me the same way, competed with each other for my energy (probably to co-regulate them, I’m discovering). So many everyday expectations of joyful times with mother and son/grandson just rarely worked out that way.
In the hospital, trying to support her, and to understand, it struck me that Shirley and Luc had similar brains, and that however I am reacting to them is a lifetime karma (learning) for me to unpack. We weren’t able to have a full conversation (we were only able to have maybe 6 conversations of a few minutes), but hearing about the learning disability diagnosis for Luc was significant for her. “Luc and I have a lot in common,” she mumbled to herself as she fell back into a sleep state.
Souls on a journey
“Just protecting myself…” Ah-ha, I understood something, finally, without judgment. What I experienced as suspicion, anger and control was her habit of self-protection. A lifetime habit. But the habit was not her, not him, not us.
I switched to address her soul. “Mom, none of that matters now. Only love matters.” She softened.
I’d been reminding her of this truth for several months now as we walked through the lung cancer treatments. Hanging out in her doctor’s Zoom waiting room, she would try again to talk things through. I knew the conversation would be unresolvable, would just cause her pain. So I explained “On my spiritual path, the past is gone. I love you, Mom. That’s all there is. I love you. Let’s enjoy the time we have together.” That was a turning point, a stake in the ground deeper than I expected.
Now I added, knowing all treatments were ineffective, “They’re all waiting for you, Mom. Your mom, Ruth, Ted, Rodger, Sabrina, Pablo, Ogden…” I named all her family and pets who had passed before her. She smiled so beautifully and looked up. “Really?” she asked, but I could tell she felt, maybe even saw a ray of light. “Yes, Mom, they are all waiting for you.” She laid back, smiling, and rested peacefully that day.
Her habit took over again and we went a few rounds in the hospital, but I knew now she was just a soul on a journey, like all of us.
She had done the best she could do in this life: as a girl who had lost her best friend in a tragic accident falling off the back of a horse; as a career woman with significant learning disabilities (self-diagnosed and medicated) and two Master’s degrees; as a person who had been betrayed by people she loved and trusted; as a single woman in a rapidly changing world, who had re-built a life she enjoyed; as an adventurous, creative person, whom many had loved; as the daughter of pioneers who was proud of her family’s history; and as a mother who had loved her only daughter, as best she could.
I promised to give her life a respectful ending. She asked me to take over. I signed the papers. But she was a fighter all her life. Her habit fought me, to keep her on intravenous antibiotics that were not holding back the aggressive MRSA bug eating her body. Her soul was ready for hospice, ready to be free. I promised to serve her soul, not her habits.
“The secret of love is respect; for while feelings fluctuate, respect can remain a constant. Listen respectfully…Preserve a certain dignity in your relationship: that dignity which gives others freedom to be themselves.”
Swami Kriyananda, Secrets of Love
I am profoundly grateful to have lived loving her wholly, to have seen her, to only feel love for her now…To have realized on the path of life that we are all souls on a journey, doing the best we can, and loving each other is all that matters. It’s all that God wants us to do, all we truly can do. Love is the energy that makes that journey together, matter.
Beyond the Box
After she passed peacefully, I opened the first garage. With the help of friends, I cleared out, disposed of, and burned most of that old stuff. Deeply and delightfully, I feel I am helping her to lighten her load (and my own), to complete that karmic habit of carrying all the past hurts and sad memories around. Let your soul fly free, Mom. In our next life together, we will play, dance, and ride like the wind.
Her passing also blessed me with her friends. We shared the experience of her as “very particular,” but their experience was much bigger and sweeter. They enjoyed her stories, playing with her, working with her. She supported each of these people to believe in their dreams, to enjoy life, to work hard for success. They credited her with inspiring them to achieve their goals in higher education and to live their dreams of entrepreneurship (like the red cedar altar that now adorns the meditation room in ShiShi’s Cottage for guests to enjoy).
As I’ve opened up her Box and leaned into loving her, my own boxes have dissipated. Since high school, we wanted to raft the white water rivers of Idaho together (she cancelled for a house fire, COVID and then passed before we got there). She wanted to see Tru and I cross the Tevis’ finish line. She planned, and delayed three times, a trip to Bhutan. The Happiness Country. Well, that’s a family habit–delaying the joyful experiences–that I’m shedding, and spreading with her ashes…on the Salmon River, along the endurance trails to a 100 miles over the Sierra Nevada. With gratitude, Mom! I can see her smiling and feel her heart warming in mine.
