gifts.

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I just opened up a shipment of photos that I ordered the day before Carl died. Inside the box I found this. A 4″x4″ Somerset Velvet Giclee test print of my equine photography that I was daydreaming of doing something more with. It turned out beautifully. Even better than I imagined, really. Thank you for this, God. I needed it today.

I love you, Carl. Thank you for continuing to show up in the way you do.

{originally published Jan 10, 2015}

the steep part of the mountain.

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ALL IN ONE GLIMPSE

…as if, all along, you had thought the end point
might be a city with golden towers, and cheering crowds,
and turning the corner at what you thought was the end
of the road, you found just a simple reflection,
and a clear revelation beneath the face looking back
and beneath it another invitation, all in one glimpse:
like a person or a place you had sought forever,
like a bold field of freedom that beckoned you beyond;
like another life, and the road still stretching on.

Excerpt from ‘Santiago’
From PILGRIM: Poems by David Whyte

*photo credit: a photo of me in the Tetons of Wyoming by Dawn Norris Photography
*poem shared by Cynthia Eckren Jan 9, 2015}

wild horses.

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“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” ~Kurt Vonnegut

This photo is from a somewhat recent adventure into the wilds of the Pryor Mountains of Wyoming. We crawled out of our tents at sunrise, drank a hearty dose of camp coffee, and then headed out by foot in search of wild horses. We followed a herd most of the morning, but they were restless and we were often left on the mountain with no horses in sight. It didn’t matter. We’d find them again.The morning was cool, but inviting. We walked to the edge of the earth and then we walked some more.

My friend, Sage, shared this quote today and it made me think of this photo. I decided to dig it up from the archives and share it with you tonight. Today started out its rough and usual way…but it got better. I received and then wrote a message to Carl’s brother, Andrew. It had the miraculous effect of somehow lifting my spirits. I tended to more of Carl’s life details with his mom and then we went out for a hot chocolate. It felt good to spend some time with her, just the two of us, without the usual commotion of kids and a houseful of chatter (which I also love!). I connected with several friends, took care of the horses, tended to some Stray Dog Arts business, took a bath, gathered information for a grief counselor, unpacked more of Carl’s things, did two loads of laundry and played with the dogs.

This is what I would call a good day. Good days make me a little nervous because the few that I’ve had have been followed by even more difficult days, but…I’m going to take this day for what it is: a gift. Perhaps these gifts will start building on each other and a breathing space will occur.

These mountains and wild horses are something that Carl would have loved. I looked forward to bringing him there with me, but it never happened and now it never will. There are a lot of things that I will never get the chance to do with Carl. That is, except in spirit. I lived an adventurous life before Carl and I don’t have any plans of changing that about myself.

Everything feels craggy and broken. It’s sometimes hard to breathe. But then…there are these vistas. If I am brave, I will continue giving myself to the very edges of things. And, in this way, I will know that I have lived and loved well.

I love you, Carl. Always, you are with me. Always, you will be my most precious mountain.

And for the umpteenth time, I’ll share my very most favorite song. This song…it’s about unconditional love. Oh, this life…it has offered me much.

{originally published Jan 2, 2015}

Returning home after.

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Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world. ~ Sarah Ban Breathnach

