And Then There Were Four: Saying Goodbye to Ali the Foster Donkey

Sweat ran down my spine in slow, chilly lines as I stood in the driveway with one hand shading my eyes from the sun and the other waving goodbye to a man and woman from central Texas who pulled away carefully in their large, white pickup truck. Attached to the back of their truck was a black horse trailer and peering at me nervously and seemingly confused through the slits in the side was Ali—the first foster donkey who’s left my ranch to live out his life in his new, forever home.

Earlier that day, I spent some time in the pasture securing halters on all five of the donkeys that I had available for adoption. I brushed them and wondered who, if any of them, I’d be saying goodbye to today and equally felt excited at the prospect and dreaded it. I studied each of them closely trying to remember every detail of their faces. I watched the way Ethel, the 10 month old jennet, stomped her back foot when she got frustrated that the other boys took her place around the hay. I watched how Charlie, a two year old all-brown gelding, slowly blinked in what seemed like relaxation when I brushed him. Beans, the two-year old wild-caught burro, had just started becoming comfortable with me, allowing me to pet his nose and actually brush his back—unless I made any sudden movement, in which case he’d dart away. Simon, the eight-year old black and white gelding, has been quick to steal my attention since the five fosters originally arrived. One of his eyes is half black and half white—not the actual pupil, but the lids around it; half black and half white like a little yin-yang. I wonder sometimes if that’s what makes him so balanced. Then there was Ali: a 6-year old gelding and a mix of gray and white. His background prior to being rescued is unknown but whatever has happened to him, it’s caused him to be overly affectionate. He rests his head on yours and leans all his weight into you and when you rub his jaws, his large, black eyes close behind long, black lashes as he sways gently.

When the man and his wife showed up to meet our donkeys, I led them out into the pasture to spend some time with them. I kept my distance to allow the couple to interact and soon, it became clear that they had begun to latch onto Ali and in turn, Ali latched onto them: he pressed his nose into the man’s chest and nosed at his inner arms. The man grinned widely and wrapped himself around Ali, whispering things like “hey there” and “you’re a sweet one, huh?” into Ali’s ear. I tried to pretend it was sweat but really, tears had started to sting my eyes. The man and Ali were bonding…like really bonding. It was touching to see the sensitive side of this man that I’d only just met. Of course, it was just as touching to see Ali reciprocating.

It didn’t take any convincing. Soon, the central Texas couple were backing their trailer up to the gate as I attached a rope to Ali’s harness and began to lead him towards the edge of the property.

Ali walked proudly beside me—his ears up and steps confident. Having rained the previous day, we left a trail of side-by-side hoof marks and boot prints in the mud and as we approached the gate, Ali suddenly stopped and resisted. He saw the trailer, looked at me, looked at the man and his wife, then back at me and froze. Placing my hand between his ears I told him that it was going to be okay before I tried tugging on the rope and on his harness. “It’s okay, bud. You can do this, it’s okay,” I said, but if you know anything about donkeys it’s that when they’ve decided they aren’t going to move, there’s nothing that can really be done to move them. The man and his wife tried to help, but this only made Ali lean his weight more heavily into me.

“Ali, bud, it’s okay,” I said.

Still, he resisted. I tugged with literally all of my strength (and as I’m sitting here typing this now, I can feel the soreness in my arms and back from the struggle) but I may as well have been tugging at a skyscraper. He would not budge.

I decided we should take a break and I sat down on the edge of the trailer, wiping the sweat from my brow. My forearms had a layer of dust that stuck to the beaded sweat over my freckles and as I lifted my hand to pat Ali on the head, it shook uncontrollably. I think I was nervous. Ali leaned his head down and placed his nose in my lap, so I rubbed the base of his ears and told him that everything would be okay. I told him that I knew this was confusing and scary but that everything would be just fine. He buried his head deeper.

After a few moments, I got back up and with the help of the couple, we managed to get Ali into the trailer.

