Lean on Me

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Thanks to changes in laws mandating reasonable accommodation of mental illness disabilities, we are seeing a boom in requests from our patients for documentation to keep emotional support animals with them in on and off campus housing, classes, public transportation and other public places.   Patients desire an animal support to lean on through their stress.  Within the past year, the population of dogs has exploded on the University campus where I serve as medical director — dogs leashed and (usually) obediently following their student, faculty and staff owners to classes, meals, and back home to the dorm.  As a relatively outdoorsy, green and tolerant northwest University campus, the presence of animals on campus has yet to seem like a big deal, but as the numbers inevitably increase due to 25% of the college student population nationwide currently carrying a mental health diagnosis, it soon will be a big deal as individuals insist on exercising their civil rights along with their dogs.

And it isn’t always dogs.  There are cats, along with the occasional pocketed rat, hamster, guinea pig, flying squirrel, and ferret not to mention emotional support pot bellied pigs, tarantulas, ducks and geese.  And at least one snake.

Yes, a snake.

As a physician farmer concerned with stewardship of the patients I treat and the land and animals I care for, I’m emotionally caught and ethically bound in this new trend.  The law compels clinicians to write the requested documentation to avoid accusations of potential discrimination, yet I’m more concerned for the rights of the animals themselves.   I’ve loved, owned and cared for animals most of my sixty years and certainly missed my pets during the thirteen years I was in college, medical school, residency and doing inner city work (my tropical fish and goldfish notwithstanding).  I neither had the time, the money, the space nor the inclination to keep an animal on a schedule and in an environment that I myself could barely tolerate, as stressed as I was.   That is not stopping the distressed college student of today from demanding they be able to keep their animals with them in their stress-mess.

As a clinician, I’d much prefer writing fewer pharmaceutical prescriptions and help individuals find non-medicinal ways to address their distress.   I’d like to see my patients develop coping skills to deal with the trouble that comes their way without falling apart, and the resilience to pick themselves up when they have been knocked down and feel broken.   I’d like to see them develop the inner strength that comes with maturity and experience and knowing that “this too will pass.”  I’d like individuals to see themselves as part of a diverse community and not a lone ranger of one, understanding that their actions have a ripple effect on those living, working, eating, riding and studying around them. Perhaps corporate work places, schools and universities should host a collaborative animal center with rotating dogs and cats from the local animal shelter, so those who wish to may have time with animals on their breaks without impacting others who aren’t animal fans, or with potentially life threatening animal dander allergies.

I didn’t go through medical training to write a prescription for a living breathing creature perceived by the law as a “treatment” rather than a profound responsibility that owners must take on for the lifetime of the animal.   The animal is not disposable like a bottle of pills (or a human therapist) when no longer needed and needs a commitment from its owner beyond a time of high personal stress.

Pardon me now while I go take care of my dogs, my cats, and my horses and yes, my goldfish.  They lean on me.

 

homer5315

Caught Downstream

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First fluid flows in trickling stream
then gushes in sudden drench
soaking, saturating,
precipitating inevitability.

No longer pillowed inside,
pushed and sliding,
following the rich river
downstream.

An unforgettable fragrance of birth,
the soak of pungent brine
clings to shoes, clothes, hands
as I reach, again and again, to embrace new life.

Remembering, I too was caught once;
three times emptied into other hands,
my babies placed wet on my breast,
their slippery skin salty to my lips.

Now only attending barn births,
in a moment’s whiff of amnion
the rush of new life
once more smells sweet and rich.

The scent of damp foal fur
reminds me of other beginnings:
I still float downstream
longing to be caught once more.

Tonyasleep1

belindarose

An Ode to Earth Day

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I’m still groggy every morning when I step out my front door onto the porch to make my way down a  gravel driveway to get the newspaper. More often than not, it is still quite dark out at 5:15 AM.  More often than not, my slippered foot lands on something a little crunchy and a little squishy and a lot icky on the welcome mat in front of my door.