Dreams I’ve carried on my back burner, inspirations I’ve labelled as “unrealistic,” are emerging. A wise adviser once warned me that every time I shut the door on these dreams, it is “a little death.” I didn’t know how to open my heart then, but I’ve been meditating, immersed in the open-hearted community of Ananda Village, on the ancient path of Kriya Yoga for almost 7 years now. Most recently, I began studying with Linda Kohanov. I’m seeing a subtle, powerful effectiveness applying her heart-breathing with my horses, and with Luc. Something is gestating inside me, heart-felt dreams, a melding to birth something new and transformative, a gift to the world. Thank you, Mom. Welcome 2022.
“Yesterday I was clever so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise so I am changing myself.”
About two months before the Fall, Tru and I were working in the round pen to effectually start over. Tru was moving head high and hollowed out, which I guessed to be the muscle memory of all those physical plane pains. I invited natural horsemanship coach, Ezra Morrow, for a consult.
After two hours of watching us, Tru zooming around in circles, Ezra said “He doesn’t trust you.”
Ouch! That was hard to hear. I’ve had Tru since conception. His full name is “My True Companion.”
But there was definitely something there to break through. Ezra instructed me to keep him moving, add energy with turns, until he relaxes. He warned me that I may need to stand there for hours. Ezra left saying “He will show you that he trusts you when he comes into the round and puts his nose on the ground.”
I reflected on comments from Tru’s original trainer, Clay Wright, who worked with him for six months. It took a lot of patience and persistence to break through with Tru, and with his sire, SW Daniel. Clay was still helping Tru relax his carriage when I picked him up.
For two months, we worked together as Ezra instructed. A couple times I left him in there, after some progress, and people would call me worried about my sweaty horse zooming around in circles. Eventually, Tru walked, trotted and cantered in a relaxed frame at liberty. At the working trot, he was still tense, feaful, but we had made progress when we hauled to the Canyon Creek trail and fell arse over tea kettle into the river canyon.
Then we had to heal, so it was about a month later, when we went back to the round pen. Tru walked in and put his nose on the ground. He trotted, nose on the ground. I was stunned. His energy was completely different. Ezra’ direction and memories of all the parts of the magical mystery tour that I could not fit together before, came rushing back.
As admitted, I would ask anyone what was going on with my horse. I spoke with two animal communicators, who really could not come up with anything, though one described doing remote bodywork on his back, pulling out old stuff from his sire. Then, I was talking to Marcy Calhoun. Marcy is a psychic who receives past life information. She knows nothing about horses and is not a “pet psychic or animal communicator.” But when I was in a session, I asked her about Tru, and she told me what she saw.
Marcy described Tru and I as warriors, like a general and war horse in the cavalry charging across Europe on a great campaign. “Tru was stabbed in the back with a big sword. He did not see it coming and did not know what happened. It was incredibly painful. You could not save him, and he died a painful death on the battlefield.”
Tru’s breed, the Shagya-Arabian, was developed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire cavalry in the 1700’s. When she told me this story, I was fascinated, but really did not know what to do with such information.
Two years later, when Dr. Noel showed me the x-ray of Tru’s back at L2/L3 (the physical plane of Our Magical Mystery Tour), I remembered what Marcy had said. It was the exact same location. Right under my tush, just where a horse would be stabbed in the back by a sword. I could see now that the animal communicators who had asked Tru what was causing his back pain, got no information from him, because, as Marcy said, Tru did not knowwhat happened to him.
Huh. I looked at Tru, looking at me, ears pricked forward, body still and relaxed, ready for whatever I would ask next. Trusting me. This time, I had healed him (or at least been a channel for his healing). This time, we made it through the pain together. Total Trust Dividend.
Your trials do not come to punish you, but to awaken you.
Since then, we’ve completed three endurance rides in total partnership. He is both a powerhouse competitor and a level-headed calming force for other horses. It’s been a total joy to feel our dreams coming true.
P.S. Maybe you don’t want to pay someone to tell you your horse doesn’t trust you ;-), but Ezra was really helpful to Tru and I at several points along our journey. Our “trust dividend” came in no small part through doing as he coached. Ezra moved to San Luis Obispo, but still coaches virtually in the Sierras. He and my friend Gita have launched Herd Spirit, equine-assisted spiritual healing. With the four horses of Herd Spirit, Gita guides sessions for people at Ananda Village. Their first Live Your Gift retreat is almost full this May!
For over five years, Tru and I rode on a magical mystery tour of blossoming back pain. I tried at least five saddles, four vets, acupuncture, chiropractic, bodywork, essential oils, flower essences, injections, ultrasound, barefoot to shoes, and three psychics. Ya, okay, whatever you’re thinking: I was searching for solutions, and literally, would ask anyone.
