Sunday, July 27, 2008


The Trempealeau Rescue - Part 1

As we walked down the overgrown trail that had once served as a driveway, my heart was pounding and my mind was racing. What would we find beyond this overgrowth? Would the horses be able to be salvaged? How wild would they be? How starved would they be? How weak would they be? How many would be down? And how would we ever get them in to our horse trailers?

It was a sunny, warm day in early June. In this valley, however, there was no breeze – only the sun beating down on our heads. The ‘driveway’ was washed out leaving only craters and boulders everywhere. Even my four-wheeled pickup would drag bottom on the drive in. The “yard” was a mess of wires and tires and overgrown brush. An old weathered and collapsed mobile home was on my left as we rounded the curve in the washed out road.

The corral fence was really a collage of branches and pipes and bent over woven wire. And a few gates that were buried for the bottom two feet in old manure. But in that corral stood the Daddy of Them All. A twenty-something stallion that announced our arrival and began his dance of protection. He was glorious! And wild. This was his herd and he was proud of it!

Next to him in another pen area were three more stallions. Younger and more fit and even more wild. Taking their cue from the old stallion, the valley now echoed with their warnings to the herd that strangers – no, predators! – were in amongst them! Beware!

Just in front of us was what once had been the “field”. Now completely a dirt lot with not even a root visible. And the trees had been stripped up to the very top of the reach of the tallest member of the herd. In this field stood the majority of the herd. Twenty-one of them. Dear Lord.

They all stood together on the back line. Ears forward and eyes fixed on the predators who simply stepped over the fallen wire, bone-dry bent up stock tanks, and buried gates to approach them. Huddled together, this herd of wild horses did not bolt or make a move. Still with ears forward and eyes watching us. As we approached them we studied each other.

What did they see? They saw a small group of humans who had come together to rescue them. This group was not smelling of fear. We were curious, too. And yes, there were tears on many faces. Tears of appreciation for the determination of these horses to survive. Tears of appreciation for the emaciated leaders of this scrawny herd for doing their best to protect the weaker ones. Tears of regret that these creatures had been left to survive all on their own. And tears of relief that, at least today, many would leave this hole and begin a new life.

What did we see? We saw twenty-one sets of big eyes looking at us. Wondering. Questioning. And watching. The twenty-one bodies we saw were all undersized and severely malnourished. The manes were all snarled and twisted and their bodies were caked with dried mud. Their heads were oversized and the hipbones stuck out with ribs that were clearly visible for counting. But in this little herd, I saw no cloudy eyes, no runny noses, and no sores. This isolation had severed them well, at least in that respect.

I saw a herd that had managed to survive and had managed to survive decently well.
Twenty-one in a single little pack. A baby barely standing and a few studs in amongst this mostly pack of mares. Some rounded tummies told me that some of these emaciated mares were carrying even more babies. Dear Lord, why had this been allowed to go on?

I extended my gloved hand and surprisingly, a nose came out to smell me. No touching but no running away either. A calmer group of starved, wild horses I have never seen and probably never will ever see again. It was as if they knew. They knew we were finally there. And they looked at us as if to implore us: "Where in the world had you been? Why has it taken years for you to get here? Did you realize how cold it was in the winter in this valley? And how hot in the summer in this valley? Did you realize the struggle it has been just to stay alive?"

The task of rescuing these horses had come about by my answering a single telephone call. It was in the afternoon in late May and I was walking past the telephone when it rang. And so I stopped and answered it. A Trempealeau County officer was on the line. She had called two other Wisconsin rescues and was hoping someone would take the lead and get everyone to work together to help rescue these horses that had come to her attention. Twenty-seven of them, in fact. My notes recorded her observations: “No hay, grass, or water – truly starvation; can see ribs and hips; some old; normal riding horse size; older stallion is alone and three stallions in another area; at least one stud in the herd.”

Rescue them from abandonment. It seems that a couple had lived in the mobile home on this property and had decided to move in to town. They had packed their belongings and had begun their life in the city. Leaving the property behind. And the horses. For several years, these horses were left to fend for themselves. A neighbor had finally complained about the conditions of the herd. Thank you, Neighbor.

