Friday, February 27, 2015

Guest Blog #3: Adam's Task (by Emily Millikan)

Emily Millikan is a thoughtful and tremendously talented young writer from whom I expect great things: stories, essays, novels. Here she is praising Vicki Hearne (1946 – 2001), a fine writer I'm embarrassed to say I'd never even heard of.

This review was originally published online in 2011 by my friend Meghan Krogh. I'm grateful to Meghan for the nudge to take courage and write about this enormous book. - Emily Millikan

Emily Millikan works in private health care and nonprofit administration. Originally from Indiana, she now lives north of Boston. She finds her writing community in Image Journal's Glen Workshops.

If I ask why we read, or why we read what we read, it does not compute: system overload. A smaller question, then: why do I personally reread what I reread? What's so special about C.S. Lewis's novel Till We Have Faces, which I've read so many times I've lost track? What about The Lord of the Rings? What about Annie Dillard's essays, or Neal Stephenson's alternate-universe epic Anathem, or Mary Doria Russel's The Sparrow, or certain of the Psalms?

These have very little in common, and none of them bear any resemblance to the latest book I've been rereading, this year and last year and the year before: Adam's Task: Calling Animals by Name by Vicki Hearne. I suppose I list them here together on the same page because they all, in one way or another, teach me how to live.

A bit of a personal preface before I tell you why you should all go read Adam's Task immediately, stopping neither for novel nor essay nor poem.

My day jobs take a lot out of me. Twenty or thirty hours a week I work as a nanny for a family of four kids, three of whom – boys 8, 10, and 11 – are diagnosed with ADHD and a sensory processing disorder. I shuttle them to after-school activities and steer conversations and keep them from hurting each other. I'm basically an assistant parent.

A few days a month I work at a group home for four developmentally delayed adults. I'm also the administrative go-to for a small nonprofit that serves orphan teenagers in Ukraine. And I've recently met two kids adopted from Russia whom I may be babysitting now and again. For an introvert with a highly sensitive nervous system, this is all a bit masochistic

The job with the kids especially requires minute-to-minute willpower. Across the room I hear the 11-year-old bullying the 8-year-old: do I let it go this one time because I'm already making two lunches and the 6-year-old is begging me to play a game and the coffee's not working and I wake up every morning clenching my jaw and at night all I want is chips and TV? Or do I give him a warning and then talk to him, without anger, about how those comments make another person feel, because it matters how this boy grows up and enters the world.

I wonder constantly if I am capable of working with people this way. Some of it is, simply put, soul-healing work. Outside of work are a girl and boy whom I think of as family, and I wonder too how anyone can be worthy of any child's trust, the way these children trust me. I need courage to persist in all the difficult moments in my relationships, the moments when I feel isolated, young and naïve, insufficient, in over my head.

This is where Vicki Hearne comes in.

Adam's Task is a book about the communication between humans and animals: an amalgam of animal storybook, training manual, philosophical treatise, and literary critique. In Adam's Task, horse training and showing and dog training are lifted up into the realm of the moral life. Or, perhaps more accurately, the mysterious moral underpinnings of animal training are revealed and exalted, shimmering, somehow both delicate and strong. And it’s because of those moral underpinnings that there is the possibility of courage in every page, in every moment of every story.

The story of a horse named Drummer Girl is probably my favorite. It's in a chapter called “Crazy Horses,” which begins with the story of another horse, Halla, who was supposed to be unridable until, as the real stories do sometimes go, a great rider named Hans Winkler began riding her and won a prestigious competition in spite of an injury. Hearne had only heard of, perhaps witnessed, Winkler and Halla's riding. But Drummer Girl came under her care twice. The first time, she says, Drummer Girl was “ignorant, nervous and confused by—one can only guess—the bizarre activities that pass for training on and about California tracks so much of the time.” Drummer Girl was quickly sold to a client who took her to a nearby state, where the training made her crazy.

