“Hey Dad, this is my friend Karen. We just got back from the barn.”
Michelle turned into her parents’ kitchen, intent on some grapes while I, still standing in the front hallway, reached out to Tom’s open hand, shaking it firmly. “Hi, I’m Karen. I’m in college with Michelle.”
“Ahh, Karen,” he said, “Do you like horses, too?” He sounded a little like Dracula, his Serbian accent making him seem particularly serious. I felt like he expected a really good answer to this simple question.
“Yeah, I’ve been riding since I was a little kid,” I replied, smiling in that stiff way I do when I’m trying a little too hard.
“Very good, very good.” His voice trailed off for a few seconds, and then he cut to the chase. “So… Karen,” he said slowly, his accent pronounced, “What are you going to do with your life?”
Stunned by his bold question, I began to stammer a response, “Well, uhhh, I… I’m going to be an artist… I mean, umm, I plan to go to art school.”
“Dad! Stop!” yelled Michelle from the other room.
“An artist?” Came his surprised reply.
“Karen,” he said with a tsk, “The world doesn’t need more artists. The world needs scientists and engineers.”
Trapped with Tom, no visible means of escape, I desperately prayed for some kind of lifeline.
Michelle swooped in from the kitchen. “Dad leave her alone,” she said, shoving a bundle of grapes in my hand and pushing me into to the living room.
We sat on the couch together and started eating.
“What just happened?” I asked her, once the coast was clear.
“Nothing. Ignore him,” she laughed. “He’s always like that but he’s harmless.” She folded herself into the couch and popped a couple grapes into her mouth. “He’s got, like, 30 patents to his name and he’s a little obsessed with science.”
She grabbed the remote and turned on the TV. “What do you want to watch?”
Michelle and I had met during our first week of fall semester. I distinctly remember a weird feeling coming over me when we were introduced, like I already knew her, like we’d shared a few prior lives or something. An art lover like her mom, she was just as direct as her father, and she saw no conflict between some of her nonconformist tendencies and her pursuit of an economics degree.
She also owned a horse and rode dressage. I’d ridden since I was a kid, but in a sort of fearless vagabond style, barely ever using a saddle. I was as unrefined as I was unshakeable, and was grateful when she brought me to her barn for some lessons on the etiquette and lightness of her art.
Climbing on her horse’s back, the unfamiliar security of a saddle helping to build my confidence, we began trotting in a circle around Michelle. She was holding her horse by a lunge line and holding a long whip, keeping the trot at a good pace and correcting my position on his back.
In her strongest teacher voice she began, “In dressage, you have to concentrate super hard on everything you’re doing and everything the horse is doing, all at the same time. Once you understand the intricacies, that feeling of dancing together, it’s like riding a horse in the Bolshoi Ballet. It looks so easy but underneath it all, those dancers are working really hard!”
“This is taking a lot of concentration!” I breathlessly replied as we continued at an energetic pace.
“Actually I think it’s more like being a brain surgeon. People who don’t understand think it’s like watching paint dry, but once you realize how technical and difficult it is, you’ll never go back to anything else.” She let out a self-deprecating laugh and continued, “I should totally go to medical school.”
I let Michelle’s words filter through my mind as I tried to apply them, posting up and down with her horse’s rhythm as I concentrated on my shoulders, my hands, my heels, and everything in between. It was indeed difficult, exhausting work, and it didn’t escape me that underneath Michelle’s energy and tone came another message: Difficult things are attractive. Difficult things are to be embraced. Difficult things are where we belong.
“Make him go!” She yelled, “Forward! More trot! I want to see suspension in his gait, like Baryshnikov!”
I found myself feeling like I was doing something important, riding a difficult trot, tethered to a difficult lunge line, going around a difficult circle, and contemplating medical school. Somehow this difficult thing was the most fun I’d ever had.
“Karen,” she said to me years later, “The first thing they teach you in Buddhism is that life is difficult. If we can just look at that for what it is and accept it, everything will be fine. Pain and suffering are just a part of the whole spectrum, and they’re OK. Something can be difficult, but it’s up to us whether we suffer or not. You get to choose that part.”
Suffering is a matter of perspective, but by the time we were in our early 20’s, she and her boyfriend, Jason, decided they could no longer suffer through Minnesota’s cold, flat winters, so they left for the Colorado mountains and a total change of pace.
They planned to work around the slopes for a season, cleaning condos in exchange for lift tickets, while living in a trailer home packed to the gills with other twenty-somethings from around the world. They’d re-evaluate their situation once the ski the season ended, in case living the dream wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
That winter turned into a lifetime among a community of characters she couldn’t leave behind, so she and Jason bought a ramshackle house built by hippies on the top of one of the mountains. More than once they were a step away from having to catch their own food to survive—they hardly had any money, but they bartered and hammered and traded their skills for renovation help from their friends.
