Springtime Shifts & Snips

It was a misty afternoon as I drove along obscure county roads through small-town Texas’s prairies and lakes region on a solo-trip to Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue’s headquarters in San Angelo. My trip’s purpose was to volunteer and assist in what would be 150+ male donkeys being castrated. I’d be another set of hands to help in any way I could for the large team of vets and employees of the PVDR ranch.

I don’t get the opportunity to make road trips on my own very often and on the occasion that it happens, I remember how much I enjoy that solitary time. To boot, I love Texas in early spring when the leaves are a bright, playful green and infinite bluebonnets blanket the grassy slopes along every road. This lone trip came at a perfect time because much like this seasonal springtime shift, my life has gone through some blooming of its own and I’ve not had the time or space to really process it all.

The drive was a strange one—the mist making it too wet to not run the windshield wipers but not wet enough to keep them on their lowest setting, so I had to be diligent about manually clicking them every minute or so. I also wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from my time at PVDR seeing as I’d never witnessed one donkey castration, let alone over 150. From what I knew going into it, the procedure can be pretty gruesome to the weak-stomached and although I consider my gut to be pretty strong, I was still finding it difficult to imagine what I was driving into. But I wanted, so badly, to help. I’m not really sure why…I just really, really wanted to be there.

I drove on along a route that Google Maps decided was best and really, it picked well. The roads climbed and tumbled over rolling hills and through patches of low-hanging trees and wildflower clusters. The roads rose and fell with such rhythm that soon, it felt like the Earth itself was breathing and I simply slipped along the ebb and flow of its beautiful breath. I found myself mimicking her breathing—inhaling as the car climbed up and exhaling as we slithered down.

I breathed in my recent doubts—doubts like, was it really the right decision to take leave from the studio where I’ve been regularly teaching yoga for nearly two years? Only two days before this trip, I’d held my final, regularly scheduled yoga class in an effort to have more time at home with my family, my donkeys, and my ranch. But that decision was no easy one to make—I loved that space where I could lead yoga classes. It was friendly and fun and oddly enough, a place where people didn’t feel the need to compete with one another. I liked that. Competition makes me uncomfortable. Maybe that’s why I was a really crappy softball player once upon a time.

I breathed in doubts about myself—the cassettes on repeat in my mind that question if the things I do are the right ones. If I’m a good enough mother. A good enough partner. A good enough guardian for donkeys. The insecurities I have over not making much money and being so anxious about absolutely everything all the time. I breathed it in and in and in and with every downhill exhale, I imagined those doubts fluttering away like a frightened murder of crows. Gather it up and let it go. Up and down, gather and let go.

I arrived at my destination around dinner time and was welcomed with warm hospitality by two of the PVDR ranch residents who put me up for the night. It felt like home, sleeping where the donkeys bray, and the next morning, we woke before sunrise and got to work.

There was hardly a moment to be lost in my head that day and perhaps that’s why I enjoy manual labor so much. If monkey mind has a task, then it doesn’t have time to waste on bottomless pits of “what ifs.” It makes hard work an escape for me. I love it. Every minute of it…sweat and blood, included. Hard work is therapy.

After while, as the castrations were beginning, I found myself in the line where I assisted in haltering and identifying the jacks who were in the queue for vaccines, sedation, and castration. I’ve not had much experience with wild donkeys who’ve not been handled much by humans (or handled in negative ways) and it was a little bit intimidating and a lot bit eye-opening. I’m so used to my sweet Bunny and Tee and Tink who lean their weight and their trust into me that I forget how much work and effort goes into these donkeys to help them feel safe.

So many of the PVDR donkeys have come from a neglected, abusive, and abandoned backgrounds and to come out on the other side hungry for human interaction is a real testament to the effort that PVDR folks put into these donkeys. It’s humbling. And it’s a ray of freaking sunshine in an often selfish and apathetic world. I wished I could’ve stayed to help with castration day two, but life was still happening at home and I didn’t want to miss any more of it. Plus I really wanted to spend time with my donkeys and the 5 left in my care that were available for adoption. I wanted to pet their noses and show them that they were loved especially after seeing where a lot of their journeys may have started—wild and scared and having no reason to trust humans.

