I live alone on a ranch with a herd of goats, chickens, a team of horses (half of them still wild), a pack of dogs, and a box full of abandoned kittens.
And I work a full-time job.
I don’t exactly have down time.
I don’t exactly have “up” time, either. I just can’t squeeze much
adventure or fun in between mucking out the horses’ stalls and getting to the office by 5:30 am.
But on my late mother’s birthday, a small adventure found me in the form of a lost and frightened pup.
Because of the day this pup showed up on my doorstep, I received her as a gift from my mother—who had probably rigged the whole thing from heaven. I named her after mother’s favorite childhood pony, Daisy Mae.
It soon became obvious to both Daisy Mae and I that we were
somewhat of a mismatch. My other dogs were proper English labs who sat up straight. They looked at themselves in the mirror as they passed by, believing they were people—and my people at that. They followed my lead, observed my moods, and acted accordingly. So much so that they would walk by a rabbit, snake, bird, or mouse and never notice the critter’s existence.
Daisy Mae was quite the opposite. She was, for lack of a better word, a dog. She didn’t want special treats fit for a king; an armadillo carcass worked just fine. Play with a King Kong toy from the pet store?
Never! She’d rather have a mouse, bird, or snake, thank you very much. As far as my moods, she not only ignored them, she created them.
Within days, she had forced me out of my routine and had imposed hers: a routine that revolved around midnight potty breaks and critters. Her favorite was finding critters. She started bringing me daily treasures. I cried at dead birds. I screamed at live snakes and halves of dead snakes. And I threw many a mouse over the fence with my eyes closed.
But the worst was the midnight potty breaks. I need every wink of sleep I can get, and I wasn’t getting many.
After three consecutive days of falling asleep at the office, I admitted to myself that something had to change. I started searching for a ranch hand. I figured a part-time guy would be perfect: someone to pick up the hoses in the winter, repair the fence, and unload the feed and hay. In exchange, he could stay in my 3000-square-foot barn.
I found a wiry, 99-pound cowboy who seemed just perfect. He went to church, attended a Bible study, had a stable job, and had hundreds of Facebook friends. A bonus: neither of us was attracted to the other.
One less distraction.
The arrangement was straightforward enough; the cowboy would help out with ranch work in exchange for room and board. And it started out OK. What a joy to come home and be able to make dinner and go to bed instead of unloading hay in the cold. But little by little, Cowboy started doing less and less. I found myself saying things like:
“Wow! You got the chance to travel out of state to attend a church
conference? Well, sure. And a road trip after, so…you’ll be gone a
month? Umm…the horses?”
“Welcome back! I could sure use your help with the…you what? An invitation to help lead a wilderness hike for troubled teens. Well, yes, that’s great. But for…how long?”
After just a matter of months, Cowboy had turned our arrangement to his full advantage; he had a free place to keep his stuff while he was gone and a nice, spacious crash pad when he was back home from his seemingly justified “spiritual adventures” with friends.
I found myself saying things to God like:
“How could this be? Didn’t you send him to me? Aren’t Christians
supposed to be the ones whose handshake means more than a
contract? Isn’t a man’s word his honor?”
I wasn’t getting answers from Cowboy or God, so I sunk into what started as depression and grew into anger.
Not only did I again have the backbreaking ranch work on top of the full-time job, but my barn was now an unpaid storage unit. And I’d watch Cowboy come and go, waving at me with a Christian smile on his way to another adventure as I was drowning.
And then the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back…or the hairy little dog that brought me to the edge of meltdown. Daisy Mae began running away. Not just once or twice. Not just during the day.
No, she’d bolt when I let her out for her desperate-to-pee yelps in the middle of the night that woke me from the dead of sleep. And of course it was winter.
There I’d be the next morning, dressed in my city work clothes, driving in the freezing rain through the countryside with windows down, calling her name.
Sometimes, I’d find her by the time I’d reached the end of the long drive. I’d stop, chase her through the field, soak my shoes, and scramble to get her in the car—muddying everything in the process.
Some days, no Daisy Mae, and I’d return home from the office at night to see her sitting on the doorstep wagging a sopping wet tail.
On one of those no-dog mornings en route to work, I sighed as I accelerated onto the highway. I hadn’t gone far when I braked at a handmade sign tacked to a gatepost with no gate. Written in marker, it read: “We have your dog with one black eye and one white.”
I resigned myself to being really late for work. I pulled into the drive and up to a house with a sagging roofline. A woman about my age with long blond hair answered the door with a whiff of nicotine and a smile. Daisy Mae was wriggling in her arms. The woman asked, “She yours?”
I looked at my pup and shook my head, even as I answered, “Yes.
Daisy Mae, what’s gotten into you?”
The pup wiggled and whined in joy, leaping onto my shirt and promptly clawing off a button. I turned to the woman. “Thank you so much. She just started running away. I don’t know why…I’m so sorry….”
The woman waved her hand in the air, dismissing my apologies. She smiled. “No problem. She’s come here before. Want me to call you next time?”
Her suggestion posed a solution and a problem. It would certainly be more convenient to get a phone call the next time Daisy Mae bolted, but, because of the nature of my work, I always kept my life almost completely private from people until I had either a few references or a background check.
She saw me hesitate and extended her hand. “I’m June. You wanna come in?”
I shifted Daisy Mae to my left arm and extended my right. “I’m Marla. Thank you, June. I er—I’m so sorry—I’m already late for work.”
June had already turned back into the hallway and was fishing through a season’s worth of mail flyers topped with an empty beer can. As she searched, the beer can wobbled. She asked, “You live nearby?”
Not wanting to give out my address, I answered: “Um, yeah. Up the road a couple of miles as the crow flies.”
