The Heart's Original Position

The Heart's Original Position

Eight years ago, Smithsonian magazine sent me to Wyoming to write about a Northern Arapaho man named Stanford Addison, who had a growing reputation as a horse trainer. He was noted for his gentleness, efficiency, and the fact that he had been a quadriplegic for more than 20 years. I was excited by the assignment but apprehensive. I’d always been fascinated by Native American culture, and I knew how to do my job, but I would invariably get thrown off course by my own cultural propensity to get chattier as my subjects got quieter:

Me: So, how did you become interested in entering the Miss Navajo pageant?
Beauty Contestant: Just decided to do it, I guess.
Me: Was it the desire to be recognized, or to promote traditional cultural values, or to buy a bunch of new dresses, or what?
Beauty Contestant: I couldn’t afford the dresses. I had to sew most of them.
Me: So you sew! That’s great.
Beauty Contestant: [Silence.]
Me: It’s interesting to me that there’s no bikini competition in the Miss Navajo Pageant. I mean, the Miss America pageant is all about sex.
Beauty Contestant: [Silence.]
Me: It’s amazing that in most beauty contests, women have been reduced into this one tiny thing; one tiny aspect of being human. But not here!
Beauty Contestant: [Silence.]

Why couldn’t I shut up? Why did I get so nervous and yappy? I tried not to take it personally when my barrage of questions were greeted by silence. Of course they won’t open up, I thought. They’re supposed to hate us white people, right? I would blink in the bright western sun, my blue eyes feeling so pale as to be almost extraterrestrial. Like most white North Americans, I hail from a fairly straight line of conquerors and colonists — a boatload of Vikings on my mother’s side, and a paternal grandfather who left a school-teaching job in Ireland to fight with the British army in South Africa. Anyway, as soon as I got anything resembling the interview I needed from my Native American subjects, I’d zip out of there, sweating, recriminating myself, speeding like I’d robbed a liquor store. With this less-than-stellar track record under my belt, my hopes were in the medium to deflated range as I drove to Wyoming with half a dozen other Coloradoans to attend Stanford Addison’s horse-training clinic. When I got to the reservation — an undulating and parched prairie with the glimmering peaks of the Wind River Range behind it — I was downright nervous.

Stanford rolled out of his battered manufactured home in an electric wheelchair. He passed beneath the front porch light dangling from a single wire and glided down the wooden ramp. He leaned back, his head resting on a padded brace, his body bouncing passively every time his chair hit a rough spot. As he got closer, my gaze skittered to the dirt beneath the wheels, to the sky above his head, to anywhere else, and irresistibly back to him. His motionless feet were covered by bright-white ankle socks that had clearly never touched the ground. His legs protruded, sticklike, from nylon shorts. Acne scars dotted his shoulders. His arms tapered to long, graceful hands. His face was pockmarked and thin. A long black braid hung down his back.I had never seen bad luck heaped so hugely upon a human body. He looked at me, his gaze mild, open, alert, and unblinking. It walloped me just the way beauty would. Shit, I thought, blushing to the roots of my hair. It felt like he could see every little place in me that had gone hard and rigid and smiling. Shit.

After the four days required for the article I was writing were up, I had difficulty getting myself back into my car. I wanted to stay at Stan’s, near the horse that had treated me to a short flight across the corral before I somehow landed on my feet. I wanted to be near the Arapaho kids who sat on the corral fence, chattering and giggling like a row of sparrows. I didn’t want to leave the cool, clear, hay-smelling mornings and the blasting afternoon heat. Most of all, I wanted to stay close to Stanford, who generated — or transmitted — an energy that I could not fathom but which enlivened me in every cell. It just plain hurt to leave.

But I had no idea how to respond to that kind of pain. I had no idea that my cells needed enlivening of any sort. I hadn’t come to the reservation as a spiritual pilgrim; I wanted neither a sacred feather nor an Indian name. I wanted a good story, and I’d gotten one. Habit being just as strong a force as my inexplicably and newly enlivened cells, I got back in my car and drove south to my perfectly comfortable life — comfortable in that I was 42 years old with a nice career as a magazine writer, with a boyfriend I loved, a little house of my own in a great little town, and a cat. Sure, I’d had a very strange relationship with my father, and even though I badly wanted to get married, I always seemed to derail it when it became a possibility. But I didn’t 47consider myself a seeker or a particularly wounded person; I was a contender. I was sure of it.