Ali is a decently sized donkey but as they pulled away, he looked very small in that trailer. His eyes were wide and his demeanor, nervous. I wiped my eyes as they left my view and told myself that he was going to be okay. The couple was lovely and had great plans in store for him. He was leaving us and he was going home.

I knew fostering donkeys would be difficult. I’ve knowingly and voluntarily signed myself and our property up to be a bridge from an often broken and painful past to a hopefully bright and loving future for donkeys in need. My space is only temporary before they find their happily ever after. I’m only here to help them get there.

Still, it’s difficult. It is an impossibility for me to become attached to the well-being, futures, and overall existence of these donkeys. I’ve brushed them and held their heads in close to my chest when our horrible neighbors were cracking fireworks in the middle of the night. I’ve sang to them and fed them and worried for their safety knowing that at any time, it will be their time to move on.

In a way, I’m reminded of the struggles that I have with being a new mom. I constantly worry about Little Foot being out in the world and about him growing up and moving on and not needing me to slice his grilled cheese sandwich or secure the velcro on his sandals. I’m heartbroken in anticipation of the day when he tells me to go away, but I also want (more than anything) for him to grow up and be a functioning member of society who is successful at what he chooses to do. I don’t know how to walk that line of protectiveness and letting go.

In his book, The View from the Cheap Seats, my very favorite author, Neil Gaiman, has a chapter (that was actually his acceptance speech for the 2009 Newbery Medal) where he talks about how if you as a parent do your job well, then when your children grow up, they won’t need you any more. They will go on and live their lives in their own futures and it’s true. Little Foot, if I do what I’m supposed to do, will grow up and not need me any longer. That is, sadly, the goal…although I can’t find peace in it. Not yet, at least. 

The same goes for these donkeys. During my time, they require my whole heart because really, there’s no other way to have a donkey. You can’t half-heartedly move into donkey ownership…or half-ass, if you will. They’re complex, deep, thoughtful creatures that know when their owners are genuine and well-intentioned and will react accordingly. They also know when their owners don’t care and sadly, that’s where many of them get stuck and/or abandoned. They are creatures that are emotionally affected by absolutely everything.

But wholeheartedly or not, I am only their bridge. Their vessel. Their portal to greener pastures and today, I had to say goodbye. Prepared or not, it was really hard.

I suppose that means I did my job right. I trust the couple who’s taken him and I know that he’ll be happy. I know this is right. As Neil Gaiman said, it is the “…fundamental, most comical tragedy of parenthood that if you do your job properly, if you as a parent raise your children well, they won’t need you anymore.”

I did my job and now, he is home.

Happy trails, sweet Ali.

Ali

 

So…Why Donkeys?

For the first time in almost two months, small, struggling raindrops splat onto the dirty windshield of my truck as I traveled down the long, dark, two-lane spur that leads back to my town. Momentarily, I forgot which lever controlled the windshield wipers (probably due to lack of use) so after fumbling with the blinker and then the washer fluid, I finally got the wipers going—their blades spreading dirty dampness in rainbow shapes across the windshield.

Welcome as the rain was to our roasted lawns, this particular night was poorly timed because on this night, the peak showing of the Perseid meteor shower was happening with the possibility of seeing an impressive seven to eight falling stars per minute. King Ranch and I had been anxiously awaiting the opportunity to post up in our backyard, lean back in lawn chairs with potent beverages, and see who could spot the most streaks in the sky. But alas, the insulation of thick, gray clouds fully blocked the potential for even a fluke sighting. Maybe we would just settle in on the couch, turn on an episode of Louis C.K.’s show, Louie, and still indulge ourselves with a drink or three.