Every time I would think that I had it figured out, I would do a limited distance ride of some kind, and ask Tru how he felt: sore. After pulling him from the second day of Wild West in 2017, I had a flexion test done about 12 days later, and he was sore. That vet recommended injecting his hocks, and let me know that Tru could probably not do endurance or dressage.
I was open to other disciplines, but that just could not be right. At 7 years old, with an excellent genetic profile for a sport horse—two imported Shagya-Arabian grandfathers who were eventing champions and completed Tevis with no history of early onset arthritis—I could not give up so soon. I had his hocks x-rayed: totally clean.
Two years later, after many saddle fittings, that persistent blossoming back pain, and a slip on icy mats in the winter that strained his sacroilliac joint (and failed treatment of that), I met Dr. Noel S. du Celliee Muller of Los Caballos Equine Practice, while volunteering for Tevis. Dr. Noel’s kindness and intelligence at the Deadwood vet check got my attention; his focus on performance horse soundness and extensive international training and ISELP certification in equine locomotive pathology got me to make an appointment the next week.
Dr. Noel spent over three hours with us, examining Tru with acupuncture, ultrasound and at the walk and trot on grass and concrete. The sacroilliac joint strain was obvious. For the persistent, blossoming back pain, x-rays showed two spinus processes bones were rubbing on each other, L2 and L3. He treated him with ultrasound-guided injections into the SI joint and L2/L3, plus acupuncture. I continued therapeutic ultrasound at home.
I asked about the L2/L3: Was that how he was born? What’s the prognosis? Are those bones going to move? They are right under the saddle, and that concerned me that Tru would always have pain there.
Dr. Noel said, “It’s how he was born. You have to manage it. There are no perfect bodies. If there is a perfect horse, it’s not a good horse. You have a good horse. Take it slow. Focus on performance, not on palpation. In 9 months, you’ll have your strong horse again.”
We also started shoeing him. Dr. Noel proved to me that Tru’s hooves needed to be much bigger to handle the concussion of his body on the trail. I had given it a good run, and learned a lot, but barefoot just was not going to work for this horse. I let go of my beloved Arabian Saddle Company Rubicon and got a Specialized Eurolight Saddle that needed three major adjustments to dial in for my sensitive horse (Thank you, Susan Hartje at Saddles that Fit!). I also changed to a Coolback pad, which made a huge difference.
“If there is a perfect horse, it’s not a good horse. You have a good horse. Focus on performance.”
Dr. Noel du Celliee Muller, DVM, ISELP
Believe me, that is a summary of our tour. It’s the tour of the physical plane. I hope it’s useful to people who are stumped, and watching their dreams slip by with time, as I was. Now, there are many levels on which we can be ill at ease—emotional, psychological and spiritual. Our magical mystery tour followed these paths too, if you’re willing to go there with me.
Ever notice that our lessons repeat themselves, until they are big enough, painful enough for us to make a change? Something happens–the flick of an eye–we dismiss it, and Divine Mother says “Oh, you missed that message in a snowflake floating by, let me make it easier for you to see…” Before you know it, the warning has become a snow ball. I would like to think I’m paying attention long before the snowball hits my face or I find myself in an avalanche.
So when some of you said that I should not have been riding alone, or on that particular trail, the day that Tru fell, I had to try these ideas on for size, as my grandfather Ted would say. What I love about horses, riding out alone, how I prepare to be safe, as well as the deeper meaning for me of The Fall and the Angel, is both practical and spiritual.
Over the years, I’ve read articles in Equus, and other places that say “Never ride alone.” I’ve wondered how an entire sport of endurance riders track thousands of miles alone safely. I can see how this rule is safer for lots of people and situations: new riders, young riders, riders on young horses, older riders. When you come off of your horse, having someone else there can be helpful, for sure.
We must anticipate what could happen with horses, and set ourselves up to be safe, because snowflakes can turn into an avalanche very quickly with horses. But riding with others will not, in itself, prevent an accident. In fact, more horses is inherently more complicated, and prone to accident.
For the record, this was my first accident riding alone in thousands of hours and miles of trail riding since I was 7 years old, before cell phones, before pagers, really before helmets.
The Challenging Trails We Love
That Canyon Creek trail is mostly flat and wide enough for a truck to pass, not at all challenging or technical. That specific section was an old slide. It was narrower than most of the trail (and about 8 inches narrower now from Tru’s churning hooves), but wider than the Pacific Crest trail.