I stood in total awe and amazement and wondered just how they had survived? I saw no carcasses around me and so assumed that so far, at least, all had survived. But how? And then the answer came. One of the herd had deposited a weak, small, but viable pile of manure on the ground. As it walked away, several others walked over and the manure was spread out to cool. As it cooled, the others used this manure for nutrition. These horses had survived by living off of each other.

My mind flashed back to the pictures I had seen at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Those same big eyes. That same demeanor of resigned calm. The same quiet spirit of determination. That same acceptance of the situation. No energy was wasted. All energy was conserved.

The deep gash of a scar was firmly on my heart and my life had been changed forever.

The job was now in front of us to save these creatures from certain and painful death. But how to get these horses who had never been handled and were undoubtedly fearful corralled and in to the trailers? How to get them separated? And how to do that without jeopardizing the lives of the weaker ones? There were twenty-one in this main herd and nine of us humans.

A prayer began pouring out of me for strength and skills that I knew I did not possess. The task in front of us was monumental. And we nine humans were strangers to each other! But we banded together and began the risky business of rescuing these starving wild horses. Horses that had been left alone in this valley by other humans who somehow had gone on with their business of living.

Who were these rescuers? How had they come together? And how many of the twenty-one would be rescued that day? And what of the stallions? And the two on the hill? Would all twenty-seven horses make it out of this hole? The story of the Trempealeau Rescue continues next week!

Enjoy the journey of each and every day,
Sandy and The Herd

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Vincent A. Valley
VALLEY Vincent A. Valley, passed away on Saturday, July 12, 2008. He was born on February 24, 1956. He was a native and resident of Metairie, LA. He is survived by his mother, Mary Lee Valley and friend, Aurelie Roussel. He was preceded in death by his father, Vincent R. Valley. Memorial Service will be at a later date. Falgout Funeral Home in charge of arrangements.
Published in The Times-Picayune on 7/15/2008

Writing this blog has been in the forefront of my mind this entire past week. Some of you know me well enough to know I will undoubtedly share thoughts and feelings about the passing of Vincent in today’s blog. However, some time ago he and I had “that conversation” and he was clear then, too, about his desires. I will add though that by the close of the conversation he understood the reason and the need to openly share – for those of us left here dealing with the event of his passing. How do you close without talking? And sharing? Yes, Vincent was shy and private. But Vincent also understood human nature and human needs.

And so I ask you – How can we not talk of Vincent? He was a Human Being. We talk of horses that cross and dogs that cross, so why would we not talk of a Human Being that has crossed? And Vincent was a caring person whose contribution to Refuge Farms is the very website from which you are reading this blog! How can we not talk of his impact and share times with him? It seems disrespectful to not talk and openly share our memories and thoughts of the man. How can we not? It is out of respect for the man and his ways and his contribution to The Missions that I begin to tell you of my interactions with Vincent.

Yes, Vincent was a very private person. I would dare say introverted. Getting that first blog out of him was like pulling teeth! But when it was completed, his conversation told me that he truly was pleased with his efforts and surprised by the well-wishes and comments that came his way. Once over the original “hump” of putting himself out there for the world to see, Vincent graced us with blogs quite frequently. His last blog was peppered with clip art and really was a work of art. In all honesty, he found himself “getting in to it”, as he said. And no, writing a blog really wasn’t as bad as he thought it was going to be...!

We had talked in the cold of this past winter that he would do another blog this spring explaining his departure from the role of Webmaster of Refuge Farms to pursue other interests and to give himself more time for personal cares. That blog never came about, however. His health declined and his message of caring and best wishes was never published for all to read. I am sorry that I didn’t push him a bit harder for that closing blog. Pushed just a little more…

One of my most favorite memories of times with V, as I came to call him, was the day he called after being “lost in Katrina”. Oh, the joy of hearing his voice! We were in the barns and I picked up the telephone when it rang. He was alive and spent the next seventeen days in his second story apartment with no services, no hot or cold or running water at all, looting and gang violence surrounding him, no prescriptions, and no oxygen treatments. Twice – not once, but twice! – the National Guard banged on his door. And when he opened his own door, he was looking at the end of a rifle. Can you even imagine existing like that?

