Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Dear Trustees of Smith College: Please Don't Close The Barn

Dear Trustees of Smith College:

When I was a little girl, every morning, while I brushed my teeth, I looked out our bathroom window into the backyard and checked to see if a pony had showed up overnight. My backyard was surrounded by a chain-link fence and a suburban Indiana subdivision: not only was there never a pony, there was never going to be a pony. I didn't know any ponies. It didn't matter. I checked every morning anyhow, and I let myself dream. "what if there was a pony? What if I woke up one morning to a pony?"

I had a difficult, traumatic childhood, and I escaped into books from an early age. My local library put horse stickers on the spines of any books about horses. I used to run my finger down the rows of books, checking only for that sticker. I physically sat on a horse perhaps half a dozen times, growing up. Most of those times were at the pony ride at the zoo, but in my mind I galloped.

I was the first person from my family to graduate college. My parents opened the world to me: any college I could gain admission to they promised to send me to. Even better, they insisted I consider schools I never would have thought of on my own--places like Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, and Smith. They drove me from Indiana to look at all of these East coast schools girls from my hometown never heard of, much less attended.

I loved Smith from the start, all of it, but I especially loved Smith's barn. I toured it as an admitted student, met the team coach, Sue Payne, and met the captain of the riding team. I would love to be on the riding team, I said to my father on the drive home. He smiled but shook his head at me. This man who encouraged every one of my childhood ambitions told me regretfully that the riding team at a place like Smith would be limited to people who had grown up differently from me, who had ridden all their lives. He was sure I could take lessons, but the team was out of the question.

Undaunted, I wrote a letter to Sue. (I was class of '89; this is long before email.) She wrote back immediately, a letter I not only still have, but can lay my hands on instantly, as I immediately put it into my box of treasures (my acceptance to Smith is in there also, along with my grades from each semester, the tassel from my graduation cap, and the astonishing letter that reads, "Dear Kim, Congratulations! You have made the riding team--") Sue assured me that due to the IHSA's unique structure, I absolutely had a chance at making the riding team after taking lessons for a year.

There was a place for me at Smith, and I took it.

Freshmen who had never taken riding lessons were supposed to sign up for beginner lessons. Duh. But if you had ridden before, you were supposed to ride in front of the instructors as a sort of placement test. It didn't take a genius to understand that the placement test was a free opportunity to ride (I would pay for every one of my lessons myself, as my parents were more than tapped out with tuition) so I headed down to the barn in a soaking rain wearing my best jeans and my L.L. Bean Boots. The groom made me change out the Bean boots for paddock boots she unearthed somewhere, but no one could give me actual skills--I'd really only ever read about riding. I fell off Tara, the steadiest, oldest pony in the barn. And then I got back on. Honestly, that day was magic--I was riding, I was so happy.

I could tell you story after story. I remember every moment at the barn. I could tell you how it felt when I couldn't hear my name called the first time I won a class, because my teammates cheered so hard when the announcer called my number. I could tell you about the long ride I took the morning of my graduation. I could tell you about doing night checks at the barn, about how we saved a horse named Cocoa from dying of colic, how my teammates lifted me and taught me and changed me from a frightened asthmatic bookworm into someone who called herself an athlete, because she was one. I could show you my desk today, where, on the left, my Eastern College Athletic Conference Scholar Athlete Award sits beside the small brass Pegasus that Molly Keenan, the captain who took me to the barn as an admitted prospective, gave me when she graduated, for luck.

I never stopped riding. I compete in the Olympic sport of eventing, as does my daughter. My current bathroom window faces our orchard, but when I look out my bedroom window every morning I see our horses in their field. And if you want to understand how horses can heal a traumatized child, all you have to do is read my latest novel, The War That Saved My Life. If you've heard of it it's because it won a Newbery Honor award in 2016 and spent half the year on the New York Times bestseller list.

My name is on two of the trophies in the Smith Barn: most improved my sophomore year, best sportsmanship as a senior. 

The barn is important, and the team is important, to ever so many students like me. Please don't continue your plans to shut them down.

Yours sincerely,

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Smith Class of 1989

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Holy Days

At first the huntsman thought I'd blown an aneurysm. That's what he said, afterwards. He said, "You went down without a sound."

