I stood behind a small girl, maybe ten years old, near a corner of the low, wide-barred metal fence of the polygonal pen as she tried to get the small horse’s attention. She was having a moment, but it seemed clear to me that the horse was uninterested, unflappable. His big, wet eyes stared at me and my infant son at an off angle, almost challenging us, beckoning us to connect, “were we good enough?” He seemed to ask with a warm, yet sterile and penetrating stare; keeping his distance, as if he stood just on the Otherside and we need only reach out and touch him to crossover and be taken to a new, wider world. Were we prepared for the ride?
My reverie burst as a chubby, pragmatic-looking child walked up and stood between the end of our stroller and the horse. Would our tenuous connection survive?
I’d seen this boy before, scooting around the neighborhood. On three occasions while we took our evening walk he rolled up to my wife and I, propelled by the very deliberate sweeping of one foot against the ground, his hands firmly grasping the narrow handle bars of his scooter. Each time was the same: he’d complement my wife on her glasses, always with the exact same phrase. “Nice glasses, they actually match your hair.” Each time we’d been left with a stranger feeling than before, an eerie mix of humor, pity, and concern.
Here now by the pen, the boy, scooter in tow, turned the knob of a rusted machine directly to the right of the horse at the corner of the fence that I hadn’t noticed before.
“He’s just waiting for someone to push this button,” the boy said matter-of-factly. A handful of dried pellets clattered out of the wide spout of the aged, red-metal box. The horse bent his head and ate.
Was there in fact no connection? Was the horse just mindlessly waiting to eat, staring blankly, or perhaps it was that the horse had a deeper connection with this phlegmatic child than with my son and I? Had I created this whole story in my mind? A horse is a horse of course, that’s it. My little bubble burst. At the time I didn’t think twice; that was that. I left the park and the petting zoo and forgot the horse.
Later the next day I was reading a science fiction novel set in a dystopian future. Among the several horribles which had befallen the earth, a pandemic had struck and wiped out many populations of flora and fauna. Horses were extinct. Arab geneticists continued to try to recreate the equine in their labs, but with no success. The protagonist walked through a Turkish bazaar in neo-Istanbul and came upon an embalmed horse, the hair on its legs worn off from the touch of multitudinous passing hands. Its glass eyes seemed to follow him. Even extinct and taxidermied, the symbol’s power still compelled, perhaps even more so. Still, I paid no mind to the horse. The connection was lost.
The following day I went to work. The night before, a public alert had buzzed out of all the phones in my house; a flash flood warning. That next morning on my way to work I was subjected to a conversation between two people on the elevator as I came into the office.
“How was the rain for you guys there up north?”
“Oh it was just crazy, wasn’t it? 13 inches in Waseca they said! Crazy. I just don’t know if my soil can handle it. We’ve had so much.”
“Mmhmm, it’s been a wet one”
“You know my horses are still out to pasture. Normally by now I’d have them on hay.”
I balked at the incongruence of this situation. Riding an elevator in a county-owned skyscraper in downtown Minneapolis, one doesn’t expect to hear talk of employee’s horses and green pastures.
As I drank my coffee in my office, these varied experiences with horses ran through my mind. I wondered why the horse kept appearing in my life, and why it was standing out so much to me. What was the interpretation, the message from my subconscious self? Odd, I thought, that I would feel a personal connection to horses I come across, and yet when confronted with the reality of horse ownership in our society, I can’t relate to it at all. I felt a bit a fraud, the horse was not mine.
I reconsidered. My connection to the horse was real. I couldn’t help but relate to horses, at least as a symbol. My inability to relate to this women’s lifestyle didn’t change that. She can have a different relationship to horses than I. Our subjective realities needn’t match.
A conversation I had recently with a dear friend came to mind. We had shared a powerful spiritual experience together, one that instigated a change in everything about my life. I’d tell you more, but it is an entire tale in and of itself, and a long one at that. So, my friend had told someone about our experience, and this person began to give him alternate, “natural” explanations for the phenomenon we’d witnessed.
I said, “so what? It is irrelevant to me where it came from. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it draws a division between the natural and the so-called supernatural. That’s bullshit. That’s not the world I live in. It’s all one thing. What matters to me isn’t the physical explanation of how it came to be. What matters is what it meant to me. That’s the power of coincidence; not merely that things coincide, not some trite, ‘oh how neat’ occurrence, but the fact that it has meaning for me. That it brings my world to life.”
“It’s like poetry,” I continued. “Symbols take on meaning; my mind reflects back at me in everything I see. If I write a poem about a dove as a symbol of love, then in my life when I see a dove it will become that meaning. I will feel that power.”
Of course I had created the idea of the connection with the horse in my mind, but that doesn’t diminish anything. Everything I experience is filtered by my perception and interpretation. By embracing that truth, I empower myself to choose the world I want to live in and to make it. I’d gotten the horse’s message. The symbol took on a personal meaning. Now I look forward to my next horse ride, maybe I’ll reach the Otherside yet, maybe I’m there already.