Perhaps it was the seemingly 35 gallons of sweat I lost along that line of dozens of donkeys and perhaps it was the snipping away of bit after bit after bit, but as I drove home late that night, beneath the star-studded sky, my spirit felt cleansed or….castrated, if you will. It takes escapes like this, sometimes, to get out of the woods of your mind—to retreat from your comfort zone and spend some time with people who’ve dedicated their lives to making the world a better place. “What ifs” struggle to exist in places demanding of your strength and my, how I need my “what ifs” to be put out of their misery sometimes.

I guess the point of all of this is that we could all stand to snip away our unnecessary bits sometimes—especially if all they’re doing is causing us and those around us, trouble. Find some alone time. Scare the crows away. Admire the stars and most important, breathe as deeply and with as much purpose as you can. Use that deep breath to create space for peace within you—to make way for the blooming wildflowers of your soul.

Gather it up and let it go.

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The Value of Donkey and Self

I should start with an apology to my readers for having neglected to keep you all abreast of what’s been happening at our little donkey ranch lately. There are times in life that I swear the gods must be pressing fast-forward on their giant remote in the sky because it seems like only yesterday that I was basking in the afterglow of our successful “Yoga for Donkeys” fundraiser (that story here).

Since then, we’ve acquired a new shipment of adoptable donkeys—10, to be exact—so last week, our total donkey count for the ranch jumped from 3 to 13. Here are some photos of our new arrivals:

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Within this shipment is the largest donkey I’ve so far fostered (Gus) as well as the smallest (Spartan) and between those two are vibrant and far-ranging personalities—from mischievous to debonair to spunky and inquisitive. This Motley Crew of snorting snouts and twitching tails leaves no room for dull moments. Then again, life rarely leaves room for dull moments. As my role in donkey rescue chugs along, so does my ever-evolving role as a mother, partner, yoga-instructor, gardener, daughter and oh yeah…self.

The self.

The self is and should be on your schedule for regular maintenance just like oil-changes and air-filter replacement. The self needs love and attention and like your teeth, needs regular polishing.

I struggle with this. I struggle with taking two steps back and turning my sights inward to ask, “Hey, you doing alright in there?” I do this so infrequently that when I do muster up the strength to take a look inside my heart and mind, my gaze acts more like a needle penetrating the outside of an about-to-burst water balloon, causing violent gushes of pent up emotion to pour out of me and down the streets, white-capping and destroying property.

The self needs itself. The self needs to know it’s loved unconditionally and the self needs to know that it is valuable beyond measure. The self does not increase in value because it makes more money or looks a certain way. The self does not increase in value when it has popularity or followers. The self needs the self to recognize its shared value simply by having been born into this world.

I realized this from spending time with my donkeys—this new crew specifically. Gus, my larger-than life donkey, carries no more value than Spanky, my orphaned ball of fluff who keeps rubbing his face on posts creating a perma-scab likely, because he’s anxious. Tink has no less value than any other donkey just because he has to wear a boot. They are valued simply because they are who they are.

With us (humans) it becomes so convoluted because of things like religion and politics and classism and so on but what I wish we could all do is to just stop and look inside for a moment and ask, “How you doing in there? Like really, how are things?” I get the sense a lot of us would be surprised at what we saw. If we could understand that we all carry worlds within ourselves (and those worlds are, I believe, infinitely valuable and immeasurably capable of love), then concepts like dehumanizing groups of people simply because they’re different wouldn’t exist like they do so frequently throughout our history as a species. How lucky we all could be if we’d stop, polish our insides, and then use our newly-filled cup to serve those who could use a hand.

I hope that you can appreciate how complex you really are—how there’s no way that one word or one concept could ever define you. How you were a child once who dreamed of going on magical quests and that if you think about it, life really is exactly that—a fantastic adventure. Be the hero—the one who saves the day with empathy and love, not with violence and hatred. Who fights for what’s right. Who falls and has two choices: to give up or to muster up the strength that you’ve always had to keep going. Be Gus, the gentle giant. Be Spanky, the fighter who was not expected to survive but now thrives. Be Tink, who wears his boot proudly. Be Bunny, the one who would do anything to ensure that you felt loved.

Be you. Complex, weird, creative, and sensitive you. And when you feel the emptiness begin to creep in, step back. Recharge. Love on yourself. You’ll be back up in no time.

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Yoga for Donkeys

Last week, I hosted an event to raise money for the charity in which I volunteer to help save donkeys. I considered the potential to serve a greater good by combining two of my very favorite things: yoga and donkey rescue. The result was an overwhelming success where not only was money raised to help save donkeys, but so was awareness of the issues facing donkeys and why it’s important that we give them a voice. I led a short and somewhat unconventional yoga class beneath a clear sky as the stars and my donkeys watched curiously.

