The Horse Whisperer and an infertility survivor’s journey

I’m not a big movie person. I confess I typically stick to my usual action and comedy genres – James Bond and the American Pie series are some of my favorites, to give you an idea. So when my husband, who rode horses throughout his childhood, and I sat down to watch The Horse Whisperer a few nights ago, I was expecting a good movie with beautiful cinematography and that’s about it.


About halfway through I started releasing full body sobs. The same again ¾ of the way through. Not the kind where, after a poignant scene tears seep gently from one’s eyelids. No, not that kind at all. It was the kind where you experience something so connective it’s as if you are witnessing the very core of your being in movie form. The kind where, at the end of the movie, you are gasping for air because the impact of its significance stole your breath.

“They – got – everything – I – don’t – know – how- they – did – that” were some of the first words I choked out, hoping to offer some explanation to my sweetly abiding husband.

And just what was that explanation, in non – crying terms? The Horse Whisperer brilliantly, boldly, subtly yet perfectly takes us on a journey through the realities of recovering from trauma and loss. In other words, it’s a movie that “totally gets it.”

And how was it for me to see my deepest truths that I question on a daily basis and never see reflected out in the world playing out on screen? Healing. Healing and revelatory, to say the least.

The very short of it, for those who haven’t seen it, is that a girl and her friend have an accident while out riding their horses that includes a collision with an 18 wheeler. The girl’s friend and horse perish, the girl loses half a leg and her horse sustains life threatening injuries. Not able to “get back to normal”, the girl’s Mom drives the damaged horse and her daughter cross country to a far off the beaten path Montana farm where the horse whisperer resides, in hopes that he can affect the situation for the better.

I sobbed for the lack of control that was so blatantly depicted in this movie. The accident happened in a twilit picturesque country scene with softly falling snow during a giggly pre – teen conversation about boys. There is something quite innocent about embarking on trying to make a baby, isn’t there? It’s all hopes and dreams and promise for the future laden with few worries. And the gutting moment of the accident where Grace’s horse threw itself up against the 18 wheeler? Showing your entire arsenal of love in the face of a force that is more powerful and/or just plain indifferent to you is a most annihilating of experiences. And I don’t care what kind of “your attitude matters – acceptance – flow with what life gives you” clueless detached garble someone wants to spew in your direction. Throwing down all you’ve got and losing feels horrible and is life altering.

I oozed gratitude when, in a later scene, the horse whisperer (played by Robert Redford) cradles Grace and offers that what happened to her could have happened to him, or anyone else. And this character became my official hero when he encourages her to not pursue a “why”. So funny, I think, that the responses we get to our losses and traumas center so much around “why”. Divorcing oneself from why is a tough prospect, even the whisperer waited until the girl came to him. I know my entire being screamed “why?” for a few years anyway until I was able to start to let it go, to begin to reconcile myself with the fact that what was tearing me and my life apart was at its core random and could happen to anyone. But “everything happens for a reason” and all related gluttonous meaning making platitudes are both distancing and separating. Most who suffer loss and trauma who are brave enough to traverse through the bowels of their own sorrow and despair come to a place where they know full well “why”, in addition to the possibility it may not exist as all, is fucking irrelevant. I’ve come to learn the unsolicited assignments of purpose and meaning to my losses as the ultimate act of disconnection, and the willingness of someone to see a piece of themselves in me, (or in other words, the “what happened to you could have happened to anyone” acknowledgement), an ultimate act of compassion.

Oh and the horse, what that horse had to go through. “This is just so hard” I kept thinking to myself as I shook from sobs of validation, watching Pilgrim marinate in his fear, kick, run off, push people away and be broken. Healing is often portrayed as this fairy dusted silver lined bubble of positivity, when in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Healing is a nasty business. It requires a closeness with fear and an intimate connection with the darkness. It asks of you to come further undone, to become one with your brokenness and differences, when that’s the last thing you think you can take any more of. Yes Virginia, healing is hard. And there is no prescription for trauma, no owner’s manual for the reconciliation of loss. It is a highly internal process, best expressed by the whisperer when he so intelligently said, when repeatedly asked “how long?” in regards to the horse’s healing process, “Pilgrim will tell us.”

The in the middle of nowhere Montana farm where they went to heal offered all of the necessary ingredients to do so. First of all, one had to fight hard just to get there. It was far outside of mainstream society, the roads leading to it unmarked (please, I’m just rolling in the symbolism). It was undeniably spacious, unfamiliar, gentle and entailed an inclusive non – judgmental community. The contentment of the outside a most suitable container for the turmoil on the inside. But it was a limited, one dimensional place. It was a place of authenticity and connection, yet a place one has to, eventually, leave.

That in the end Grace’s Mom exits this place not really knowing where she’s going rang so true for me. When you emerge from something forever changed, the unfolding of the internal path is unpredictable, yet when you’re following your gut you need not worry about your lack of a prescribed future. And that she left the horse behind in the end was a bit to grapple with, but I quickly thought of how many months have I spent on the healing of some of my broken pieces only to then shed them, realizing they are part of the old me, my old life, or that I won’t be able to really move forward unless I leave them behind.

The characters seemed to me the embodiment of all we have to be in order to heal. There’s Grace, the wounded one. I completely identified with her alienating attempt to return to school, realizing her old familiar world now felt foreign even though it was, technically, still the same. I felt a piece of myself as she traveled in the back seat cross country with her mom, indifferent to questions like “should we find a place to stop and eat before it gets dark?” This indifference, this not caring feeling is something I’ve experienced a lot of, something that although it seems to be waning a bit, still looms. I found myself saying to my husband “Well, let’s see…..she lost half her leg, her horse may be irreparably damaged, her best friend died, her innocence and life as she knew it is gone……really who cares if you stop before or after dark??? I mean, seriously, who in the hell cares????” Needless to say, I could relate.