Hearne took Drummer Girl back for training, because she'd been kicked out of several barns, and because, as Hearne writes, “One of the stories I was determined to stick to at the time was that I could train anything,” or as she writes elsewhere, “Good trainers ride all horses as though they were potentially world-class; that's the only way you end up with world-class horses.” To which I say, Yes, tell me how.

When Hearne met Drummer Girl for the second time, Drummer Girl twisted around coming out of the trailer and kicked. Her shoe came off and “went through the (admittedly not... the sturdiest) wall of the tack room.” This is unusual. Horses will ordinarily go out of their way to avoid hurting humans. Drummer Girl had been traumatized: “The young, silly, confused but tender filly was gone. This was a full-grown mare, enraged, paranoid psychotic, violently uninterested in My Friend Flicka. She had, as it were, been to Vietnam. She was saying, of prewar civilization, goodbye to all that. She had had it with humans and their stories."

Hearne writes that “simple physical brutality and distress” didn't cause her to be this way; she hadn't experienced what we would call physical abuse. “The significant brutalities for this mare,” she says, “had been linguistic, moral in the full sense.” She was a mare for whom “balance, symmetry and coherence were at the center of the cosmos,” so that incoherent training – poor communication, essentially – became a form of torture, and any kind of communication, coherent or not, became a trigger.

Let me step back from Hearne and Drummer Girl for a moment to say: I know these people. I know, in the first place, teenage orphans who have experienced not just physical trauma but the relational trauma of abandonment, mixed signals, attention offered for sex, adults who think they know how to love a broken person but who falter and fail when tested. And I know people for whom coherence is essential; it “looks hostile in places,” says Hearne, “the hardness we see in the lives of people for whom a certain sort of coherence matters more than the conventions of approval.” And beyond this, I have seen, as I am sure you have seen, the small eddies of panic and fear, the sudden coldness or distancing, the tremulousness, of an otherwise well and whole human being who has been deeply hurt and who isn't yet quite up to the hard task of trusting. I have also been this person.

People who have been hurt, who fear relationship in its widest and most wonderful forms, they have been told the wrong stories.

The trouble is that crazy horses have not by and large read My Friend Flicka. (A few have, and there are stories about that, too.) If they know some version of The Black Stallion, they left during the shipwreck scene, or they know only the part of National Velvet where The Pit is careening dangerously around town. They know a story about crazy horses, but they know the wrong one, or else they didn't get a chance or refused to read to the ending where things come out okay; and the trainer has to figure out how to get them to the ending, whereas the horses just aren't interested in the story anymore. The problem is to get them interested, a problem Shakespeare solved with a keen sense of the right bawdy jokes in Act I, Scene I, but the trainers quite often don't even have that much agreement at their disposal.

Beyond which, if the horse does know the right ending to a sufficiently rich story and has tried it out on a human who doesn't, the difficulty is that much worse. The greatest challenges come from horses who have been beguiled by some confused version of behaviorism, or virtually anything from the matrix of academic psychology, instead of by a story that springs from artistic tradition; sometimes such horses might as well be autistic for all the talking that is going to go on for a while.

The question is, then, how does one get a crazy horse interested in the story again? And how does one get a human to pay attention to a real, potentially healing relationship? And how does one find the courage to go at it over and over and over again, with the knowledge that it may not work, the horse may continue throwing you until the end of time, or the small hurt part of the person you love may remain closed off to you until the trumpet sounds?

Vicki Hearne would perhaps slide sideways: “The question ‘Why train horses at all?’ is like the question ‘Why should we like the world?’ Most of the time, the only answer that can be given is a maneuver rather than an answer, as when Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations said, ‘We like the world because we do,’ a remark that can be interpreted darkly or not, as you like.” The maneuver she speaks of is, I think, rooted in the same virtues whether it is a maneuver on behalf of human or beast: in courage and a kind of steely innocence that refuses to be sucked into irony and nihilism.

Hearne's answer to Drummer Girl's craziness is not philosophy, it is a maneuver, the kind of deliberate and knowledgeable maneuver that precedes and chooses love.

