Lantern Walks & Cold Soup
It was well-past dark and I was driving in my scrappy truck behind Patty and her entourage. She was pulling hour horses back to her farm after our adventure in Salem an hour earlier. We had just participated in the Christmas Parade and while that was its own adventure we were about to experience another.
We were less than a mile from Patty's farm on a pitch-dark back road when she slowed her rig to a stop and stepped out of her truck. I thought something was wrong with the horses, that she felt a slip or fuss in the back and wanted to check it out. Turns out the horses were fine but the trailer carrying them wasn't. A tire had gone so flat, so fast, that the hot air inside it was swirling around in the headlights like smoke. Patty and I were close to her farm, but when she tried to pull the two vehicles forward it crunched and moaned like the axle itself was being dragged across the floor. We discussed our options and decided to leave her car and trailer on the side of the road and walk the horses back to her farm. Merlin could spend the night at her place and in the morning we would be able to fix the tire.
I am somewhat of an emergency prep dork. In my truck was not only a 72-hour emergency bag complete with first aid gear, a change of clothes, extra socks, food, and water but I also drive with a sleeping bag, flashlights, and jumper cables. It may seem excessive to some, but when you live alone in the country and blow a tired miles from home without cell service, you might be waiting for a while by the roadside. Doesn't hurt to stay warm, have a snack, and read.
So anyway, I pulled out my battery-powered Coleman lantern and was grateful for it. No streetlights out here, and walking a black horse at night on a windy country road seemed dangerous. The moon was a waxing crescent. A mere sliver of itself, barely casting any light. The warm and wet day had left a blanket of fog near the wetlands on the left side of the road. If there was ever a moment to start filming modern day scenes of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, this was it.
But Patty and I had been here before. We've had rough things happen, been stranded on roadsides and understood the immense luck of this flat tire. It happened just a half mile from her farm. So we took or boys off the trailer and walked side-by-side in the hand-held glow back to her farm. We talked about the parade, about the sweet chaos of it all. Both our horses had their moments of naught, but both passed the test with flying colors. They walked along the busy roadsides amongst the flash and pomp and shouting crowds and we were proud of them and ourselves.
As we chatted I kept thinking that what I admire most about Patty is that in her early fifties she is still game to get out there any grab life by the horns. She does this not through the ways you might be thinking, the heroic acts of driving heavy horses and running a farm. No, she does it through her decisions about how she is going to participate in life. Most people go to work and then go home and watch TV. They check email, scamper off to the obligatory family or work event and that's pretty much the sum of it. They have pulses, but that's pretty much the proof of their emotional existence. I did that for quite some time myself.
But Patty does things most people stop doing when they get out of college and she's got me doing it, too. We belong to clubs, and enter shows, and dress up for parades. We attend social experiences no online application has yet to compete with. It's these little events that seem so adorably inconsequential, but they are the kind of things that boil up a hunger for everyday life.
When you choose to take part in life you wake up in the morning feeling like you're going to a rock concert, but instead of watching it you are performing it. It's that pit-of-the-stomach thrill of participation that I think separates the young from the old. And you folks out there practicing for your church concerts, community theatre plays, hunting trips, and SCA meetings (or whatever the club or scene) know that same thrill.
A lot of folks roll their eyes at the idea of being in a club or having a hobby. It's become quaint and nerdy to thrive in a subculture. But I have never known or seen folks happier in this sordid world than the ones who are out engaged in an activity they love and surrounded by support of others who share their passion. It makes all the difference in the darkness.
So we walked the horses home without any feeling of fear or anger or worry. We had just been in a parade, had laughed and joked with people in our Draft Club, and had nothing ahead of us but a hot bowl of Goose Sausage Stew and a wood stove waiting when we arrived back to her farm. It wasn't raining. It wasn't too cold. And somewhere along that dark road I realized the reason we were happy was because we simply chose to be.
Patty changed her entire life to make room for happiness. I did, too. People do this everyday and it is a thousand times more heroic than riding a galloping horse. I think happiness comes not from money or opportunity but from simply knowing when you are not happy, recognizing it without pity for yourself, and changing it. That's the most powerful force in the world. To leave a bad marriage, to seek support and comfort, to forgive and forget. It's those big things, and the little things, too. To take up a musical instrument for the first time, to finally get a passport and book a flight, to get dressed up and go on that blind date. It's the being scared and standing up for yourself anyway. It's the understanding that being happy isn't the same as being selfish. And it's that fine line between being a victim or a volunteer in a bad situation. Happy people are not happy because of circumstance - they are happy because they got out of them. Not that that's easy, but it is an option. Always an option.
You need to be the person who makes you happy. In my experience, the saddest people I know let themselves believe they are responsible for another adult's happiness, that they owe it to them. It is a burden I consider the worst sort of abuse. No one can carry that weight.
That night Patty, her husband Mark, and I sat in the farmhouse and enjoyed that soup with cold well water. We had some complications in our long day but they were nothing but obstacles we both chose to ignore. Tired, content, and free on a Saturday night we just smiled through the conversation. We could worry about the world when the soup got cold.