During one telephone conversation after Katrina we were discussing the heat and how the air was stagnant and heavy and hot and so hard for him to breathe. I asked if he was able to open the windows at night to let the ‘cool’ 88-degree air in his apartment. His response knocked me off my feet: “I would, Sandy, but the smell would be worse than the heat.” It was at that very moment that I began my best efforts to convince him to move up here. We would come and pack him up and bring him up here. He would have a support system that would be here for him but not smother him. He was pleased and expressed his pleasure, but always tactfully declined. Metairie was his home. And Vincent was a loner. V was a true and complete loner.

There were many times when Vincent would be angry with me or upset with something I had done or failed to do. I learned to give it some time and then reconnect somehow – usually on a Sunday afternoon – and talk it through when we both could listen and truly hear each other. We seldom changed our own respective minds, but at least we had heard each other.

There were times when Vincent and I would be laughing so hard we would hang up to save long distance minutes. Then one of us – supposedly under control by now – would call the other and the laughing would resume. One more hang-up with one more attempt a bit later. What would start this? Something goofy like the comical way he would ask a horse question. Or his telling me of the time it snowed on his truck. That one he actually sent me a picture to prove!

In the beginning, Vincent committed one year of support and that’s it, he said. No more, he said. One year turned to two which turned to three and he was still creating a masterpiece of a website. He came to love The ‘Other’ Herd and truly and honestly found friends in them. I do believe that some of the most rewarding personal relationships in Vincent’s entire life came to him by way of Refuge Farms. For that, I am grateful. Refuge Farms was able to give him something meaningful back for his enormous gift of talent.

And amongst the disagreements, the laughter, the anger, and the talks there were tears. I can remember the call like it was yesterday. I had emailed him the loss of Jerry, the Roan Horse when the telephone rang. Having never ever even smelled a horse. Having never ever even touched a horse. Having never ever even felt the breath of a horse on his face. And having never ever even wrapped his arms around the neck of this particular monster horse, Vincent called and cried at the loss of Jerry. He cried for the loss of an animal that he had come to love through reading his story and hearing the stories and gazing at the pictures of him. Such comfort given over a telephone line I will never forget.

On another busy summer day, I appealed to the Management Team of THE FARM to help me with the abundance – overload, actually – of horses “up against the wall” of time. Horses about to be shipped because the current owner was at the end of their ropes. Vincent stepped up to the task and through emails and telephone calls, he worked one of the horses through the long and time consuming process of re-homing. A brief telephone call that evening and he said, “I did it. I managed to save that horses life.”

My words were inadequate, I am sure. Vincent had experienced for himself the frustration and the fear and the anxiety of re-homing an unwanted horse. But in the end, he could sleep easy that night because he had managed to find a match. And in doing so, he had saved a life. Remarkable for a man who had never ever even touched a horse…

So I ask you, how can we remain silent and not talk of Vincent? How can we not show our gratitude for him as a Human Being and as the Webmaster Extraordinaire? How can we just sit quietly as if nothing has changed? I cannot. The man was too soft-hearted and too talented and yes, too opinionated, to just let his passing come and go in silence. I consider this my posting with my personal note to V:

Vincent – I know it has made you uncomfortable for me to talk about you. But I believe you will see the intention and get over your uneasiness. I must tell the world of your journey and a few of the stories of working with you and getting to know you. To hide your crossing is to hide you. And I, for one, cannot do that.

For myself, personally, you listened to me through some of the toughest crossings in the history of THE FARM. You listened to me and listened well. You allowed me the open page that I needed to “get it off my chest” and then move on. You challenged me and made me make better decisions because of those challenges.

But, Vincent, I must be honest with you and tell you that your crossing is reason for me to rejoice. Yes, rejoice! You are finally freed from the body that so long ago turned septic and caused you such pain and agony and to struggle with the daily activities of life. You are finally freed from the stress of meds and treatments and needing supports and fluids and fears. And waiting for the failures that you knew were just in front of you. You are finally independent and freed, Vincent! And it is for that, I rejoice!

