the last lesson

July 18th, 2012

I watched the lovely documentary about the horse trainer “Buck” again last weekend. If you haven’t watched it once or twice, I recommend it. It’s on streaming Netflix, so there’s no reason to put it off.

This time I watched it with houseguests staying for the weekend. The visit wasn’t going so well. The kids are older now and can be cranky and sullen. We couldn’t get the group to agree on what to do. We were all put out with one another. I suggested we watch the movie.

“It teaches about relationships,” I said.

You’ve probably heard about Buck Brannaman, the cowboy sage who uses a gentle touch to save horses and correct their overbearing owners. The movie has a kind of slow, sad beauty that you can lose yourself in. But there’s a part toward the end that I can hardly bear. I turned my head away in anticipation.

Buck seems like a miracle-worker until someone brings him a horse that is wild-eyed and bloodthirsty. An orphaned colt that has been untended to the point of savagery. Even as the horse charges the gates and bolts the pen, you’re thinking there’s a happy turn to come. The minds of all the riders and spectators — and this includes you — are united in hope and prayer: Save the day.

This is what we expect of our stories.

But then the horse bites a man between the eyes, and in the gush of blood and truth, the owner admits that she’s scared to death and tired of living on the brink of self-made catastrophe. She’s going to do what she has to do, no longer turning back.

There’s the last matter of loading the horse onto the trailer, and Buck stands in the ring to coax him safely out the gate. He doesn’t have a rope. The horse and man are totally untethered. His owner calls to the pony from outside. “Come on,” she coos, “Come on.” She wants to help; she wants to do one last thing right.

And then Buck speaks the last lesson, the eternal finishing stroke.

Just sit still. Don’t do anything. He says it quietly, a whisper. He stands pat, head bowed, issues no command, and gives the horse the dignity of self-propulsion.

The horse knows where he’s going, just like we all know where we’re going, because there is only one way to go. Straight on.

The only magic in life, the only miracle, is in the time and space that opens up between us, by sheer acceptance and surrender, so we can finally lead ourselves in the only direction there is to go.

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  1. I was intrigued by that film and thought there was much to learn from it. I’ll have to watch it again and pay even more attention this time.

    Comment by Bobbi — July 18, 2012 @ 9:12 am

  2. I love your blog, it is so gentle and strong and light and real.
    I live on the other side of the world. I understand what you say about sitting with someone for real vs. having a virtual teacher on the other side of the world. I have never “sat’ with anyone but if I ever do I would be honored if it were you.
    I wanted to share this link with you, a scientist shares why and how we are made of stardust and fragments from all over the universe. Just think about that, I thought you might like it. Have a wonderful day!!!

    Comment by Simone — July 18, 2012 @ 2:29 pm

  3. Your words are full of generousity and thoughtfulness. They always come just when I need them. Thank you.

    Comment by Jane Smith — July 19, 2012 @ 5:26 am

  4. It was astounding to me, and very comforting, to watch Buck in action. To be shown over and over that violence is unnecessary. The fact that it was astounding showed me just how accustomed I’d become to violence, including harsh words. What brought the post home to me and made it personal was the declaration that we all know where we’re going, because there’s only one way to go. I think I’ve had a tacit agreement with life, that I would be careful, exercise, watch my diet, wear my seat belt, and life would refrain from reminding me of my death. As I have aged, that bargain falls by the wayside. I just passed through a month-long case of bronchitis, and it’s clear that the body knows exactly where it’s headed. It’s been marching toward death from the instant I was born. But now the resilience of youth is long gone. A cold turns into a month of chronic coughing, a paper cut takes forever to heal, I noticed my hair is growing slower than it used to. My scalp is showing. At 62, I’m young enough to feel energetic and curious, but there’s no surprise about where this is going. I can do violence by screaming No! with clothes that are too young, or obsessive sit-ups, or I can gently let the body go where it’s going anyway, and enjoy the miracles that still unfold each moment.

    Comment by Dawn Downey — July 20, 2012 @ 11:33 am

  5. This speaks to me deep inside my core. Very powerful. How did it affect your house guests?

    Comment by Naomi — July 25, 2012 @ 6:34 am

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