I just turned sixty. Can you believe it? Neither can I.
I look in the mirror. My face hasn’t changed much, except for a few creases in the jowl line that I’d rather do without, but hell, since I only look in the mirror to check whether I’ve brushed my hair today, I’m not bothered by it.
On the other hand, my skin has gone all weird. In some places it’s loose and jiggly, and in others it’s tight and thin and fragile. If I scratch an itch on my forearm, for example, I’m rewarded by a big red-purple splotch that takes weeks to go away. If I bang myself there, which happens all the time because I still crash through the world as if I were sixteen, my skin sometimes also rips and then I have a dreadful mess that requires bandages and ointments for a couple of weeks, and then I have a scar to remember it by. Yech.
And then there’s the skeleton. I’ve trashed most of my joints through overexertion, as I will explain below; and those that managed to survive my athletic excesses are slowly being eaten up by the arthritis that runs in my family, on both sides. Couldn’t dodge that bullet.
So even though my weight is exactly the same as it has been since 1985 when I had my first and only baby–well, I mean after I lost all I was going to lose afterwards, not WHEN I had him, because in the days preceding his birth I looked like a small house–my body looks just like you would expect a body to look if no one took care of it.
Before I launch into a maudlin description of why my body is in such deplorable shape at the moment, let me tell you some of the back story.
I have always been bipolar. Unlike many, who discover their bipolarity in their teens or young adult years, I have always had symptoms of depression and passive suicidality on the one hand, and racing thoughts, extreme restlessness, and a feeling of being out of my body on the other.
I managed to funnel my depressive gloom into poetry and art. Since I came from a family of depressed artists I just thought it was the “artist’s temperament” and considered it normal. So I did get a lot of good art done, and a lot of bad poetry and maudlin writings.
I am a rapid cycler. Even as a child, I would find myself catapulted from states of near-suidical melancholy into a state of restlessness that shot through my body like an electric current, demanding physical and mental activity, the more rigorous the better.
My first and only love was for the equine race. My parents would not buy me a pony, citing countless reasons: mainly that we never had a permanent home and moved 19 times by the time I left home at age 16. This, coupled with the abject poverty that we lived in. But I never felt that we were poor, because, well, that was how I grew up. In fact, I thought that most other people lived lives of shameful excess.
So wherever we moved, it was always somewhere rural because that was what my father liked, and we could always have a garden to feed us. And for me that was fine, because there was always a neglected pony somewhere in the vicinity: one who had been bought as a Christmas present for the children who enjoyed it for a few months or a year and then ignored it after the shine wore off and all that remained was the constant work of upkeep.
I was thrilled to muck out stalls and sheds, clean and polish tack, clean and polish and feed the pony, doctor its thrushy hooves, and do whatever would convince the owners to let me ride it as much as I wanted.
Pony after pony, wherever we moved, I poured my roaring excess energy into making it spiffy again, spending hours untangling matted manes and tails, getting bitten and kicked in the process. I didn’t care.
In my depressions I would go and bury my face in the current pony’s neck, inhaling the comforting fragrance of eau d’equine, which is still the most intoxicating smell to me, to this day. My tears would make a wet place in the unclipped winter coat, and for reasons unknown, the pony wound stand still, snorting but unmoving, and let me embrace its neck, absorbing my sobs.
We moved again when I was 12.
I was beginning to develop then, got my period, and started getting chubby. Despite the fact that everyone in our entire family on both sides had been chubby at puberty, my mother began a campaign to get me to lose weight by means of verbal abuse.
“Fat-ass” became my nickname. I was a silent, isolated child then, having no friends since we had just moved, and I had no where to go except into the woods behind our house, to lie in the mossy glades and cry.
Then I discovered, not a pony, but a horse, about a mile away. His owner had gone off to college and left him in his stall. A hired man cleaned his stall and fed him, but otherwise no one paid any attention to him.
The owners of the horse had a daughter my age, who weighed about 200 lbs, didn’t care who knew it, and menaced anyone who gave her any crap about it. She kept a pair of parakeets and derived sexual pleasure out of watching them mate, and from surreptitiously watching her big sister and her boyfriend “doing it” on the couch. She was not interested in the horse. I was not interested in the parakeets or the boyfriend, but I courted Caroline until she introduced me to her mother, at which point with bated breath I asked her if I could take care of the horse in return for riding him.
She was ecstatic and immediately called the hired man (did I mention that this was a huge estate that encompassed an entire small mountain?) and ordered him to show me around the barn. I had my first real horse to care for.
That horse became my passion, my savior. The moment I got off the school bus I would race upstairs and change into barn clothes, jump on my bike and roar off to meet my paramour. After turning him out into the paddock, I cleaned his stall down to the floor, fluffed it up with new straw, then brushed him out thoroughly, combed his mane and tail, picked out his shod hooves, and swabbed his entire body down with citronella-smelling fly repellant that I can still smell to this day.
I would tack him up with his flat English saddle and double-rein bridle–this I have to give my parents, that they had started me in English riding lessons since I was six, on tall Thoroughbreds, so tall that I resolved that since I must instantly be killed if I fell off, then I would never fall off. And I didn’t.
And off we would go, down the dappled lanes through the New England woods, all acrid with leaf mold. The estate covered acres and acres, and I had no restrictions, so we criss-crossed the property for hours every day.
One day we were ambling along one of the many areas of bare granite, scraped clean by some glacier, when he pulled up lame. I jumped off, wondering how I was going to get back on, since at 4’11″ I required a mounting block or at least a fence in order to mount the tall Thoroughbred. But he needed help, so off I hopped.
He was holding his left front foot as if it hurt him, and when I picked it up I saw that one of the many oval granite stones that populated the area had lodged in his foot, so I dug my hoof pick out of my jeans pocket and went to work.
The stone was wedged in between the two sides of his shoe, so I had to lever it out.
Now, normally a person who is working on a hoof stands with their back to the horse’s head and the hoof securely held between their knees; but the last time I had done that I had been dumped upon my head, so I stood to the side facing the horse’s shoulder and held the hoof in my left hand, working on the wedged stone with my right.
Finally the stone flew out with a “pop,” but it must have hurt the horse because he snorted and stomped his foot down hard on the rock we were standing on. But my foot was between his iron-shod hoof and the rock, and first I heard CRUNCH and then I felt my tall riding boot start to fill with something warm. I knew what that was.
Luckily it was my right big toe that had been crushed, because I needed my left foot to mount with and I don’t know what I would have done if it had been my left. Horses get used to being mounted from one side, usually the left, and they are skittish about the other side, and I had enough problems already.
I found a stump to mount from, and had no little trouble getting him to move alongside it and stand still; but I finally got on and back to the barn, untacked him, rubbed him down, and rode my bicycle home.
Then I tried to get my foot out of the boot. It had swollen so that it filled the inside of the boot and was stuck. I had to cut the boot off, shedding many tears, because I knew it was unlikely that I would come by another pair. They are very expensive.
I was relieved to see, after gingerly and painfully soaking the foot in the bathtub, that the source of the bleeding was that my toenail had come off; but there were no bones sticking out. I thought that it would be better not to tell anyone, because that might result in my being forbidden to ride. So I wore roomy sneakers for a couple of months, and it healed without incident.