So, as we each deal with the crossing of Vincent, I ask you to consider how to honor him in your own way. Refuge Farms will plant bushes under the “” road sign out on Highway 29. The obituary mentions a memorial service is being planned. The black flag is flying. The black flag that Vincent researched and found for me on the Internet. But what I ask of you is that you simply pause for a moment and remember V. Remember him in your own way and have tolerance for those who remember differently than you.

We’ll see you at the gate, V.
Sandy and The Herd

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Thoughts from Abroad

I’m writing this on the road – by the time it’s posted, I’ll soon be back in Wisconsin, stumbling around with jet lag. I agreed to share some thoughts months ago, before this trip, and without any idea what I would say to my Farm Family, The 'Other' Herd, a group so varied, and some so widely read and travelled themselves, that it’s outrageous to presume to have anything worthwhile to say. But here goes – rather than ‘what I did on my summer vacation,’ I’ll try to share some personal observations and feelings, for what they’re worth, off the tourist trail.

First, some background – I signed up a couple years ago (when I had just one, healthy horse, a couple cats and llamas, and one dog) to teach in Wisconsin in Scotland, a program in which a consortium of University of Wisconsin campuses lease a 300 year old palace in Dalkeith, a small town down the road from the Scottish capitol, Edinburgh, to offer a study abroad experience to college students from the Upper Midwest.

Our landlord is the 10th Duke of Buccleuch, owner of four major estates and one of the largest landholders in the United Kingdom. A member of Parliament’s House of Lords and president of the Scottish Trust, a preservation group, he’s CEO of Buccleuch Properties, a diversified portfolio of investments with 1,000 employees that among other things manufactures horse treats.

Some of us caught a glimpse of him as he toured the grounds on his annual inspection, staked out as we were, hoping to look inconspicuous with our cameras hidden, and wondering if he would arrive with an entourage, wearing kilt, accompanied by bagpipers, or trumpets, and driven by a chauffeur in a limo. But, no – he drove his own, small car and wore street clothes.

The summer session is six, 4-day weeks, broken up with a week off in the middle to afford more time to travel. I taught Intro to Mass Communication, a journalism course that counts as an elective and emphasizes critical thinking about messages that we get from the media, and their impact. I get to fault the stuff I teach others to do the rest of the year, things like advertising and public relations. As they say in the UK, and maybe at home too, since overused phrases with nonsense syntax circle the globe at the speed of electrons, ‘Brilliant!’

My life got ‘way more complex, as readers of this site’s bulletin board know, last summer when I took on responsibility not just for Star and Windsor, two Refuge Farms horses, but also Bobbie, a horse formerly owned by neighbors forced from their rural place in the financial crisis, and two dogs that were to be a short-term foster that turned permanent.

So my first story is about the incredible support that impressed me so much on my first day in the driveway of THE FARM, back in May 2005, and that continues to impress me, about THE FARM Family. Volunteers Gail B. and Paula L., who had wonderfully cared for my smaller family of critters over two, month-long winter vacations in the past, once again stepped in to care for the newly-expanded critter clan. And many others, as though they don’t have enough else to do, offered to mow my yard, visit my critters, drive me to the airport shuttle bus (after I insisted I wasn’t going to be driven to the airport itself), and just be there as needed.

As readers of the bulletin board also know, this trip saw the loss of my equine partner, Blaze, which Gail and others (whom I haven’t sorted out yet to thank more personally) pulled together to deal with in my absence. My shy cats, after nearly nine years of only showing themselves to me, are coming out of hiding to demand affection from their caretakers, proof that none of us is irreplaceable. While some might find that unsettling, I think it’s great.

My second story is therefore about letting go – not just of attachments to a horse I greeted daily for nearly 20 years, the loss of whom will probably hit me more when I first view the emptier pasture, but of connections to life as I’ve known it. I turned off the wireless service to my home (along with the frig, water heater, etc.) for the 10 weeks I’d be gone, having no idea that I wouldn’t still be able to access Web mail – to me those are two different services, and it was a shock to find I wasn’t able to see my email remotely. With only a few email addresses ‘in my head’ and some of those blocked by the recipients’ spam filters as unfamiliar when sent from my office email account, a peek at the bulletin board has been my only contact with the life I left behind.

