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  • Every six weeks, the blacksmith comes to the farm to shoe the horses, as he’s done every six weeks since I’ve been twelve years old.

    Well, he’s SUPPOSED to come every six weeks—that’s the ideal horseshoeing schedule—but sometimes I avoid people like the plague, even people I’ve known my whole life, like the blacksmith–and the blacksmith knows this—so he plays along and pretends that the three to seven times I’ve cancelled between now and his last visit really WERE due to the varying degrees of Armageddons, catastrophes, and extenuating circumstances I’ve claimed, when we both know I just needed a few (or several) attempts at scheduling an appointment I had the social strength to keep.

    So, in knowing this, he always trims my horses a little shorter than most others—as he is never quite sure of the duration of the upcoming interim—and that way, not matter how long or short it is, I can keep riding in spite of it, at three in the morning or one o’clock in the afternoon—whenever it is that I need fast, nimble hooves and an escape to the far corners of the farm the most, which is usually by week seven.

    He’s the best blacksmith in the world.

    Blacksmiths are unsung heroes, but this one, in particular, is truly the best there is. He’s an unofficial godfather. Always looking out for me. Always looking out for my horses.
    And he always treads carefully when I do finally show up, knowing it sometimes takes all the guts I have. He waits to see if I want to talk or listen. Usually I want to talk because he understands just about anything I have to say, and when I tell him what’s happened over the last six to nine weeks—and something has ALWAYS happened over the last six to nine weeks—he still manages to calmly remind me that we’re all just doing the best we can, that people are indeed strange creatures, and I’m not a freak for thinking so.

    Then he figures out a way to tell me he’s proud of me without directly saying it because he knows I get flustered.

    You might wonder why I wouldn’t RELIGIOUSLY keep six-week appointments with him under those circumstances, and I can’t begin to explain why not to you myself, but I think it’s because it can really wear a person out bearing one’s soul, even when there’s plenty of horses around to keep all the secrets.

    Sometimes, though, I just want to listen to him. So I settle into the hay with his dog, Bea, while he rasps away at my horses’ hooves, and he tells me stories about my dad, when they went to high school together. Sometimes he tells me about his mother, who died a long time ago, or what it was like in the Vietnam War. Sometimes he tells me about the different kinds of women in the world, and other times, he tells me to reconsider marriage if I ever decide to consider it.

    Everyone should have someone like this in their lives.

    Today, he hugged me as if I looked like I really needed a hug and then he proudly presented me with a brand new pair of insulated Carhartt overalls. Which is a farmgirl’s dream. A new pair of Carhartt’s.

    He was busy showing me all of the features—full-length double zippers, reinforced snaps, sturdy buckles, and double insulation—when I realized he was wearing a brand new red and black checkered flannel shirt and something felt wrong in the barn.

    But a deep fear of being rude pulled me from my thoughts, and I tried to act excited about the overalls. And truly I was. I felt warmer just looking at them. And I actually REALLY needed a pair. I’m actually wearing them now, as I type this. They’re really cozy. I might sleep in them.

    Then the blacksmith proudly whipped out a tiny black case from a shallow pocket in his own Carhartt’s, and with big, rough hands permanently smudged from years of exposure to black smoke and hot iron, he delicately held out a tiny camera lens for me to inspect.

    It was a thermal attachment for his smartphone, which he can use to diagnose lameness and hotspots in horse hooves. I’d been hearing about this camera—its pending arrival greatly anticipated—for months now. And finally, here it was.

    He showed me how it worked. Gabriel glowed in layers of fire-reds and ember-yellows, with the exception of an indigo nose and a cold blue background all around him.

    I glowed, too, but not in any way that looked remotely pretty on a smartphone screen, and I felt startled at the image—not out of vanity (okay, maybe a little)—but because I LOOKED as though something was wrong in the barn. Or rather, my colors did, if that remotely makes any sense. I did a quick survey of the stalls, and all the horses were standing, so I tried to tell myself I WAS being vain, only to be whipped back into a conversation that had drastically changed to a story of a man who infamously slashed the remarkability of thermal cameras, followed by a few off-the-cuff jokes about how you can’t just try something once to know whether or not you like it.