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{Here, I’m saying, “look at the stars!!”}

Of course, the donkeys didn’t stay idle for very long before deciding to join the yoga class.

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Yoga and Donkeys: It was a marriage of two worlds I’d not previously imagined but somehow, it all came together—and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, one of the common themes in this entire blog that’s been going on for nearly two years is how much the relationship I’ve built with my donkeys has helped me manage my anxiety. Yoga is also an essential tool in my anxiety management box and so I suppose the connection was merely a matter of time.

That’s not to say I haven’t done a bit of my own yoga practice from time to time out in the pasture with my donkeys around, but I guess I was particularly touched with just how many people were eager to participate in the event. Most of the participants had never spent any time with donkeys but suffice to say that everyone left that night with a little hoof-print on their heart.

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It was a strange yet magical night—increasingly chilly as the night aged, but as we mingled with each other and with the donkeys, self-perpetuated warmth grew just as quickly. It was a gathering of huge hearts that thudded within the chests of admirable and generous folks and I’ve spent the days following this event baffled over how I managed to become so lucky in life that I was given the opportunity to do something like this: teach yoga to save donkeys all in the company of the very best people. I well up just typing that.

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I realized that night that I never tire of talking donkeys. I could go on for an eternity looking for the words that would chart the depth of their existence but honestly it goes so deep I reckon I’ll never see the bottom. Even better was that the people who spent that evening with me under the stars wanted to know everything about donkeys and wanted to touch them and look into their eyes the same way I do—the same way I wish we all could because your life is never really the same after you’ve seen the soul of a donkey. And if you’re not sure what I’m talking about, then go look again—their worlds are infinite and peek out in little sparks around their eyes when you look just right.

Thank you so much, from the bottom of my bleeding heart, to all of you who have donated your time and your money to help save donkeys. They are beings worth fighting for because the obstacles they face are dire. Donkeys are being slaughtered by the millions across the globe for their hides (you can read more about that issue here: Under the Skin – Donkeys at Risk) and before it’s too late, we must speak out.

If you’d like to donate to the cause, please feel free to visit this page for more information.

And finally, special shoutout to Lambert Photography for snapping pics in such a unique environment 🙂

The light in me honors and loves the light in all of you—that same light that we all share that peers down from the sky at night, that winks from the eyes of animals, that seeps from your skin and tingles when it feels seen. It’s the light that’s fueled by adventure and risk-taking but also shines just as brightly when there are no words but simply still contemplation of the stars above. That light in me salutes that light in you. NamasBRAY.

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Dark Storm Donkeys

It was a dark and stormy night—the kind old, bearded sailors would recall while sipping on a potent drink from a silver mug, staring off into the distance, remembering the night their ship capsized on the high seas and in the flashes of crackling lightning, battled mountain-sized squids with their bare hands. They barely made it. And they’ve not sailed since.

So of course I was out in the shelter with the donkeys.

The three of them, Bunny, Tee and Tink, have all become lovely friends. I’d had separate stalls for them in which to hunker down, but they prefer to be together (and I prefer it, too). I sat in the soft hay rubbing Tink’s enlarged ankle (this is not abnormal for him…it’s permanently swollen due to his injury) but still, I imagine it’s often sore, so I run my fingers around it, pressing it gently. Tee stood on my other side and leaned his weight into me while Bunny was near the door watching the storm.

The lightning was getting closer—it flashed like a strobe light and the thunder roared and crackled like a million, great trees snapping and falling at once. The donkeys flinched every time. I’d initially come out to the shelter to take Tink’s boot off of his foot—I keep it on most days and let his hoof air out at night when he’s not as active, but when I saw their frightened, searching eyes, I couldn’t leave them alone in the storm.

I watched the sheets of rain tumble down beyond Bunny and outside of the door with fury—the mud splashed and the wind whipped the sides of the shelter with howling strength. I felt like I was in a cave: like suddenly I was way, way back in the olden times. Back in the times when we’d seek shelter in caves from night-roaming predators and I found myself feeling very protective of my four-legged companions.

Lightning struck very close just then with a painful boom and Bunny backed away from the door with a wide-eyed grunt. I stood saying, “It’s okay, girl,” and hugged her large head into my chest and rubbed the insides of her furry ears when I noticed that I was actually a bit nervous myself—of what, I’m not sure. I felt oddly vulnerable, as if beyond the doors of the shelter, danger awaited me. I felt like prey.

