The lineup of speakers was thrilling and intimidating. I’d be sharing the stage with luminaries in the horse world such as Linda Kahonov, Ariana Strozzi Mazzucchi, Chantal Prat, and more. I wondered what I had to offer the audience when compared to researchers, neuroscientists, people who’d ridden from Alaska to Chile, or in the Mongolian Derby for goodnessakes!
I also wanted to try something different. Warwick advised all of the invitees to take our 19 minutes in the spotlight to bring what we wanted to see into the world.
I obsessed over how I’d present the Square Peg story, or perhaps my personal journey. Then it hit me. We often attend conferences like this looking for a hidden truth, a process, a protocol, a snippet of wisdom that enhances our lives, or untangles a knot in our brains or guts. We’re willing to hike to the tops of mountains to meet a guru, or to study at the foot of the master for as long as it takes.
But what if an answer has always been right at our fingertips? What if there’s a magic potion in our pocket or at least just within reach that makes it all better?
This is the topic of my talk.
I was willing to go to some uncomfortable places to get us all to that place – to that medicine.
I had two secret weapons with me. Two key staff, Emma Bond and Kemma Peters accompanied me to San Antonio. They brought the magic sauce with them. Their timing, their willingness, brought it all home.
In middle school, I remember sitting in a circle of eight girls. We were at an age when girls are developing emotional skills at an accelerated pace. One girl was losing her mom to cancer and two of the other girls had lost their mothers already. They were telling their stories of cancer and pain and guilt and loss. It was as emotional as can be. The whole group was sobbing.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t sad. I just couldn’t cry. I looked around the circle and wondered what the heck was wrong with me.
I pretended to cry. I looked down and copied the heaving chests, the running noses. I wiped my face as if to push away tears that didn’t exist. I wanted to honor their stories and boy oh boy did I want to be able to cry.
In the 40 years since, I can remember three or four solid crying sessions. The kind that leave you tired and empty – but empty in a cleaned out sort of way.
I “mist up” like any human, but I’m lucky if a single tear erupts and then the opportunity just evaporates.
I’m checking my privileges. I’ve led a charmed life of health and freedom. But my career has me holding space for people as they process all kids of grief and loss. As I hold space for people to grieve and process – I wish I could dip in and borrow a little bit of the relief a good cry offers.
Once I read a piece of mine to a group of writers. It was an emotional piece about a pony who died that I respected and cherished. I looked up at the end of the piece to the instructor and she said;
“Look around Joell.”
I beheld a room full of crying people of different ages. People I knew and people I’d just met and I’d moved them to feel something deep. As usual, I envied their tears.
I used to cry in my sleep until I realized that I knew I was dreaming of crying. I’d immediately either wake up or dream that my crying was interrupted.
Have I become so jaded, so guarded, so controlling that I won’t give myself permission to feel? This notion is a nasty heavy thought to haul around – I don’t recommend it.
But something happened yesterday.
Becca asked me to help with a new family. She hoped my knowledge and insight could help draw out from the mother some ideas of how to serve the family.
The daughter has a host of diagnosis’ with an overarching label of “failure to thrive.” Those three words alone should make any mother cry – especially mothers of premature babies.
The daughter is four years old. She’s not able to crawl or hold her gaze for long. Her head and eyes loll about as she squirms like an infant. A golf ball sized growth on her forehead distracts you from her velvet blue eyes and her downy soft curly hair.
Becca was on Mowgli – the world’s best back riding horse. He’s an imported gelding deemed “too lazy” to be a dressage horse. He’s a closed book emotionally. He prefers to be alone. He’s trustworthy, obedient and steady but not affectionate or joyful. He shows no preference for particular humans but is extremely clear if he has a dislike for another horse. If you were to ask me what motivates him – I’d say he likes to be peacefully alone.
