Erik Strandness responds to a recent debate between ‘Side A and...
In the middle of the doctors’ waiting room, amongst the tired magazines and pale patients was an enormous rocking horse.
Approximately three times the height of the average child, its face was painted a gentle brown, eyes wide and white, teeth breaking into a conspiratorial smile. My Mum would lift me onto it, and I could feel the fuzzy brown tartan of the saddle prickling through my tights. At the front, there was a wooden U-shaped handle to hold onto, or you could lean forward and stroke the smooth mane. Leaning back, there was a large nubbin to prevent you from slipping, and behind that, its tail was a solid, triumphant block of upturned black.
This horse made it worth getting ill.
I would lean forward just a bit, then back, and I would start to feel the momentum increase as the weight of the rocking horse pulled it forwards and backwards. After the initial resistance and effort, it was all smooth, the sense of being on something that knew your wishes and carried you there. There was a harmony, an expectation, a comfort in the backwards and forwards, a security in each repetitive motion. On the horse, I would construct a story around the motion: I was Carlotta, a fiery Spanish circus girl, escaping, my equine friend knowing by instinct what I needed, and loving me for it.
Then when I was eight, I rode a real horse for the first time.
I looked at my horse, almost as dark as Black Beauty and I could feel my excitement growing as I stroked it. I felt simultaneously both disappointed and relieved that I would not be riding bare-back – Carlotta surely would have gripped the flank of the pony with her legs, feeling the harmony of human and beast in motion together.
We set off, at first walking, then at a brief trot. My euphoria lasted all of thirty seconds, and was replaced by sheer terror.
I was jolted up and down, thrown into the air and landing with a bump, only to be thrown again before I’d had a chance to recover from the last bump.
Every vertebra, every tooth was rattled to the core. My feet slipped in and out of the stirrups at random, and it seemed only by chance that I kept landing back on the saddle rather than being flung into oblivion. Nobody had told me that the reality of being on a horse was like riding an out-of-control bicycle down a never-ending flight of stone stairs. There seemed to be no way of stopping the madness.
Rapidly abandoning the fantasy of being a circus girl, I stopped treating the horse as a friend, and instead as a machine, pulling straps with my hands and kicking my legs, wondering how this thing ‘worked’, how to get it to stop the jolting and slow down. Nothing was effective, and so I began to see the horse as not as machine but as a particularly vengeful enemy.
After the thirty minute ride, I was released, shocked and indignant. “I did not like that!” I protested. “It was not very comfortable!” The guide shrugged.
“What did you expect?” he asked.
The mane did not feel smooth and sleek but matted and dry. My hair was sweaty and itchy from the helmet. There were flies everywhere. Flies on the back of the horse, flies in the air, in my teeth and eyes. I had scratches on my arms, and I ached, ached all over.
And what did I expect?
A horse is neither a cradle nor a machine to press and prod and deliver for me but a wild animal. It does its own bidding, and there is so much that you cannot control, and nor should you.
And this is what growing up means: that abrupt jolt to our theology, that disappointment of not having achieved our dreams, that feeling of being thrown into the air and not knowing if we’re going to land again. Maturity comes through those uncomfortable rides that herald the discovery that life is bumpy, love is wild, and God is bigger than we thought.
Over to you:
- Have you had a moment in life when you were looking forward to something but disappointed by the reality?
- In what ways are we tempted to make God into a ‘rocking horse’?