Honestly, I just did not see the tree that had slid further down after we passed under it on the way out. I did learn to stay vigilant of changing trail obstacles. That same week, a friend of mine fell down a set of stairs that she has walked down a thousand times. She hit her head so hard she had a concussion. Some times we fall. Embrace your karma. That’s not a reason to stop walking, or riding.
The Tevis Cup! It’s been a long and humbling journey so far on our way fulfilling our dream to ride the 100 mile Western States Trail through the Sierra Nevada mountains from Truckee to Auburn, in one day.
The Tevis trail is mostly single track often with steep cliffs off the sides, lots of horses, 100+ degree temps during the day, and letting your horse lead the way through the dark. I’ve had people ask me aghast why I would want to do that?! I chuckle. It’s definitely not a glamour sport.
We love the rush of going up big mountains and technical trails, like Cougar Rock, but more importantly we love the learning that it takes to ride safe. Really, we’re just getting started. In the pics, you’ll see on the left Oman, one of Tru’s imported Shagya Arabian grand fathers. Oman and Dante both won international stallion tests and eventing championships. Oman completed Tevis multiple times. On the right is Omega, an Oman son. His owner and rider, Karen Bish, has SW Daniel, who is Tru’s sire. Oman and Omega both completed Tevis on their first attempts.
It will require training–our bodies, our minds, our spirits–and opening up to mentorship from riders, vets, horses–and changing to discern and follow the guidance that comes through them. Mostly it’s me that has to open and change. Tru is there as soon as I am. (Thankfully, the gifts of dressage trainer Clay Wright, Dr. Noel du Celliee Muller of Los Caballos Equine Practice and Susannah Jones, 2019 AERC National Champion, have already arrived to guide us!) The supreme challenge of this event–and who we will become in rising to it–is the draw, the purpose and the joy.
Riding out alone with my horse, down a new trail is the penultimate pleasure for me. Immersed in the beauty and peace of nature, my horse and I merge, our hearts and minds in constant communication, partners in navigating and witnessing our adventure in the wilderness. I am profoundly alive, and in love, on these rides.
Would you really ask me to give that up? I’ve spent too much of my life demurring to the practical. At 55, it’s actually, time for more adventure in spirit and nature, not less.
Preparing for the Risk
Riding is a risk. Riding alone is a risk. Risks we prepare for…on the ground, in the round pen, on the trail…building trust, understanding and respect for my horse’s power, and fears, and standing firmly and compassionately in my role as leader. Three things I always do to be safe:
I always look for my mistake. I reflect to understand, but I never blame my horse.
I always wear a helmet.
I always meditate before I ride, no matter how early I have to wake up.
Meditation helps me stay calm and open to hear the intuitive wisdom and warnings. As many spiritual teachers have said, prayer is asking God, meditation is listening. The Divine will does not impose. We have to be open to it. Regular meditation makes me more receptive to Divine guidance.
Channel for God
For me, my horse is a channel for God to open me up and play with me. Coming out of our fall essentially uninjured was not just lucky. We were blessed with grace. We experienced a miracle.
The purpose of this event in my spiritual life, and in my horsemanship, was to open my consciousness, to make me more receptive to grace and to learning. Tru and I will ride alone many more times–and by Thy grace, we will complete Tevis–but we will not need to tumble down another cliff to know that we are never really riding alone. Divine love is showering and protecting us, inviting us to dance with snowflakes every moment.
“Self-realization is the knowing—in body, mind, and soul—that we are one with the omnipresence of God…All we have to do is improve our knowing.”
When I got home that night after Tru’s fall (The Fall and the Angel), I found some blackberry thorns in my palm and prickles on my thighs where they had penetrated my riding tights. That’s it.
How could this be? 150 feet, he fell and only superficial cuts and scrapes?
Two days later, I took my family out there, and we walked the trail to the site of the fall. I had to see it. This is a video of the spot where we fell.
Tru scrambled about 6-8 feet down the trail from where I came off, and over a log, before he free fell and tumbled in the air, landing ~150 feet below in the trees. All in all, that was the best place to fall. On the tree log would not have been a soft landing.
Luck, guidance, protection? I found myself wondering.
I posted about the fall on Facebook. Several friends commented that our guardian angel was looking out for us. Many more commented on how scary this was, and how very lucky we were.
The more I felt into it, luck just didn’t feel right. It feels diminishing somehow. I find it more frightening to be subject to the randomness of luck. Plus, I’m a yogi. I believe in the long and intricate trail of karma. As I returned to the scene, I was not filled with fear, regret or confusion.I felt uplifted. And not just from adrenalin.