The floor boards of this little cabin are cold. The door latch is frozen, requiring me to use the dead bolt to keep it closed. The whole world has shifted into a creak, popping into sharp rearrangement. It is Monday. As though that means something, I enter the day like a new stage of grief. I’ll call this stage “Returning Home After.” It is another day of navigating life without Carl. It is after Christmas. After my grandpa’s funeral. After spending the better part of a week with my grandma, not just as her granddaughter, but also as two women who have lost the men we’ve given our hearts and lives to. There are not enough tears in the entire universe for this. I’m still dogged by the edges of this migraine that seems to have become my constant companion. A toothache has angled its way in, too. I’m chilled all the way to my center, not from sickness, but from the lack of warmth that crawls from my slippered feet and into my bones. My eyeballs feel like they’ve shrunk, become smaller from too many weeks of crying and trying to see what I’m supposed to do next. My grief habit of rubbing my brow has shifted to rubbing my eyes. The structure of mortality has taken on a physicality that I’m not entirely comfortable with. I am made up of tendons, skin and two eyeballs. Somewhere inside, yet beyond my precarious placement of bones and breathing is my spirit. My spirit gets curious, feels hope, gets out of bed to let out the dogs and feed the horses. I am acutely aware of the way my body is put together and, even in all its weakness, I feel like I will live to be a very, very old woman. This thought does not bring me comfort. However, in suspended moments, I see a glimpse of my future self. The woman I see is much older than me now. She is a bit timeless, grey-haired, her body and face have taken on new contours. Mostly, what I notice is her smile–a sense of contentment and satisfaction–that illuminates from the inside out. It’s a smile held in her eyes and her whole body. Anchoring her being is a vast aquifer–her life experiences–the depth and breadth of an entire ocean. It is as though she could hold out her arms and embrace a whole life of love, care, and meaning. There are a lot of young people in this image…as though her strong arms might gather in a whole world of children whom I love.

This image comes to me at random times. It’s always brief. Just a glimpse. Last night she visited me as I read a book in the bathtub. Another time when I was driving. Once, while in the tea aisle at the grocery store. She has been weaving herself into me all along, but I notice her more lately. She’s cute and I like her. She knows I need her. She makes me smile even when I don’t think I want to. She pokes my ribs and is equally willing to wrap her arms around me. I know I’ll meet her someday, because I’ll be her. I already am her, partially. I just don’t recognize myself yet.

I am rubbed raw from missing Carl. Saying I miss him doesn’t convey the actual experience. He hasn’t truly left me. Like today. Today I feel him near. Even so, it is not always easy wearing one’s spirit so close to the skin.

I looked out the window this morning, watching the horses walk through the woods. Colorado comes to the fence first. I am mesmerized by how much I’ve loved that horse all along. I told Carl that I’d always want Colorado to be a little bit more “my” horse, even if he is the bigger, more skittish, less trained of the two. I wanted Carl to ride Dakota, despite him being twice my size and her being the smaller of the two horses. With more brazenness than I actually possessed, I announced that I would ride Colorado even tho the truth is that I was too scared to (and still am). Carl said he’d be happy no matter which horse he rode. I loved that about him because he meant it. He just loved the horses. And he loved me. My silly ideas were nonsense all along. It’s taken me a long time to truly bond with Dakota, but shortly before Carl died, I realized that it was happening. The deepening began to occur. It is still occurring. She has soft, worrisome eyes. And, lately, I find myself worrying about her, too. My heart is drawn to her. My heart is drawn to both of them. We are all like snowflakes. Even the horses.

Today, this cold makes me feel cleaved open. Smooth, like frozen stone, old parts of who I was have completely worn away. There’s somehow room in this for something new. I move the milk house heater closer to my feet. I wrap Carl’s raggedy old quilt around me. I cry. I write myself back to life.

I feed the horses at sunrise, their eyelashes and muzzles covered in frost. Dakota lifts her front hoof up high in gratitude (her daily habit of thanks). Colorado eats up his sweet feed, tosses some hay around and then attempts to stick his big nose into my cup of coffee. I laugh at him and let him smell the warm brew, telling him “yeah…you’re my horse.” Colorado in front of me, Dakota behind me, Carl all around me. Slowly, I warm to the possibility of things I do not yet know.

I love you, Carl. I love you for showing me the woman I want to grow to be.

{originally published Dec 29, 2014}

marvel and dispair.

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This morning I sat on a bale of hay and quietly watched the horses for over an hour. I wore Carl’s jacket over my own and so, despite cold temps, I was warm. While the horses gratefully ate their sweet feed and then started in on the hay I had put out for them, the dogs (Louie, Ella and Henry), moved together in a perfect triangle, noses touching, sniffing the ground and happily gnawing on frozen horse turds.

