Whose tractor is that?

Jun. 14, 2014 @ 08:10 AM

I recently inflated my bike tires near the barn and none of the horses took note of the loud whooshing sound that escaped when I pulled the pump off of the valve stem.  The horses kept grazing, but Peter’s spotted mule lifted his head and snorted in fear.  Cledus was certain that whatever this was, it was out to get him.

When I mowed his field a couple of weeks ago the big bay horse, Virgil, kept his nose in the grass.  When I needed to clip beneath Virgil’s hooves I stopped and waited while he ambled over to a new patch.  Meanwhile, Cledus sprinted around the pasture, never noticing that the tractor moved slowly and predictably.  In his mind, wherever it was going, it was surely going after him.

I spend a lot of time around animals and I love that I can learn life skills by watching them.  Years ago I managed a flock of over 20 ewes.  At feeding time I observed as they ran to the big round feeders, inserting their wooly heads between curved bars designed to keep them from crowding each other as they feasted. 

Some ewes put their heads into the feeders and consumed their portion without interruption.  Others, the more willy-nilly of the flock, took a few bites from a first spot, and then ran around the feeder seeking something more.  They loved their feed, but they lived their lives with certainty that there would never be enough.  We always had two or three of these seekers, and they traded places -- like the musical chairs game -- for the duration of the meal.  I assume that they eventually consumed the same amount of feed as the others, but they expended a tremendous amount of energy doing it.

While I circled the tractor around the long rectangular field I watched Cledus panic and run repeatedly.  Even when my arc pointed the machine away from him, he remained on high alert.  While Virgil grazed calmly, Cledus shook in his spots.

Tractor time is good thinking time for me, so I thought about Cledus and I felt badly for him.  He must have had a rough start in life, for no matter what is happening, he takes it personally.  Though I care for him daily, he still doesn’t trust me.

I thought about the many times in my life when I’ve acted like Cledus -- not so wildly panicked, perhaps, but just as sure that some tractor had my name on it.  I thought of the days I’ve spent in worry, the stories I’ve created to bolster myself -- to create escape routes, and to prepare myself for the inevitable collision.  To continue the metaphor, I’ve even argued with a few oncoming tractors.

And just like Cledus, I was wrong.

Byron Katie is a counselor who overcame devastating circumstances to become a healer and helper to others.  She created a series of four questions (thework.com) to lead people through a sorting-out process of what is going on in their lives.  But there is a fifth question that could help old Cledus, the willy-nilly ewes, and me, too.

 “Whose business are you in right now?”

Katie helps us see that we all create stories in response to perceived threats, and through those stories we suffer.  Cledus’ story is that everyone wants to hurt him, and so he runs in fright when he could put his head down and graze, like Virgil.

Next time I inflate a tire or fire up the tractor, I wish I could tell Cledus that this is my business -- to ride or to mow -- and not his.  His job is grazing, and that’s about it, just like the ewes’ only obligation was to eat their dinner. 

To be sure, sometimes the tractor does have my name on it.  Sometimes an escape plan makes sense.  But often when I worry, I’m in someone else’s’ business.  I am telling myself stories that aren’t really true.  All I really need to do is put my head down and eat, just like Virgil does.

A CHH columnist since 1998, Susan Gladin is a freelance writer, United Methodist minister and curriculum coordinator at the Johnson Intern Program in Chapel Hill. She tends horses and a home business on the farm she shares with her husband. Their two grown daughters live nearby. You may e-mail her at sgladin@gmail.com, or write c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.