I didn’t go back to Stanford’s for nine months. But then my boyfriend went on a long trip to Asia, and I returned to Wyoming with a big idea: I could write a book about Stanford. I moved north for five months of what I figured would be research into the harrowing transformations this man had endured. As a teenager, he had been a charismatic bronco buster and drug dealer. He’d been paralyzed in a car accident at age 20 and soon thereafter started receiving unwelcome visits from spirits intent on endowing him with unwanted gifts. After a decade of despair, he eventually accepted what he had lost and gained, and he settled into his new role as a horse gentler and traditional healer.

I lived only a day’s drive from Stanford’s house, so I figured I could spend a week in Wyoming, then a week at home, cleverly titrating my exposure to a household that lay relatively close to my own but culturally located in another universe. I was old enough to know that the violence, poverty, and strange magic of life on Indian reservations could do a lot to throw you sideways.

And I knew that if I took care of myself, I could do a better job as a journalist. But six weeks passed with my never once being brushed by the remotest desire to go home. So I stayed. I slept in a rented room nearby so I’d have the quiet and space to write, but I always returned to my bed well after midnight. I’d arrive at Stanford’s late each winter morning and sit at the kitchen table, drinking Folgers and telling stories. I’d watch the people who came for healing at the sweat lodges he held twice a week, a ceremony he conducted with equal parts spiritual power and low-key human humor. “Time to get going,” he once said. “Bring me my helmet and my cape.” People didn’t just come for the sweat lodge; they came for his counsel. They arrived in large, old-model American cars, eased themselves onto the bench at the kitchen table, and sat quietly or teased the kids before going into Stanford’s room to watch TV and chat or sometimes close the door to talk privately. Eventually, they would emerge and go to their cars, where they’d procure a folded blanket or a meatloaf in a huge, disposable aluminum pan, offer it to Stanford, and drive off, as Stanford called to his nephew to help empty his urine bag. Sometimes, wiping the table after dinner or crunching over a snowy field to see which mares had foaled, I would break into laughter — I felt so unburdened from the puritanical hand that held my nose to the grindstone of my culture’s definition of success, which was production.

Stanford’s house seemed like a version of The Waltons, although unlike the Depression-era Christian farmers in the good-sized farmhouse, who bade each other good night in buttoned-up nightshirts, the rotating cast of Addisons (plus nephews and other teenagers taking a break from their own families) often slept in their clothes on couches or on the floor — altogether, surrounded by the snowy plains. The horses were out there, snug in their fluffy chestnut, bay, gray, and Appaloosa coats, breathing steam in the winter night.

Only when I lost my purse, with all my ID and credit cards inside, in the nearby town of Lander did I return to Colorado to confirm, in more ways than one, my identification. What happened? I loved the close quarters and constant connection of life in this Arapaho household. I loved the sweat lodges. But more than anything else, I loved what came through Stanford pretty much constantly, what I slowly came to recognize as divinity. In Stanford Addison’s kitchen, I quit worrying. As I listened to the stories of my new, interesting, worthy friends, my own twists of fate started looking a lot less like doom and more like the way things are. Here, outside the bubble of good fortune that constituted material reality for most people of my age, class, and race, I could actually learn something useful. This Arapaho man had suffered more than anyone I had ever met. He’d endured physical pain I could only imagine. He had fucked up extravagantly when he was young, gotten hurt and then suicidal, but now he was kind and wise because all his misfortune had pried him away from serving his own ego above all else. He had spun the worst kind of misfortune into something reverent and beautiful and real. He showed me the rock-bottom truth so often obscured from the white middle class: life doesn’t do a damn thing you think it will do. But it went much deeper than that.

I pulled up to Stanford’s house one dark, freezing night, shortly after I moved to Wyoming. There were maybe a dozen Chevy Cavaliers, Ford trucks, and Impalas parked outside. The sweat lodge was over, and the feast was in full swing. The steam pouring from the huge aluminum pots of stew I’d helped prepare that afternoon made the kitchen window run with thin strings of water. Through the window, I could see blurred figures moving. Someone with a plate stopped and backtracked into the food line. Somebody hugged someone else. I turned off my ignition and found I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move into that love. It would rearrange me in such a way that I wouldn’t recognize myself. And I didn’t want to become unrecognizable to myself, so I drove away.