I thought about how, when these horses, Colorado and Dakota, came into my life, it was made divinely very clear to me that they would teach me about love.They would teach me how to love and be loved. Before Carl, I had never experienced a *truly* healthy relationship with a man. After getting divorced, I was single for nearly three years. Then one day, while standing in the kitchen, I looked out the window and, in my mind’s eye, got a flash of what true and good and healthy love looked like. I don’t know where it came from, but the vision stuck with me as clear as precious crystal. In truth, I didn’t think I was the kind of woman that could have that sort of relationship. Such are the limiting lies we sometimes tell ourselves. But during this time, every day, I was outside with the horses watching their movements, their give and take, their love, their care, their soft compromises for each other. They moved through the woods and the pasture, always with one eye and an ear watching out for the other. They moved as one entity, even with occasional distance between them. Their tenderness for one another was remarkable.

I observed and learned and spent an entire year untangling burrs from their manes and tails. My relationship with them grew deeper. I lost much of my jumpiness and got more comfortable in their presence.In the process, this endless untangling slowly built a bridge to a better relationship with myself, too. In learning to trust the horses, I learned how to once again trust myself. I found a solid and dependable place within myself that I had never before known. From this place, my friendship with Carl grew into deep love and mutual respect. I began to realize that he was the good man I had gotten a glimpse of that morning I looked out the window so long ago.

Carl and I talked about the horses every day. He loved them and was as interested in them as me. They became “our” horses. I loved sharing them with him. We made space for them in the possibility of every plan we made together. He knew how much they meant to me and would have done anything to make sure they would remain in my life, no matter what. I began to dream of moving deeper into a life with horses. Carl was, through and through, a part of that dream.

If it weren’t for the horses, I would not have ever stayed in Bemidji for as long as I did. I would have returned to Minneapolis full-time or maybe even moved somewhere else entirely. Had I done that, it is quite possible that our paths would have missed each other. I have always thought, since the beginning, that it was these horses that created the meeting ground for Carl and I to come into each other’s lives. God and the angels that surround us knew all along.

And so this morning I sat and watched Colorado and Dakota, reveling at how much alike they are to Carl and me. Plump, warm tears rolled down my face. I whispered Colorado’s name and he looked up at me with the sweetest, gentlest eyes. Like Carl would do. Carl cared so selflessly for me. And I for him. I remembered talking with Carl over the phone about how Dakota panics when Colorado is out of her sight. He said, “Just like you panic when I’m gone for too long.” His words were so true. Carl had an easier time with the miles that often separated us. I sat on that hay bale watching the horses and wondered: why am I the one who got left behind? I am the one who gets scared. I’m the one who has a harder time being left alone. And yet…I would never wish for him to be the one to be left behind. I love him too much. Never, never, never would I want to see him this sad, this lost, this scared.

Last night I dreamed that Carl and I went to find a wedding band. We were at Ken K. Thompson Jewelry where Dean, a very dear and old family friend, stood behind the jewelry counter helping us create our very own design. Dean was so thoughtful and caring. These weren’t the usual circumstances. Even in the dream, Carl was with me, but in the spirit realm. Somehow, Dean was aware of this. We decided on a simple band. On the inside was an inscription in delicate cursive lettering, “Until we meet again.” The outside had a single tiny star-shaped diamond, a reminder that Carl would always be my north star.

With the daylight, I wonder how I will ever find my way out from under this dark cloud. This morning’s gift, despite everything, is relief from yesterday’s horrible anxiety. Upon waking, the dogs were excessively snuggly. Kissing, kissing, kissing me until I could barely breathe. More love, it was a good way start to the day. While outside, I brushed a few burrs from the horses manes. I made coffee and put it in Carl’s thermos to keep it warm. I marveled at the amount of tears that flow from my eyes.

I marvel and despair over everything, a dependable and oscillating pattern that, if I can just find a way to allow myself to surrender to it, will lead me somewhere wholly true and good. These horses, as always, remain my teachers. In powerful ways, they continue to instruct me in love and trust, of the deepest kind.

