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.

A medium at large

“You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: Life-Changing Lessons from Heaven,” by Theresa Caputo with Kristina Grish (2014)

To me, Theresa Caputo’s gift for connecting the living and the dead is more believable than what happens on her reality TV show, “Long Island Medium,” or at her live events. However, I do enjoy the show and was happy to have had the opportunity to see her in person when she came to Fort Wayne last year.

Reality TV is — well, reality TV, and while any psychic or medium is going to have hits and misses, only the big hits make the final cut. As for the live experience — you have a theater packed with ticket holders, many of whom are grieving and quite anxious to be randomly read. Then there are the non-ticket holding spirits who want to get a word in. Even with her gregarious personality, how can a psychic medium who has struggled with anxiety, as Theresa has, do readings in the midst of such intense energy? That atmosphere seems ripe for scrambled signals.

However — when I look behind the hype and the heels (which also can’t be good for the “chi”), I see a woman who has struggled to understand and accept her God-given gifts and is, like the rest of us, just trying to put and keep it all together. It also helps that Theresa is my age (a fellow ’80s stone-washed jeans survivor), and I love that she keeps using that old cassette recorder.

On to the book. Instead of a progressive narrative, it’s an amalgamation of topics on issues such as faith, authenticity, and gratitude, each underscored by Theresa’s own experiences and those of her clients with Spirit. The lessons build on and inform each other, “but you won’t get lost if you jump around based on how you’re feeling that day,” as Theresa says in the intro.

True to her general theme, she emphasizes that our loved ones really are present and eager to continue to help from the other side. They cared when they were alive, and death does not stop them from doing so, especially if they are part of our soul circle. “If you’ve got work to do, (your mother’s) soul will continue to meddle and help your soul graduate to the appropriate level,” she writes.

Chapter 10, “Intuition Ain’t Just for Psychics Anymore” is actually pretty useful. Everyone has some level of intuition, and it’s an important navigation tool here in the physical world, if we are willing to use and trust it. It’s never wrong, although it may take you in a roundabout way to where you’re meant to be, Theresa says. When we are traveling that roundabout way, it’s easy to think our intuition has screwed up and sent us down the wrong path. No way, she says — Spirit always knows the way and what we need at each step. “Guidance isn’t always obvious, but if it were, you’d never have to intuitively search for meaning and thus, learn many lessons,” she says.

Again, the breadth of topics here precludes looking at all of them, but that chapter on intuition stood out for me. If you are interested in how intuition works, whether you associate it with the P word (psychic) or not, it’s worth checking out.