Building reserves

If you’ve read “lessons from Emma” you already know that Emma is a special young lady with tremendous character.  For the last couple of years, I have watched as Emma, now in fourth grade, begins to shed the layers of little girl, making room for the young woman that is taking root inside.   There are times I am stunned to find myself doing a double take, realizing that the beauty walking by Nacho’s side, the one he is laughing with so easily, is actually his little sister.  It’s not the congeniality that takes me off guard, but the fact that I hardly recognize my own daughter.  It used to be you could spot Emma from a mile away – she had a very distinct walk; heavy, purposeful steps with her feet turned outward.  It was almost as though her legs and thighs grew before her hips could accommodate them.  But more recently, her body has begun the process of change that will carry her through adolescence into adulthood, and she begins to radiate a new sense of femininity.  Her brothers equate her “girlness” with weakness, but I tell another story.

This past fall, after long talks and gentle encouragement over the summer, Emma agreed to sign up for a karate class.  A little reluctant at first, Emma grew into the idea of doing a martial art; that she would be able to take on her brothers in combat helped.  But when we realized that getting Emma to karate would be impossible because the times didn’t work well with our after school routine, we were forced to find an alternative.  We poured over the list of community activities, searching for something that would inspire her.  Emma is not quick to grab on to sports and it often takes significant persuasion to get her make a commitment, so this was not an easy task… until we discovered that at the edge of town was a riding club, and the classes were taught at a time that we could work around.  Cautiously enthusiastic, I encouraged Emma to call her dad and ask him what he thought.  Having taken horseback riding lessons when I was a teenager, I knew that it was a big commitment, including financially.  With both dad and stepdad on board, we approached the club, watched a lesson, talked with the coach, and made our decision:  Emma would take riding lessons.

The first few times we both struggled.  Emma would get the jitters as she approached the giant creature, and her coach, insistent that she learn to be self-sufficient, would monitor us, making sure that mom wasn’t stepping in to help her where Emma didn’t need the help. I had to learn to stand back and let Emma struggle with the bridle and stirrups (I was allowed to help her put the saddle on the horse, but only because she wasn’t tall enough).  Each week has brought a new challenge for Emma, and she has learned that through confidence and will, she can overcome most of her fears.  The horse no longer decides where to walk on the dirt path leading to the arena – Emma holds the reigns firmly and makes that call herself.  Her first experience galloping was terrifying, and she spent the next two lessons trembling as she waited for her coach to direct her to gallop again.  When the time came, Emma took a deep breath, thought to herself “ok, let’s do this” and made it happen.  As she eased into it, she realized that galloping was amazing, and ever since, she has looked forward to the gallop.

Emma has learned that the horse’s character has nothing to do with its size or its color; that a horse is small does not necessarily mean it is gentle.  She and her peers have developed a healthy respect for a horse called “Chula” (an appropriate name as, in Spanish, the word refers to arrogance or cockiness).  Chula has a will of her own that is not easily dominated by 10-15 year-olds.  Emma rode Chula once in the early days, and while she was a difficult horse to manage, Emma did reasonably well.  However, since then, Chula has pulled at, bucked, and thrown children as Emma and the others watch, knowing full well that any week, it could be them.  Right now, this is Emma’s greatest fear, and there are times when it almost paralyzes her before a lesson.  Each week, her mind numb with dread, Emma goes through the motions of putting on her riding clothes and boots, and then sits in the car in absolute silence as we drive the windy dirt road to the club.  A student won’t know what horse they will ride until they get to the club, and so Emma has to muster up all of her courage to climb the stairs over the stables to check the assignment board.  Until now, she has come down the stairs smiling, but we know the day will come when she will again ride Chula.  We work on preparing her for that day, but I have a pretty solid suspicion that Emma will handle it with confidence and grace.

So, in the end, Emma had to let go of the idea that she might physically best her brothers… but she has gained a new sense of confidence that only the horses could have given her.  Ten is a golden age – when it’s still okay to climb into your dad’s lap, take a nap with your mom, sleep with a giant stuffed animal, get lost in the Barbie house, and cry for no reason. As wonderful as it is, she is also on the threshold of a whole new era, one in which the physical and emotional challenges will threaten to tear her down before building her back up.   And while her brothers might tease her for being a “mere girl”, I’m finding quite the opposite:  what Emma’s body gains in femininity, she is also gaining in raw inner strength.  There is nothing “mere” about her.  At a time in her life when self-esteem can be fleeting and yet confidence and conviction are the keys to survival, Emma seems to be starting with a bit of a reserve.

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