The mother strapped her daughter into an infant’s pouch across the mother’s chest and approached us. Mowgli never flinched when the daughter’s legs kicked out in excitement. The child stuck out her tongue and leaned towards Mowgli’s head. Her hand reached directly toward his eye. She leaned her forehead on his face and she softly licked his cheek.
Any horseperson knows that the mother and the child were milliseconds away from an injury should Mowgli shake his head to remove a fly. They were in an invasive spot to the horse’s face and could be nudged hard by his nose, nipped by his teeth or bonked by the hard bones of his jaw.
Looking at Mowgli, I saw a softening I’ve never seen from him: A quietness and a kindness that wasn’t patience or fortitude, but a flow of care and sweetness and stillness he’s never shown to another creature in the years we’ve had him.
My chest tightened and tears welled as I looked him in the eye and asked him with my mind “Are you sure you’re ok?”
Mowgli’s look told me to either leave them alone, or kindly rest into the sweetness and allow all of us to feel our way into a communion of innocence and presence. My tears, as usual, evaporated. I allowed the peace, the stillness, and the kindness to wash over me.
The question of how to help parents, teachers, and community members understand that many children who have been identified as having “behavior issues” that have traditionally been dealt punishments, isolation, and worse actually are desperately needing attunement, care, and acceptance is on my mind very much.
I could spend time “preaching to the choir” talking to families of people with kids that have been labeled as challenging and we could compare horror stories of how their kids had been treated badly in the community – but while that helps hold space for families, I wanted to assemble something for others to explore and to expand their understanding of how brains work, how real compassion is not “coddling” and also to bring a sense of curiosity that may lead people to explore this work.
The challenge then, becomes one of getting people’s interest. One of my favorite ways to think about sparking interest is to make something funny, catchy, accessible and entertaining. But how do you make the intersection of brain science and compassion entertaining without undermining the critical nature of both subjects?
My solution: an amateur parody of a song that is widely known, catchy and, well – fun.
I chose Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Alexander Hamilton” because it’s a well-known story born from trauma that develops into triumph; because it’s got a lot of words in it so that I could fit a lot of concepts into the parody and because I just love the tune.
Below the video is a list of resources – a toolkit of sorts – most of them mentioned in the parody lyrics and I few that I think are useful on many levels for building classrooms and communities that can recognize toxic stress in people and react with attunement, co-regulation and kindness where we might otherwise be defensive, angry or confused.
I’d like to thank the staff of Square Peg Foundation for being such good sports as I finagled them into singing lyrics, reviewing footage, and mostly for being shining beacons of humanity in exemplifying trauma informed practices.
DELAHOOKE, M. (2019). Beyond behaviors: Effective neuroscience-based tools to transform childhood behaviors. Eau Claire WI: PESI, Inc.
DESAUTELS, L. (2020). Connections over compliance: Rewiring our perceptions of discipline. Deadwood, OR: Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing.
HARRIS, Nadine Burke (2020). Deepest well: Healing the long-term effects of childhood adversity. BLUEBIRD.
HARRIS, Nadine Burke (2019) Written Statement of Dr. Nadine Burke Harris Surgeon General of California Before the Committee on Education and Labor United States House of Representatives Full Committee Hearing: Trauma-Informed Care in Schools https:// edlabor.house.gov/imo/media/doc/BurkeHarrisTestimony091119.pdf
Here’s hoping your Holidays have been healthy and kind.
Here at Square Peg, we have so much to be thankful for. The rains have finally arrived and despite the mud, we are thankful for the water that is quenching California. We are thankful for the support of our community, for the trust of our families and for the kindness and the generosity of our horses.
Last month, Stanton Hill, an accomplished filmmaker reached out to us to offer a gift of his tremendous talent. Due to COVID travel restrictions, we were only able to provide him with stock video of Square Peg. He studied our website, asked a few great questions and what he turned out took our breath away.
Enjoy Stanton’s 1:00 video showcasing the horses – Square Peg’s real heroes and capturing the majesty, the love, and the healing they bring.