She found a pad of sticky notes. “Now where’s that pen?” The beer can finally fell to the floor with a hollow but splintering series of pings.
June found the pen, scrawled her name and number on a sticky note, and handed it to me. Daisy Mae started wiggling more fiercely to be free.
June smiled and stroked the pup’s head. “Easy, girl.” To me she said, “Just tell me your number. I’ll write it down.”
Numbers exchanged, I apologizing for my hurry, thanked June, and doubled back home. After changing clothes and vowing to build a dog run, I departed again for work.
I thought about June. Could I trust her? Look what had happened any time I trusted anybody. I couldn’t seem to find anyone who could keep their word long enough for the sound of it to have stopped reverberating in my eardrums. I sighed, watching Texas farmland shift to city. And yet…this woman had taken in my muddy dog—more than once. I didn’t want to admit that my heart was softening.
At work, my heart had to be solid rock, so I left behind the morning grace and began to steel myself for another day behind government walls.
Driving home that night at dusk, I looked across the field to my barn. Light shown from the windows. Cowboy must be back in town. Not that I’d get to enjoy a movie or a few chapters in my book. Nope. The horses, the hay, the—what the heck was I doing?I had already pulled up to the house and was still sitting in the car.“That’s it,” I said to my steering wheel. I climbed out of my car,slammed the door, and started toward the barn. Poking aroundoutside, I confirmed that not a thing had been done since I’d last been out there. I stomped back to the barn door and stood in front of it.A courage welled up within me. The courage I used at work to look a suspect in the eye and stare him down until he knew what he was up against. The courage I’d had on that last failed coffee date with the guy who wanted more than a little cream with his coffee.I knocked. I heard a faint rustling from inside. A few seconds later,Cowboy called out, “Ron?”“No. It’s Marla. I need to speak with you.”Cowboy opened the door, the “guess where I’m headed next” smile already on his lips.Before he could say a word, I smiled my interrogation smile. “Our arrangement isn’t working out for me anymore. As in: you’re not doing any work. I would like you to leave. You have a week.”Cowboy’s smile was still in place, but the left side of it was slipping. He started to open his mouth, but I held up a hand. “I’m sure you’re on another mission adventure—that’s great. This time, please take all of your things with you. I’m no longer in need of your ranch hand services—what there were of them. I have to go. I have horses to take care of after working all day.”
I turned and walked back toward the house. I didn’t hear a soundbehind me, not even the door closing.Strangely, instead of elation, I felt sadness. Why did I feel more like Daisy Mae than my unbroken stallion? Why didn’t I feel wild or free?That night, after I collapsed into bed at seven pm, I had a dream. My mother and I stood on the rocky shore of a lake. We looked into the water and saw many fish looking back at us. I reached down and lifted out a huge one. It was so heavy and slippery that I lost my grip and dropped it back into the lake. It swam away.My mother pointed at the water, “Look again.” Among the large fish still hovering swam hundreds of smaller fish. She continued. “You can carry the small ones. And the small will multiply.”She reached toward the water, picked a small fish and handed it to me. I woke just as I took hold of it. I heard myself asking my mother,“What does it mean?”She said, “Choose what you can carry. Let go of what you can’t.” I sat up, wondering if I had still been dreaming when my mother spoke. I looked over to the dog beds. The English labs were sitting at full attention—and so was Daisy Mae. That was the stillest I’d ever seen her. Maybe she realized that the one who’d sent her to me was still keeping an eye on her.
The next morning, Cowboy was gone. So was his stuff. No word, no note. I walked out to the fence and watched the wild horses rearing in the morning mist. Standing alone at the fence, I made a decision.That afternoon, I contacted a local non-profit that facilitated animal interaction as therapy for young people with special needs and autism.Within a week, the organization and I had arranged for them to use my paddocks in exchange for taking care of my goats and horses. They were even able to use some of my trained dogs and two of the domesticated horses for their program. We signed a very clear contract with all the requisite contingency bits. It was a stretch for me mostly because of my habits of privacy. But the feeling I had after watching a young woman who wouldn’t talk lean her head against the docile mare’s neck? Well, the smile on the girl’s face trumped all my norms.One evening, after coming home and realizing that I didn’t have to pull on my ranch clothes, I realized: I had time! I had time to build friendships again. The thought of weekends with friends made me smile. Before I’d set my purse down, I decided I’d have a dinner party that very Saturday. I started planning the menu in my head as I ate leftovers from two nights previous. I was ready for some flavor.I went to bed thinking life was getting pretty darn good. But when Daisy Mae woke me around one am to go out, she ran off again. This time, I sat on my cold front steps and cried. Not because I’d hadn’t built a dog run yet, not because Daisy Mae had bolted, but because I realized it was her choice. I cried because I’d been carrying all of my failures—and everyone else’s in my life—for so long that I hadn’t noticed how heavy they had become.
Heavy like that fish in my dream. I closed my eyes and pictured myself letting the huge fish slide back into the water. My tears stopped. More than having help with the ranch, this was what it mean to let go of the too-big fish. I gave myself permission to let go. Then I went inside and fell soundly asleep. Driving home from work the next day, I started calling people to invite them to my dinner party. I was on the phone with Elizabeth, a friend I hadn’t seen in months, when something in a field not far from my ranch caught my eye. June was standing in her field with cigarette in one hand and a dog in the other. My dog. “Liz, I’ve got to go. I’ll call you right back. ”I pulled to the side of the road and climbed out, waving at June. Despite the differences in our lifestyles, despite all of my well-developed and preconceived ideas about everybody—ideas that served me well at work but poorly in relationships—I had the feeling that I was about to make a friend. I certainly had a dinner invitation to make. When Daisy Mae saw me, she bounded out of June’s arms, heading for the fence. June laughed and announced my prodigal dog, “Coming through!”