It’s also very freeing – not having to delete the 400 spam emails a day I typically get, just to see if there’s one or two in the batch that I want to read. A whole lot happened that I will some day sort out, if I need to – I get snatches of the news from people I meet, or on the telly, about a storm that washed away a lake that I didn’t know existed in Wisconsin, about gaffes of political candidates, heat waves and cold fronts, economic woes and world crises, but I can’t do anything about any of it, so I don’t worry about it. I have relished this extended chance to be adrift in a fluid world of swirling images rather than anchored by the predictable and mundane.

My third story is about how this trip has served as a constant reminder that each moment is unique, and there is no one way to categorize the world. Although I knew Europeans were into animal rights and the environment, I was surprised at the extent – television ads took valuable time to say that farmed salmon met voluntary goals about animal care; a common bumper sticker says ‘A dog is for life.’ Hostels put out organic milk to pour over breakfast cereal. And tour agencies tout that they are carbon neutral, planting trees and buying renewable power to offset the environmental impact of the trips they offer.

On the flight over, the basic meal choice was ‘meat or vegetarian,’ as opposed to the standard ‘beef or chicken.’ I had only experienced that choice in India, a decade ago; I typically order a vegetarian meal when flying and the passengers crane their necks to look at me like I’m some diseased creature to be avoided, when it arrives. How nice to be part of the norm!

There’s the highly touted free health care, now in its 60th year in Great Britain – but one hears it isn’t the perfect solution one might assume from viewing Michael Moore’s movie, Sicko. There are stories about removing the lottery system around health care so it doesn’t matter where you live, you can get prescriptions. Wow, there’s an idea . . . you mean it mattered before? A TV drama about doctors has the hero attacking the system as once great but now declining so doctors are more about paperwork than health care – something often said about HMOs in the U.S.

Yet the highly touted BBC news offers up air time to extol the virtues of the health care system in something that resembles a free advertisement more than a balanced assessment – along with over-the-top coverage of the releases of the Indiana Jones movie and Sex in the City. So it’s not just the U.S. media that has gone soft in its watchdog role. Complex topics are given brief coverage, while sad but simple stories – a Brit who murdered his family – are analyzed and replayed exhaustively, and documentaries are advertised with lurid but misleading descriptors (‘Queen Victoria’s many men’ turn out to be advisors) reminiscent of U.S. tabloids.

While baser language and nudity are readily shown on TV, there are rules against advertising during children’s shows to protect them from being preyed upon by marketers. There’s an interminable assortment of soap operas and game shows in prime time and a relentless stream of reality shows – celebrity chefs (including one whose language on TV is so – well, salty – that the show is called The F Word), talent contests, people competing for the best dinner party, people trying to flip investment property. The Apprentice – same name – actually began here, I’m told – the version with Donald Trump was a knock-off on the original in which billionaire Sir Allen Sugar is the hard-talking boss who fires a pleading, back-stabbing, sycophant screw-up every week. And there are old shows directly from the U.S. – Desperate Housewives, Will and Grace and Frasier are among those I’ve seen.

And there’s graffiti in larger cities – something that I guess goes with urban settings, but which I’d forgotten about since moving four years ago from Los Angeles. There’s restless hordes of youths, loud and cheeky, to use a local term, though as with youth elsewhere, often a lot nicer when encountered one on one than as a herd.

With the cradle to grave (as they like to call it) Socialist system, there comes greater government involvement – we all had to undergo two hours of training and pass a test on safe food preparation since the students work in teams setting up the continental breakfast each morning, and assisting the chef who makes our lunches, and we all make our own suppers in the large institutional kitchen. Toasters in hostels have stickers showing the date they passed the safety test.

I used to think giving the right of way to pedestrians went with caring societies, but here natives as well as tourists flee the onslaught of vehicles that come hurtling off the ever-present roundabouts at all angles into people scrambling to cross the street.

