March 04, 2008

Harness

[Author’s note: I have written this in celebration of the inner animal spirit shared by humans and non-humans alike. It is a spirit that shouldn’t and perhaps can’t be subdued. It might be what Zen Master Chao-chou had in mind when upon being questioned as to how one might rid oneself of passion, he replied “Why get rid of it!”]

She was always a potential runaway. You needed to keep that in mind. If you didn’t she could bolt and be gone before you could do anything to stop her. She was a big horse. She could hit a full gallop in the space of a few yards, the bit in her teeth, her neck stretched taut, nostrils flared, her powerful legs pumping her forward without direction or intent. Once started, nothing but her own exhaustion ever stopped her.

At times I could smell a runaway coming, feel the heat of it in the palms of my hands as though they were held over a flame. I would take up the reins, drawing in the slack ever so lightly, and tell her “Whoa now, Smokey. Easy now. Whoa girl,” and whatever urgency was in her would subside, and for the moment there’d be no runaway.

She was a horse that should never have been put into harness. I think we all knew that from the start, even father who bought her for that express purpose. She was a beautifully muscled smoke-colored Morgan mare, and when she was led into the corral at Ranney’s Stables she was the very image of contained power. Ranney himself put her through her paces. Father and I watched. I never saw the signal that started her, but suddenly the big mare shot forward. She raced down the fence line, driving herself into the opposing corner at nearly full speed, skidding to a stop just before impact. She whirled about and trotted back toward us with her tail up and her head high. She made Ranney look as if he were just along for the ride. One could not imagine her pulling a cart.

But the mare was irresistible. To see her was to want her for your own. Father must have lost sight of his purpose. “Well what do you think?” Ranney asked Father. Father said, “She looks good.” “She’s a lot of horse to handle,” Ranney said. He was looking at me. “I wouldn’t plan to put that boy on her just yet. He could use a few more pounds before he’s up to riding a mare like this.” “I’m not buying her for saddle, I plan to harness her to a feed cart,” Father said. There was a long pause in which Ranney looked at Father and then at the ground and then at the horse and at father again. At length he took Father to the stable office to write up a bill of sale. I followed the stable hand into the barn to watch him rub down the big mare. Her gray coat shone phosphorescent in the dim light of the stall. Her muscles rippled under his touch where he ran the currycomb over her flanks. I thought of her racing along the fence line of the corral, and I wanted more than anything to ride her. “Her name’s Smokey,” the stable hand told me.

Within a month Father had gotten Smokey to tolerate harness. He was in fact a superior horseman, having learned from his own father who was one of the best on the Danish island of Funen. But neither Father’s skill nor anyone else’s was ever to cure Smokey of the propensity to run away. Despite this, she was soon indispensable. Rows of feeders were strung out across the turkey range and it was Smokey’s job was to pull the feed cart along these rows so we could scoop grain into the feeders. She was so naturally inquisitive, so alert to everything, that she often anticipated what was needed and did it before it was asked of her. One rarely had to touch the reins.

Father forbid my older brother, Rowland, and me to ever ride Smokey. It wasn’t so much that Father feared for our safety. In fact we were both expected to work the horse, a circumstance at least as dangerous as riding her would be. Father’s concern was that it would compromise her toleration of the harness. I rarely questioned my father’s orders, but I wanted to do it so bad that I appealed to him to let me ride Smokey. Father just as rarely explained orders but this time he said, “She remembers the saddle, Linley. I want her to forget.”

A set of harness is an instrument of economics, a system of cinches, buckles, and straps designed to subvert the will of an animal to purposes of human commerce. When you harness a horse, you harness a life. Smokey somehow never looked harnessed. She was worked from the time my father bought her to the time of her death. But some reserve in her remained untouched by her circumstance. She was a horse undiminished by harness. This was so even when she was hitched to a feed cart, a thousand pounds of grain towed along in her wake. She had a will that refused to be subdued, a spirit that survived any restraint one might impose on her. Her resistance was grounded not so much in any stubbornness one could detect but in an irrepressible exuberance over which she herself had little control. Put into harness she was like one of those rare prisoners who survive freely within the confines of a cell.