Through the heavy rainfall, I heard King Ranch calling to me.

“Jess?” he yelled from the house. “Jess, you coming in?”

I leaned outside of the shelter to respond but as I did, lightning struck again, this time very close. It exploded with a flash and I jumped back into the shelter.

King Ranch yelled again, “Jess!”

I gave each donkey a kiss on the nose and said to them, “Stay in here. You’ll be safe.” Then I pulled the hood of my jacket over my head and ran out into the storm.

“I’m coming!” I yelled back at King Ranch who was about 100 yards away on our covered patio. Lightning struck and thunder crashed again and I squealed.

The mud splashed beneath me and the rain pelted my face. I felt as if I was being chased by something angry and hungry while my heart thudded heavily in my chest. I reached the gate with a stumble and with shaky and slippery hands, fumbled with the lock and the latch. Lightning struck again and I heard King Ranch yell something, although I’m not sure what. I was breathing heavily and blinking the rain and the fear away from my eyes when I finally pushed the gate open.

I closed it and locked it behind me and then ran to King Ranch, jumping into his open, dry arms and he held me close beneath the awning of our back patio—the rain falling all around.

I panted and shivered as he held me when he said, “It’s okay.” As we walked inside, I looked over my shoulder to see all three donkeys dry and safe in their shelter. They stood in a row, Bunny, Tee and Tink.

Of course, after I changed out of my wet clothes and relaxed in the dryness of my house, the storm subsided into a floating, directionless drizzle. I stood by the window sipping a potent drink out of a mason jar and watched the donkeys come out of their shelter and begin to graze on the grass just outside of it. They were fine. We were all fine. I smiled and sipped my drink.

I think next time we have weather like this, I’ll just bring the donkeys inside our house. Don’t tell King Ranch though. That’ll be our little secret. *grins*

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Seven New Donkeys Under A Star-Speckled Sky

From the floor in the cob webby, cadaverous corner of my closet, I retrieved my thickest jacket—a cream colored hoodie with peach and green zigzags stretched horizontally across it. I bought it for $1.50 at an estate sale a few towns over last year because having lived in Houston my entire life until our move to the ranch, thick jackets were none of my concern. It was a late November day that hovered in the low 70’s and was dipping down to the high 30’s by early nightfall. As I cranked up the heater inside my house, I realized that there was a good chance that my new shipment of adoptable donkeys that had only arrived yesterday may not realize that the shelter I have erected on my property was there for them to keep dry and warm. After checking the sleeves of my hoodie for spiders, I slipped it on along with my work boots and headed outside.

It was one of those nights where it was hard to believe that the air was chilly—the sky was a blanket of stars without a smudge of a cloud and as far as I could tell, there was no breeze. Maybe it’s because I’m from the south, but I just don’t expect still, clear nights to be so, damn cold…I expect wind and clouds to be involved at least a bit. 

I unlatched and unlocked the first gate that leads into the pasture and the metallic clang of the chain against the post sent seven sets of ears straight up into the sky. At the time, they were all in a circle around the large, approximately 500LB bail of hay I’d gotten for them and by the time I made it through the gate, two of those sets of ears were right next to me, nosing at my jeans and exhaling quickly.

One by one, they approached me except for Tink who stayed back at the hay…more on him later.

I clicked from the back of my teeth and said, “Come on, kiddos,” as I walked towards their shelter. To my surprise, they all followed, fighting to be the closest to my backside. I was surprised because until this point, all of these new adoptable donkeys had been pretty standoffish towards me which I understood. They’ve been through so much and now they’re at this place with this weird woman who talks to them in a high-pitched voice and even sings to them. (Yes, I sing to them…earlier, I tried to win over their affections with carrots and to the tune of ‘I’m a little tea pot’ I sang, ‘Here’s a little carrot just for you, Take it and you munch it and you crunch it through and through.’)

We made it to the shelter and they stood around me expectantly. I wondered then if I should have brought them a treat. Instead, I leaned on the back wall of the shelter and peered out at the clear sky. A plane passed by with red and blue blinking lights as snorts and exhales filled the shelter with warmth. I found that I was actually quite warm now, myself. Noses took turns pressing into my arms and furry ears took turns brushing my cheeks and chin.

