Wild Horses and French Horns
Written by
Jean Ellen Whatley
December 2011
Written by
Jean Ellen Whatley
December 2011

My mother used to have a saying, “Don’t count it a day lost when you learn something new”  and she especially liked, “learn a new word.”  She was big on vocabulary.

I’ve modified this treasured maternal maxim to include any number of lesser, albeit, practical goals to further edify my life. For example, “don’t count it a day lost when you can talk a cop out of a speeding ticket” or “don’t count it a day lost when you can dodge every call from a bill collector.” And the most recent twist on this beloved phrase:  “don’t count it a day lost when your kids cough up the cash for your tequila.”

Some day, we’ll look back on this and laugh. Truth is, we already have. That’s what happens when you drink tequila, you either laugh, get belligerent, or throw up.  And even while I had to laugh to keep from crying over the Christmas Eve episode involving the tequila, in the back of my mind, I was a bit troubled, seeing a sobering pattern unfolding here, seeking permanent resident status in my life. Here’s what I mean; last Christmas, despite being continuously, gainfully employed for approximately thirty-eight years leading up to December of 2010, I still wound up being broke during the holidays.  I had managed to maneuver through the first three weeks of the most wonderful time of the year by selling a particular pistol which had come into my possession under questionable circumstances a few years back.  In a self-congratulatory and festive mood, with mo’ money on the very near automatic deposit horizon, I went grocery shopping on December 23rd, thinking I’d be home free writing a check at 9:00 PM, knowing that the IV drip of dough would be injected into my financial veins before midnight. Foiled again. That damn Vericheck made it impossible for me to float a check for even a mere two hours. They impounded my groceries, but at least they kept them all together, rolling my Christmas feast in a grocery cart into the dairy cooler. I sent my son Patrick to bust dinner out of jail the next morning -- my bank account flush with funds.

Not so, this Christmas Eve. I ran out of money before I ran out of holiday.  Such are the dire ramifications of dropping off the grid for two months this past summer to traipse all over the country with my dog to save my soul. It’s not like I’m not working again, but it’s somewhat perilous being a part-timer and a free lancer. The part-time gig doesn’t stretch quite far enough and the freelance funds seem to arrive just after the nick of time.  And so it went this year. The freelance check I’d been expecting did not arrive. When I looked in the mailbox at noon on Christmas Eve, there was a lovely card from my insurance agent, but nary a check in sight. However, I did not despair. I was still in pretty good shape. All my modest gifts had been purchased, were wrapped and under the tree. Christmas Eve dinner was already prepared. I had just enough cash left over for our Christmas Day dinner, plus dog food, toilet paper and tequila.  Lest you think we’re a bunch of out-of-season Parrot Heads, let me explain. Being ex-pats from New Mexico, our family tradition is Mexican food on Christmas Eve. Egg nog and enchiladas simply does not go together. So we make a pitcher of margaritas and then go to church at midnight and fall asleep.  Anyway, that was the plan. Until I was $16.42 short.

It was stressful. I’m at the check out, it’s Christmas Eve, it’s 5:20 and the store closes at 5:30. Not 5:00 or 6:00, which would make more sense, but 5:30.  I’ve added it up in the basket. I think I’m okay, (I should have taken that other math class) but the friendly cashier gets to the $86.42 total and I’ve got $70 bucks. I’m forced to make a split second decision;  forfeit the Christmas dinner meat or the tequila. I tell the cashier to take back the tequila. I’m sure she’s thinking I’m some kind of pathetic drunk. She finishes ringing me out, with some harrumphing over some lame computer issue, but I’m being considerate, since it’s Christmas Eve with five minutes to closing and all, and I hand over the cash. Done.

Except, I have a problem. I’ve got company coming for Christmas Eve dinner, a special gentleman friend. Besides, my grown kids have been looking forward to enchiladas and margaritas all day. I text my daughter and ask her, quick like a bunny, to transfer some money into my account. No reply. She’s out doing last minute Christmas shopping. I start texting sons, two of them are at home, but neither of them do business at the clip joint where I bank, so a transfer from them is impossible. The doors to the grocery store are now closed. There are two remaining customers being rung up. I tell the cashier that somebody is on the way with another debit card or some cash. She tells me she will have to go meet them in the parking lot, since the store is now officially closed and she's not happy about it.