In the land of gun control, there are predictably different views on things but often the same result. People don’t hunt, they cull. The man in charge of caring for the 1,000 acre estate around our palace (a marvelously sophisticated and witty former anaesthesiologist) sells the right to cull deer to hunters from other countries such as the U.S. who are accompanied by a ‘ranger’ who indicates which members of the herds to kill – the smaller, older and weaker specimens, rather than the trophy animals.

While carrying knives (even a Swiss Army knife) is illegal, there was such a spate of knife deaths this year (19 in 6 months in London) as a result of pub fights among youths that the news is full of crying parents pleading for an end to the violence. One of the Harry Potter actors was killed in such a fight, defending his younger brother. I guess they’ll give up their knives when someone pulls their cold, dead fingers from the handle.

There are closed circuit TVs everywhere, used to monitor traffic flow, crime, etc. City buses purport to have eight such cameras each, and while you ride, the images rotate, just to prove the point, on a screen at the front. A study indicated that in spite of the cost, there hasn’t been a decrease in crime.

There are signs on the buses saying ‘Our staff deserve not to be hassled.’ Grammatically it should be ‘deserves’ but here at the heart of the English language, these signs are just one of many examples where the grammar is incorrect.

I never saw examples of anyone hassling the bus driver, or anyone else, and found the ‘natives’ wonderfully kind. Perhaps helped by long hours of daylight (we’re on the same latitude as Moscow and Hudson Bay, with enough light to read outside after 10 p.m.), it felt very safe to be in the city late at night.

But as wonderful as mass transit is, I’ve realized how hard it is to use on a day-to-day basis. I often dream of a world where the interests of the public and environment, instead of the auto makers and oil industry, win out – trains running alongside I-94, mini buses running down Hwy. 29 – so elderly people can get to doctors and business people can get to work and families can shop, without driving. I could park at the Red Barn and hop a mini bus to The Farm, or to work.

However, reality meets that dreamy picture with a clatter, as I daily see elderly people thrown about on the bus as they try to navigate to their seats while the vehicle lurches through traffic. Families with shopping bags, small children and strollers struggle to manage all of this in the crush. The other day three women with strollers (called ‘buggies’) and toddlers tried to manage around a woman in a wheel chair and a man with two dogs, all on a crowded bus – it was like one of those children’s puzzles where you jiggle the little, numbered squares around in a small, handheld plastic frame until the numbers are in some proper order.

One woman, travelling alone, was unable to hold her infant while collapsing the buggy, and without options she struggled while the woman in the wheel chair glared at her and we all waited; another woman alone with the same predicament twice handed off her child to strangers to hold while she folded or set up the stroller. The young men chosen for the task were cheerful both times about it, but it brought back memories of why I left Los Angeles – the constant feeling of needing a sky hook to cling to until enough space on the ground opened up that I had a place to exist for a few minutes at least without being in someone’s way. What looks good from afar is sometimes not so great when you live it.

On our 10-day mid-session trip, a faculty colleague and I visited Ireland, Wales, and parts of England, where tour guides and self-paced tours unfolded centuries of history. So much took place here in Biblical times – Stonehenge is the third go-round of early peoples to create whatever that’s meant to be, on the same site – prior versions include ‘wood henge’ – like the Three Little Pigs, they finally learned to build something that lasted – dating back 3,000 years. In Bath, we saw extravagant examples of Roman construction 2,000 years old. Little House on the Prairie cabins of our own young country had become more prominent in my thoughts as examples of earlier times than the advanced cultures of Egypt, Greece, Rome and many places in Asia, which this trip served to refresh.

Another feature of this trip was the ‘people who hate the British’ tour – exposure to the extent to which the ‘United Kingdom’ – so named when James VI of Scotland also became James I of England, uniting the two nations, in the early 1700s – is still paying the price of bad public relations from its colonial past. This is the King James for whom the Bible translation was named, and while the ‘united’ name fit at first, there has been chafing of late in the kingdom as many in Scotland want to pull away and be on their own. Scotland has its own Parliament, as part of the ‘devolution’ of 1999 in which it was given self-government, but oil reserves in the North Sea and enough sheep to last a long time leave some Scots thinking they can go it alone.

