Putting down roots in the place you grew up is a gift and a curse. A curse, primarily because it means that you, as a responsible adult, have to drive past the same houses you toilet papered, the mailboxes you put firecrackers in, the school at which you sowed plenty of wild oats. You see many of the same faces who taught you during your barefoot hippie days, the faces who bullied you in your miserable pre-teens, the faces you went on awkward first dates with.
It's largely a blessing to live here still, after 38 years, though. I've often wondered if my childhood memories are more vivid because I can drive past the places they occurred, my house, my school, my best friends' neighborhoods. It's also wonderful because many of the kids I grew up with are still here, too, and I can see them outgrow their foolishness or, just as often, grow from being great kids into greater adults. We drift into each other's social circles and places of employment, often with a head tilt and a squint, recognizing each other and saying a name or "Oak Grove, right?" or just a musical instrument or play that once bound us.
Opening Worthy Stables so near to my hometown, just on the edge of Hattiesburg, has been amazing because of the people it has returned to me. My friend Juliana, who, although a senior when I was a high school freshman, accepted me into her circle of amazing, creative friends and made me laugh with endless Monty Python quotes, brought her brilliant, unique girls to camps at the Stables. Amanda, who I was in school with from 4 year old preschool and kindergarten right through high school, brought her daughter to ride our horses. Her daughter has the exact gracious kindness that always made her mom seem so much older than we were. And another Amanda, who played in the marching band with me, reappeared in my life via social media and became a faithful financial supporter, always checking in and cheering us on. One of my dearest junior high friends who, like a celestial cycle, rotates back into my universe often and for such interesting purposes, Leslie has been like the Batman of donors when I put out an urgent call for hay funds, scholarships, or various needs. Her donations arrive right on time with a note expressing her huge heart, and I share a story of what she has provided for and we celebrate with tears. And the drum major, who I tormented with my rebellious spirit for an entire marching band season, sponsoring with her family one of our rescued barn cats. These cats are as much a part of the team as I am and her stepping in to provide for them was a gift that made me smile for weeks.
Then I got a call from Rachel, another mysteriously gracious kids I knew. She was youthful and playful but I don't remember ever hearing the mean-spirited jabs or insecure bullying that most of us engaged in as children figuring ourselves out. She contacted me about bringing her son to therapeutic riding after a new diagnosis of ASD (autism). We get this call often at Worthy Stables. Parents carrying the new responsibility of a heavy diagnosis, stepping into the role of proactive advocate for a child with special needs. It's quite an honor to know a family in this season of their life. Frequently it's messy or tumultuous, sometimes quiet and introspective, contemplative, or a season of relief after many years pursuing wisdom on perplexing behaviors in their beloved child. Although we lost touch for many years, to watch Rachel and her wonderful husband now, the grace and kindness she had as a child have only grown with her and made her an example of a nurturing mom and an asset to a boy striving to understand what makes his experience in this world different.
When Sawyer began riding at Worthy Stables, he often ducked behind his mom or dad a bit when they arrived, and his answers were quiet and brief. Once on a horse, he relaxed a bit those first few rides but was still rather guarded. And then it happened. There's a visit that shifts everything into a different gear for many of our participants. Sometimes it's a glimmer of hope in the eyes of trauma survivor wrestling their way to self-worth and the boldness that comes with it. It can be the day a child from a low income situation finally feels some ownership and without hesitation says the words, "MY horse, " "MY saddle," "MY helmet." Or it can be when a socially anxious child with autism or severe dyslexia or the unimaginable scars of abuse, finally relaxes and brings up a conversation topic or asks a big question unsolicited. It's a hold-your-breath and keep the tears in moment. It's why we do what we do. For Sawyer, that moment was on the back of a horse. His mind wasn't entirely on the new skill we were working toward but he was making an effort. Finally, without prompting, he stopped his horse and looked toward the road and the horses grazing in the paddock beside us. "Do you think a horse is one horsepower?" he asked. A scientific mind! I love this! I didn't want to respond with too much enthusiasm and risk shutting him down. "Do you think one horse equals one horsepower?, " I ask him. "No, that doesn't seem quite right."
Well, one horse does not have one horsepower. While we practiced riding that day, we looked up the definition of horsepower, how many horsepower humans are capable of, and how many horsepower a horse actually has. Then we got the giggles talking about horses in various physics demonstrations in which no one would think to use a horse. Sawyer's laugh is infectious and his sense of humor is this wonderful blend of little boy and big intellect. It ranges from the noises that come out of his horse's rear when he trots to science jokes that almost sneak over my head. Laughing with him takes up a large part of our appointments now, as does looking up the answers to huge questions that are beyond my purview.
Rachel sent me a message this week that stopped me in my tracks on a busy day. I am just going to share it with you. I have read it several times since it arrived.
"I was explaining to Sawyer tonight why its so hard to make friends when you have autism and why it's hard to communicate with people sometimes. Then we started talking about how when we meet other people who are on the spectrum, we usually gravitate toward them and it's so easy to talk to them and be friends with them. The next question out of his mouth was, "Mama, so do you think Mrs. Jessie is on the spectrum, too?" It made my heart smile so big. Your buddy is missing you."
I don't know if I can think of a greater compliment to be paid by a child than that. To be identified as someone easy to talk to, someone who may be the same different as he is. While I have not been placed on the fascinating, perplexing spectrum of autism, I will forever wear Sawyer's question as a badge of great honor.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go study up for Sawyer’s next lesson. Sitting trot is on my lesson plan but I have a feeling we will discuss vehicle aerodynamics, equine circulatory systems, or why Dakota wiggles his ears when he poops. Maybe all of the above!
(Names and photos used with permission from parents or guardians.)