The front porch cat, as opposed to the back porch cat, the garden shed cat, the hay barn cat, the horse barn cat and the 3 stray cats, predator that he is, leaves behind certain remnants of his prey’s….uh, body parts.  Mousey body parts or birdie body parts.  I assume, from the consistency of this little carnivore compost pile, these are unappealing to the kitty, so become the “leavings”, so to speak,  of the kill. Typically, it is a little mouse head, complete with little beady eyes, or a little bird head, complete with little beak, and something that looks suspiciously green and bulbous, like a gall bladder.  I don’t think heads or gall bladders are on my preferred delicacy list either. And they are certainly not on my list of things I like to wear on the bottom of my slipper.  Yet I do and I have.

I’m perplexed by this habit cats have of leaving behind the stuff they don’t want on the welcome mat, even the occasional whole shrew or field mouse, seemingly untouched by claw or incisor, but yet dead as a doornail on the doormat.  Some cat owners naively think their cats are presenting them with “gifts” –kind of a sacrificial offering to the human god that feeds them.  Nonsense.  This is the universal trash heap for cats and a testimony to their utter disdain for humans.   Leave for the human the unappetizing and truly grotesque…

So humanity is not alone of earth’s creatures to create garbage heaps of unwanted stuff.  Not only cats, but barn owls are incredibly efficient at tossing back what they don’t want out of their furry meals.   Our old hay barn is literally peppered with pellets, popular with high school biology classes and my grand-nephews for dissection instruction.  These dried up brown fuzzy poop shaped objects are regurgitated by the owl after sitting in one of its  two stomachs for a number of hours.  Bird barf.   It’s fairly interesting stuff, which is why these pellets (which we recycle by donating by the  dozens to local schools) are great teaching material.  It is possible to practically reconstruct a mouse or bird skeleton from a pellet, or perhaps even both on a night when the hunting was good.  There is fur and there are feathers.  Whatever isn’t easily digestible doesn’t have much purpose to the owl, so up it comes again and becomes so much detritus on the floor and rafters of our barn.  Owl litter.  There should be a law.

Then there is the rather efficient Haflinger horse eating machine which leaves no calorie unabsorbed, which vacuums up anything remotely edible within reasonable reach, even if reasonable means contortions under a gate or fence with half of the body locked under the bottom rung, and the neck stretched 6 feet sideways to grab that one blade of grass still standing.  The reason why Haflingers don’t eventually explode from their intake is that Haflinger poop rivals elephant poop pound for pound per day, so there must be a considerable amount ingested that is indigestible and passed on, so to speak–like part of a tail wrap, and that halter that went missing… you know, like those black holes in outer space–that’s what a  Haflinger represents on earth.

This is quite different from the recycled “cud” of the typical herbivore cow who regurgitates big green gobs of  grass/hay/silage to chew it  again in a state of (udder) contentment and pleasure.   If humans could figure out how to recycle a good meal for another good chew or two, the obesity rate would surely drop precipitously.   So would attendance at most happy hours. But then, how many skinny cows have I seen?  Probably as many as purple cows.  I never hope to see one, but I’d rather see than be one.

In my daily walk through life, I have my share of things I unceremoniously dump that I don’t want, don’t need,  can’t use, or abandon when I only want the palatable so the rest can rot.  Today is Earth Day, and I feel properly shamed and guilty for my contribution to landfills, despite my avid recycling efforts for the past 40 years.  Nonetheless, I am in good company with my fellow carnivores and omnivores who daily leave behind what they don’t want or need.

I now need to figure out that herbivore cud thing.  I can go green and just might save on the grocery bill.

bobbie9614

The Gate Flung Open

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outongrass2

To young friends on their wedding day

Today is the day the pasture gate is flung open
after a long winter; you are let out on grass
to a world vast and green and lush
beyond your wildest imaginings.