Among the more recent issues cited was a peacefulness on the part of Scots (having gotten over that Braveheart thing, apparently) that makes them not want to be part of the militarism of Britain (think the war in Iraq). All of the UK has lost just over 100 service people in Afghanistan in seven years there, but they are very public with the losses, with the flag-draped coffins prominently portrayed on the news, compared to the U.S., where there’s a blackout on that type of visual.

The Republic of Ireland is separate from the UK, using the Euro as currency instead of the pound sterling, and there’s a whole head of steam on the Emerald Isle about past injustices at the hands of the Brits such as the handing off of Irish land to Protestants (which created Northern Ireland, part of the UK), suffocation of Catholicism and the forced building of senseless stone fences leading to nowhere that was extracted in exchange for rations of gruel during the potato famine of the mid-1850s when 40 percent of the Irish starved, or immigrated – which is how my ancestors got to the U.S.

Today, while hardly any one speaks the Irish language, it is placed above English on signs throughout the country, at huge cost, just to be separate, and the Irish have cultivated different sports – hurling and rugby – in which to excel, while ‘football’ (called soccer in the U.S.) is the dominant sport in Britain and much of the rest of Europe.

In Ireland I was on a bus tour predominantly peopled by college-age students from the U.S. and Australia, all of whom seemed content to sleep, plug into their Ipods, flip through trashy celebrity magazines, text their friends, and in general ignore the tour guide and the scenery that for 6 hours (broken up by visits to sites) rolled by outside. I wasn’t personally offended, as I suspect the guide was, but was despairing for the future of our world when young are so unimpressed with anything more than five years old and not on a screen – it was real life vs. YouTube.

Then I got back ‘home’ to the palace, where our students were unpacking from their trips to Italy, France and Spain, where they toured the Louvre and the Sistine Chapel, and read for pleasure books like Jane Eyre while sunning by the pool. So every time I find something about ‘students today’ or ‘the British’ or whomever, there’s another example waiting to knock me over.

Now I’m finishing up my time in Scotland and heading to mainland Europe for three more weeks of travel. This has been an incredible opportunity, a wonderful gift. Yet I know it can’t go on – winter here is miserable, to use the local expression, and in the full semester, the house, which holds 200, fills up a lot more, creating a density of human contact that my reclusive self would find deadening. So I need to be grateful for what has been, to accept that it is ending, and move on.

The time ahead will be fascinating as well, but more rigorous as I’ll be on the move, and dealing with languages I don’t know (instead of just accents that are hard to decipher). My interest will be more quickly sated, as my fascination with big, old buildings and statues has already waned. More often now I raise my camera, shrug and think, ‘I’ve got a photo that looks like this already.’

My past travels have been preoccupied by exotic peoples, their cultures and crafts – Asian, Latin American. Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Myanmar. It was much cheaper (the U.S. currency is now trashed by both the pound and euro) and also more fraught with difficulty because of extreme cultural differences, and gut-wrenching poverty that made theft by locals from comparatively rich tourists common, and had me constantly on edge watching for con artists and pick pockets. On this trip, it’s much easier to relax in a higher standard of living and common culture, but there’s less to be awed by, when nearly everyone looks and lives like us. Like with the visit by the duke, when we shrugged and said, ‘Why waste a photo on a guy who looks like everyone else?’

Meanwhile Wisconsin’s as vague in my thoughts today as the places I have yet to see. I watched a service dog on the train back from a weekend in London anxiously gazing at his owner, and I thought how much I wanted to hug and pet him, yet when I tried to picture the dogs that share my life, even Lula, my canine partner of nearly nine years, I couldn’t pull up an image. Soon, that too will change; until then, caio!

Sunday, July 06, 2008


A Simpler Life

One of the most consistent traits listed on my professional career performance reviews was the trait of “organizational skills”. And just what did that mean? It meant I could make lists. Lists of things to do in priority order. To the corporate manager, that meant I could take a pile of issues and put them in to a first-to-last order. And then it was simply a matter of the execution of those tasks.

