A good friend of mine has extended to me an open invitation to go hiking and camping with him in Yosemite basically every weekend over the past month. I said no thanks every weekend. Every weekend, I wanted to go. But I never go camping. I believe this about myself: I never go camping.
Then, my wife committed to a family camping trip with our synagogue. We would share a campsite with our daughter’s best friend and her family. So I would go camping. But I never go camping. How would I go camping?
Truth is: I did go through a camping phase before my daughter was born. I was in a men’s therapy group and we went to Yosemite once or twice a year. I had collected, even purchased, gear. I had all kinds of gear. Tent, sleeping bag, bear canister, folding handsaw, and most impressively, an espresso maker. I was the envy of coffee drinkers around the fire. I could even build a fire. I had a little stove and I had a bigger stove. I camped. I packed. I hiked. I did solo hikes in Yosemite and once slept alone under a lean-to at the top of a waterfall. It happened. I did that. Those men around the fire helped me grow quickly into a camping kind of guy. A guy who could do those things.
But, back in civilization, I got busy. I got a better (busier) job and decided I didn’t need (have time for) therapy anymore. So I left the men’s group. I moved on. I re-became the guy who doesn’t camp, better suited for sidewalks or treadmills than tents or fires.
So I never go camping. That’s my story. I don’t know how to go camping. And so how am I going to get my family prepared for a camping trip? How could David even consider asking me to go Yosemite with him? Let’s face it: I am useless at camping. I don’t even know if I still have any camping gear. Why would I?
It’s evening. I’ve built our tent. I have unpacked the provisions I brought for the kids and arranged them on the picnic table. My wife and our friends are resting in camping chairs. Earlier, We had all attended a beautiful, incredibly God-full, bat mitzvah in an amphitheater of redwoods. We went for a walk in the woods. We got a little lost and then un-lost and lost again. Our daughters are now waging war against some boys from another campsite. I can hear their scooters and their shrieks. I can see trees and forest. I am breathing deeply, both in and out. The air is cool. The air is clean. I am camping. Why did I ever not do this? Why would I say I don’t camp? I know how to camp. I used to camp a lot. Why would I believe otherwise?
“I swore I’d never go camping again when I got home from Vietnam.” He said it over and over. My father didn’t camp. My family didn’t camp. Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, goes the book by Michael Herr, we’ve all been there. In my family’s case, this was certainly true. In some ways, my father never came back from Vietnam. So, neither did we. In other ways, my father brought Vietnam back with him. So did we. I honestly can’t think of a late night session talking with the big guy that didn’t include at least three stories of nights spent in the jungle. Essentially, camping tales with ammunition: tales of joking and laughing and the idiocy of others as they hoped to just be overlooked by the war somewhere around them. He brought Vietnam back with him glossed over like an episode of Tour of Duty.
Nobody important died and the guys in green were always good guys and, most importantly, he probably didn’t kill anyone at all. Not that he knew. But, therein lies the rub. He probably didn’t. Not that he knew. And that definitely equals trauma. Not that he knew. Imagine living in a jungle, for starters. Imagine being dropped into that jungle over the side of a helicopter. Imagine living in a jungle where unseen humans were trying to kill you. Imagine they left pits full of bamboo spikes covered with with feces and hidden by leaves in the hopes that you would fall into them. Imagine you walked around carrying a backpack and a machine gun, wearing a helmet. Imagine you had scars on your legs from leeches that fed off of you in a rice paddy. And imagine that your job was to find the unseen humans and kill them. Trauma. It would be impossible to not experience trauma. Impossible. But my father never knew. All he knew was he made it back. Then, in a lot of other ways, my father never came back from Vietnam. For instance, he said he lost his will to pray over there. Imagine that for second. Having the will to pray and then losing it.
No, he didn’t go camping. So neither do I. And, I tell myself now that I don’t go camping.
But I love camping.
So what does this story about camping have to do with leadership or horses?Horse-assisted leadership and learning, as practiced by The Circle Up Experience, starts from a pretty simple premise: horses are herd animals and people are too. Observing and interacting, hands-on, with these wordless giants, we can learn things about ourselves and interactions with others that our word-making brains would otherwise talk over or talk around. We miss obvious points because we’re so busy making points. We miss our trauma because we’re so invested in wording past it. We try to skip our pain by explaining or denying it away.
But when a horse pins her ears back because you run up on her too quickly or when a horse falls asleep because you’re on the other side of the round pen talking to her instead of engaging, you understand something about yourself that you can’t talk past. You have a real impact on others. All of you has an impact on others: the things you know and the things you don’t know about yourself. The things you try to hide and the things you don’t know you try to hide.
My father never got into a round pen with a horse. The closest he got was allowing a succession of tiny dogs to climb into his lap and love him over the years. The rest of his interactions were with humans and with words. He could talk. And talk. And talk. And it was pretty great when he was in a great way. And it was pretty awful when he was on an awful tear. And it was really deafeningly quiet when he was not talking.
What I don’t believe he ever figured out though — my father is dead now — is that what he said (and what he did not say) had real impact on others. And he said he would never go camping after Vietnam. So, his wife and kids never went camping after Vietnam. Or he called me a wussy for, essentially, not having gone to Vietnam. So I’ve always felt like a wussy for not going to Vietnam. Or he told me he was going to kick my ass until I wore it like a collar. So I’ve always felt someone whose ass would be kicked by his own father until he wore it like a collar. His unknown trauma. My trauma.
His trauma, that unprocessed trauma, had an impact. And over forty years later, I believe I don’t camp even though I love camping. But, thanks to my wife’s plans, thanks to those men from that therapy group, thanks to the horses I know, thanks to my friend who keeps inviting me to Yosemite with; I know better.
I love the woods. I love the dirt. I love taking all my family needs in the back of a truck and going out to the dirty woods and having terrible cell reception. Love it. I love camping. But, I almost missed it.
I’ve been in the round pen with a horse. I live with horses. I live with my wife and daughter who live with horses. We all impact each other and I’m starting to get a real tangible understanding of just how much I impact them. There’s hope here. So much hope. Maybe I can heal some of the trauma I inherited. Maybe my daughter won’t have to.