A miracle, a karmic moment, guided by a higher power…when I think of this event as a miracleof protection and guidance, my heart expands. I am filled with love, gratitude, and humility to see such care and attention given to my little life. I keep that gallon gas can full in my trailer, reminding me to be practical, but also, to open myself to guidance.
As Albert Einstein once said, “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
As I tended to the gash behind Tru’s right knee, the vets warned me of adverse conditions like proud flesh growing around a wound in such a high motion area.
There was actually barely any swelling or even heat. The vets cooed over how well this cut healed. After 9 days wrapped, we left the wound open to heal, applying Entederm and Manuka Honey alternately after cleaning. He also received Class IV laser treatments and an acupuncture treatment.
I did one thing the vets did not prescribe: Healing prayers, through me and Ananda Village. Every time I offered Tru healing prayers, he stood still, without a halter, as I channeled energy to him. He licked, chewed, and slowly blinked his eyes…a horse release, and an expression of gratitude.
Even though my mind wants to diminish this experience, I know that horses don’t think about what they feel. They just feel it, and reflect it back to us, like the mirror of a crystal clear pool.
One day, I talked to Tru about the fall, saying to him that we were held, guided and loved by great Spirits, seeing Yogananda in my mind.
He turned his head and looked at me, “I know.”
“Oh?! You knew that? Just waiting on me, were you?”
On December 26, 2019, I needed an adventure and went out to ride my horse, Tru, on the Canyon Creek trail off Hwy 49 towards Downieville, CA. An old stagecoach road, it’s a wide cut into the steep rock slope, with a hawk eye’s view of the North Fork Yuba River canyon. The light was bright, flickering and splashing with winter shadows. The cool, crisp air was alive and free, soothing to my cooped-up winter self.
We curiously investigated the old mining claims and camps, trotted long out to the creek and then turned back. As we slowed to a walk for narrow section of trail, a fallen tree I clearly did not see poking down the bank, stabbed me in the chest, pushing me out of the saddle. I tumbled backwards into the blackberry brambles. When I could look up, I saw Tru in a full-body leap. His front hooves were on the trail, his heart was even with the edge, and his powerful hindquarters heaved downward against the cliffside as he tried to regain the trail. The cliff was churning out from under him.
I called out “You can do it, Tru!” and then the cliff gave way. He tumbled backward. I watched him free fall and tumble 150 feet down the cliff and disappear into the brush. I sucked in my breath and said to myself “Oh my God, I’ve killed my horse.”
I flew down that cliff calling to him, “Tru, you’re okay. You’re okay. I’m coming, buddy.”
I found him standing. (First, “Thank God.”) His flank was quivering. Blood ran from his nose and a small cut a quarter inch from his eye. (Second, “Thank God.”) He had another small cut on his hip and a potentially serious a gash behind his knee. (“Oh God, please no.”) I spoke to him soothingly, untangled him from his bridle and the brambles from his tail.
“Help,” I yelled as loudly as I could a few times, just in case someone was nearby. Only the rushing water of the Yuba and our breathing.
“I’m getting you out of here, Tru,” I promised. And before dark. It was about 3:30 PM.
But how? I looked up. We were definitely not going back up that embankment. I couldn’t even see the trail from here. Helicopter evacuation? It is done, but I had no cell service for miles. Perhaps we could walk up the river. “I need you to wait here. I’ll be back.” He stood quietly, while PupPup, my McNab-Border Collie, and I went down to the river.
Serpentine green and crystal clear, the river flowed by, but the water was too deep and slick on the rocks. PupPup was bounding about with complete ease over the steep terrain. My eyes followed him up the canyon, and saw a contour.
With three passes, breaking and clearing branches for head space, checking the footing, we made a “path”. There would be several turns. It was deep, wet duff and pretty much hand over foot for me to climb. PupPup’s 40 pounds just flew up and down the slope, but Tru would need to take the big leaps and use the momentum to get his 1,100-pound body up the hill. And I had to have a place to stand clear.
Would he trust me to guide him and not thrash off into another fall?
I asked him to try. He looked, sniffed, looked. He took two big leaps and stood knee deep in wet duff. Now he had to back up a step and make a hard-left turn uphill. I asked him. He looked at it for a while. I asked again, and again. He backed up one step. I turned his head and asked him up the hill. He stood quietly looking, thinking. I kept asking, softly tugging. PupPup barked at him from behind; probably the only time I’ve ever thanked him for barking. And then, Tru heaved up and again to the next juncture.
