No one knows what the body can do. -Spinoza

Sunday, July 3, 2011

30 Day: Why I Love Day 4: Josef Rivers

why i love josef rivers, by lily-elaine hawk wakawaka

in my early 20's i was lucky enough to find my way to santa cruz, california, where i lived for five years. shortly after arriving to the ocean side town i met a man that owned a ranch of exotic animals. we got along immediately and a week or so later he asked if i'd volunteer for his animal therapy program, helping to provide animal therapy for people with physical disabilities, and keep the program running through whatever else was needed--working with students, training animals, doing ranch maintanence, cleaning out dead rat bodies (sometimes ranches, afterall, get dead rats--all that tasty food for all the animals, you see), feeding the livestock, and even helping deliver animal babies. he needed help with all those things but at the time more specifically what he needed was someone that could help train the camels. most people were just afraid of them, you see. and josef saw in me someone that was willing to help whether i was scared or not. all i knew was that if he asked, i was going to follow through. i believed in him and what he was doing that clearly. whatever it was he saw in me, him giving me the opportunity to volunteer and do whatever the program needed, whether i was scared or not, changed my life. a little before moving to santa cruz i'd decided that college wasn't what i wanted. i wasn't clear enough in a program of study to pay so much money for ambling around through whatever courses i wanted to take. so i stopped enrolling in university and set off down the road looking for learning in other ways. when i arrived at josef's ranch, then, i was open to learning through alternative means, and also looking for a clearer sense of what i valued. josef directs his entire life at helping people recognize how incredibly capable they are, and how independent they can be. he works with those very people that society tends to tell again and again that they are not capable, or are not independent -- people with tourettes, m.s., cerebral palsy, post-polio syndrome, paralysis, and any other conditions that we tend to think of as creating physical limitations. if they're willing to try, he's willing to work with them for free. during my time there i met a woman who had severe enough physical limitation she slept each night in her wheel chair with her head in a dresser drawer she pulled out and put a pillow in. it was easier than getting into bed. still, over the several decades she'd been working with josef she'd come to recognize she loved working with horses. so, she owned five acres and five horses, each of which she trained and drove in horse carriage herself. i befriended another woman that was losing her ability to walk due to m.s. soon after she started taking lessons at the ranch we discovered that she is a brilliant cat or bird trainer that can take previously feral animals and transform them into circus performers. i worked with a boy that had tourettes syndrome and was told he shouldn't expect to be able to control his ticks and would just have to put up with people being uncomfortable over his growling (that was likely to eventually grow into cussing). during the hour we spent chasing mice twice a week and throwing hay bails in the barn to find the mice he never once growled (or cussed) or jerked or otherwise expressed any of those ticks associated with his form of tourettes. he controlled it completely during his time at the ranch, thus learning he could choose when to express the ticks, at least some of the time. after a couple of years of working at the ranch i realized that josef's entire life is an expression of love and of faith. he understands that if a person is willing to try, they are willing too to become their own best self. in giving me the opportunity to dig ditches to redirect winter flooding or bury unexpectedly dead animals; to drag hay bails through knee deep mud to get the hoof stock at the back of the ranch fed; to overcome my own disgust over dead rat bodies, and piles of bird poop that had to be cleaned; to slow down enough to recognize when an animal was thinking about bolting (which i had to learn to recognize in order to read the animals well enough to keep students safe); to anticipate a need for a student before the student had to bother wasting the energy to express that need; to incubate tortoise eggs so the tortoise little ones could be sold to raise money for the ranch; to walk beside student horses in horse shows; to train a camel, that at the start had never been touched, all the way to riding its back through the redwood forest -- what josef gave me in all these experiences was not just a world of wonders, but the gift of living in the world of his completely dedicated heart. josef taught me that love is much more than a feeling. love breathes itself into each of us through the simplest moments. through working at the ranch i learned the necessity of imagining my way into the needs of others -- a person in a wheel chair can't simply bend over and pick something up off the ground -- the end of the garden hose must be left atop the garden fence for easy watering, not on the ground; plants in the garden must be trimmed to stand about my-hip height, so that students in wheel chairs can enjoy the pleasures of all that bloom and color, rather than just a mass of green in front of them--my-hip height is their head height in a wheel chair; walking a slow and steady pace and keeping a regular rhythm to my breath keeps not only the animals calm, but me as well so we can all respond to each other a little easier; if i wear sturdy pants and a plain t-shirt no one will be distracted by my attire, and i will be less likely to cut my skin while working; if i keep a spare set of clothing in the car i won't be afraid to keep working when it starts to rain; if my boots fit properly the first time i can go through that knee deep mud and get the animals fed a lot faster, thus making more time to help the students and other animals too.... love shows itself through little decisions. it is in these decisions and moments that we show we have the care to choose for our own sake what is also best for others. it is in the completely pragmatic, day to day practice of how we act, what we choose to do, what we are prepared (both in our hearts, and with the spare clothing we've packed in the car) to do with others... that we express such care. josef taught me that the simple every day is the ground in which love can find the opportunity to bloom. (whether your everyday is the magical world of an exotic animal ranch, or the magical world of your one bedroom apartment and office job.)

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