A day after Drummer Girl arrived, Hearne attempted to halter her. Drummer Girl “dash[ed] violently around the pasture, kicking and squealing.” Hearne cornered her, at which point Drummer Girl swung around and stamped on Hearne's foot. Instead of getting herself killed, Hearne took out a longe whip (not a whip used for touching the horse) and “chased” her around the pasture until Drummer Girl consented to be haltered. She didn't wear the horse out physically: she just made it clear to Drummer Girl that she would have to pay attention – that here was a human one could perhaps eventually talk to.  With Drummer Girl on a lead, she did “what I did with Salty—run in the opposite direction from the one she was going. If she bolted to my right, I went left. If she bolted forward, I did an about-turn and ran. If she went up, I went down, to China if necessary.”

Then something happened: “About the fourth time my speed spun her away from the can of oats, the situation changed. She tensed to dart forward and then stopped herself (the lead rope was completely slack), turning over in her head the cosmic implications of my behavior. She got it right, snorted, stuck her left eye up to my right eye and pawed the ground furiously.”

Hearne tells more of Drummer Girl's story – how in a few days she was “asking” to be worked, how she learned to stop rushing her jumps: “I had heartlessly set things up so that, if she was capable of any sort of reasoning at all, she must slow down and canter properly. Must, that is, choose a muscular version of the good over the chaos of the stories about a sweet, dumb horse who just couldn’t help herself.” But it's this first moment that interests me, the moment when Drummer Girl stops running away and pays attention.

It's such a small moment. What would an onlooker see? Drummer Girl isn't really “broke”: a few days later when Hearne mounts her for the first time, Drummer Girl busts open her forehead. But this is the first time in perhaps years that Drummer Girl has listened, has found even an inkling of believability in the humans who've been training her. There is eye contact, and there is the potential for trust.

These moments are real outside of animal training, and outside of books. We don't know when they will occur for another person, just as we often don't know when they will occur in ourselves, but we can call upon them in each other, and for me, especially, in those given to my care. And so I leave Adam's Task each time believing, newly and with great determination, that each moment requires all the courage we can bring to it. Each instance of courage, whether it is teaching, or not yelling, or just waking up and going to the place you're supposed to be; or whether it is that small intake of breath in the middle of a conversation, opening your heart again even though it would be easier to leave yourself properly defended: these moments are, as Hearne would say, heroic, and for me these are the moments inherent in the mundane that give meaning to it. These are the maneuvers that precede love, the maneuvers that choose a love as yet unseen.

Many great books turn me inward. Adam's Task ends, not with a relationship between me and a book, but with a relationship between me and a book and the world. It returns me to the world, as it will return you to the world, carrying in your inward places another story or two that will help you to choose the “muscular version of the good."

So I go back to my work with kids with ADHD, with the developmentally delayed, with traumatized teenagers and adopted kids. And I go to them not with a philosophy, and not with a cheap love falsely conjured, but with stories that embody the heroic, that allow me to see what the ending can be like when there is courage on every page. In my best moments I know there is no heartache could dissuade me. I have watched my own maneuvers turn from the vision of love into love itself, and my own stories lie alongside Hearne's stories, so that I can call upon them when I am tired.

“...What we know,” says Vicki Hearne, “is that what we require for goodness and beauty puts us in great risk of the most heartrending grief—but always, always, the risk is worth it. There is nothing behind this knowledge, no reasoning, no inferring: we are born to it, and our tendency to do something about autism, like our tendency to imagine and to live in the hardest-edged disciplines, shows how powerful that knowledge is.”

I would tend to say that there is something behind this knowledge, and it is the love of a God who chose the muscular version of the good even unto death; our love, as a permutation of His love, is the kind with teeth. And always, always, the risk is worth it.

- - - - -

Vicki Hearne (1946 – 2001) was a poet, philosopher, linguist, and animal trainer. She published three nonfiction titles and four books of poetry. Adam's Task (1986) was her first book.

No comments:

Post a Comment