Here’s to precious gifts.
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Indian summer is the best time of the year. Foggy mornings turn to warm days. But the daylight hours erode and longer nights sneak in. Soon the rains will come to the thirsty hills and quell the raging wildfires.
As days get shorter, I face the limitation of what we can accomplish in a day. Precious daylight hours are shrinking and caring for horses is difficult in the oncoming months. Volunteer excitement wanes and water pipes will freeze and break. Every year I’m older. Lifting feed and wrapping injured legs gets more difficult.
As mild as Coastal California winters are, chores must be done.
The heaviness I feel is not the shortened daylight hours but rather the weight of the waiting list.
Families are asking for help. Calls, texts, Facebook and Instagram messenger, emails and visits. Their stories haunt us. They fill out our online forms and I tell them about the waiting list.
Can I bear to tell them about the other 120 families on the list? Our staff obsessively reviews the list. Instinctively, we press our palms to our hearts while reading the families’ stories. Sometimes we just hug each other and try to find the time and the strength to make more room.
Recognizing the waiting list is a testament to the quality of our work brings strength to our efforts.
I make the staff a cup of strong coffee and we remind each other that having a day off is critical to our health. But it doesn’t go down easily. Our eyes scan the weekly calendar looking for a slot, looking for an opportunity to make room for more.
Good business people wisely say- “just hire more staff.” We search our networks looking for potential staff with the”it” factor. The people who “get it.” People with mad horsemanship skills, curiosity, joie de vivre, humor, humility, responsibility. People who embrace their experience of feeling like an outcast and flipping the script for the learners in their charge. People who understand the toxicity of our own narrow mindedness and courageously explore and expand their humanity. People who know the restorative power of laughter. People who can catch lizards, re-word Irish drinking songs and hip-hop singles into age appropriate jingles on the fly. People willing to be vigilant and vulnerable, with superior judgement, natural compassion and an ability to care deeply are treasures not easily found.
The weight of the waiting list gets heavier when people call with a horse that can no longer carry their dreams on the racetrack, the show ring or down trails. They want their horse to bring joy to Square Peg families. I have to tell them we are more than full, and that our time and budgets and space are already over taxed. I stay awake at night thinking of placements for those horses. Sometimes, I have ideas or suggestions or options – but not always and the weight is heavy.
The weight of the waiting list means carving out time to advise people who have a dream to start or grow a similar program. Perhaps our experience can benefit new programs that will serve their communities.
I sit with the weight of the waiting list in the early morning before the horses are fed. In the quiet before the daily joyful circus starts I think about the beautiful things that unfolded yesterday – of the challenges the day will bring. I’m inspired by the curious open faces of the horses who greet me and I do what I can to connect to that eagerness – that ability to stand in the moment with an open heart.
Being present is lovely but I’m the executive director bearing the weight of the waiting list. Planning, learning from past mistakes, building, re-organizing, supporting are tasks I must face.
The weight of the waiting list is a calling to growth, to cultural change. It’s a chance to prove, what we know is true – that care, safe spaces, dignity and joy heal our minds, our families and our communities.
I will tell the story we call “The Summer of Surprise Haircut.” I’ve changed the names to protect the savages but – they know who they are.
I’m making generalizations here but humor me. Barns are full of girls/women and we are of a type. Ball caps, sunburns and pony tails, dirty fingernails, loud laughs and clothes stained with sweat, horse medicines, axle grease not to mention, cat and dog hair and the ever present horse slobber.
The Summer of the Surprise Haircut was typical in that our employees, volunteers, working students and interns reflected the description above.
Kendra was sitting on a tack box between stalls trying to eat lunch while fending off nibbles from horses on both sides. Eventually, she gave up and ran her hands down her red rope braid of hair and inspected the ends that looked like they’d been gnawed by small animals. She commented on the state of her hair and I and several others realized we were all in the same boat. Wind, sun, sweat, and a lack of interest in products contributed to this condition.