Donkeys in the dark are far more mysterious than they are in daylight. You can’t see where they’re looking or how tightly they’re holding the muscles around their eyes (which is a way I’ve learned to tell the mood of my own donkeys). Donkeys in the dark force a letting go of control and instead, you allow yourself to exist in the void of our connected consciousnesses. It’s trusting that they sense your intentions and learning to trust theirs, too.

I am no expert at donkey adoption. This is only my second batch of adoptable donkeys and I was just as nervous in receiving them this time as I was the last. I obsessively check the gates to ensure they’re latched and locked. Any bray that echoes during the day or night sends me out in the pasture to ensure all is okay. I’m overprotective and strict towards potential applicants who are interested in adopting because these donkeys have been through enough whether it be neglect, abuse, or even having been surrendered by someone they trusted. Change is a lot for an anxious mind and donkeys are quite anxious, naturally. Wherever they end up permanently needs to be a home of patience and of love and of borderline neurotic obsession because I guess I don’t think it’s all that strange to spend a good portion of the night outside with your new donkeys so that they know their shelter is safe and warm. It’s also not weird to sing to them—I’ve found they actually quite like it and they don’t care if you’re in tune or not.

I stayed in the shelter with them for some time watching the stars twinkle against a deeply bruised sky when finally, Tink joined us.

Tink will not be adopted out. Instead, I am adopting him. He is a mini donkey who was severely injured to the point where his front, left leg is no longer functioning. The left front hoof will never grow in properly and he wears a boot to protect the exposed leg. He is special needs and certainly will be extra work for me but I am so grateful to have him. He’s one of the most beautiful donkeys I’ve ever laid eyes on and never has a donkey (or anyone / anything other than my own kid) been so quick to lean his weight so trustingly into me.

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I welcomed him into the shelter and knelt beside him, a hand on his back. I told him that I will take care of him—that I will do everything in my power to never let any harm come to him. I know he doesn’t understand my words, but I hope he feels my sincerity. Scratch that, I know he feels it. That’s what donkeys do. 

Bunny and Tee still aren’t sure of all of this, but like last time, they’ll adjust soon enough. Donkeys speak one language and that is love, no doubt. They sense it. They feel it. They validate its authenticity and will let you know if they sense bull shit. I often wish that us humans could be a little more like them.

After some time, I headed back to the house, exhaling fog. As I secured the last lock, Tink started to bray and boy does he have a loud bray. This made Bunny and then Tee and then all the rest of the donkeys from their shelter erupt into a crescendo of hee-haws beneath the clear, crisp sky. I smiled and walked inside.

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The Land of 1,000 Donkeys: A Weekend at the Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue Headquarters

I was in the second of two white vans that slowed to a gravel-crunching stop outside the visitor’s center at the Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue’s headquarters in San Angelo, Texas. As the dust settled, I waited my turn to exit the van, crouched and clutching my satchel to my stomach. My heart pounded wildly in my chest as my boots hit the dry ground and the spicy scent of livestock surrounded me. Beneath the shining Texas sun beating down through a cloudless sky, I breathed in the dry, sandy air and followed the crowd away from the vans.

The group with whom I was travelling consisted of other managers and volunteers of Peaceful Valley’s satellite adoption centers around the country and members of the PVDR Board of Trustees. We had all come to San Angelo for the 2016 Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue Symposium and for me, I was meeting absolutely everyone (but for the owner of the whole operation, Mark Meyers) for the very first time.

For the vast majority of us, this was our first visit to San Angelo’s headquarters and even if I hadn’t already discussed this with the others, I’d have guessed by the way they stood in awe like I did upon arrival. Literally, as far as one could see, were pens of hundreds of donkeys. From every direction, brays of varying pitches and depths echoed—the songs of the saved. After several minutes of dropped jaws and goofy grins, we (the crowd) shuffled into the visitors center to begin the business of the symposium. It would be a busy weekend with brainstorming, discussions, hands-on demonstrations, Q&As, labs and team-building all in an effort and in the spirit of bettering lives for donkeys.

If you’ve been following my blog at all, then you’re well aware that my heart beats for donkeys and that it’s because of donkeys that my life is far better than I could have imagined. They’ve grounded me in a unique way…unknowingly showing me that it’s okay to be an anxious and protective creature because for many, that’s what it means to self-preserve. They’ve taught me the importance of trust and how to be strong and that no matter what, you keep going.

