Monday, April 2, 2012

My Problem With Prayer: Part 3 of 3

Prayer was a critical daily ritual when I was a kid. Every morning I studied the weekly Christian Science bible lesson and tried to focus my thoughts on  a perfect all-powerful God. I took it more seriously when I wasn't feeling well. I had to say the Daily Prayer by Mary Baker Eddy: "Thy kingdom come, let the reign of divine Truth, Life, and Love be established in me, and rule out of me all sin, and may Thy word enrich the affection of all mankind and govern them."
Then I was hit with osteomyelitis, a sledge hammer of a bone disease, when I was thirteen (and fourteen). I survived, bedridden for a year at home. I never saw a doctor about it until twenty years later. Beyond my fused knee, the crutches and my shell-shocked mind, I was left convinced that my church's teachings were infallible. I had an imperfect  leg because I'd 
failed to understand my way to perfect health. The most frustrating thing was that no matter how badly I wanted to throw myself at situation, tackle it, slam it to the ground and pin it, the only solution I was offered was more prayer...quiet, intense, inspired studying to lift my thought and bring my whole experience into the consciousness of God's spiritual universe.

So I kept praying. And I dove into the hardest physical work I could find. Physical exhaustion kept me from thinking too much for twenty years before I finally left the church. I survived my twenties galloping bottom-rung racehorses and did farm work; I stacked hay bales, pitched manure or straw, shoveled snow or shavings. My end-of-the-day drug of choice was ice cream. Lots of ice cream. Chocolate ice cream. Every night. I slept soundly, other than the twitching and jerking awake that comes with PTSD.

There's nothing as simultaneously as thrilling and lulling as the gallop of a twelve-hundred pound thoroughbred you ride standing in short stirrups, aware of everything in general and nothing in particular. One emotionally rough summer, I drove the baler when we hayed. It was both deafening and soothing to open up the tractor's throttle as the baler roared and clanked a beat that shook the whole rig. Baling required me to watch where the windrow fed in, glance behind where the bales dropped out, keep an eye out for woodchuck holes and a dozen other variables. It took a wide-angle concentration, "soft eyes" as the Centered Riding folks say. See everything without staring too hard at one thing. Prey animals use this ability to watch and then flee from danger. Quick reflexes. Like the frogs my daughter catches (sometimes) in our pond. Or like a wild horse.

I started investigating what's called natural horsemanship around the time I left Christian Science. I was grateful to find I wasn't a disembodied spiritual concept . I was part of the natural world. I didn't have to take responsibility for everything I came in contact just because I was conscious of it as I'd been taught. My transition into being mortal was rocky, but all the while I was learning similar things about horses that I'd noticed but never really considered. The way they need their herd, need a leader, need to pester and push each other all day every day to stay in a healthy pecking order that determines who survives. I've never liked  anthropomorphism. But I'm guilty of "equinizing" myself. When I stopped trying to be the image-and-likeness-of-God, I started seeing all my own prey animal traits.Yes, I'm technically a predator. But Christian Science imprinted me with fear: fear of doing wrong, embarrassing myself, shaming my family, or even of causing disease by my fear itself because that's the slippery slope of that particular church. Prayer was my obsessive compulsion. I didn't dare stop. 

Natural horsemanship required me to stop fearing and be a herd leader so strong that the most frightened or belligerent horse could respect me. I had to stop fearing, demonstrate my competence on a horse's terms in various exercises, usually on the ground at first, then on horseback. I had to relax and breathe. I had to emanate confidence, strength and leadership. In all kinds of little practice drills, I had to demonstrate such safety and presence that my horse would also breathe, relax, and wait for me to lead the way to safety. If I didn't want my horse to take charge and bolt home, I needed to learn to hold still and exhale my tension, whether at the end of the rope or on the horse's back.

That terrified, damaged creature inside me didn't want any part of it. At clinics the instructors yelled, "SLOW DOWN, Liz! Take a breath!" At home I tried to practice sitting still. I sat on a chair on the deck. OK. But if I closed my eyes and tried not to think, all the millions of words and prayers and bible stories boiled up. Screw that--I was moving! I was out of there. Prayer was the religious stick I was beaten with. It was a pressure to escape.

But I needed to figure it out. For myself as well as the horses. Horses had carried me so far, at times so fast, on their legs. Now it was time to turn and face details of my life that were just a blur from the back of a running horse. And if I succeeded, the horses would take comfort from it too.

Taming myself is still an ongoing project. I gradually coaxed myself into easing up and slowing down. As I passed forty my leg began to wear out, my joints all complained and my back was tricky. I'd gotten away by running, in a manner of speaking, from my thoughts all these years and I couldn't hold that pace. But it was OK to feel myself become methodical. And then amputation downshifted me right into diligence. I can't be quick wearing an above-knee prosthesis. I miss my agility. I miss the days of galloping at the track although I knew they weren't going to last forever. I miss the rambling trail rides that are the perks of the two-legged riders. 

But there's such relief in having turned and faced the fear that chased me so long. I have my motion-meditation. In swimming. In a smoother walking gait than I had with my own legs for thirty years. In playing my drumset, which I started three days before my amputation. I know that to relax--to let my thoughts drift--I need motion and rhythm. Who knows? Maybe I'll get back to riding more. I might be ready to take the time to learn the finer points I was in too much rush to focus on when I had two legs. My horse won't mind if we go slow. She just enjoys my company. She feels safe with me, in my herd.


  1. Liz, we'll have to play Rally obedience sometime when you have Cooper. It looks easy on the surface but it's a dance of reading your dog, anticipating how they need to approach a exercise, adjusting your pace, and teamwork. It's a lot of fun, and when you and your dog are in the zone it's better than therapy!

    1. Can I use my mare instead? Seriously!

  2. a powerful series of personal stories. Wow! PS - I love the frog!

    1. Thanks Sue. Courtesy of Brock's skill in catching & Al Grover Photography.