You run leaping and bounding,
hair flying in the wind, heels kicked up
in the freedom to form together
a binding trust of covenant love.

You share with us your rich feast today,
as grace grows like grass
that stretches to eternity yet bound safely
within the fence rows of your vows.

When rains come, as hard times always do,
and this spring day feels far removed,
when covered in the mud or frost or drought of life,
know your promises were made to withstand any storm.

Even though leaning and breaking, as fences tend to do,
they remind you to whom you belong and where home is,
anchoring you if you lose your way,
pointing you back to the gate you bounded through.

Once there you will remember the gift of today:
a community of faith and our God blessed
this opened gate, these fences, and most of all your love
as you feast with joy on the richness of His spring pasture.
2013

outongrass

Turning the Light Off

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Marlee has gone home this morning, far sooner than we planned.  She was only twenty two, born only two months after our daughter’s birth, much too young an age for a Haflinger to die.

But something dire was happening to her over the last two weeks — not eating much,  an expanding girth, then shortness of breath, and last week it was confirmed she had untreatable lymphoma.

Her bright eyes were shining to the end so it was very hard to ask the vet to turn the light off.  But the time had come.

Marlee M&B came to us as a six month old “runty orphan” baby by the lovely stallion Sterling Silver,  but she was suddenly weaned at three days when her mama Melissa died of sepsis.  She never really weaned from her bottle/bucket feeding humans Stefan and Andrea Bundshuh at M&B Farm in Canada. From them she knew people’s behavior, learned their nonverbal language, and understood human subtleties that most horses never learn. This made her quite a challenge as a youngster as it also meant there was no natural reserve nor natural respect for people. She had no boundaries taught by a mother, so we tried to teach her the proper social cues.

When turned out with the herd as a youngster, she was completely clueless–she’d approach the dominant alpha mare incorrectly, without proper submission, get herself bitten and kicked and was the bottom of the social heap for years, a lonesome little filly with few friends and very few social skills. She had never learned submission with people either, and had to have many remedial lessons on her training path. Once she was a mature working mare, her relationship with people markedly improved as there was structure to her work and predictability for her, and after having her own foals, she picked up cues and signals that helped her keep her foal safe, though she had always been one of our most relaxed “do whatever you need to do” mothers when we handled her foals as she simply never learned that she needed to be concerned.

Over the years, as the herd has changed, Marlee became the alpha mare, largely by default and seniority, so I don’t believe she really trusted her position as “real”. She tended to bully, and react too quickly out of her own insecurity about her inherited position. She was very skilled with her ears but she was also a master at the tail “whip” and the tensed upper lip–no teeth, just a slight wrinkling of the lip.  The herd scattered when they saw her face change.  The irony of it all is that when she was  “on top” of the herd hierarchy, she was more lonely than when she was at the bottom and I think a whole lot less happy as she had few grooming partners any more.

She accompanied us to the fair for a week of display of our Haflingers year after year after year — she could be always counted on to greet the public and enjoy days of braiding and petting and kids sitting on her back.

The day she started formal under saddle training under Val Bash was when the light bulb went off in her head–this was a job she could do! This was constant communication and interaction with a human being, which she craved! This was what she was meant for! And she thrived under saddle, advancing quickly in her skills, almost too fast, as she wanted so much to please her trainer.

She has had a still unequaled record among North American Haflingers. She was not only regional champion in her beginner novice division of eventing as a pregnant 5 year old, but also received USDF Horse of the Year awards in First and Second Level dressage that year as the highest scoring Haflinger.

With Jessica Heidemann she did a “bridleless” ride display in front of hundreds of people at the annual Haflinger event, and with Garyn Heidemann as instructor,  she became an eventing pony for a young rider whose blonde hair matched Marlee’s.  She galloped with abandon in the field on bareback rides with Emily Vander Haak and became our daughter Lea’s special riding horse over the last few years.