I was driving home later than I’d originally planned from an evening staff meeting at the studio where I teach yoga. As a group, we (the staff) took individual DiSC assessments to determine our personality traits, strengths and weaknesses in an attempt to more effectively carry out our studio’s mission and to better understand one another in an effort to maintain harmony among all the employees. The results of my assessment were not too far off from my predictions which was a bit disappointing because I’d hoped to be surprised. It was revealed that I am, in fact, a C/S—one who is calm and avoids conflict and generally prefers to avoid too many social engagements. When faced with stress, “…Cs/Sc’s will over-analyze or withdraw, and may even stop talking altogether. Their generally calm and rational approach to their work—coupled with their non-assertive style—makes them appear detached, or potentially passive aggressive.” (Crystal Project 2016).

Chuckling uncomfortably to myself, I realized that of all the people in attendance at the meeting, I was surely the only one still travelling home because I lived the farthest distance away and by far from the studio: I’ve geographically separated myself from others.

I suppose I like it this way—being far. I like the ability to detach when I need to recharge. I like being around people for a short while and then retreating to the safety of my acreage and donkeys. However, loneliness does creep up on me from time to time…usually once Little Foot is napping, King Ranch is at work, and the donkeys are feeling particularly anti-social. It’s as if I haven’t struck the right balance between detachment and engagement with others. I’m easily overwhelmed by interaction, but start to crave it pretty quickly when it’s gone.

As I entered my town, there wasn’t enough rain falling to wash away the dirty trails that my windshield wipers left across the glass which made it difficult to see the road, so I ran my washer fluid a few times to clear the view. Those drops which had been falling were now reduced to a mist that scattered around in the beams of my headlights like small, aimlessly darting gnats.

I thought of these confirmed traits of mine: overly analytical, withdrawing, non-assertive etc, as I arrived outside of my property and was feeling rather vulnerable about it. I knew these things about me but now, everyone else did. Is that a bad thing though? By the time I pulled up, the rain was no more than a thick, floating humidity that fogged the car windows as well as the lenses in my glasses. As a yoga instructor, I speak so often about the importance of connection with one’s self as well as the connection to others, yet, as a human wandering around out there in the world, I usually feel quite disconnected from everything, myself included. Maybe it’s the overly analytical part of my mind, but I feel like I am in constant search for connection—even if it’s just a connection to understanding. Is it normal to feel like I just don’t get it? It meaning anything?

I pulled the glasses off my face to clear the lenses of fog as I stepped out of the truck to open the gate. As I did so, Bunny and Tee lifted their heads from grazing in the front paddock, watching me intently with their ears pointed up and their jaws still slowly chewing. They really do watch everything. With the gate open, I climbed back into the truck, released the brake, and squeaked up the gravel driveway as dots of dew danced around in the beam of the headlights.

After turning off the engine, I stepped out of the truck and noticed that Bunny had hung her head over the fence that lines our driveway, so despite the dampness, I walked to her and placed my hand between her eyes. She lifted her soft nose up and down and laid her ears back. C/Ss are (according to a DiSC Insights blog I found online here) stable and friendly. They don’t handle change very well, or at least not quickly. They’re sympathetic, avoid conflict, and they fear loss of security. They should be handled with care and will likely recoil if met with aggression, strong tones or body language, or pushy personalities. That assessment, I thought, really pinpointed me.

I ran my hand up and down Bunny’s snout as I considered all of this in thought patterns that resembled a complicated roller coaster—the images of my traits running up and down and ’round and ’round, faster than I could hardly keep up with when it hit me that oh my goodness, donkeys are C/S personalities too.

The roller coaster ride in my mind stopped abruptly and I stared into Bunny’s big, brown eyes. In my shift, she widened her eyes and her ears shot straight back up. Her tail flicked and Tee came trotting  over from across the dark, damp paddock.

Donkeys are kind, sympathetic, overly analytical, slow to adjust to change, reliant, dependable, and typically avoid conflicts. They need to be handled with extreme care, especially those who have been through a lot. They are loyal to a fault but will shut down if threatened. Oh my goodness. They’re just like me. Overthinking, anxious, kind, thoughtful, self-conscious, non-assertive, people pleaser ME.