“If they’re not here in two more minutes, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

This is Christmas Eve, y’all. I receive a text from my son Patrick. “Sean on his way with my debit card.” Then 30 seconds later, he texts his PIN number. I tell the cashier, “he’s about 30 seconds away”  knowing it was at least a full three minutes up the road. But no sooner were the words out of my mouth, than I received another text, this time from my daughter, “the $ is in there.” She’d gotten home in time to transfer money to my account. I look at the frustrated checker and proudly proclaim, “ring her up, baby.”  She did. I gratefully acknowledged her patience, wished her the merriest of Christmasses and dashed home to change and get ready for dinner.

We had a great night. The margaritas were good. The food was good, we ate, we laughed, we were happy. I kissed my special gentleman friend goodnight in the driveway.

And then I went to church. By myself. Now, I understand that Christmas Eve mass is tantamount to a family reunion, that’s when all the wandering Catholics, (not to be confused with the wandering Jews) flock to mass, much in the same way they show up on Easter Sunday. I did not particularly relish the thought of being there solo on family night, but I’d rather go alone than not at all. And dragging someone along who doesn’t want to go, which would be any of my four children at this particular religion-free zone in their lives, (which I pray won’t last forever) would be like twisting someone’s arm to make them see a movie they don’t want to see. You end up not enjoying the movie because they’re shifting and sighing in the seat next to you, as you apologize in the dark.

I didn’t want that. I wanted to go to sit still for an hour. I wanted to go to quiet my mind. I wanted to go to think, to reflect, to remember and to pray. I’ve got a lot to pray about. Don’t we all? I wanted to go to say thank you - to God, to the little baby Jesus in the manger, (with all due respect to Will Farrell in Taladega Nights.) I needed to go, get down on my knees and humbly say thank you to my sweet Lord, who carried me and the dog through twenty-one states and 8,600 miles last summer and then delivered us safely back home. So much could have gone wrong out there.

Could have gotten snake bit. West Texas, near the New Mexico state line.

It’s not like I need a church to pray, my car and my bathroom work just fine, but flying buttresses and stained glass windows do have a way of directing one’s mind to a higher plane. It helps me focus. It helps me remember to say thank you for the love which surrounds me every moment I breathe, for dogs on the floor, food on my table and tequila in the pantry. I needed focus, to pray for my family and the family of man, for strength, and courage and compassion, wisdom, humor, health and grace; the grace which opens your heart to joy. I drove downtown on Christmas Eve alone, because I wanted to step back into the rhythm of the abundant benevolence I’d become such a fan of last summer, a solitary voyager, completely at home with strangers, merging into a collective experience, simply being part of something much, much bigger than myself. I went seeking joy, I needed to make a deposit in my individual joy account, to mark an entry on the plus side of the balance sheet.

I had no idea when I took this in Jean, Texas it would become so apropos. Providence.

It's like a diamond in a safe deposit box, this joy, like a back-up generator for those days when the lights go dim in my soul, because they do.

Because joy is fleeting. It whispers to us in birdsong borne on a gifted breeze through an open car window on an unseasonably warm December day. It can be gone just as quickly as it blows in the window, but it can also be captured, with no resentment for being confined in the heart of the captor. How infrequently, I think, we reach out to grab what lies in our reach. I had such a moment this December, on the day we were decorating our Christmas tree. It was sunny, a blessing in itself in the miserable midwest. I was at a stop sign, on my way to buy more  lights for the ginormous tree I had just talked one of the Knights of Columbus into selling me for $40.

Helluva tree for $40.

Don’t count it a day lost when you can haggle with the Holy Redeemers.  I had the window down, my arm draped outside, all traces of my left arm uber-tan from last summer gone now,  yet I wasn’t melancholy, I felt blissful. And then, a love pat from the universe in the form of a warm, gentle gust, which blew my bangs into my eyes, took me back instantly to a wind whipped car in the Nevada dessert where I had experienced a joy unimagined.