I know I did. We were cantering across a mown hay field, the mare still a little rambunctious (all this down time from the wildfires, she was bored, bored, bored) after 90 minutes hunting but essentially obedient. I skirted left to give her room to stretch where we wouldn't trample hounds--I was riding in the huntsman's pocket, as, on a ridiculously cold day two days before the big Christmas Hunt and Breakfast, the entire hunt consisted of the huntsman, one whip, fourteen couple of hounds, and me--and the mare stumbled, lurching hard to the right. I found out later she'd clipped the back of her front right shoe with her hind right foot, and pulled it off--anyway, momentum carried me forward, over her left shoulder. There's always that oh shit moment when you can no longer save yourself but have not yet hit the ground. I remember it. It's the last thing I remember, until the ambulance arrived.

Our huntsman was born out of time; he belongs to the eighteenth century. I loved hunting so close behind him, listening to him work the hounds, watching them work in harmony. It was so cold my knees hurt--I had several layers on my upper body, and good warm socks, but only regular breeches covering my legs--but my asthmatic lungs were doing just fine, and it was a bright clear morning, and I was so glad to be out. "I'm fieldmaster," I said, laughing. "It's my first time."

I was in charge of the field because I was the field. And then I was laying in a field, unconscious, and our anachronistic huntsman was calling 911 on his thoroughly modern cell phone, and the ambulance wouldn't come without a proper street address. "I know exactly where we are," the huntsman protested, "just listen," but the ambulance wouldn't budge, so he rode out to the nearest mailbox and read them that address.

Eventually I started to come to. I was cold, and the whip took off her own coat and draped it over my legs. When the ambulance showed up it was an hour since I'd fallen. They couldn't pull the ambulance into the soggy field, and they didn't have a stretcher, so I walked across the field and climbed inside. The ambulance men weren't sure I needed to go to the hospital. The whip and the huntsman were insistent. I would have been insistent, if I hadn't been concentrating so hard on walking. I was chilled through. Across the field, the huntsman's horse waited patiently in a puddle of hounds. "Where's Sarah?" Sarah is my mare.

"We've got her," the huntsman said. "She's fine."

The ambulance men may have been more or less useless but they drove me to the hospital in my hometown, an hour from the hunt, down the road from my husband's office. I called my husband on the way. He arrived just as I was coming back from my CT scan--no brain bleeds--shivering, and he got more blankets out of the cupboard and tucked them around me.

It's not good. It's my third concussion, second loss of consciousness, in less than three years. My husband said we'll never know exactly how hard I hit the ground, but I know it wasn't a very severe fall. (And of course I was wearing a helmet. I always ride in a helmet.) I should have bounced. It seems ominous to me that I did not.

My children came home from college that night, watched me snore on the couch. The next morning they drove back to the hunt kennels, and my daughter drove my rig and horse home. I went along, but the effort of being awake wore me out; I napped the afternoon away. It's been like that. This is the first long thing I've typed, nearly a week later, and it's with the brightness down and the font size increased on my computer, and it's tiring.

I can't ride for a month and I won't go to Florida this year. I can't do strenuous yoga; can't exercise at all until I can go about a normal day without needing several naps. Reading is challenging.

"How do you feel about not going to Florida?" my husband asked last night.

"Sad," I said. "I'll miss it." There are worse things than not riding. Taking away reading and writing would be like taking away breathing--I can't imagine. I've got a million places I want to go, a million things I haven't done--

Offers of help pour in, but I don't need them right now. My children are home, my husband is home, and all is as well as it can be. I'm writing this. The mare waits in the field. It's nearly Christmas. These are holy days.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

My Charming Redneck Life

Yesterday, Mack, the guy who mows my farm and repairs fence and cleans out the patch of pines will die before he gets to the pines, because no matter what I say or do cleaning out the pines is somewhere on his priority list down below dying--anyway, Mack offered me a slab of deer meat and a taser. I took the deer meat. I declined the taser. It was a thick short black stick, like a police baton, and Mack showed me how it functioned as a flashlight. "And then when you click this button over--" He hit the switch again, and blue and silver sparks crackled insanely around the rim of the thing. I jumped three feet. Mack looked disappointed. "I thought you might be afraid of it," he said.

"I am afraid of it," I said. "Furthermore if I stuck that thing in my purse I'd hit the switch by accident and tase myself." Furthermore--though I didn't say this to Mack--I've caught hold of electric fence enough times to know that I hate being electrocuted.

"Well, I worry about you, Miss Kim, I do," Mack said, sadly tucking the taser away. Mack is always after me to learn to shoot his 22, but he knows as well as I do that even if I learned to shoot a gun I wouldn't actually own one, much less keep one on my person. Not that Bristol's a dangerous place. If you're not shot by a blood relative or someone you are sleeping with, you are pretty much not going to be shot.