Yesterday, while going through cards and stacks of mail, I came across the memorial program from Carl’s funeral. His sisters chose a bible verse that was included beneath a photo of him. It reads…

“Peace I leave with you,
My peace I give to you;
not as the world gives do I give to you.
Let not your heart be troubled,
neither let it be afraid.”
~John 14

Everyone keeps telling me how strong they think I am. I am not.
But, because Carl would want that for me, I try.
I try.
I try.

I love you, Carl Bratlien. Until we meet again…
I love you.

{originally published Dec 18, 2014}

my sentinel.

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Yesterday I filled the water trough for the horses, a simple job requiring Herculean efforts, a laborious blessing. My two horses, Colorado and Dakota, have a way of dragging me out of the house in a way that nothing else can. The water is on the other side of this 30-some acre property and so that means I need to drag my tired sad self down the horse trail between my cabin to the water spigot and trough near the barn. This, of course, makes the dogs happy. Especially Louie and Ella who are used to going with me and saying hi to all the neighbor dogs in the process. Henry, he has fun, too…but he stays closer to me than he would have in the past. I’ve somehow been adopted by him in ways that I would have never expected. We’ve become each other’s safe zone. Henry, although small, is bit of a renegade, Carl’s perfect match. But despite his toughness, I also see the vulnerability that’s emerged through this experience. He snuggles in tight. He listens to me better than he ever listened to Carl. We keep an eye on each other. We both understand, all too well, the hugeness of what we’ve both lost.

We get to the gate near the barn and are met by 3 of the neighbor dogs, 2 yellow labs and a big strong mutt. Henry jumps into my arms until he’s decided that he’s big enough to outnumber them all. 6 dogs total. Enough to start a gang. They play for awhile, but then I take them back home and return to filling water for the horses. The trough is full. I am empty.

I walk back down the trail through a forest of pines and am a little bit awed by the flatness of everything. Since being in a relationship with Carl, the trail between the barn and cabin had taken on a new life. It had started to SPARKLE. With possibility. With love. With partnership. I’ve never owned horses before. When I took on their care, I really had no clue what I was doing. All I knew is that I loved them and that I needed them as much as they needed me. I’ve been figuring it out along the way, little by little by little, and still am.

But then came Carl and suddenly there was someone in my life who the horses loved as much as me and who loved them as much as I do. Colorado and Dakota fell in love with Carl instantly. They trusted him completely. The realization that I had found the perfect companion in life was, well…astonishing. There was nothing we loved more than schlepping hay bales together. Carl and I spent many a morning, afternoon or evening brushing, loving, feeding, and working with the horses. He was good at it and, together, we were really a good team. It was Carl that finally made the first step to ride Dakota for the first time and then helped me to do the same. She hadn’t been ridden in over 4 years and she responded beautifully. Colorado let us blanket him. We planned on working up to the saddle later. My big, skittish gelding. It was a beautiful accomplishment and he was so pleased with himself, too.

In all that time of our relationship there was an almost other-wordly glow to these woods. I imagined a long life together. I imagined a love-filled, work-filled, outdoors-filled, animal and family-filled life…together. I imagined us, side by side, making even the hardest of physical labor seem like something fun and enjoyable. That’s the kind of person Carl was…and he brought that out in me, too.

But yesterday and, really, every day since Carl’s been gone, these woods haven’t held the same luster. I’m still glad I’m here. These woods, even in their flatness, are still holding me in exactly the way I need to be held. After filling the trough, I walked back home and simply started to weep for the enormity of all these lost daydreams, for the loss of light, for the loss of having someone so capable by my side. Honestly, there are days that I don’t know how I’ll do this on my own. I am walking a precarious trail of faith.

I walked that trail all the way back to my cabin where the horses stood waiting for me. There was nothing left to do but just give up for a moment. I sat down next to Colorado, my back leaning against the tree nearest him. Colorado is the one that rescued me before Carl even came into my life. Surely, he can do it again? And, yes, he does. Every single day. Dakota, too.