I was suddenly very anxious in this discovery—as if somehow, I’d just discovered the glowing and priceless key that unlocks the secrets to the entire universe. I scrambled around the garage to the gate which leads into the pasture and there, Bunny and Tee met me with warm exhales and wide, welcoming eyes.

I dropped to a knee and placed a hand on each of their jaws, pulling their noses in close to my face. I’m sure they wondered what on Earth was happening but they didn’t resist or recoil. They didn’t resist because in typical C/S fashion, “they enjoy people, but prefer individuals and groups that they trust and feel comfortable around.” (DiSC Insight Blog 2016). They were being kind and patient. I laughed out loud as I realized this and from the back parts of the property, two of my foster donkeys brayed loudly, causing Bunny and Tee to reciprocate by calling back. I leapt to my feet and by now, the rain was no more than a heavy dampness—like a warm washcloth wrapped around absolutely everything. I ran as fast as I could in my saturated converse tennis shoes to the gate that separates the foster donkeys from my own and there they all were waiting, ears pointed up towards the gray sky.

They all watched me wide-eyed and I know why: they felt my excitement and my vulnerability from feeling so seen because donkeys feel what those around them are feeling. They’re natural care-givers and highly intuitive. After patting Bunny and Tee on the nose (assuring them that they still are and will always be my favorite), I unlocked the gate to the paddock with the fosters and latched it behind me as all five of them circled around me. I could have sworn that they smiled—at least it felt like it. I know I was. Like a big dummy, I smiled.

I’d never felt so seen. I’d never felt so understood. I’d figured out the answer to that confusing and complex question that I’ve been asked by so many and in so many different ways and have never properly known how to answer…that question: “Why donkeys?”

Why donkeys? Why? I know now.

Because they get me…and I get them.

Why donkeys? We see the world and react to it in the very same way. Their thoughtfulness, sensitivity, need for space yet need for engagement, overly-analytical minds: I get it now.

Why donkeys? Because we are the very same.

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Midnight Meditations and Donkey Songs

It’s just after 11:00 PM on a Sunday night during the first week in August and someone is shooting off fireworks down the road. They’re not setting off little snappy, poppy, crackly fireworks that flicker across the ground like big crickets. No. They’re setting off commercial-grade, booming, colorfully raining down fireworks that rattle the windows of every home and the bones of everyone in them. What the 4-letter word. Seriously. What the 4-letter word?!

Because of this display of exploding inconsideration by folks who I am noting to dislike from here on out, I’m out in the pasture, desperately trying to comfort not only my two donkeys, Bunny and Tyrion, but also my group of newly arrived fosters. Every flash, crack and boom startles the donkeys whose ears point up, eyes widen, and hooves scatter. They are terrified and I am furious with whoever has decided that this is an appropriate time to celebrate whatever this first week in August has brought them.

Like most animals and myself, donkeys are not fans of recreational explosives that are both obnoxiously loud and highly dangerous. Like operating an airplane, I personally feel that fireworks should be left to the professionals and be left to nationally recognized holidays in which most folks don’t have to be at work early the following morning.

I do not like exploding things. I do not like their colorful rings.

I do not like them late at night. I do not like them in my sight.

I neither like them in the dark, or exploding high, above the park.

I do not like exploding things. Nor the frustration that they bring.

It took me a bit of convincing, but I’ve managed to group the five fosters in a close huddle around me. I’m singing my favorite James Taylor song, Close Your Eyes, loud enough so that when the fireworks boom and crash overhead, they can still hear me. Bunny and Tyrion are next to us but on the other side of the fence and I ensure they can hear me, too. With every explosion, the donkeys jerk and jolt and one by one, I press their faces into my belly and rub their ears, still singing my song.

