Just Hello

I’m standing on the back patio, cool wind brushing over my skin. It’s rare to feel an April chill down here in Texas and yet, here I am wishing I’d worn a light jacket. Above me, a green basket hangs with bright, pink impatiens spilling over the edges of it; sprinkles of shedded pedals flickering from the ground beneath it, their delicate folds lifeless now but for the breeze that moves them like little marionettes.

There are no clouds in the sky that I can see, just a perfect, pastel, and unending blue—a blue that looks down with such intimidating purity. I feel tiny.

In front of me, our dog Tucker lies on his side with his eyes half open: he’s sunning himself on this cloudless day. I imagine that beneath his brown fur, his skin is tingling in the sunlight. His breath pulses in and out of his belly, his tongue out but not dripping when Bodhi, our newly adopted baby donkey who was orphaned by his mother, slowly approaches.

Bodhi noses my leg and I pat him on the head before he takes two steps to a sunbathing Tucker. Tucker retracts his tongue into his mouth and rolls back, leaning his weight into Bodhi’s tiny legs. Bodhi lowers his head to Tucker. They must be saying hello, but then there’s a pause. They pause in this greeting, each of them relaxing into one another—they seem to sigh in relief.

I’m overwhelmed by this. I’ve never witnessed a friendship evolve without me being a part of it. It occurs to me that we must rarely see the true intimacy of a friendship unless we are in the mix…and even then, inside of friendships, we often carry with it our expectations, our pasts, our neuroses, our weaknesses, our narcissisms and our insecurities which must put some kind of a filter on what we’re seeing and experiencing. That’s not to say our filters are a bad thing, but I suspect it must be pretty difficult to see friendships and relationships with absolutely no biases. Maybe so. I’m not sure.

I’ve just never been so up close to the birth of a friendship where I’m on the outside looking in. It’s…it’s…well it’s so darn sweet.

I’m rooting for the deepening of this bond between Tucker the terrier mix and Bodhi the orphaned donkey. I want to see what they’ll teach one another. I wonder how they’ll play? I wonder what language is transferring between the two of them as they rest together in the golden sun that sparkles in their relaxed and comforted brown eyes?

It is in our solitude that we invite and rest with those we most trust, although I suppose that means we can no longer call it solitude; togetherness…solitude in our togetherness. Yes. It’s there that I think I like to exist most.

King Ranch and I do this—spend time alone together. He is my best friend, the only person with whom I willingly and eagerly share my solitude. I don’t think I consider how lucky I am for this nearly enough.

Tucker licks Bodhi’s nose and now I can’t handle their sweetness. Their innocence. Their unbiased curiosity. Their pure intentions. Again, I feel tiny, but not in a bad way. I feel dwarfed in presence by their undivided awareness of one another. I may as well not be standing there at all and then it feels like maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be sometimes. Maybe it’s right to fade away and let others bloom in their own way. I’m glad I get to see its beginning.

I think I’ll call King Ranch just to say hello. I don’t really have much more to say than that. Just hello.

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About a Baby

It’s approaching dusk on a most perfectly, Texas spring evening—the kind of evening where in the setting sun, the warm, amber rays soak into your thirsty skin and in the shade, the same skin prickles for a jacket. New, bright green leaves flicker in the trees in a breeze without a direction. I’m sitting on the back patio watching King Ranch play a game of tag—or is it hide-and-seek? I can’t tell—with Little Foot. My curly-headed kid is giggling wildly and in circles around them, our dog Tucker jumps with his tongue dangling from his happy mouth. Behind them with curious eyes and ears, Bunny and Tee watch over the fence, their eyes following the circles in which my kid and his father and his dog dance.

Moments ago, I shuffled the little chicken family into their coop: Wednesday Addams, and her three not-so-little-babies, Harry, Ron, and Hermione, take turns drinking from their water bowl. I’ve discovered as they’ve aged that Harry is actually a female, but I think I’ll keep the name. Ron is most definitely a rooster and he’s just found his crow; the squeaking excitement of pubescent poultry learning the depths of his voice. It’s downright adorable.

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With my right hand, I’m running my fingers through the cotton-candy fluff of the newest addition to our little farm family: Bodhi the orphaned donkey.

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His head rests in my lap with his ears laid back as I draw circles with my fingers on his head which feels so small in my hand: a delicate ornament. Bodhi’s mom rejected him after birth and since finding him abandoned in a windstorm, my most favorite organization, Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, and the generous donors that make their mission possible, have cared for him ‘round the clock, ultimately saving his life.

