From a young age I have feared obscurity. I developed some fairly intricate plans to avoid it, to become Important. Since the age of ten I’ve carried around a vision for what my life was supposed to look like at different stages. I knew what I should have accomplished by age 20, where I’d live by age 30, what kinds of friends I would have, the kind of career I’d have, and of course, who my long term boyfriend would be (no marriage to hold me back, please). I reinforced these plans every time my life wasn’t adhering to them by beating myself up. This was a fairly common occurrence. And then one day these plans dried up.
Once I no longer knew how my life was supposed to turn out, it all just started to turn out.
As a ten year old, I couldn’t see beyond forty because that was older than my mom. I hadn’t created any plans for my dotage. I guess I figured that chapter was already written. Beyond forty was old, and as an old lady you did nothing but wait for your grandchildren to show up. You would offer them butterscotch candies, which they’d politely take with a smile, then throw away behind your back. No one actually eats those things.
So here I am, at a point in my life that I never even once thought of as a child. I made no plans for this, I have no way it had to be. I’m in unmapped territory. I no longer had to be concerned with how I wasn’t an expert in some totally awesome, but obscure field, how I wasn’t fabulously wealthy, how I wasn’t famous, and that I didn’t hang out in some kind of modern day literary salon in my free time.
I feared the mundane lives I saw around me every day. I was terrified they were going to rub off then stick to me forever. When I was in high school I worked on a horse farm. It had been my goal since the age of three and I enjoyed every single crushed toe, frostbitten ear, and callous it earned me. There’s something magical about having your second coffee break at dawn when you’ve already been working for three hours. I loved to stand in the barn doorway and watch the first pinks and oranges of the day appear while listening to the horses quietly munch their hay. I miss it more than anything. If I had a chance to relive one day, it would be one of those sparrow-chirping, dew-covered summer mornings at the barn. Oh, and in case my husband reads this, my wedding day and the birth of our son.
This particular horse farm had a great mix of people. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s rare for cutting horses, Hunter/Jumpers, and Dressage horses to share a facility. It’s a logistical nightmare, considering the requirements of each discipline — moving jumps in and out of the riding arena, huge gashes sliced through sand/rubber mix, footing packed down by repetition. Somehow everyone got along fine. They managed to accommodate each other.
I remember one couple with particular fondness, Sandy and Jack. Sandy and Jack had a couple of laid back reining horses. I always knew when they were in the barn because classic rock blared over the loudspeakers. They particularly loved to ride in the arena listening to Aerosmith’s I’m Back in the Saddle Again. Sandy and Jack had both grown up in the same small town nearby, both had gone to the local high school, got married right after graduation, and taken jobs at a manufacturing plant on the night shift. They never had kids, but they had their horses.
They would normally show up at the barn around 4 pm, giving them hours of horse time before their shift began. They’d practice spins and slides in the arena together, they’d take trail rides together, they were literally always together. They liked to hang out in the lounge and chat before heading off to work. I remember thinking, this is their life, this is what they do. They had used up their lives working all night, sleeping during the day, then riding their horses before trudging off to the next bleary eyed shift. They were cowboy vampires. And it bothered me.
And then the ponies showed up and somehow they made the whole situation worse.
One winter morning I opened the barn and found two wooly Shetland ponies sharing a stall. The owner must have brought them in during the night. I had no idea who they were or why they were there. They joined in with the nickering of the other horses who knew it was feeding time, except instead of gently requesting their breakfast with soft whinnies, they kicked the door as a team. Cute.
There was no note on the stall so I left them alone until someone who could identify them, and hopefully remove them, came in. That person was Jack. His brand new F-150 rolled in after his shift at the plant. He told me the ponies were his and had been in his family for forty-three years. Meat-grinder and Bone-crusher, he called them. At least that’s how I remember them, their names may have been slightly more kid friendly.
Forty-three years is a long equine life, but ponies, the spiteful little creatures, seem to live forever, stubbornly refusing to give up their grip on life just to gorge on oats one last time. Oh, but I’m sure your childhood pony was sweet as pie. No, really.