As I sat in a fold-out chair in the back row watching Mark Meyers talk about the organization that him and his wife, Amy, built, I realized that I was among people that understood all of these things about donkeys—so much so that they work tirelessly and devote their lives to the welfare of these amazing and overwhelmingly forgotten creatures. I was surrounded by people that don’t have to ask the question, “why donkeys?” but instead ask, “why the hell NOT donkeys?” They are a species that are unmatched in intelligence, strength, complexity and grace and they need a voice, too.

That voice came together this weekend and I had the honor and privilege to be a part of it.

I travelled alone to this conference which was probably a good idea because by the time I made it back to my hotel room after our first day at the San Angelo ranch, I spent a good amount of time letting tears stream down my face as I tried to fall asleep. They were tears for the hundreds of faces I saw at the ranch that had been through so much: hooves that were grown out so far that the donkey would never comfortably walk again, blinded and injured donkeys, scared and formerly abused donkeys. But they were also tears of joy that at least now, those donkeys were safe. They were tears of appreciation for how much these people I’d met have given and will continue to give just so these donkeys have a chance. They were tears of gratitude for the good that still exists in the world and the pure bad-assery that I…nervous, awkward, what-the-heck-am-I-doing-with-my-life Jess…gets to be a part of it.

Besides the invaluable education I received through our hands on workshops, the friendships I made over drinks and good food, and the hundreds of donkeys that I got to put my hands on and look into the eyes of, I was also assured of something this weekend that I didn’t expect: that this…aiding in donkey rescue even the tiny bit that I can…is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. No doubt. I know this because as Mark Meyers spoke to all of us at the Board of Trustees meeting on Saturday night, he read from his gavel the quote, “Know who you serve.” For the first time in a long time, I’m certain of that. Stars aligning, blue moon gazing, ladybug landing certain.  

On Sunday, after picking at donkey’s hooves, trying my hand at clicker training, learning about wound care, sliding my hands into a donkeys mouth who was having dental work done, and picking up some great tools for transporting donkeys, I said my goodbyes and headed home. I imagined my own donkeys and wondered what kinds of memories stirred behind their deep, brown eyes. I wondered if when I got home, they’d smell the other donkeys on me in the same way dogs do. I wondered if they’d missed me as much as I missed them. I couldn’t wait to get there to find out.

Below are two slideshows of various photos from the weekend. For more information on how you can help, please visit www.donkeyrescue.org.

And to all the staff, volunteers, and supporters of PVDR—I freakin’ love all of you. Like, a lot.

Farewells, Feelings, News Crews and Two Remaining Donkeys

A tan, rattling horse trailer bumped down the road away from my house kicking gravel and dust as its rusty doors creaked and clanged in a travelling, metallic melody which is quite common in these rural areas. Inside those doors, which likely still dripped with the sweat from my hands, two sets of furry ears stood straight up and wobbled side to side: Ethel and Charlie (two more of my foster donkeys) were going home. They were going to their forever home.

The choppy waters of my insides were churning like a pot of stew—boiling bubbles popped and spat in a scene which was familiar—it having only been 10 days since Ali the donkey had been adopted by a couple from central Texas. The feeling was complex: it stretched as far as grief and heartache could before likely causing serious damage—like a stressed rubber band which, had I not let go into gratitude, would have snapped and slapped my innards which were already raw from having said goodbye once and now two and three times.

After the trailer attached to the truck turned off of our road and its rustic, tambourine encore faded away, I tipped up my hat and ran my forearm across the lines of sweat collecting in my brows. Grief was swelling in my throat: that tingly feeling that warms the insides of your cheeks (like the moment before you bite into something that you know will be sour) was causing me to salivate. Perhaps that’s where tears actually start…in the throat.

I gulped it all down: that damp, pin-prick feeling that had started to fizz into the backs of my eyes because I could not yet touch the grief. Not yet. Behind me, leaning on the open gate, was a journalist and photographer from the local news who had come to my house on that same morning to do a story on our donkey adoption facility and we had an interview to finish.

With the exception of many job interviews and once by a woman who runs a podcast which features motivational folks, I’ve not been interviewed and certainly not by any news crews. In hindsight, I honestly cannot tell you if I did well or not but I get the feeling I was difficult to follow in my answers. I stumbled and stuttered nervously because the news is exposure and exposure is the most crippling of conditions for those who have struggled helplessly  throughout their whole lives with anxiety. I almost declined the opportunity because the violent whirlpool of ‘what-ifs’ from the initial media query that popped into my inbox weeks ago was enough to suffocate me.

