Know Your Lessons
As I’m watching my husband bundle up to “battle the elements” and shovel us out of the first snowmageddon of 2014, I’m reminded of my childhood. As many of you know, I grew up on a cattle ranch in northwestern Montana. My dad had grown-up in Texas and had always yearned to have land and a ranch, and so when my brother was two and I was four, they loaded us up and headed west. Like for many families, my dad’s dream enlisted all of us. As a Cardiologist, he already had a full-time job, so the rest of us were put to work to earn our keep. My mother, the artist, was on-watch during calving season from her studio, and from the time I entered the third grade, at 7 years old, until I was a junior in high school (old enough to get a different job), my younger brother and I had the personal-development-opportunity of feeding the cows every night (200 cows and 1 very happy bull). Today, as I’m looking out my window at the 6 inches of snow blanketing my front yard, I’m reminded of what that entailed.
Back in the days before Gortex, staying warm and dry at 20-below-zero with the wind-chill-factor, was a feat. It was all about the layers! I’d don on my long underwear, then my mom’s on top of those, then my jeans, then my snow pants, then my mom’s snow pants. I’d have 2 or 3 scarves wrapped around my face, with my eyes barely peeking out. By the time I’d wobble out the door about 4:30pm, into the dark, I looked like the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man. The good thing, as we headed down the to the barn at the bottom of the hill, was that if we slipped and fell, we didn’t feel a thing.
The feeding routine varied very little over the years – feed the hay – feed the grain – run from the bull. When I started high school we added tease your sister, yell at your brother, but for the most part it was always the same.
My mother never had a problem finding me on the ranch as I could always be heard, acres away, singing at the top of my lungs. Our cows were very cultured cows. Every night they feasted to the tunes of Rogers and Hammerstein, whatever Mozart-art-song I was learning, or the songs from Barbara Streisand’s latest album. When I’d come in from feeding, my scarf would be frozen solid from singing and I’d actually have to chip myself out to escape.
During the summer, I’d take my act on the road, spending most of my days singing on horseback with my favorite creature on earth, Moonlight (there were long stretches in my childhood in which I swore I liked horses more than people).
What I realize, thinking back on these stories, is that most of the things that have guided me through my life from that point on, the skills that have helped me the most, have been lessons I learned on the ranch.
From the ranch I learned THE MEANING OF HARD WORK. I learned RESPONSIBILITY. If we didn’t feed the animals, they didn’t get fed. It didn’t matter how cold it was outside; it didn’t matter if someone invited us over to their house after school; it didn’t even matter if we had a big test the next day. Feeding was our responsibility. There was no “rescheduling. There was no “pushing it back”. There was no “out-sourcing”. It was on us to get it done.
On the RANCH I LEARNED THAT FEAR HAS POWER ONLY IF YOU GIVE IT POWER. Horses are amazing animals – they can sense fear a mile away. If I fell off and I didn’t get right back in the saddle – Moonlight would have never let me back in the saddle.
On the ranch my brother and I learned the value of STRENGTH, and RESOURCEFULNESS. I could toss a 40 lb saddle up on my horse without breaking a sweat. If we didn’t have the strength to toss a hay bale or lift a bucket of grain, we’d find a way to get it done. We created elaborate pulley systems and levers made out of baling twine and old planks. There was no such thing on the ranch as “I can’t do it” – the only question we asked was, “How can it be done?”
But for me, probably one of the biggest gifts I received on the ranch was understanding the importance of SOLITUDE. Living 15 miles out of town, I spent a great deal of time by myself. On those nights – standing in the middle of the pasture after feeding the hay – after filling the night with “The Sound of Music” – I would stop, and look up at the stars, and there would be a silence that made the world stand still. At those times I connected with myself – quieted the voices in my head – and felt such a sense of peace that I knew that everything was as it should be – that I was, somehow, okay. And as I looked up at the stars, in the silence, I would feel this unexplainable connection to the world around me. I found myself overwhelmed by the thought that little girls, just like me, all over the world, in India, in China, in Australia, in Europe, that they too could look up at the sky and gaze at the stars! That somehow we were all connected.
And what a gift that has been for me over the years– to be able to connect with myself – to be able to share the stars……..
We all have histories that have made us who we are. Experiences that have made us stronger. And sometimes we forget how strong and resourceful we can be…
I can’t tell you that the ranch was always a great thing. It wasn’t. It was a lot of hard work. It was a lot of sacrifice. Ranching doesn’t have the glamor that people like to imagine. But the ranch made me who I am. And now I can say something that I certainly wasn’t able to recognize back then – that, for the ranch, I feel grateful.
Know your lessons – they make you who you are. Know them and leverage them toward your best self.