I still didn’t have enough receptors to fully receive the feeling I got around Stan, but I was developing a few of them. They certainly weren’t operational when I arrived here. His surgeon’s wife had once told me, “Physiology is at its greatest when you try to heal a wound; try to trick the body into healing.” That seemed doubly true of wounds of the heart. All this time my heart had remained as stubbornly invalid as Stan’s body. It had to be tricked into healing, and my adventures here were doing that. But wait, they weren’t wounds. They weren’t as much something cut as something prevented. They were like stumps, stumps where limbs or muscles should have grown. Around Stan, my insides got warm. Something reared in my blood like the quicksilver devotion of a child, devotion combined with hope and fear — a real razor’s edge of fear in every cell — that this devotion would be dropped again, that it would bounce off the court while Stanford was taking a water break.

But it never was. He sat there, watching. There was nothing else for him to do. He was in a wheelchair, after all. But the man did love his work. Maybe it wasn’t magic as much as it was God, the thing on the other side of the thing that is Stanford Addison. Or maybe it was simply the right kind of attention, which seems as ordinary as a baloney and mayo on Wonder bread. Stan was made of attention. He gave it freely. He saw me; saw what I could do. He saw everyone else, too. This seems ordinary, but it’s actually extremely rare — maybe even rarer than magic.

What I brought to the mix was devotion. Could it be brought out of the family icebox, defrosted, and encouraged to make its shaky offering, this time in company it took me 40 years to find? Company that melted my purest devotion right out of me, like modern mining techniques leach molecules out of heaps of gray rock? My heart unfurled, not because it felt ready but because conditions were such that it was compelled to assume its original position. And that was what it felt like: my heart’s original position.

I started to realize there is a love that comes before and after and above and below romantic love. It is inextricably connected to surrender. More than anyone I’ve ever met, Stan practiced that kind of love. Sure, his body had been reduced to only what was required to sustain life, and he regularly terrified me and his family with how close he could come to death. Maybe it was easier to practice this broader love in his culture, which had been severed from victory for so long that it had been freed up (to put it politely) to explore humility in its various forms. Having no expectations carries its own problems. But to me, coming as I do from a culture that accepts nothing less than victory, nothing less than gain in every single situation, it felt like freedom.

The love I felt for Stanford had been driving me all along. It was inside me, like a mineral. The thought of losing him made me cry. But to have tears flow relaxed my heart, this same heart that had been slammed shut 15 years earlier when I stood on a beach in Nova Scotia, drinking beer at my dad’s wake and saying to my sister, “Do you feel anything? I don’t feel anything.”

Finding Your Center

Stanford had been a bronc buster in his rebellious teenage years. But after he was confined to his wheelchair at age 20, he sat on the side of the corral, watched his brothers break horses, and figured out what worked and what didn’t.

He eventually pieced together a horse-gentling method that earned a reputation as both efficient and nonviolent. The same bronc-busting deputy sheriff who occasionally checked Stanford’s nephews into the local jail would come to his corral on weekends for horse tips.

Stanford’s technique played on the fact that horses are herd animals; prey animals with a strong need to be assured of safety and to know the rules. After incrementally making contact with the horse and putting a halter on it, Stanford would come to the centerpiece of his horse-gentling technique.

This occurred with the help of the center line — a rope threaded through a secure apparatus suspended above the horse. The rope had a clip that dangled at the same level as a ring on the horse’s halter. Once the horse was clipped to the center line, there was only one place — directly below the ring — where it could stand without having its head pulled upward at an uncomfortable angle. While the horse tested the limits of its confinement — fussing, whinnying, trotting in place, making moves usually seen in yoga studios — Stanford shooed everyone away from the corral so there was no one for the horse to associate with its distress. Alone in the corral, the horse invariably eventually figured out that the center line was something he couldn’t argue with. The horse’s finding a way to be calm, despite the obstacles it faced, was key to Stanford’s horse-training regime. It was also key to his whole existence. He called it “finding your center.”

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