Bodhi noses at my legs, his wide eyes looking straight at mine and I slide down to the ground to wrap my arms around him. He leans his weight into me and his smell is so familiar: the way Little Foot’s nursery used to smell when he still slept in a crib. The way crying onto your mom’s shoulder smells when you’re lost and out of options. The shifting under-current of needing to be held, to be loved, to feel safe, to feel like you’re enough. He smells cozy, like the throw blanket that’s laid over the back of your couch since you were a kid that’s wrapped itself about you, caught your tears, your dreams, your tired body. He smells like home: furry, curious, playful, wonderful home.

Tucker barks and it catches Bodhi’s attention. He snaps his head up, his small ears perked, and then he clumsily trots over to the game of tag or hide-and-seek. King Ranch kneels down with Little Foot to pet him. I’m suddenly overcome with…with…I’m not sure what it is, but my eyes are welling up and my heart is pounding. The innocence of these creatures huddled in an embrace in my backyard overwhelms me. I wonder how I’ve become so lucky to have love like this in my life: to have a family made up of the kindest, most loving beings, both two-legged and four. A family who I didn’t realize wasn’t complete until just now. A family who needs one another so badly, each of us having fallen into just the right role. 

I miss Tink. I miss him like crazy. Y’all might remember that I was unsure if I’d continue this blog of stories once we moved and after the sudden and tragic loss of Tink, I thought for sure I’d pack up this here Donkumentary for good.

But then the flowers began to stretch their petals, reaching up to the sun from their long sleep and as they awoke, Bodhi came home to us. He’s in my care now. My heart is throbbing in my chest as I watch the loves of my life huddle together in front of me—as I see that it’s not only me who fell in love with Bodhi the second I saw him, but my whole family.

It took several, difficult weeks for Little Foot to understand that Tink wasn’t coming back and if I’m being honest, it took me a while, too. It’s not easy explaining death to a three-year old. What King Ranch and I have landed on is explaining that sometimes people and animals go away to a place that we can’t see, but just because they’re gone, it doesn’t mean that we don’t love them or that we must forget them. Little Foot can understand this. He still calls Tink his friend…his friend that went away.

Bodhi doesn’t fill the hole in our hearts. Instead, he has brought with him a whole part of us that we didn’t know existed: a piece of us that we didn’t realize was unfilled until all the sudden there’s this flavor in our days that now we couldn’t imagine living without. Bodhi is like coming up for air after being underwater for too long. He is smelling the pouring rain after a long drought. He is every brand new, green leaf twinkling in the warm wind of spring.

Bodhi is the orphaned donkey whose life was saved because of people who loved him (some without even meeting him!) and wanted to see him have a chance at life. Caring for this little furry-headed ball of perfect innocence is exactly how we should all be treating each other: as if everyone’s life is dangling by a shoestring because it really is. If you lean in close enough, I think there’s something familiar about all of us. Bodhi has brought us hope because his very existence is a result of unconditional, human love. His clumsy trot is proof that we can work together. His soft head in my lap is gratitude for the opportunity to exist in a world together. Bodhi is a reminder that we can all do better. Bodhi is our future. Bodhi is love.

…love. That must have been what I was feeling as I sat on the back patio crying: love so pure and so unconditional and so grateful for everything that’s brought this baby into our lives. Love. I am so deeply in love.

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For more information on PVDR and what they do to save so many donkeys like Tink and Bodhi, please visit their website at http://www.donkeyrescue.org.

 

Gratitude

It’s been just over a week since we said our last goodbye to our brave boy, Tink. We are all still reeling over the sudden loss of him and for days, I’ve been struggling to find some kind of peace between the choppy waves of mourning.

What is there is gratitude: gratitude for our time with him, for the opportunity to love him unconditionally. There is gratitude for the rescue that saved him in the first place and gave him a second shot at life: Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue. Because of them, he got fruitful years of life he would have otherwise lost.

PVDR saves donkeys across the U.S. They work tirelessly and endlessly to improve the plight of the American donkey. If you know anything of the challenges donkeys face, you know that they are vast. They are often neglected, abused, abandoned and across the globe, millions of donkeys are farmed, stolen, and captured for their skins to produce ejiao.

If it is in your heart, I ask that you help support PVDR in their mission to save donkeys. Whether that’s donating a few extra dollars (they are a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit) or simply sharing their information, their cause, and spreading awareness to help save donkeys, then more sweet fur babies like Tink will have a shot at life.

Donkeys can’t stand up for themselves in an often cruel and heartless world, but we can can be their voice. We can be their warriors. We can fight for them.

PVDR’s website can be found here: http://donkeyrescue.org

And from the bottom of my broken heart, thank you all for your words, messages, calls, emails, shares, and loving support. It is so, very appreciated. Let’s keep working together to make this world a better place for everyone: two-legged or four or none. We’re all in it together.

Much love,
Jess

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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.

Tink the mini donkey

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.

Donkeys in the dark

 

 

 

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