And then there was her Mom, who, ironically, exhibited the steely resolve necessary to heal for those of us who wanted to mother but will not get to. She was willing to think outside the box, go anywhere and not just be outside of her comfort zone but immerse herself in the unfamiliar in order to provoke motion and affect change.

And the horse whisperer – the embodiment of what is, abidance, compassion and of balance. Balance between forcing and letting go, between knowing how life works and how it doesn’t. What more can I say?

I agree everyone heals in their own time and way, and that there are many variations in the grieving process, but the commonalities continue to fascinate. “It’s as if they KNOW me” I said to my husband while swept away by my connection to it all.

Oh, and of course I love that Grace’s amputated leg was barely even a sub plot. As those of us who have not been spared life’s harsher brutalities are likely to figure, we know that was the least of her troubles. The loss of innocence, sense of self, sense of safety and connection in this world are undoubtedly loftier hurdles to clear.

I spent some time pondering the horse’s name, Pilgrim. The definition of pilgrim seems broad. It encompasses someone who travels for reasons either holy, personal, or both. An element of devotion is often involved. And in all definitions I read, it was implied the journey is long. Wikipedia defines a pilgrimage as “..a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance.” Since I couldn’t find any commentary on the level of perceived choice in the matter, I conclude a pilgrimage could be either voluntary or involuntary. I also noted that my ancestors, the pilgrims who landed on the coast of what is now Massachusetts almost 400 years ago, were originally called “separatists”, which, also basing on my personal experience, implies to me the dynamic of separation and connection may be alive and well on the course of a pilgrimage. The word pilgrim is derived from the Latin “peregrinus” which means foreigner, and the English “peregrine” which means wandering.

In colloquial terms, the process of stopping fertility treatments, stopping trying to get pregnant, or facing the fact one cannot have children, for whatever medical reason, and grieving the loss of parenthood, could be cased as many things. An “adjustment”, perhaps, or a “transition”. A period of mourning and rebuilding, no doubt. These things are not inaccurate, but it is so much more. We will run into those who think we should be “better” or “over it”. We will rub shoulders with those who won’t acknowledge anything ever happened at all. We will walk side by side for a while with those who, in wanting good for us, think our new lives we didn’t ask for should be taking shape more quickly and sensicaly than they are. And we will have those in our lives who, in spite of their best love and intentions, will continue to be unsettled by the space we need, the tributaries we must swim, and the vast expanses of land we must cover in order to grieve, mourn, soothe, disconnect, reconnect, sort, expel, feel, re-integrate our sense of self and find our new place in this world. And further, we will experience pieces of all of the above in ourselves.

Yes folks, make no mistake about it. The transition from infertility to a child free not by choice life is many things. But most of all, it is, unequivocally, a pilgrimage.

It’s ironic that, as a descendant of people who were on the Mayflower, that on this Thanksgiving here in the US I find myself wrapped up in my own very different and much more internal pilgrimage, a sliver of it being played out during this holiday season. As November and December are not viable times to travel due to my husband’s business, we find ourselves stuck at home with the smothering insignificance this time of year now brings to us. How will this forever changed families with kids focused time of year now function for us? As the holiday season approaches, we feel like wandering foreigners, this much we know for sure. Will we end up forging new traditions, flying under the radar, or playing it casual? All we really know is that the journey to our destination unknown will be long. And that this year on Thanksgiving, we’ll be having sushi.

May you be able to experience respect and awe for your own pilgrimages, either today or whenever the opportunity arises.

XXOO Sarah

10 thoughts on “PILGRIMAGE

  • Pilgrimage. What a perfect metaphor! Captures our experience on so many levels. Will be raising a glass to you later today in gratitude for illuminating with such raw and real emotion the waves of healing and discovery that accompany this pilgrimage. xo

    p.s. If you liked The Horse Whisperer, you will love Buck — a documentary based on the man who inspired the character in The Horse Whisperer. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1753549/ … the documentary’s tagline says it all: ‘There’s no wisdom worth having that isn’t hard won’

    • Thanks for the link, I can’t wait to check it out!

      This movie was such an elixir – I often feel like I’m living in a cesspool of rising above, forced positivity and manipulated outcomes. What a relief to see my own experience, that true survivors go to and then through the places that are scary to exist in, not around or over, mirrored back at me.

  • So beautiful, thank you. I watched that movie recently too and also cried buckets! The path of healing as a pilgrimage… yep! xxx

  • Such intensity in your writing here. Perhaps my favourite part: “Showing your entire arsenal of love in the face of a force that is more powerful and/or just plain indifferent to you is a most annihilating of experiences. And I don’t care what kind of “your attitude matters – acceptance – flow with what life gives you” clueless detached garble someone wants to spew in your direction. Throwing down all you’ve got and losing feels horrible and is life altering.”

    And yes, I want to see the movie too. 🙂

    • Thanks for letting me know, I like that part too:-) I think a lot of people preach acceptance as an emotional dismissal, not realizing the path to it is far from docile, that it’s about processing the absurdly unfathomable, not averting it.

  • This is just beautiful. I’ve read it several times and it just strikes a chord in my heart. I’ve never seen Horse Whisperer and now I’m not sure if I want to…seems like the type of movie that would leave me feeling raw and exposed.

    • Aw, thanks for the resonance, as I often say! I want to watch it again, but I don’t feel I have the energy, so it might be awhile. I’d definitely suggest trying to choose the “right” time as it’s not a casual movie.

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