I climbed up and around to get ahead of him, re-directed his head to see the path, and urged him up twice more. Now we were facing the last leap up to the trail. It would take three full body strides. I had to let him go on his own or I would risk throwing him off balance or reversing his momentum and causing him to fall again. Before we started, I had tied his bridle and reins across the trail, just in case adrenalin fueled him to take off down the trail. I showed him the way up, threw the lead line over his back, and watched.
Tru got to the trail and stood quietly, waiting for me. He was so calm, so courageous. My heart almost burst with gratitude for his trust, and for the clarity and calm we were both experiencing.
We started our ~4 mile walk back to the trailer. Tru walked steadily, evenly. I wouldn’t try trotting, instead said another prayer of gratitude, and one that soundness would be confirmed later.
Now for the next hurdle
On the drive out, I had forgotten my wallet, couldn’t fill up the tank, and it turned out to be a bit further than I had anticipated. When I parked, the range meter on the truck said 23 miles. That was likely not enough fuel to haul uphill out of the canyon. I prayed quite specifically for a person with a can of diesel fuel to come by so we could make it back to the gas station in North San Juan, and cell service range.
We got to Highway 49 and I began flagging down cars. About 5 went by, then a Mercedes diesel van turned around and came back. He didn’t have fuel and couldn’t siphon. He was clean shaven, dressed up for a holiday party, and stood ready to help. He put my husband Rick’s phone number in his phone, called him to save it, and accepted my instructions to ask Rick to get a can of diesel, and drive toward me on 49.
I loaded Tru and we started out, watching the gauge. The truck immediately increased our range to 35 miles—that was encouraging—and it stayed at 35 as we climbed over the first pass. Maybe this trip would be like Hanukkah and our fuel would last longer than it should, I mused.
I saw the Mercedes van coming back toward me and pulled over. He rolled down the window and his son handed me a gallon of diesel fuel. “Your husband isn’t picking up. I bought you a gallon of fuel. Merry Christmas!” Thank you. Wait, what’s your name? Will Martinelli. Downieville. Fireman.
Tears streamed down my face for the first time. “You sent me an off-duty fireman with a can of fuel!” I said to the smiling face of Paramhansa Yogananda, hanging from my rear view mirror.
My favorite affirmation from this Saint popped into my mind: “I will go forth in perfect faith in the power of omnipresent good, to bring me exactly what I need, just as I need it.”
I put the fuel in the tank and drove on. Our fireman angel kept calling until my family picked up. They met me just as I got service and was calling vets. We fueled up and hauled another hour into the clinic. Dr. Jessica Simpson of Bear River Mobile Veterinary Clinic cleaned Tru’s wounds and confirmed everything to be superficial.
Once home in his stall, he was standing facing away from his water and food, looking uncomfortable and despondent. Healing prayers popped into my head. I grounded, centered, asked to be a channel, and said Yogananda’s prayer for healing: “Divine Mother, manifest thy healing presence in Tru’s body, mind, and soul,” running my hands over his body and seeing him surrounded in light.
Tru lowered his head 6 inches, exhaled, licked and chewed. He closed his eyes for a moment, and as he opened them again, he turned to me with a gentle, profound look of gratitude. I reached out with a palm full of hay pellets. He nibbled them, and then, gingerly, but soundly, turned himself around to eat and drink.
This last couple weeks has been crazy. And I have not been graceful about it. I haven’t felt productive either, even though I’ve checked a bunch of things off my list.
Writing has been one daily activity that I’ve repeatedly put off. I haven’t felt the space for it, and yet my internal pressure to express rises. Reading about a research study on what we can do to act compassionately is giving me a clue to my own reaction to Christmas pressures.
Turns out, when we rush, we close our hearts. Christmas is the time of the year that we are meant to intentionally practice compassion. And yet, there is so much to do around the holidays, that we tend to get rushed. Turns out that being in a hurry actually crushes the Christmas spirit.
In a study of seminary students, designed to understand how compassion becomes action, the students were asked to prepare a sermon on which they would be evaluated. Half were given a random section of the bible to study, and the other half were given the parable of the Good Samaritan to study.
Each student was then sent one-by-one across campus, on a path that led them by a man moaning in pain on the ground. Who stopped to help this stranger in need? Not the ones who studied the Good Samaritan.
The key factor in taking compassionate action was how rushed the divinity students felt. The more rushed they felt, the less likely they were to stop and offer help to the stranger in need.
When we are rushing through our days, pushing to get the next thing done on our list, we literally tend to ignore people around us, and their needs.
Here are a few ways I’m choosing to slow down and let the Christmas spirit blossom–I offer these as gifts for your heart.
