A heat storm lights the Colorado sky but leaves the ground dry.
I can’t stop seeing it.
Perhaps it is lightning’s infinite search for the inevitable ground.
My neurons firing in a similar search for grounding.
As a child, I sat on our rickety porch swing during storms and counted the seconds between the lightning flashes and the thunder claps.
My mother said that each second was another mile the lightning was from you.
I understood this to mean the higher you count, the safer you are.
So, I begin counting: one…
The last time I rode my horse, Aslan, the ground had just been dragged to make it soft. I felt the soil sinking just enough to lessen the impact of each striking hoof drumming over the surface.
Except this shouldn’t be true. Aslan felt the ground, and I felt it only through him—a conduit. Each hoof beat a small bolt of lightning blooming backwards up through my branching nerves.
As a kid, I learned a lot of “facts” that, as an adult, I now know aren’t true. Like outgrowing a belief, the result is a world made—for a moment—unrecognizable.
In truth, each second between lightning and thunder doesn’t constitute a mile; you need to count five seconds to equal one mile. And, either way, if you can hear thunder, lightning can find you. There is no safety, just the feeling.
When I first grasped the braided leather of a bridle, my hands pulled on the rein to turn my horse. As time passed, my fingers acquired a subtler language, signaling a turn by just squeezing on the rein. Eventually my hips discovered they could steer from the saddle.
I understand why we learn this way—a mind can understand only so much at a time. And in some ways what I call falseness is merely a simplification. On what level do we choose to determine truth?
“Be one with your horse!”
A riding instructor shouted this across the arena as my eight-year-old body ping-ponged around the saddle. The pony beneath me stuttered between a walk and a trot, my legs encouraging him to go, but my flopping body throwing him off balance and making him whoa.
Skilled riders make the partnership between the two bodies look natural. Like they grew up on—or out of—the back of a horse. A spectator would fail to discern signals between horse and rider.
I’m most interested in when you might be hard-pressed to call the almost invisible communication between horse and rider signals at all—when it is unconscious and instantaneous, like how I lift my hand without having to think, I’m going to lift my hand now. Like how my horse slows down the moment the desire manifests itself in me.
Our skin can detect the vibrating atoms of nearby molecules. This barrier separates selves, or so we are taught. But we can feel others and feel ourselves being felt by others even before the brush of skin on skin. Volts vaulting from one body to the next.
The language of horses is silent lightning.
The classic American cowboys wielded a violent touch, forcing compliance through pain: training a young horse became known as “breaking” it.
The first book-length work of nonfiction I read was Monty Robert’s The Man Who Listens to Horses. Known as the real-life horse whisperer, Roberts studied horses in the wild, documenting their language, and then created a training system using it. Today, natural horsemanship methods abound.
They’re what I’ve used with Aslan.
In the round pen, I unclip his lead line and send him running—the white on his legs flashes against the black of his body, his hoofs kick up the dark sand.
A couple laps later, his head lowers, first to his shoulder. Then it drops all the way down to his feet. He’s asking to meet me in the middle, to join my herd.
I turn away slightly, angling my shoulders at 45 degrees, and wait: an invitation.
His gait slows to a walk. He licks and chews as he digests what I’m saying. Then his whiskered chin appears over my shoulder, breath puffing out of his nostrils into my ear.
He’s part of my herd—part of me—now. Follows my every step. Forward, backward, sideways. We can dance this way.
The problem with lightning is that it is as much self as it is other.
If lightning finds the ground through you, its electricity can disrupt your own internal circuitry—your heart’s electrical rhythm and your brain’s neural network.
Electricity makes you alive and makes you, you. We all have tiny bolts shooting through us, currents that allow us to lift our hands at will. The same currents flow through each of us, and this electricity can connect us or break our bodies down if it’s too much.
Perhaps, it can do both—break us and rebuild us—at once, as one.
Training Aslan can illustrate a separation of selves. We must communicate our individual thoughts because they are not immediately knowable to the other.
This has started to feel like one of those childhood truths.
Because as much as training proves our separateness, it breaks it down as well.
At the height of synchronicity, Aslan can anticipate what I am going to ask him before I ask. In competition, I’d think, I want to go faster, and off he went. Our circuitry connected. He could tell where my eyes were looking and often that was enough to steer him, and in those moments, my eyes were his.
This unity was not mystical, it was training. But maybe also it was transcendence. His sensitivity to my body becoming a sensitivity to my self.
Our signals to each other invisible. Subdermal. Electric.
The majority of cells within our bodies are bacteria, viruses, fungi, and archaea, and genetically, we have 20,000 human genes and between 2 and 20 million microbial genes.
If we do not think of the bacteria in our gut or the other non-human cells and genes to be us, then the physical barrier of skin does not define us. Maybe our skin is insufficient to hold our selves as well.
On a hike in Colorado, I led out-of-town visitors up to Horsetooth Rock. As we neared the summit, thunder snapped our eyes to the sky. When another clap sounded, I forced us to head back down.
Colorado ranks in fatalities due to lightning strikes, with Larimer County, where Horsetooth Rock sits, among the three most dangerous counties. My choice was a matter of perceived self-preservation. I didn’t want to die, didn’t want to stop being.
The process of defining self cannot fully be extricated from defining life, a challenging and political undertaking: Where does life begin? Where does the self begin?
Apart from knowing I was born on a September morning in the late 80s, I don’t truly know when my physical self became its own self. There is no definitive beginning of me, and I am equally unsure of where I end.
Trying to define the boundaries sometimes feels like a threat. As if finding the answer to where I end will be my end.
In his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace spoke of how we all experience the world through the “lens of self.”
“Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real…”
Perhaps we might understand selves better as being separated by the barrier of senses and thoughts rather than our skin.
We call feeling the emotions someone else feels empathy. What is the word for feeling the sensations someone else senses?
My horse’s fear has become mine—his body tensing at an unexpected pair of deer slicing through the woods. My own spine stiffening and thighs clamping against the leather kneepads of the saddle in case he decides to bolt—from the deer or whatever they were escaping.
I have also sensed the world through him. The ground rising to meet us as we run home, and for an indivisible part of a second, none of our six feet connected to the earth below.
One body flying.
It is said that every girl is horse crazy at some point in her life, but maybe we all go a little mad trying to figure out what it means to be.
Most of the time, my horse is not my self, even when our bodies speak a silent, electric language.
But some of the time, I’m not so sure that my horse is not my self. When I feel the earth through his hooves, the lightning travels an unbroken circuit through us, firing in my brain and his, detonating down to the inevitable ground where we all begin and end.
Morgan Rose-Marie (née Riedl) is a queer writer and an Assistant Professor at Utah Valley University. She has a PhD from Ohio University and an MA from Colorado State University. Her essays have been featured in The Normal School, Sonora Review, and Entropy, and her poetry in Thin Air Magazine.