    The blacksmith blinked deliberately, patiently waiting for me to get the punch line of the last joke, which I had missed while wondering what my thermal colors were trying to tell me about the ever-tightening knot in my stomach.

    But then he showed me all of these amazing thermal images of horse hooves and handprints and deer hiding in the woods, and I got distracted and excited thinking that these images would make a cool kid’s book.

    Thermal images are truly amazing the way heat is translated into colors and depths of colors, which creates a more realistic picture of what we are than the light that naturally meets our eyes. Pictures aren’t even skin deep, but a thermal image is capable of showing all the colors inside you, even those that run as deep as your heart.

    The trade-off, though, is that you lose the light. You can only see inside.

    Instead of seeing a whole person, you see the individual layers that make them that way.

    The blacksmith whirled the camera around as he continued his thermal demos, all of which I understood eerily well. Watching the thermal camera capture heat and translate it into an image that made intangible sense was like seeing and understanding, for the first time, the way in which I take people in. It’s why I can remember exactly how a person looked and felt during a conversation, but rarely can I remember the conversation, itself. It’s why, sometimes (but not always), I walk away from big conversations and multiple people feeling all tuckered out, requiring days of solitude and quiet before I can shake the exhaustion. It’s been a phenomenon I’ve always been able to explain to people, but until today, I never knew why it existed.

    That thermal camera and I both see people in layers of heat and color.

    It’s why I get a fever from crowds. Crowds are full of heat in varying degrees, and it’s impossible to sort it out at once. The desperate colors clash, the lonely ones collide, and the nervous ones splatter until everything is nothing but a mess of the brownest of browns and grayest of grays until nearly everything loses its color altogether.

    The colorless heat of a crowd is almost as suffocating as it is blinding.

    Crowds, which can be three people or three hundred people, often make the people inside them nervous by default, and not always, but usually, that’s where conversations hurt me the most. I’ve found that the shallower the topic, the deeper the hurt. Those colors ooze together, gushing out in overwhelming waves of big dreams, deep emotions, justified hurt, brilliant thoughts, beautiful ideas, and unrequited hopes, all of which are tragically masked by the smallest of talk and washed out by alcohol, solely for the sake of social tact and conformity. So it can completely wear a person out trying to cut through the crap and REALLY listen when all that color is boiling together below the surface.

    I chronically, for the life of me, cannot seem to focus on anything but the heat and all its colors.

    Sorting through all those colors—re-arranging the layers of emotions and energy until an intangible but perfectly understandable human form takes shape TAKES emotions and energy, too, which leaves me forever drained finding enough to form the complete picture of humanity I so desire, and while I’m pretty quick to blame the rest of the world for being compulsively lazy and shallow (and therefore making my social life difficult), perhaps I need to take a selfie with the thermal camera and see that the colors go both ways, and there’s nothing wrong with saying “How are you? No, really, how are YOU?” and just persisting until the people you want to talk to finally drop the weather front and tell you the stuff that matters. I need to be WAY better at remembering that.

    I’ve always known that people rarely mean what they say, at least when they try to say anything of consequence, so if you want to know what they mean—and I always do—you have to look deeper. You have to look inside if you really want to know.

    And the real trouble is that people often use menial topics like the weather and scented candles to communicate with each other, and talk of flurries and cinnamon spice makes it ever so hard to figure out what it is they are really wanting to say.

    It’s also why happiness is contagious. Happy colors seep into everything. Just think of dogs and how their happiness cures what ails you without you having to breath a single word in their direction. People turn to each other for comfort like people also turn to their dogs, but dogs are much better than people at getting past the surface and to the core of what matters.

