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At the Borders of Compassion

Amrit Kasten-Daryanani

by Amrit Kasten-Daryanani, PhD

"At the Borders of Compassion" was written by Wakefield's Director of Student Services for the Middleburg Humane Foundation's inaugural edition of its new magazine. Dr. Daryanani and, through her, many of Wakefield's students have a long relationship with the MHF.

It is a bitterly cold day at the shelter, with temperatures hovering just below freezing and a northerly wind that makes it feel colder. Recent snow and freezing rain have turned the areas around paddock and field gates to churned, sticky farm versions of mudflats that take hold of your boots and don’t want to let go. The gates are so cold to the touch that fingers get numb during the brief time it takes to remove gloves and undo latches and snap hooks. Metal in winter is no friend to unprotected skin and you need to breathe on your hands to encourage circulation before gloving back up. The winter stillness that hovers over the land at dusk is thick and palpable, bringing with it smells of mingled snow and clay that mix with the sweet scent of hay that is piled high in a wheelbarrow.  

The horses know it is time for their evening meal and are waiting at field gates, stamping their feet in anticipation and blowing long streams of steaming air into the fading light. Violet, the little Hackney pony, canters along a fence-line, calling out that she would like to be fed first. Davey, the gelding in the field, makes a snake face at her, and gentle Mia, who hovers in the background, withdraws further. When Davey is certain they are respecting his space he stretches his neck over the gate, ears forward, and eagerly demands that he gets the first meal. When it doesn’t come fast enough he worries at the chain around the gate, trying to shake it loose. That boy is too smart for his own good. In the upper field the two mares, Sable and Dixie, are prancing and calling out in anticipation.  They move together, a bonded pair weaving grace and power into their welcome as they dance across the mud and snow. As they turn in the waning light the cavity where Dixie’s left eye used to be is shadowed and dark. A large lump, evidence of advancing cancer, stands out just below her left ear.

There are two of us doing evening chores, the weather keeping the others at bay. Our time at the shelter is a partnership between Wakefield School and the shelter; we are officially the Wakefield Equine Service Team. Lexi, a Freshman, is particularly devoted to the horses and has not missed a day since we started the program. In the gathering dark she is setting out Violet’s food, a halter and lead hanging over her right shoulder.  It will be her task to stand with the pony outside the paddock while Violet eats, giving her time to finish her food. The pony is aging and eats slowly; she is no match for her two field companions, who will bolt down their food and come for hers.  It will be at least thirty minutes of standing in the cold. 

I watch Lexi as I return from taking the hay to the upper field, appreciating her patience.  She occasionally reaches to give Violet a pat on the back. Nervous around new people and suspicious of strange sounds, the relaxed line of the pony’s shoulders and back tell that she is happy and at ease. Focused on the task at hand, the slight young woman doesn’t see me smiling as I go past.  

Lexi makes me think of the Sanskrit word antevasin, or “border dweller.”  It is a word from another era, a time of antiquity when students seeking to learn the paths to enlightenment retreated from the busyness of everyday life to the borders of the forest to learn the old ways of wisdom from the masters who lived there.  An antevasin lived in two worlds, balancing both until the time came to choose a path forward.  I reflect on the world of the shelter, and how in many ways it is a border territory where compassion and grace thrive, and where, if you take the time, you can learn the lessons of both.  There should be a word, I think, for one who lives between this world and the world of school and busy everyday life.  A word that binds up and combines courage and kindness and the fortitude to stand in the snow while an old pony eats a warm meal.    

Later, when the chickens are put up,  Pippi the Pig is settled and we are closing the barn doors for the night, I will tell Lexi that it is a special kind of compassion that she brings to the shelter. She will look at me with her steady, serious eyes and tell me that she is grateful to be able to come out and spend time with the animals, and that she gets a lot more out of the time than she gives. With a smile she tells me that she needs the shelter in her life.

As I drive home I will picture her standing next to Violet in the cold,  a hood pulled up over her head to keep her ears warm against the evening wind. I picture the lead rope in her hands, and the gentle pat on Violet’s back. I think about the importance of compassion, and how our work at the shelter strengthens both heart and soul. And I am filled with gratitude for the shelter, for offering us a place where we can create a new kind of border dwelling,  a place where an old pony is cherished, an obnoxious pig is kept safe, and a one-eyed horse dances with her friend on a cold December night. 

Contact information:  Amrit Daryanani, PhD  adaryanani@wakefieldschool.org