Black and white to my mind. Logical. Just put the first step first and then list the rest. Just make a list, Sandy. For we Type “A” personalities, lists are a natural trait. A natural habit. Kind of like breathing. For those of you who are not Type “A”, we seem odd and strangely pushy to you. We don’t mean to be – we just see things so logically and naturally. It’s that darn list thing!

Fast forward twenty years and I’m still making lists. Oh, those lists! I have a list of things needing to be done for the Memory Beds. A list of things to be done in the Old Barn. A list of things to be done in the New Barn. A list of things to be done in the pastures and for the fence lines. Then there’s the list of miscellaneous outdoor things to be done.

Now, let’s move indoors! There is a list of things to be done in the garage and a seperate list for the workshop. A list of things to be done in the basement. A list for the attic and, of course, a list for the living spaces of the house. By room, no less! If you are brave enough, wander over to my desk and see the lists (yes, that’s plural!) of things to be done for Refuge Farms paperwork – by category! I have grant lists, publicity lists, new federal compliance lists, correspondence lists, fundraising lists… As I write this, I’m wondering if somewhere I just don’t have a list of the lists!

And it may again sound very peculiar to some of you, but crossing an item off from a list gives me pleasure. And oh, the joy! The joy when I can actually throw a completed list away! And while I’m being honest, I’ll let you in on a never before shared secret: Now that I’m older and feeling the pressure of time passing too quickly, I’m making shorter lists. That way I get to shout for joy more frequently whenever I toss a list away!

Earlier this week, I took the time to look through a magazine that LB had thoughtfully given me. In her gentle way, encouraging me to not work on a list for just a little while. In this magazine there was an article in a section called “Purpose”. The title caught my eye: “The Joys of A Simpler Life”. Huh. A simple life. Is there really such a thing I wondered?

It was a short one-page article written by a man with an obvious belief in a Higher Spirit. What grabbed me so about the article? Here. Read some for yourself:

“…That’s when I realized the truth – we couldn’t get it all done, and God never intended for us to make completing a to-do list the purpose of our lives…There are many things we think we must do that really are not worth doing…Simplifying is really about choices – prioritizing what is important – and then sticking to those choices no matter how tempting it is to add more to your to-do list… There is a price tag on every decision you make in life, even those that seem insignificant. Every time you give a minute of your life to anything, you’re giving a part of your life away.

You are the only one who can assume responsibility for your time and clarify what’s really important to you…Ultimately, it will be the donation of our life that will count far more than the duration. It’s not how long you live, or even how much you cram into how long you live. It’s really about how you live.”

As I read the article, I could not help but see the similarities between this man’s message and the message of my dear Andy. “Gilbert”, he would say, “When you’re born there is a number written on the wall. That’s the number of heartbeats you’ve been given. The trick is to never waste a one. Because you’ll never get that one back.”

So, today I did a very bold thing for me. Given my history and my need to “get things done” and the fact that I have lists everywhere. Given the pressure that I am putting on myself to do more than is humanly possible. Given the pressure that I am putting on myself to never fail. Given the pressure that I am putting on myself to get it all done. Today I put the lists away.

Today I will spend time with Keller and treasure his joy in just being here with me. And today I will try to spend time with each member of The Herd and touch them, talk with them, and reconnect with them all, one by one. And the time will have nothing to do with feeding or any chore at all. Just time with those that I do it all for. And today I will spend time in Donna’s swing and remember her. And Mom. And Dad. And Andy. And, of course, Frannie and my Jerry.

Today I will spend a day in a simpler life. I will treasure the breeze and enjoy the heat of summer. I will walk the Memory Beds and thrill in their blossoms, purposely overlooking the weeds. And I will take my bike down the road for some exercise and a change of scenery. Yes, today I will have a simple life. I will actually take time to eat a meal. And I will spend the day surrounded by the creatures that I treasure so. Once again, looking to them to teach me. Show me how to enjoy the day. A simple day. The gift of life to be learned from those who were thrown away.

Enjoy your day, today. Live simply today. Refresh yourself today. And let the lists wait for today. They’ll be there, neatly waiting for you, tomorrow!

Enjoy the journey of each and every day,
Sandy and The Herd

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