Affirm gratitude in the giving: “I give thanks to the Giver behind each gift and to the one Giver behind all that I give and receive.” While I’m are writing cards, shopping or wrapping or mailing or distributing gifts, I’m praying for the people to whom I’m giving that they may receive these blessings fully. As I’m opening cards and gifts, I’m also praying to receive and give thanks to the One Giver behind all our efforts.
Practicing forgiveness. I’m praying for anyone with whom I feel in conflict or a sense of unrest. Forgiving myself, too!
We’re having both a “spiritual Christmas” and a “social Christmas” to keep things balanced. I meditated for 8 hours with my community earlier this month. Tomorrow, I’ll support my husband Rick to meditate with the community.
On Sunday we’re going to a Christmas service, on Christmas Eve, we’ll enjoy a Christmas play together.
I’m stopping even for a moment, looking into another’s eyes, smiling and saying Merry Christmas, just to serve that person in front of me.
On Christmas morning, very early, before anything else happens, I’m going to meditate deeply and let the Christ Consciousness be born in the cradle of my heart.
Even simplifying can seem overwhelming in itself, so here’s just two essential attitudes that will kindle the Christmas spirit.
I’m saying “Yes!” with all my heart, to all I have before me. Try it…you will feel a new Christmas energy rush in to help you give and receive everything with calm joy!
Always remember who you really are: a loving, giving person, doing your best to be kind to everyone and under all circumstances! Merry Christmas blessings to all!
Many times along my journey to motherhood, I said “I won’t do that”—surgery, in vitro fertilization (IVF), ovum donation—“I’ll just adopt.”
After countless vaginal sonograms to count the eggs I produced on hormone-stimulated cycles for IUIs (intra-uterine insemination), we saw a pattern of high egg count—repeated counselling for multiples—but no conception.
When we did conceive, we miscarried. Our third doctor, Mitchell Rosen at UCSF Center for Reproductive Health, hypothesized that something in my uterus could be blocking conception. He recommended looking inside.
The look inside would happen in the operation room of a hospital under general anesthesia, and if there was something there, the doctor would remove it: Surgery. My husband, Rick, reminded me that I had said “no surgery.”
Now things looked different to me: a new doctor, new information, a new possible answer. A new hope rose for conception of our baby.
The look inside revealed a false wall of tissue in my uterus. If an embryo attached to that false wall, it would not receive sufficient blood flow to grow. Dr. Rosen removed it. His hunch was a good one. I felt new hope for conception grow again after the surgery. Never say “never.”
When the pattern continued—more stimulated cycles, IUIs, no conception or miscarriage (we had 5)—our new hope became IVF. At this point, I was 42. My chances of conceiving and carrying to term a child with my own eggs was 2-3%.
These odds are a serious hope-dasher—or they should be—but on the road to fertility, hope springs eternal. I thought: “Someone was in that 2-3%. I had great egg production. It could be me.”
The price tag of IVF, on the other hand, was daunting. In the US, $18,000.
I liked my doctor, even though it was a 6-hour drive for us one-way to UCSF. With some effort, we had a phone consultation about how he would do the IVF in our case. “I’d put all the embryos in,” he said. He also counselled us to consider ovum donation. The cost of IVF was about a third of my annual salary. The cost of IVF with ovum donation was closer to half at $35,000.
At this point I discovered Resolve, and someone suggested going overseas for IVF, and South Africa. That seemed waaaay out there for me.
Online I found clinics near family we have in Australia and Europe. I filled out the inquiry forms online. Crickets. I didn’t hear back. (How can you put up an inquiry form, and not respond to inquiries, especially about a health concern that is so time-sensitive?) I needed compassion in the form of responsiveness.
Then, I wrote to Cape Fertility Clinic in Capetown, South Africa. Less than 24 hours later, I received a response. One of the doctors, not a nurse or a receptionist, wrote back to me, right away.
Dr. Heylen was direct, compassionate and ethical. With his clinic’s track-record on IVF, my 42-year-old odds were 3% to conceive and carry to term with my own eggs.
Dr. Heylen also counselled us to consider ovum donation. The odds would shoot up to 80%. I wasn’t ready to give up my own genetic heritage. Given my egg production, and their method of growing the embryos to blastocyst phase, he agreed to do IVF with me.
Dr. Heylen is Belgian. The clinic uses European protocols, perhaps a bit ahead of the US. The cost of IVF at Cape Fertility Clinic was half that of a US clinic—including travel, renting a car and staying in a private cottage in Capetown for a month. My mother offered to help us finance it. New hope rose again.