    It had been a particularly tiring week this week—for I am just as poor at communicating as the rest of the world (if not worse) and had been a guilty perpetrator of poorly executed conversations for several days—and so, I didn’t have much confidence to talk or listen, even to someone as uninhibited and familiar as the blacksmith I’ve known for more than half my life.

    I covered up what I was really trying to say by saying I preferred solitude to company when the conversation turned to the challenge of being social.

    “I know I’m a weirdo,” I said wearily.

    “Join the club,” he said, without looking up from what he was doing. “Go Weirdos.”

    Today, the blacksmith had been trying to tell me he missed me and just wanted me to talk to him the way I always have, but I was SO distracted by whatever was wrong in the barn, that I couldn’t focus, and I finally figured out why.

    Violet, the farm bunny, was dead. I found her laying peacefully next to her best friend, Gus, the pig, who was still asleep in his stall.

    There really isn’t much to say about a dead bunny, except that it’s a pretty sad thing, especially because this bunny was extra-special. And up until today, she had been 100% healthy and full of life.

    Violet had big, black, shining eyes, and the gray of her calico fur had an indigo tint to it, so that’s why I called her Violet, though it is entirely possible she was a he. I never knew for sure because she was always pretty wild. I like wildness in animals and never quite have the heart to take it away from them or try to make them any tamer than what’s necessary to keep them safe and healthy.

    Which is also why things tend to get a little western around here, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    Violet was allowed to be free and have the run of a corner of the barn with Gus. Sometimes, she ninja-kicked him with her hind legs if he tried to steal her food, and one time, she scratched his nose enough to make it bleed, but they always made up by nightfall and piled up together on the straw in summer and burrowed under horse blankets in winter.

    I rescued Violet from a pet store two years ago. The manager was going to throw her out because her ears were crooked, and after trying to sell her for a couple years, they decided no one was ever going to buy her with ears like that. I was in the pet store buying dog food, which was odd timing because I never buy dog food from the pet store. It was the first week in February. It was raining outside—also odd—because it was February in Michigan. A solid week of turmoil thanks to the world’s worst boyfriend had left me wearing fresh heartbreak on my sleeve, and seeing this poor little bunny being shoved into a box and headed for the dumpster made me realize a few threads of my heart still kept the two broken halves beating together, and so, perhaps life and feeling anything ever again could be salvaged after all.

    I also knew getting a bunny would make him angry—not because he hated bunnies—but because I had no intention of asking him first. He liked to have control over every aspect of life, as I spent most of it far away on the farm, and he got jealous and aggressive because I had more of an affinity for animals than for him. So he kept trying to eradicate the animals from my life. I knew we were on borrowed time to begin with, which taught me that sometimes, you shouldn’t borrow time. I knew he felt threatened by the big beasts I surrounded myself with and took for long gallops, and despite all the big animals living on the farm, I knew he was the only real beast that had ever passed over the threshold of the barn. I also vowed he would be the last. I knew that this soft, unwanted, perfect, tiny bunny would help me with that. I knew her adoption would push that big, gruff, hardened, selfish brute over the edge and start the very war that would set me free from him.

    Which—if you don’t happen to live on a farm—are TRULY all the wrong reasons to rescue a bunny, but luckily, I do live on a farm and could make a place for her to live out the rest of her life, sheltered and protected and appreciated for the ears that were as broken as my heart.

    But adopting that soft bunny warmed me up enough to have the sense and strength to stand my ground, and less than two weeks later, my war against the world’s worst boyfriend was won, and though the liberation I felt was akin to standing alone on a meadow atop the highest and bluest and freest of mountains, I still cried during evening chores for more nights than I could count.

    I kept Violet close in the early days, and she grew and played and fattened up, and although it took about six months, her ears eventually and unexpectedly unfolded into perfect bunny ears, and the same was true for my heart. She was big and furry and soft and beautiful. I didn’t realize how much she had changed until I held her close this afternoon. Cradling her dead like that was about the closest I’d ever been to her. She was even bigger and softer and more beautiful than I knew. And I will forever miss her.