Libby and I had just started the long trek back to St. Louis from California,     Day 51 in what would end up a 57-day road trip across the country. My travelin’ dog and I journeyed from the mid-west to New York, down the eastern seaboard, to the deep south, across the desert southwest all the way to northern California. I had reconnected with friends all over the country and made many new ones.  I located and finally came face-to-face with the brother I’d never known, his eyes the same as mine. I paid homage to the two brothers I’d loved and lost. I learned about my father. I had time to grieve for my mother. Mostly I just drove and thought, drove and sang, drove and cried, at times, and tried to keep myself open to what lay before me on the open road.

I love this. U.S. 50, Nevada

But it was alongside the open road where I saw the wild horses.  It looked like something out of a movie, five to seven wild mustangs, cavorting on a not too distant plateau. I was traveling on U.S. 50, about 80 miles east of Reno, where the highway hugs tight to the Truckee River. It's a lovely, cascading stream, which originates in the high Sierra Nevada Mountains cutting a verdant banner of green through an otherwise arid Nevada landscape. The horses, brown, black, and grey, were several hundred yards away, on the other side of the river, high atop a flat ridge, backlit by the sun. They were running and rearing up on their hind legs, either playing, fighting or mating, I’m not sure which, not being a student of equine behavior, but they were absolutely breathtaking. I pulled over the minute I spotted them. There was no barbed wire fence in these parts, only the river between me and the horses and the river was right next to the road. It was a hundred foot drop, straight down, and running fast, even in August. Libby was on high alert. She smelled the horses before she spotted them. She didn’t bark, she simply stood at attention in the back seat, her head out the window.   I, of course, immediately whipped out my camera, ever the journalist, thinking, “wait until the folks back home see this!” But the horses were on the move. I switched to video, but they looked like tiny specks on the mountain. So I put it down. I set the camera down, with the God sent realization that this show was meant just for me. I watched in gratitude and wonder as the herd of mustangs suddenly charged down the mesa, galloping at full speed, heading in my direction, kicking up a trail of dust which rose toward the sun. It was scary and thrilling at the same time. They ran incredibly fast, two and two, through narrow passages amid scrub oak and cactus, throttling down a narrow, rocky path. I was certain one of them would falter. And then, they disappeared. On the other side of the river, under the canopy of the cottonwood trees along the bank, they simply vanished. I could no longer see them. I was above the tree line which covered them, so I could not see them. But, I could hear them. I could hear a herd of wild horses, pounding their thunderous hooves in the dirt, galloping alongside the river in the ravine below. It was the most stunning sound I have ever experienced in my life. For a fraction of a second, I was slightly scared, I didn’t think they’d charge up the steep incline, and within a moment, I was certain of my safety, as the sound grew more feint the further they traveled away from me. I never saw them again. I got in the car and crept along the shoulder of the road, looking down at the river, hoping I’d see them pop out somewhere down river, maybe running back out into the open desert, but they didn’t. The moment had passed. I was the blessed spectator of a wondrous site which would only be recorded in my heart. I didn’t get the shot. I would not be able to document or replicate, publicize, promote or Tweet. This was a joy I was to experience in solitude.

As it was on Christmas Eve. After traveling across the country by myself, I didn’t mind so much, going to church alone. It was beautiful. The candles flickered, splashes of red from sweaters, scarves and poinsettias dotted the alabaster white chapel with resplendent color.  The chorus sang like angels, accompanied by an orchestra made up of strings and brass.  And then, they turned off every single light in the church! Hundreds of worshippers thrust into darkness, save for moon glow through stained glass windows, creating colorful prisms of muted, peaceful light, and one, tiny golden beam from a desk lamp, far behind the altar, so the cantor could read a little scripture according to St. Matthew. It sounded like the voice of God almighty in the darkness.

“Abraham became the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob...”

Once the genealogy of Jesus had been read, the lights came up and they struck up the band! I kept thinking, “Wow, there’s no cover charge for this?” as we all stood and they led the congregants in the rousing processional,  “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.”

Joyful and triumphant, the French horns stirred my heart like wild horses.

Don’t count it a day lost when you experience such unbridled joy.

Libby, Huntington Beach, CA

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