Suddenly, without warning, Delphine rushed over, grabbed Kendra’s braid and hacked off three inches of her hair with a pair of shears we used for horse tails and baling twine.
“SUPRISE HAIRCUT!” She screamed.
Kendra’s mouth dropped and everyone rolled with belly laughs at the audacious act.
Delphine held the cut hair high like a trophy and jumped up and down while we all laughed ourselves silly.
Of course Kendra’s hair looked hacked, of course she’d need to visit an experienced beautician to “fix” it – but still, it was funny. Savagely funny.
That summer, without warning, there were many surprise haircuts. Unspoken rules developed; she who had been the recipient of a surprise haircut was on the prowl to deliver the next one and so it went all summer.
I found girls hiding in the tack room crying over an attack and each time, I left them alone to come to the realization that our hair does not define us and despite feeling attacked and violated, it was, in actuality, just hilarious fun.
Toward the end of summer, I was reaching into a tack box to retrieve a favorite half pad when I heard several sets of boots running at me yelling “SUPRISE HAIRCUT.” The deed was done so swiftly and savagely I didn’t have time to defend myself. Despite being 30 years older than the girls, I too lost a good three inches of sun streaked hair. As a group, we fell to the ground laughing – each of us had lost something, and each of us needed to come to the conclusion that we we’d lost was simply an unhelpful attachment to something we assumed defined us, but in fact, this was a fallacy.
Perhaps the best part of the joke is “Get over yourself.”
Whenever I tell this story, even to barn girls, people squirm and one or two invariably let me know “That’s not even remotely funny Joell.” And of course, they are basically correct. But to talk to any of those teens about “the summer of Surprise Haircut” and they all fall into peals of deep laughter.
Was this just a particularly rough bunch of teens that year?
Perhaps, but I think not.
By now you know that our horses are primarily Off Track Thoroughbreds and almost exclusively geldings. When we turn them out in pasture for their social time, you can’t help but marvel at the shenanigans that happen with healthy horses of all ages get to roll and run and wrestle.
Most of the time it’s all good fun but sometimes there are bruises and bleeding. Roles are developed and re-organized, personalities and preferences bubble up and we watch the horses explore limits, push boundaries, try out new behaviors and discover, over and over again – the joy of mischief.
So what is mischief and why is it charming? Is it character building? Is it healthy?
I think the important part about mischief is that it’s an illustration that somebody feels safe enough to push boundaries in a joyful way. Do lines get crossed? They do and most often the boundary crosser is rebuked for their efforts. But if that boundary is pushed just enough – we laugh and laugh and bonds are created and strengthened, community and friendships are developed and life is simply…. Better.
It’s the same with teen girls and adolescent Thoroughbreds.
Humor is multi-layered and complicated. Mischief takes this one step further and illustrates complex ideas such as rules and how to point out how ineffective they might be, social context of understanding, absurdity and more. If you want to get all “neuroscience-ish” about it, you might see how Theory of Mind is developing, the rich dance of boundaries and relationships, advocacy, agency are developed and re-shaped.
For the record, this is turning out to be “The Summer of the Well-Placed Plastic Snake.”
A dear friend is a trauma specialist. Not only is she tremendously effective as a therapist, she’s wildly curious about different approaches. She’s open, thoughtful and fearless in exploring other modalities and theories.
She visited a neuro-feedback specialist in just this fashion.
She asked the specialist what she needed to divulge about her history in order to get started. The specialist said “Nothing. I don’t want any backstory to color my initial evaluation.”
Intrigued, my friend submitted to the measurements, the tests and the observations.
Eventually, the specialist pronounced “Well, I don’t see any evidence of childhood trauma in your brain.”
My friend gently informed the specialist that the observation was entirely untrue. My friend has a prolonged, horrific and documented traumatic childhood until the age of seven.