It was twenty minutes up a suicidal dirt road to get to their dream, but the views were unparalleled and that was all that mattered.
I’d visit from time to time and would have to leave my car parked at the bottom of their treacherous mountain. Michelle navigated their beefy 4×4 truck up the hill, like a safari guide picking her way through the ruts, while I tried to keep my head from falling off my shoulders.
“Look at this,” she said, pointing to the steep side of the mountain rising from the left shoulder, a stalled river of dirt and boulders and tree trunks laid bare. “We had a landslide last year so this part’s a little dicey.”
“How did you get through the road it when it happened?”
“Our neighbor up the mountain has a bulldozer, so he cleared a path for the rest of us.”
“Your neighbor? Shouldn’t the city do that?”
“It’s a lot faster if we just do it ourselves.”
“Is it solid? I mean, is it safe to drive over?” I was a little nervous now.
“I guess. We’ve been driving on it for a few months and nothing’s happened.”
“What do you do if something does happen?” I asked.
“Gun the engine and get the hell out of there!” laughed Michelle as she gunned the engine. Craning her neck to look past me, she checked the truck’s wheels against the side of the road as we approached a sheer drop down the right side. “But don’t worry,” she added, “We’ll be fine.”
She has a habit of taking every situation in stride, evaluating it and figuring out the best path forward, the one that serves the highest and most effective purpose. She knew how to get me up the mountain, and there was one particular time when she knew how to talk me off the ledge.
I’d called her late in the evening, despondent as I worked through the early stages of a painful divorce. “Michelle,” I said between sobs, “I just realized I’m going to be a single mom.”
“Yes you are, but so what? And why are you so upset about it?”
“It’s just a label I never wanted… I never thought this would happen to me, and I never wanted to do this to my kids,” I cried.
“Karen, listen to me. You’ve always been a single mom—he was never home! Since when did you even have a partner? Your kids never had a dad who participated in fatherhood, and you never had a good husband to begin with. Besides, he was a one-upper.”
“What do you mean? What’s that?”
“You know, someone who one-ups everyone else. Remember the time you were here last winter, and he was laid out on the couch and his kidneys almost failed?”
“I remember, but I don’t know the story.”
“Every time Jason told him about something Jason had done, your ex would tell him how he’d done something bigger and better. He was one-upping Jason about how great he was in the backcountry and how altitude didn’t affect him.” Michelle started laughing and continued, “Oh my God, you guys live practically at sea level and we’re close to 10,000 feet! Anyway, Jason figured whatever dude, so they went up to the ridge via the power line in five feet of snow, and Jason kept telling him to rest and drink water, but he wouldn’t. God, I thought he was going to die on our couch that night. What a dummy.”
“Was that what was happening? His kidneys?” I clearly remembered him curled on the couch in agony, refusing to go to the ER.
“YES! He’s nobody’s partner. He’s all about himself. He’s a one-upper.”
“I get it and I agree, but I still feel like my kids now come from a broken family.”
And then Michelle told me something miraculous.
“What are you talking about? Your family is whole! You, Kevin, and Elizabeth are whole. You’ve always been whole, and you always will be. You don’t need him to be complete and neither do they. They just need a mom who’s there for them, and who goes after the things she wants to go after. They need a mom they can be proud of. Now your job is to make them proud.”
In one single moment my entire outlook shifted, and just like that first time I rode dressage with her, the hard thing was the only thing that mattered, it was the only thing I wanted to do, and it was exactly where I belonged. My kids and I were a complete and whole family, just the three of us.
It’s been nearly 20 years since she uttered those magic words, and I called Michelle the other day for some advice. She didn’t pick up so I left a message. “We’re thinking about taking a big leap with something. Like a big adventure. I don’t want to tell you what it is right now, but it’s super exciting and huge and totally daunting and really scary. Call me back. I want to hear your thoughts.”
An hour later my phone rang.
Before I could say hello she took off running, “Hey Kar, that’s SO COOL! Adventure and daunting? That’s the perfect combination! I don’t even care what it is, you’ve gotta do it!”
I laughed, “You don’t even want to know? Dude, it’s cool but it’s big and scary!”
“So what? You have to be a little bit scared because that’s how you grow. It’s how you keep life fresh and interesting. Besides, if you’re not a little scared it’s not that big of a deal. I mean, who really cares?”
All I could do was laugh, because I should have known what she’d say all along.
She and Jason still live on top of the mountain in her small, now beautiful, house. A new section of the road threatens to slide away after last winter’s heavy snow, and when I visited a few months ago she gunned the engine as we bounced over waves of dirt, past rivulets of mud and water trickling over the edge.
Michelle still trains horses, and she’s added a meditation and spirituality practice to her days. She ponders questions from middle age, and a vantage point of someone who’s never let herself go backwards, who calls her own shots, surrounded by colorful characters in a beautiful part of the world. And she’s still showing me that forward is the only direction worth pursuing, especially when it’s hard.