She had a career of mothering along with intermittent riding work, with 5 foals –Winterstraum, Marquisse, Myst, Wintermond, and Nordstrom—each from different stallions, and each very different from one another.

This mare had such a remarkable work ethic, was “fine-tuned” so perfectly with a sensitivity to cues–that our daughter said:   “Mom, it’s going to make me such a better rider because I know she pays attention to everything I do with my body–whether my heels are down, whether I’m sitting up straight or not.”  Marlee was, to put it simply,  trained to train her riders.

We will miss her high pitched whinny from the barn whenever she heard the back door to the house open. We will miss her pushy head butt on the stall door when it was time to close it up for the night.  We will miss that beautiful unforgettable face and those large deep brown eyes where the light was on.

What a ride she had for twenty two years, that dear little orphan.  What a ride she gave to many who trained her and who she trained over the years.   Though I never climbed on her back, what joy she gave me,  the surrogate mom who loved and fed her, unable to resist those bright eyes, which are now closed in peace.

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Photo Montage by Emily Dieleman

An Olfactory Journey

topofthestack

“The smell of that buttered toast simply spoke to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cozy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender; of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries.”
~Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

I’m not a practitioner of the ancient art of aromatherapy for medicinal purposes but I do know how effectively smells can transport me than any other mode of travel.  One whiff of a familiar scent can instantly take me back years to another decade and place, almost in time traveling mode.  I am so suspended in the moment, both present and past, my brain sees, hears, tastes, feels everything as it was before.

The most vivid are kitchen smells, to be sure.  Cinnamon takes me back to my Grandma’s farm house, roasting turkey to my mother’s early morning labors on Thanksgiving Day, fresh baked bread to the years I needed to knead as tactile therapy during medical school training.

Today it is the smell of oatmeal on the stove that reminds me of those frosty winter mornings rushing to get out the door in time to catch the bus for the long ride to school.

It’s not just food smells.  When I have the privilege of babysitting infants, I drink in their smell of baby shampoo and powder, so like the soft velvety smell of my own children a quarter century ago.   Out in the barn, the newly born wet fur of my foals carries the sweet and sour amnion that was part of every birth I’ve been part of: delivering others and delivering my own.  My heart races at the memory of the drama of those first breaths.

My garden yields its own treasures: tea roses, sweet peas, heliotrope, lemon blossom take me back to lazy breezes past blossoms planted along the house, wafting through open bedroom windows.  The fragrance of the earth after a long awaited rain– petrichor — reminds me of dusty dry summers crying for relief.

I doubt any aromatherapy kit would include my most favorite–the farm smells: newly mown hay, fresh fir shavings for stall bedding,  the mustiness of the manure pile, the green sweetness of a horses’ breath.

Someday I’ll figure out how to bottle all these up to keep on hand forever.   Years from now my rambles will be over, when I’m too feeble to walk to the barn or be part of the hay harvest crew any longer,  I can sit by my fireplace with a purring contented cat, listening to the soft rolling twitter of my sleepy canary, then close my eyes, open this bottle of memories and take a whiff now and then.

What a journey I will take, back to a day like today, a day that speaks to me with no uncertain voice.

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So Gruntled

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I was introduced to the word gruntled  a few years ago and instantly knew what it was meant to describe– that unsurpassed feeling of contentment.

 

the rumbling vibration of a cat’s purr,
flannel sheets warmed when wind and snow blur,

a filling meal of fresh home grown food
a cow chewing cud, eyes closed in serene mood,

the slow wakening after a full night’s sleep,
a pig’s wallow in cool mud so deep,

the low-throated nicker of a mare to her foal,
a tub of warm water when muscles exert a toll,

the sucking hungry baby in rocking chair bliss,
a cuddle in jammies before bed with a book not to miss.
~Emily Gibson

 

And so every day, I seek the momentary and fleeting bliss of gruntlement.  So simple, so honest, so true, so gruntled.

Tonyasleep1

pigsleep

homer3