But then I thought of the donkeys. They could use the publicity. They could use a special interest story because if even one person who reads this soon-to-run story takes up an interest in the well-being of donkeys, then it would be a success.

Donkeys have an odd mixture of a reputation: stubborn, stupid, worthless, to start. It’s why they’re left behind and discarded at an alarming and heartbreaking rate. It’s why they’re roped for sport and tied to trees and whipped and overworked. People don’t take the time to understand the force to be reckoned with that is the donkey: a highly intelligent, loyal, deeply emotional and complex creature that is unmatched anywhere else in the animal kingdom…at least to me. When cared for, they’re affectionate and protective and loving almost to a fault.

So I agreed to do the story…heels in the sand and all, I agreed.

The journalist and the photographer assigned to this story handled the whole experience with the most tender of care and for that, I hope they know how grateful I am. They were kind and patient and truly interested in the welfare of donkeys. I suspect my donkeys felt that, too, as they put on a beautiful show of their own: braying and nudging and even trying to play. They will make for a great story, no doubt.

Once everyone left my house and the dust settled from the last leaving car, I grabbed a beer from the fridge and pulled a lawn chair into the pasture where my two remaining fosters paced curiously. They were clearly confused and concerned with heavy exhales and fast steps so as I sipped, I started to hum a nameless tune and after some time, both donkeys eventually positioned themselves in front of me. I scratched their noses, continued to hum and finally allowed the huge, webby, conglomerate of emotions that had been tumbling inside me like a heavy load of clothes in the dryer to pierce the surface of my control…and I cried. I hummed and I cried and hummed and cried in what felt like bursting levies until there was nothing left but a wobbly tone vibrating under my tongue.

It occurs to me now that this donkey fostering and adoption process is a metaphor for life: that we’re blessed with different opportunities every day and it’s up to us to seize them whether they’re temporary or not. It’s up to us to do good things and difficult things and to love so hard if it means making this world for someone…even a donkey…a better place. And then one day, this whole life will be over. Everything is temporary…so alarmingly temporary. But temporary doesn’t mean ‘not worth it.’ No, quite the opposite. Temporary means a more compact and intense time to pour your whole self into something good.

I don’t know for how much longer I’ll have these two remaining foster donkeys and as I sat there in that lawn chair, I studied their eyes knowing that one day, probably soon, I’ll be saying goodbye to them, too. Before going in, I replenished their hay and gave them each one more pat on the rump. They ignored the hay and followed me to the gate and watched me walk inside…ears on high alert.

Ethel and Charlie have gone to the best home with one of the loveliest women I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. I know that for them, good things are finally ahead and for my remaining two, I hope to say the same one day.

And when this news story runs in a few weeks, I hope that others will begin to see donkeys in a better way. Maybe more people will pause and reflect on how they’ve treated animals they’ve encountered. Maybe those which would normally ignore the problem or even contribute to it will stop and realize that really, they want to help. I do believe that most people really do just want this world to be a better place and donkeys have made my life better. So. Who knows.

I don’t know, but I’m hopeful.

Peace, Love and Donkeys

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

 

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

 

The Morning Five Foster Donkeys Arrived

In my freshly shined boots and my one pair of jeans without any holes, I’m standing at the edge of the gravel road out in front of the ranch. The sun has only barely peeked over the treetops; it’s morning rays filtering everything in a lively, lemony hue. Little Foot is securely fastened in a toddler hiking pack that’s strapped around my back and he’s saying “ball” over and over again. I’ve unlocked, unlatched and opened one of the larger side gates of our property and am holding the rusting chain that was looped around it in my left hand—it’s ends clanging softly together.  

Although it’s still quite early, the humidity of Texas summer engulfs us in it’s warm-washcloth embrace. My hair has already begun to stick to my forehead which frustrates me because I spent time straightening it before I came outside about 30 minutes ago. I also spent several minutes debating which shirt would be most appropriate to wear on the morning that I would be meeting our first five foster donkeys.

Ever since last summer, after King Ranch and I adopted Tyrion the mini donkey from the Humane Society, I’ve had it in my mind that I would like to volunteer to help in donkey adoptions, too. More than that, I felt like I needed to volunteer. I don’t know why. It’s been a growing and driving idea in my mind and so, after months of research, planning and lots of discussion, King Ranch and I have found ourselves here: opening our property to these five, soon-to-arrive foster donkeys.