“These two ponies are inseparable,” Jack said, “just like me and Sandy. Can you believe I’ve known Sandy since I was ten? We both learned to ride on these ponies. And just like Sandy and me, they really haven’t ever been apart. Every day they’ve been together, just like us. Isn’t that something?”
I didn’t know what to say. I honestly wasn’t sure if he was bemoaning the bitterness of life or if he was pleased at how it turned out. Midwesterners don’t mind a bit of silence in a conversation, so I waited for further information.
He elaborated. “Winters are just getting too cold for them at the farm, you know? There’s just a shed, no barn with stalls and soft bedding. This is their retirement home.” A huge grin spread across his face. “I really hope when Sandy and I are ready for the old folks home they can put us in the same room. Hell, even the same bed!”
I laughed with him, but secretly I was horrified by all the thoughts running through my head. He had known the same people his entire life, he’d never lived anywhere else, he’d been at the same job working next to his same wife for twenty-five years. The very ponies he’d learned to ride as a boy were still at his farm. This forty-something year old man hadn’t lived! He was set on rinse and repeat.
The very idea of his life was making me suffocate. I couldn’t wait to ditch my hometown, my home state, shed my skin and become the person I was meant to be. Famous for, well, something not quite worked out yet, brilliant in some undetermined (but amazing) field, independent, wealthy, fabulous, witty, worldly. I knew this life was waiting for me out there. I was bigger than the same old places and faces. I just couldn’t fathom living like Sandy and Jack.
I felt pity for them (oh to be sixteen and have it all figured out again!) and their small-town world. Soon I would be out there, really living, and they would still be here. Stuck. Never, I thought, never in a million years could I live that way.
…if Jack and Sandy’s lives were so incredibly awful, why were they the happiest people I knew? Didn’t they know their jobs stunk? Didn’t they ever get completely and utterly bored with each other? And what kind of adult without children hangs on to ponies for forty-three years? Didn’t they realize they could sell them or give them away to a family member they hated? Did they ever get rid of anything? Did they ever do anything new or different? I couldn’t reconcile any of it. I couldn’t make sense of two people in such a rut, but who were so happy.
That is, until I got here, today, to this point in my life.
Since leaving my childhood home I hadn’t lived in the same place for more than four years. I was pulled away by job opportunities, better houses to live in, and sometimes simply the oppressive feeling of stagnation. As soon as I could sense a routine had been established, I started the search for change. To put down roots was an anathema.
In the past two months my world has shrunk down to a mere fraction of its former size. We’re back in our country home full-time after eight long years of a nomad’s life. My job is a short drive away, my son’s school is minutes away, I know the neighboring land owners, I know what time the mail is delivered. The highlight of my day is to find out if the injured doe in the herd that moves through our land every day is still limping. I worry about her.
It’s a quiet life and it feels like a perfect fit. I suppose this realization is what made me think about Sandy and Jack.
Here’s what I think about them now.
They both worked their entire careers for the same company and had no kids. What had seemed monotonous drudgery before now seemed like hard work paying off. I wonder what their retirement looks like? At home on the farm with a herd of horses? I’m kind of jealous.
They still know everyone in their hometown. What an amazing support system they must have. Knowing your neighbor, helping your neighbor, and knowing they will help you. I haven’t experienced that since childhood and it sounds pretty good right now.
I bet they’re still married to each other. It reminds me of my grandparent’s marriage. Obviously there were ups and downs, but that’s seriously romantic and beautiful. Instead of dreading the sameness of a long term marriage, I want it for myself.
I’m willing to bet money there have been other generations of ornery ponies — and horses and dogs and cats and probably a few goats — that were able to live out their lives without being sold off, given away, dumped off, or foisted onto unsuspecting relatives. They were excellent stewards. What would it be like to live somewhere long enough to have a pet? My son certainly wants to know.
I have no regrets about how I’ve lived my life. It’s been an adventure and will continue to be, but of a different nature. Sandy and Jack’s life has fresh meaning for me – I see the allure of it, the charm of it. Simple. Quiet. I took the long way around to get here, but I got here all the same.
And if you know of any ponies for sale, we’re in the market.