    I didn’t want to make a scene when I found her dead, and Gus seemed to care less once he woke up and saw her laying there. He just shoved his slimy nose into my thigh looking for food, which made me angry at him, so I took Violet up in my arms and carefully wrapped her in a cloth feed bag, wondering what I was going to do with her, as the ground was far too frozen for a burial.

    Rivaldo calmed right down then, once I had her in my arms, and I realized he was how I knew there was something wrong in the barn. He’s always been my gauge, often telling me there’s something wrong in my gut even before I know there’s something wrong in my gut. Gabriel was busy chasing mice just then, and I happened to glance at him right as he pinned one down with his merciless paw, so I angrily shooed him away, telling him there’d been enough death for one day and how can he possibly be so insensitive???

    He looked up at me wondering what he had done wrong. I also saw his nostrils flare at me in frustration. He’d been stalking that mouse for hours, and I’d just swatted it away without considering his feelings for even a moment. Humans can be so unfair.

    Well, I had a lot of stuff to do for the rest of the day, so I tried to keep myself too busy to think about Violet, and I did a pretty good job of that until I was in the store shopping for milk and I passed the yogurt and remembered the first time I went shopping after Clover died, realizing that one less foal meant buying three less containers of yogurt, and that thought had nearly killed me. And here I was, having it all over again.

    “How do people do this?” I asked myself, looking around at everyone else shopping and knowing this ache never totally goes away. “How do you lose an animal and then just carry on like nothing is wrong?”

    But then I remembered all the happy nights I’d glance at Violet hopping around next to Gus, always keeping my distance and knowing she was more wild than a pet, but happy all the same I got to watch her for a moment before closing up the barn and never remembering until tonight how she saved me in a far bigger way than I saved her.

    When I got back from the grocery store, I figured I’d better check on Gus and make sure he was adjusting to the solitude okay.

    I figured he might be sleeping, because if he’s not eating, he’s always sleeping, so I tip-toed up to his stall only to find him softly whimpering under his horse blankets.

    He stopped as soon as I whispered his name.

    Gus is fat and ugly and ungrateful 99% of the time, but truly, he and I aren’t that different. We both think of food more than anything else, and we only grieve when no one else is looking.

    Which made me think of that thermal camera and how true listening is like a thermal, one-way mirror. One that you can look into—ever so deeply—but the reflection never makes its way back. Instead, it leaves you with an intimate glimpse of a colorful soul outside of your own. And that’s something you should listen to.

    A person will tell you that you’re brave for listening so closely. Tough, even.

    But it’s none of those things. It’s just humanity. You have to be human and take people as they are, even if the truth hurts and you have to fight to get it. And it almost always does and you almost always do, but it’s a hurt and a fight that’s well worth it.

    Listening through colors has also taught me one big thing:

    People are incredibly flawed—we all have permanent scars that are slowly and painfully carved by raw emotions that have no way out on their own. They affect the way we think and feel and behave and communicate. They become wells of pooling color and most of us have no idea how to let those colors show until someone dares to listen to us a little closer. Until they look hard enough to see what colors we are.

    A good friend reminded me tonight that despite all my recent failed attempts over the last few months, saving the world is not out of reach. Helping a person can change their whole world, and in that way, you’ve saved it for them. I said that was good enough for me, which is progress towards a new global health dissertation, though on a much smaller scale than I had originally planned. But it IS familiar.

    Animals are pretty good listeners—the best good listeners, truthfully—and new therapies involving animal encounters for troubled, hurting, and special needs children are proving to be far more effective than clinical treatments. More research is needed on how and why the animal therapy works, so that funding, grants, and public health initiatives are justified in their desire to bring grassroots farm operations and children in need together, regardless of a family’s ability to pay.

    Animals and brave humans under hardship.

    Two, vulnerable beautiful entities I’ve been around my whole life, and now I have a chance to bring them together.

    Which, truthfully, is the very combination that saved me.

    So I guess, I’ll give it a try, though it’s a little scary, as saving the world just got a whole lot more personal.
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