I sat and cried into a lackluster forest with Colorado holding vigilance as I did so. He munched on hay and watched me with peacefully attentive eyes, occasionally looking up to take in the world around us. I felt like I could have sat there forever and the horses would not have left my side.

My guardians. They know. They care. They work their magic on me in a way that only sentient creatures know how to do.

Whenever I was having a bad day, Carl always used to tell me to go outside and hang out with the horses. It worked every time. Always. Their saving grace was and is almost annoyingly dependable. The horses don’t necessarily take my pain away, but for now their presence keeps me alive and breathing and moving, sometimes in seemingly exaggerated ways. I had so many crystal clear visions of a life with horses and Carl. I don’t know how to do it without him, but I pray, I pray, I pray that trail of faith I’ve been walking will, someday, become a little less precarious and a whole lot more beautiful.

In the meantime, I have this beauty. Colorado. Standing right in front of me. Catching my tears, letting me lean into the warmth of his strong body, always watching and waiting for me. Until the light someday returns.

I love you, Carl Bratlien. Be with me.

{originally published Nov 29, 2014}

silence.

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This morning, I am suspended in silence. The sky is grey and it is snowing. The horses are purring as they eat their hay. It took them a moment to give into their current contentment because I forgot to go to the farm supply store to buy more sweet feed yesterday. These small, but seemingly impossible tasks, they seem to add up. Even so, the horses are forgiving. As I brush snow off their backs and rub their muscles, they bend their giant, gentle necks so that their head can rest against mine. Their eyes are soft. They’ve been particularly sensitive towards me since all of this happened. Sometimes I think they’ve transmuted into elephants, the profundity of their sentience has grown so large.

Horses. They’ve become my healers for the past several years, in significant ways. I reached out to wild horses and started to build a life around them. It didn’t take long and then these two horses, Colorado and Dakota, unexpectedly walked into my life. Again, I reached out to them; I fed and watered and brushed them and, in exchange, they breathed some newfound life into me. Their trails started carving out new paths in my life. The most significant trail led to Carl. If it weren’t for these horses, I’m pretty sure our paths might have missed each other. Or rather, these horses were brought into my life because this was going to happen all along. I feel like this story was written long before either of us could have ever known–our marriage of spirits and Carl’s death and whatever is to come. There is a word that has whispered itself to me often since falling in love with Carl. The word is “Maktub,” an ancient word that means “it is written.” Our relationship has felt this way, to both of us, since the very beginning. We trusted in it completely.

I still trust this. But I’m not yet up to the task of healing. I’m stuck somewhere in the middle, staving off this horrible feeling of anxiety that continuously keeps creeping in around the edges. Even so, the horses keep reaching for me. Their reach is so soft and unassuming that the near-imperception is powerful beyond measure. This reaching–from friends and family, strangers and animals–causes moments of lightness and lets the peace sneak back in. Sometimes I even feel Carl wrap his arms around me. He lets me lean backward into his spirit and says: “I love you, baby.” He repeats this as many times as I need to hear it. He tells me to follow my heart. He tells me that I’ll know what to do. But I can’t always feel him and, when I can’t, that’s when the anxiety comes. I plead, “Please God, please God…help me.” And, somehow, maybe these and everyone else’s prayers are working, even when I’m not sure of it at the time. The depth of my grief causes me to clench every muscle, every thought, every movement. But eventually, a softness occurs…my body isn’t built to stay frozen forever.

Even so,
This silence…if it doesn’t already exist, sometimes I create it.

Carl and my life together was always alive and connected with phone conversations and texts and sharing music. It was constant. In the most painful moments, I attempt to hit the mute button, a survival technique that doesn’t help at all. Eventually, the music will want back in. I can’t yet listen to it. Carl filled my life with music, our life together was built of it. For now, for today, I’ll just try to listen to the directions of a friend and attempt to enjoy the snow. I’m grateful for her suggestion. It allows me a way to be at peace with this silence. I love snow. These snowflakes, they are gentle, like Carl.

**the photo of Carl playing mandolin in my studio while i painted. i loved it when our creative spirits found a place to be together.

{originally published Nov 19, 2014}