All of the donkey’s exhales are heavier than usual right now—their fear warm through their snouts. I’ve taken one of the fosters, Charlie, into my embrace and I am resting the side of my face between his ears. Next to him is Ethel, a 9-month old jennet. In her large eye, I see another firework climbing up through the night sky—a trail of glitter moving across her pupil. Her eye widens and I quickly wrap my arm around her neck, too. The firework booms and all the donkeys jump.

“Shhh shhh shhh,” I say to them, now squatting down. I continue to sing.

After the longest 10 minutes that has ever happened, the fireworks finally stop and it is quiet but for the crickets and heavy snorts and exhales from the donkeys. They’re still scared and I don’t blame them. I don’t want to leave them still afraid, so I decide that now would be a good time to try and meditate. I, myself, have been trying to meditate more often as a way to keep my perpetual anxiety about everything at bay.  For example, when I’m standing in front of the front door having just locked it yet still unable to convince myself that I have, I try to slow down my breath. When I inhale, I say “the door is locked”  and when I exhale I say, “you have locked the door.”  Inhale, “It is done.” Exhale. “It is done.” It works, sometimes. Perhaps it will work on the donkeys, too.

I lead all 7 of the donkeys over to the gate which separates the fosters from mine and take a seat upon a pile of hay. Two of the fosters start to pick at the hay while the other three stand back a few paces and begin to graze. On the other side of the gate, Bunny and Tee stand still and alert.

I close my eyes and pull in a long breath which I hold at the bottom of my belly for a few seconds. I imagine that the breath is a warm light that’s the color of honey and when I exhale, I imagine it pouring across the ground, illuminating everything it touches. I imagine that the ground beneath all of us is now a glowing gold that exposes any fear and any anger that lingers in the shadows around us.

I say, “May we be free from danger. May we be happy. May we be healthy.”

The donkeys seem unchanged so I pull in another breath, imagining that the light of it is brighter and warmer. When I exhale, the glowing gold beneath us is even brighter. I say again, “May we be free from danger. May we be happy. May we be healthy.”

One of the fosters lifts his head from the hay and looks at me, chewing slowly.

I pull in another breath and it’s so warm that I start to sweat. I exhale and it’s practically daytime in this light. “May we be free from danger. May we be happy. May we be healthy.”

All the donkeys are looking at me now. They are all very still.

One more breath—this time, the light removing all negativity from the space around us in the same way helpless twigs are disintegrated in a growing campfire. “May we be free from danger. May we be happy. May we be healthy.”

Behind me, Bunny revs up for a bray. As her breath quickens, one of the fosters suddenly lets out a bray. Soon, all seven donkeys are braying and braying loudly—so loud that it echoes and bounces back from the trees around us.  It’s a chorus of relief releasing the fear that they’ve had since the fireworks started a half an hour ago out into the universe. The differing pitches of their voices sends a vibration through everything around us—the whole world consumed by their song.

Their voices linger in the air for a moment before disintegrating softly away like a clearing fog when, one by one, the fosters wander off quietly into the night. Tyrion snorts and saunters away, too. Moving through the gate and locking it behind me, Bunny waits for me. I wrap  my arms around her neck and lay my head on hers. With my face between her ears that have laid back, I sing my song one more time, loud enough so only she can hear it.

Back inside, King Ranch has fallen asleep in the recliner in the living room, so I gently nudge him and say, “let’s go to bed.” On the way to our room, I stop and peek at Little Foot who is asleep in his crib and luckily, has managed to stay asleep despite the earlier fireworks. I lean down, kiss his forehead, and adjust the blanket over his belly.

May we be free from danger. May we be happy. May we be healthy. All of us. In this house and on this property. In all homes and on all properties. May we all be free from danger. May we all be happy. May we all be healthy.

May we all recognize our connection to each other and our responsibility to care for one another.

And may we not, pretty please, set off fireworks late on a Sunday night anymore. With a cherry on top, I’m begging.

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Midnight Meditations