A priest of a Zen order in which I once trained confronted me with a choice between obedience to the order or disaffiliation. His ultimatum settled on me like a set of harness. I could feel my neck thrust through the leather collar, the hames secured to it, the bit forced between my teeth, the weight of the load dragging on the traces. The priest sat across the room from me in his brown robes and purple kesa, his arms folded defiantly across his chest. He looked harnessed as well. He had institutionalized himself. He had forgotten how willful the founders of his own order had been, requiring of me that I conform to the footsteps of those who had themselves insisted on finding their own way.

Fifty years ago, an Army Field First Sergeant at a basic training camp in California slammed his fist into my face for stepping out of ranks to aid a soldier who had fainted and fallen onto the pavement in front of me. “Who told you to break rank!” the sergeant screamed at me. The sergeant’s face was a blurred smear inches in front of my own, his hot breath laced with spittle. Blood leaked from my mouth. My whole body shook, trying to will the restraint that would keep me out of jail. I had a choice between compliance and court martial. I thought I couldn’t bear the injustice of it, that I would suffer any consequence rather than tolerate such insult. But still I held myself at attention, reaching for a grace first taught me by a smoke-colored mare when I was still a boy.

It was four years after she had first been put to harness, that I rode Smokey. Everyone was gone at the time, and I’d been left behind to finish the feeding. I was about to release Smokey into the pasture when instead I swung myself onto her back. With just a halter and lead and no saddle or bridle, I had little means of controlling her. She chose the direction, and within a few yards punched herself into a gallop. At first it was all I could do to stay on, considering how violently she threw herself into a run.

She was headed toward the Santa Ana River, but to get there she had to cross Harbor Boulevard. I was suddenly afraid we’d be struck by a vehicle. She was coming up on the boulevard fast. I tugged on the halter lead, desperate to prevent a disaster. She eased back a little. I let the lead out and she picked up speed. I pulled it in again and she slowed. Smokey wasn’t running away! She was just running, and she was including me. Though Father had wanted her to, she hadn’t forgot what it was to run free of the harness and carry a rider on her back.

Within the structure of every conformity, every confinement and restraint, dwells the heart of the runaway. It is a being spare, swift, original. It speaks words of its own telling, sings songs of its own heart’s consent, runs unhindered in fields of its own choosing. It is the unimpaired body and voice of our youth. It refuses to be forgotten.

A neighbor of mine has a daughter, Vanessa, who attends Stanford University. I learned recently of a habit of hers that resists being put out of mind. Vanessa commutes around campus on a bicycle, and sings while she is riding. That in itself is not so unusual, but Vanessa sings everywhere she goes and in full voice. “I sing loud!” as she puts it. A fellow student of Vanessa’s attests to that fact. Learning what Vanessa was doing, she decided to try it herself. And one night after classes, biking home in the dark, she began a little tentative singing of her own. Meanwhile Vanessa was also bicycling home from class, the two of them on routes destined to converge. As they each approached the juncture of their mutual crossing, the friend’s song was drowned out, strains of the Broadway musical Annie reaching her long before Vanessa came in sight. Oh, my God! she thought, that’s Vanessa.

It was Vanessa, originally and unfailingly Vanessa, singing her loud song to the night air.

[(c) Lin Jensen, 2005. Reprinted from Bad Dog!: A Memoir of Love, Beauty, and Redemption in Dark Places, with permission of Wisdom Publications, 199 Elm Street, Somerville, MA 02144 U.S.A, www.wisdompubs.org]

Comment:

Thank you for this wonderful story.

This harness of life tries to keep our spirit imprisoned. Yet we have that yearning of freeing ourselves. And deep inside we are free. At times we can feel it so clearly and other times the harness is too strong and too painful and it takes every last effort to remember our true essence. But never for long as our true nature is free.

Posted by: oshanthi9 | Mar. 16, 2008

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