"Somebody comes after me, I'll just kick him in the nuts," I said, and went to put the deer meat in the freezer.

We had some fresh deer meat on our farm recently, enjoyed by the pack of coyotes I suspect have taken up residence in the woods between my fields and my neighbor's. I hear the coyotes at night, sometimes right up around the house, and I've seen them in my fields in daylight, which is rare. I don't begrudge them their deer, but I wish they wouldn't have scattered the bones of it all throughout my fields. "Is that a LEG?" asked Caroline, my young friend, when we were out riding the other day.

It was a leg, with a tiny split hoof attached. I suggested to Mack that it might be time to do something about the coyotes. He promised to shoot them. Stanley, another old friend who is repainting my barn, overheard. "Can I have the pelt?" he asked.

"Stanley, he shoots it, you can have the whole damn thing," I said. "Don't you go skinning it in my driveway."

Stanley nodded and grinned but I knew for sure that Mack would never shoot the coyotes. Despite carrying an arsenal in his pickup, Mack never shoots anything. I've seen him miss groundhogs on purpose. Only thing Mack ever shot, in fifteen years on my farm, was the wasps' nest growing on the back side of one of my cross-country jumps last summer. By the time we noticed it, that sucker was as big as a beach ball, and impervious to normal means of control. Mack drove out to the field and emptied four cans of wasp spray onto the nest with no apparent result. So he drove out with his 22 and blasted the thing to pieces. Skunks came at night and ate up the wasps.

It was a historic win until the jump collapsed right where it was shot. Though as my daughter says, she and I built it ourselves, so maybe it wasn't all that sturdy to begin with.

I've been casting about for more coyote-killers, with surprisingly bad luck. Usually people around here are just lining up to shoot at things. Every week or so security at the local regional airport posts a photo of a GUN they prevented from being taken on an AIRPLANE, but we all know it's not terrorists, it's just another woman who forgot to empty her purse before she got in the security line.

I discussed this problem with Mike, who boards a horse with me. Mike is my more usual source for deer meat and I figured he probably keeps a gun or two in his truck himself. "I'm not sure you want to kill the coyotes," Mike said. "Haven't you noticed? We ain't had any problem at all with skunks this year. I believe the coyotes are eating all the skunks."

This is a strong point. I'm still considering it.

Monday, December 12, 2016


One of the things I love about my Catholic church is that we celebrate Advent before Christmas. So many of the other churches around here are having their Christmas concerts, cantatas, living Christmas trees, pageants, etc., in the early part of December, when it isn't Christmas yet. Catholics celebrate Christmas from Christmas Eve evening until the Feast of the Holy Family, which is somewhere after January 6th. We don't sing Christmas carols before Christmas Eve. Instead we sing Advent songs, in minor key. We sing of longing and of waiting.

I love this because it reminds me to slow down.To actually savor the shopping, the wrapping, the preparing. To go to yoga and find stillness and prepare for some small difference in the new year.

I also love it this year because I'm waiting in a very practical sense. My children come home on Thursday. They're taking finals right now, and they call us briefly, popping with stress but also preparing, finishing up their first and seventh semesters, respectively, and coming home to sing some carols on Christmas Eve and celebrate, as a family, together.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Another Word for Gratitude

I was enormously thankful yesterday that my cleaning people came that day instead of their usual Monday, because they always vacuum the basement and therefore saw that the septic tank had backed up and overflowed out the basement toilet and bathtub sooner than I would have noticed it myself.

I was also enormously thankful that my publisher uses such thick strong sturdy boxes to ship my books in, because I had a stock of books, in their boxes, stacked against the wall of the basement storage room that is shared with the basement bathroom. The backed-up sewage soaked the boxes, but mostly not the books themselves--I'll only have to throw away a dozen or so. Trust me, it could have been so much worse.

I was beyond thankful that my contractor, who built the house in the first place and whose crew is currently painting and renovating the barn, could get here with a backhoe yesterday and unplug the sewer line, so that I could use my house again. Then, while I was chaperoning basketball practice, he and his crew cleaned up the mess in the toilet and the tub, washed the carpet, and put big blowers in the basement so everything would dry. I can't even begin to express my appreciation for that. My husband and I sat on our couch last night, shaking our heads, wondering how to properly thank him. We can't.

