When we listen to everyone but the donkey

Field geologist and college professor Margaret Winslow tried to do all the right things after answering a for-sale ad for a donkey. She read the books and the magazines and found a donkey trainer. It took years of near-fruitless efforts and a couple of horrific experiences before Winslow figured out how to listen to Caleb, the large white donkey — and herself.

smart-ass-bordered_09211139The journey she describes in Smart Ass: How a Donkey Challenged Me to Accept His True Nature & Rediscover My Own (New World Library, 2018) is both engaging and frustrating. Overall, it underscores what I know about presence and connection with animals. However, there are a few points at which I wondered what on earth the author was thinking.

This is where I admit up front that while I work with equines as an animal communicator and animal Reiki practitioner, I’m not a rider or owner. My only donkey experience is with two at Summit Equestrian Center: Rosie (former resident), a mini donkey who is probably part border collie; and Diego, a quiet soul who came from southern Arizona by way of the Bureau of Land Management.

I appreciate Winslow’s love, humor, and persistence and can identify with so many of her ups and downs. We don’t know what we don’t know about the particularities of donkey training or whatever else. Animals are our teachers, but like the best teachers, they’re learning too.

Winslow’s near-constant frustration at work is often weighing on her as she arrives at Caleb’s barn and begins grooming him. He feels it and mirrors it, though it takes a while for her to understand this. I, too, have to consistently practice being fully present with whatever animal I’m working with in the moment. This is especially true with horses and donkeys.

Early in the book, Winslow asks herself: “When had I become such a conciliatory, conflict-averse wimp of a college professor who shrank from controversy?” Sadly, the behavior she tolerates from Caleb’s trainers is the best example.

The husband and wife, with their adult daughter, are the only donkey trainers within a day’s drive. They may legitimately know their stuff, and glimmers of insight and kindheartedness surface. But when they drink on the job and ridicule clients, it’s hard to imagine a better choice couldn’t have been made. Winslow just keeps going back for more.

She does eventually board Caleb closer to home, where working with the stable owner yields slightly better results. Lessons with a specialized trainer fail when the trainer beats Caleb. To her credit, Winslow grabs the stick away and yells at the trainer to stop.

The donkey trainers come back into play when, after a horrible injury, Winslow is ready to have them sell him. Or to board him there permanently — even though she believes the daughter capable of shooting Caleb in anger or having him put down without telling her.

At this point, Caleb could have been shuttled from one ill-prepared owner to another or consigned to a kill pen. The story could have ended with Winslow investing tons of money, time, and energy only to miss an authentic connection with Caleb.

Fortunately, Caleb’s truth-to-power influence sneaks up on Winslow during a tiresome faculty meeting. She surprises herself by speaking up for the students and the love of learning, even though she recognizes the consequences may be negative.

Then, in the donkey trainer’s ring, she looks the perpetually angry daughter in the eye and says, “No.”

That day, Winslow and Caleb ride not into the sunset but into a new understanding. The human realizes the power of her heretofore negative expectations of the donkey’s behavior, and the donkey recognizes that the human trusts him and has his back.

Here Winslow wisely relates the story of Balaam’s donkey (Numbers 22:21-38), who spoke to her owner. It wasn’t just because the donkey was being mistreated by him, but because she could see and hear the angel and he could not.

It’s worth our time and effort to listen to the donkey. We might learn something about ourselves, too.

When life doesn’t make sense, bees do

When your mom hauls you across the country to live with your grandparents, then takes to her bed, not a lot in life makes sense. Fortunately, Meredith May’s eccentric and wise grandfather introduced her to a world that did: his honeybee hives.

img_0109San Francisco journalist and fifth-generation beekeeper May weaves these worlds together in The Honey Bus: A Memoir of Loss, Courage and a Girl Saved by Bees (Park Row Books, 2019).

May arrived at her grandparents’ Carmel Valley, California home with her mother and younger brother at age five after her parents’ abrupt separation in the 1970s. From the moment they arrived, the honey bus — a rusty old military bus where Grandpa made honey — was an object of fascination, then solace and inspiration for young Meredith. The more she learned about bees, the more she admired their social intelligence.

Bees could see a problem coming and start making a change before it became serious and they perished. If their hive became overcrowded or unsafe, they took initiative to move to someplace better. … Bees had enough brainpower to envision a better life, and then go out and get it.

As the months turned into years, Mom remained in bed, emerging just long enough to rain generations’ worth of emotional and physical abuse on her daughter. Grandma and Grandpa took up the slack of raising two children. As far as the reader knows, Grandma rarely held Mom accountable for anything and never encouraged her to get treatment for what was obviously crippling mental illness. (Granted, a doctor in the 1970s may have prescribed tranquilizers and called it a day.)

Grandpa, who seemed to see the situation more accurately than anyone else in the house, advised May to stay out of her mother’s way and forge her own path. This she did, helping her grandfather tend his many hives and make honey while excelling in school and discovering what she could do. Only as May was about to leave for college did her mother offer a glimpse of context for what she had endured.

While I couldn’t help feeling sad and frustrated about the behavior of many of the adults, May’s journalistic acumen and the bees keep this from being just another dysfunctional family memoir. Grandpa used the bees as examples of a more constructive way to behave — through caring, shared decision making, and commitment to community.

He reminded us that bees live for a purpose far grander than themselves, each of their small contributions combining to create collective strength. Rather than withdrawing from the daunting task of living, as our mother had done, honeybees make themselves essential through their generosity.

This worthwhile memoir sheds a personal and cultural light on honeybees today as we consider how to treat them, and one another, with more generosity.

Listening to the birds

29868587Birds bridge the ordinary and the unknown as few other creatures can. In Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation, novelist, essayist, and children’s author Kyo Maclear details a year of urban birdwatching and life shifting in her home city of Toronto.

While coping with her father’s illness, the married mother of two young sons happened upon the photography of a musician and urban birdwatcher, and was riveted. “These birds lived in gardens of steel, glass, concrete, and electricity,” she said, but the message in the photos was not one of environmental sins, but of love for “the dirty, plain, beautiful, funny places many of us call home.”

The musician (as he is known throughout the book) became Maclear’s guide on a number of bird walks throughout the year. As so often happens when we take up something new, ostensibly to distract ourselves, the insights that emerge bring us right back to face the music, if we are willing.

Accompanying the musician to his father’s aviary of finches, for example, and feeling like a “galumphing invader” among the tiny, captive creatures, sparks reflection on the quality we most associate with birds: freedom. We are all captive in some way to something, Maclear said — such as the cages of ego and habit we may or may not recognize. A small birdwatching excursion to a marina on the edge of the city not only teaches her how to distinguish among trumpeter, mute, and tundra swans but becomes an almost meditative experience of simultaneous waiting and experiencing.

As she began to talk about the subject of this book, Maclear was surprised by the number and diversity of people who shared their own bird stories and passions — rich hobbyists, former POWs, people who traded the bottle for binoculars. “They had lost something, hoped for transcendence, wondered how best to live this life. Birds spoke to their irrevocably blue parts, their hopeful parts.”

The birders she encountered in books and in the world shared little except this, she concluded: “If you listen to birds, every day will have a song in it.”