Any minute now, the owner of the organization in which we are fostering the donkeys, Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, will be pulling up with a trailer attached to his truck—five donkeys for whom I have yet to even see a picture will be in tow.

Moving the chain between my fingers one link at a time, I’m running through my mental checklist again:

-Troughs cleaned and filled: check.

-Hay distributed: check.

-Bunny and Tee secured into a separate paddock with plenty of hay and water: check.

-Fences sturdy and locks functioning properly: check.

-Coffee and cold water ready in case Mark, PVDR’s owner and today’s donkey deliverer, wants any: check.

I reach the end of the chain and start to move it through my fingers in the other direction. With my other hand, I tug at the bottom of the plain, gray t-shirt that I settled on when deciding what to wear. I thought plain, gray was calming and not the least bit intimidating for donkeys coming to a place they’ve never been. This must be terrifying for them.

From down the road, I hear the slow, heavy crunching of gravel. Although I can’t see beyond the tree line what or who has turned onto our road, I get the strange feeling that it’s got to be them: the five.

I gather the chain up in my hand and place it on the ground in front of the open gate before adjusting Little Foot’s pack on my back with a bounce which makes him giggle. The gravel crunching is getting closer as I run my fingers through my hair in an attempt to make it presentable.

I’m suddenly very nervous. Are we doing the right thing? Can we really take care of five more donkeys?

I shake my head and pull in a long inhale. In the bottom of my belly, I hold my breath and close my eyes. I imagine the day we adopted Tyrion and how touched I was at the grace in which that organization handled all these animals in search of a forever home. I remember how Jo, the woman who led us around, knew every single donkey, horse and mule and all about their stories. I remember how she’d taken the time to know them and how she was probably sizing us up—wondering if we’d be fit owners for Tee. I remember wanting to do what she did: help save donkeys.  And I wanted to do it just like her—thoroughly and with my entire heart. By the time donkeys need fostering, they’ve already been through so much. I wanted to be a peaceful and loving transition for them.

Through a small opening in my mouth, I let out my exhale and open my eyes. From around the tree line, a large, white truck approaches with a low, rumbling diesel engine—a dark green trailer rattling along behind it. It’s them.

As the truck halts in front of the ranch, I jog around the side of the trailer—Little Foot bouncing and giggling in his pack. A tall man with a long, white goatee exits the truck and from behind his sunglasses, he says, “Jess?”

I reply, “Yes,” and smile.

He extends his leathery hand and I extend mine—realizing then that my hand is shaking. When it meets his, I notice too how clammy my hand is in his dry and strong one.

“Pleasure to meet you,” he says, removing his sunglasses. He’s got a deep and steady voice which is calming for me.

I say, “Likewise,” and relax my shoulders.

He leads me to the trailer and says, “This is them.” I stand on my tip toes and peek in—five sets of furry ears is about all I can see. He continues, “You got a good group here.”

We’re both quiet for a moment. In the distance, cicadas call from the trees and flicking grass bugs hop and buzz on the sides of the gravel road.

I clear my throat and say to him, “Thank you so much for this.”

He smiles and says, “Lead the way,” and climbs back into his truck.

I direct him onto the property as he maneuvers his truck and the large trailer of donkeys flawlessly around behind me. As we reach the paddock in which the five will be staying, I open the gate and motion for him to stop. He steps out of his truck, unlatches the trailer and there they are. The five.

Five donkeys—all smaller than Bunny but bigger than Tee—are staring at me. Their eyes are wide with curiosity and the ears shift around quickly. My heart is pounding so heavily that I barely hear the sound of their hooves against the metal as one-by-one, they gallop out of the trailer and onto our property. We’re both smiling as we watch them gallop away.

After the owner and I talk for a long while about the logistics of fostering, he shakes my hand and leaves me to it.

I’m now standing in the middle of the property. The sun is higher now and pure, white heat. Little Foot is still strapped in his pack on my back only now, he’s not saying anything. Bunny and Tee are quiet and curious in the paddock to my left and the five fosters are curious and exploring in the paddock to my right.

So many long ears. So many flicking tails. So many snorts and exhales and big, searching eyes.

Once more, I pull in a long inhale and hold it. With my eyes closed, I think of Jo back at the humane society. She had a day one, also, right? When I release my breath and open my eyes, every single donkey on my property is looking at me with their ears straight up.

I peek over my shoulder at Little Foot who grins when he sees my eyes and say, “Alright bud. Let’s do this.”

The five foster donkeys