That's a whole bunch of gratitude I wouldn't have been able to express if the sewer hadn't blocked up. Pretty lucky, aren't I?

But you wouldn't necessarily know it from the message I sent my daughter, a few hours into the sewer mess. The slop was contained, the contractor called, the books mostly rescued, etc. I went out to move one of our horses, Pal, from the field where he was turned out with Sarah, my bossy mare, and Silver, my friend's mare, and into the field with Syd, another friend's horse, and Shakey, our ancient pony. As I was leading Pal through the gate between the fields, Sarah barged into him, on purpose. He jumped backward, and she ran into the new field, because she's like that. She ran over to Shakey and tried to claim him as her own ("Pony! Pony!" Sarah loves ponies.) but Syd knows Shakey belongs to him (Syd also loves ponies) so he chased Sarah away. They proceeded to act like complete and utter morons for the next 15 minutes, galloping, snorting, bucking, trying to kick each other, etc. Meanwhile Silver went nuts in the adjoining field because she was missing out on all the fun, and Pal trotted along gamely because that's what he does.

In complete exasperation I phoned my daughter at her college and when she didn't pick up I left a rant. My daughter hit the turn-voice-message-to-text button on her phone, and the results were so hilarious she sent me a copy. Here it is, with one pertinent word in the middle semi-redacted. I'm pretty sure some of the "said"s are supposed to be "Syd"s.

"Hi, it's your mother _______ standing in the middle of the field having a difficult morning because I want to move pal was _____shaky Sarah ran into I know she's trying to take the pony from said and said just tell me not to let her________all just being m@therf#ck!ng _______ all alone in the past you're running around going to come back so I want to also the septic _____ overflowed_______ the basement tub and toilet and into the storage room and ____ some of my books but not too many but everything ___that should look at is _____water so I'm ______ be love you bye."

As my daughter commented, it missed a lot of the details but it did get one word perfectly right.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Here I Am Again. Also, Kelly Clarkson

So what happened was I ran headlong into another novel deadline. It was my eighth draft of The War I Finally Won (publication date October 3, 2017). Eight drafts ought to be enough for anyone, but we'll see--I've given up making predictions on this book. I will say that every time through it I change more than I expected to. I will also say that I think it's getting pretty good.

Meanwhile, I had a nice chat with Kelly Clarkson, the singing sensation (have you heard her version of "It's Quiet Uptown" from the Hamilton Mixtape yet? That'll have you in tears), in Nashville on Saturday. We were in Nashville to celebrate my sister's birthday--my sister and her husband, me and mine, and four of my sister's friends. I go to Nashville often on business and usually get in and out as fast as possible, with only a brief stop at my hometown bookstore, Parnassus. (Nashville is nearly five hours away from Bristol, but Parnassus embraces me and I embrace them.) My sister had never been there, and she had the place sussed out. We did a grown-up tour of Nashville's finest, and it was brilliant.

So Saturday we had brunch and bowling at Pinewood Social. Pinewood Social is a great big open restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and brunch on weekends. They do fancy coffee drinks and a full bar service and in the back they have six vintage bowling lanes. Each pair of lanes faces a U-shaped couch and a big table, and you can eat brunch and drink mimosas and bowl all at the same time, so we did. Lots of fun. We were there first, but pretty soon another group of eight people sat down on our right, and a second group on our left. The group on the right was actually nine people-four young adult couples, and a beautiful little toddler girl.

The girl walked in wearing a red fleece swing coat with fleece flowers down the front. My daughter at that age wore a very similar coat, albeit pink. The little girl wore boots and a dress with matching leggings, and that's pretty much what my daughter wore at the same age, and so of course I was feeling tremendously nostalgic, because I used to have a bright, bold, toddler girl, and now I have a 5'10" armed warrior who goes to school a long way away, and I miss her.

The little girl loved bowling and was enormously cheerful. Eventually I asked her mom, "How old is she?" The mom said, "Two." Then the girl said, "Hi. HI!" and laughed and told me her name, which I couldn't understand, and then said "TWO!" because the two thing was pretty new and fabulous. It was super sweet.

I got up to go to the bathroom as that group was getting ready to leave. As I was coming back I noticed my sister and her neighbor getting a photo of themselves with the little girl's mom. After the woman left I asked my sister what on earth. She said, "Kim, did you really not know who you were talking to?"

So that was Kelly Clarkson. She seemed like a normal human, even though she sings so well, and I like how she dresses her kid.