Dr. Heylen’s accessibility meant so much to me. To this day, he’ll respond to my emails himself, right away, the only delay being he’s usually sleeping when I write (12-hour time difference). The combination of accessibility and direct, ethical responses to my questions gave me confidence to overcome the seeming foreignness of South Africa, and make the double-continent airplane jump around the world.
We had a brilliant time in Capetown. The clinic care was excellent. Two embryos made it to blastocyst phase. They were starting to slow down their growth when Dr. Helen implanted them in my womb.
We did not conceive. This hope left me in the 97% percentile. It all seemed crazy to have done, but it was a chapter that I had to live, and now close.
It was like walking through a forested valley. I could only see some yards ahead before a twist in the path blocked my view. No vistas to help me see why the path meandered so. Each new hope was a rise in the foothills, so I thought I could see where the path was leading, good reason to leap over this log or ford that creek. But it was a long hike up a steep mountain. Some times it was cold and dank in that valley. My heart did not know who to trust.
I didn’t keep my promise to never do this or that. Would I to adopt?
The inspiration for Conception Story was the journey to conceive my son. And what a journey it continues to be.
Conceived with the generous gift of an anonymous donor in South Africa, after 8 years of losses and fertility treatments, Luc Tayten (“the Light of Great Joy”) Hunter Bend was born on his due date, May 7, 2010.
Eight years of losses, and now eight years of living with this ebullient soul (and a few others), I am ready to share what we learned—and are continuing to learn, along the way. All the “not pregnancy” pee strips, sonograms, injections, surgeries, doctors, statistics, and choice points are still fresh for me, but not with the same emotional charge. Now, with my grief complete, I feel only compassion for anyone walking this path. And a passion to share solutions, to see it all as a gift.
Today, what’s astonishing me is how Luc’s conception story continues to unfold for him. I carried him in my womb for 9 months, nursed him at my breast till he was almost 4 years old, and he claims he’ll co-sleep with me for the rest of his life. I am definitely his REAL mom. And yet he is profoundly aware of his adopted genetics and “donor” mom.
I made Luc a book to tell him his conception story—how loved and wanted he is—and gave it to him as a gift on his second Christmas.
Why so young? For a few reasons…First, the psychological and emotional process for adopted children is well-known. It’s essential that children know their parents relationship with them from the beginning. A surprise can create a break in attachment and complicate their self-image. This is true also for children conceived with any kind of fertility intervention, especially a genetic adoption, like ovum or sperm donation.
Second, I needed to fully process and grieve my own loss of passing on my genetics. I could not delay this grieving. As soon as he was born, people noticed that Luc did not look like me. His olive skin, dark brown-auburn highlighted hair, his rich brown eyes are not from my blonde hair, fair skin and blue eyes.
Third, I needed to prepare for his questions. I needed to be able to answer them at his developmental level, be there for him, not just awash in my own memories and emotions about the 8-year-get-pregnant trudge. Making Luc’s conception story was a way for me to grieve, and process all the complications of navigating the fertility treatment system. Otherwise, all this stuff would flood my brain. He would feel my complicated emotions, but not be able to understand what he was feeling from me.
His questions did come, in layers of increasing curiosity and concern from 2 to 8 years old. So far I’ve been able to address each one calmly, at his developmental level. But they are getting tougher as they become more about his identity.
I have owned this domain name for six years, repaying each year, not quite sure what I would do with it. As Luc’s conception story unfolds for him, and he peels back layers into deeper and deeper territory—belonging, family, race, difference, trust—I know Conception Story needs to come alive.
I am here to share our story of adopting genetics, both the challenges and the grace that come with raising a child who feels all of that deeply. I want to help you have the courage to conceive your child, and to tell their conception story.
Born 13 days after Luc in May of 2010 is Tru, a spectacular Anglo-Shagya Arabian horse. My mare, Giselle (Luc named her “Mama G”), actually played a pivotal role in conceiving Luc. Pregnant together, we walked the Redwood forest trails to stay in shape as we grew our babies. Tru lives up to his full, registered name—“My True Companion”—and like Luc, Tru teaches me about heart and courage, boundaries and love. Plus nutrition.
In 2015, our family stepped onto the spiritual path, and moved to Ananda Village, a modern ashram community of yogis living for joy and dharma in the Sierra Foothills of California. I’ve been meditating twice a day for almost 3 years now. Meditation has seriously re-wired me. It’s re-wiring our whole family, as Luc meditates and does yoga in his Living Wisdom School.
The spiritual path has raised my consciousness to the grace flowing through every loss, every joy, every moment of life. It’s time to share the grace…