Humility, Loving Your Neighbor, & Death to Self

There is a concept that is woven through most major religions. It is particularly emphasized in Christianity and Buddhism. It is an integral piece to each of these spiritual paths, and is found in the fabric of most others as well. A few months ago, faced with losing just about everything as the world closed its doors, I began to explore this concept somewhat by accident.
COVID-19 and the subsequent shut down presented me with the possibility of having to watch years of hard work, hustling, struggling, and fighting to hang on to what is fiscally and materialistically dear to me get flushed down the toilet faster than you could say, “Quarantine”. In a moment of contemplative meditation and prayer, I let go of my attachments to everything; my house, my horses, my possessions, my desired future….everything. I released them to the cosmos. I released them to God. It was very, very difficult. I cried a lot that morning. But I came away feeling free, and with the perspective that my materialism should not be so gripping—that my selfishness and ego were actually at the center of how upset I was. “The Self”, as it were. After all, it’s just stuff. “Let go of the stuff, Nicole.”
With an indefinite amount of time on my hands, and new creative outlets fueling my thinking brain, I began to consider in the deep recesses of my mind a concept I was not necessarily familiar with but somehow innately knew by name: “Death to Self”. Searching out the meaning of this statement led me down a rabbit hole of conceptual, psychological, and philosophical information that gave me quite a bit reading material to consume and contemplate for the next few months. Although this can be found in multiple religions, I’m going to mostly focus on a facet of that concept within the context of Christian teachings, focusing on its relationship to the treatment of your fellow man.
Our country is currently plagued with an over-emphasis of Self. If you think that this pertains specifically to either side of the political aisles, think again. As a matter of fact, if your knee jerk reaction to that statement is to push it off on another person or group of people, I would suggest taking a closer look at this concept in its entirety, as it will benefit you in learning to self-examine before assigning blame elsewhere….plank in your own eye and whatnot. Although I see it happening everywhere, I must admit that the obsession with Self has been hardest for me to stomach while watching Christians fall to this particular temptation, mostly because it is such an integral teaching of the Christian Church.
We have become obsessed with Self, and social media on the whole encourages and fosters this obsession, both preying and feeding upon it all at once. “MY opinion is the most important”, “I’m smarter than you because of MY beliefs”, “Listen to ME”, “I’M surrounded by stupid sheep”, “Listen to this other person who supports MY beliefs”, “It doesn’t matter that this is a phony article/quote/meme, it makes sense to ME”, “I took a break from social media, but I need you all to know I am back and all of the reasons I am more enlightened than you now”…..does any of this sound familiar? The mundane reporting of mundane things used as a weapon against those who do not agree in a war of divisiveness, often beating a dead horse, and ALWAYS seeking validation to ease the insecurity of a mind riddled with cognitive dissonance. Most times, they are the same people railing hardest against the division in this country, completely unaware of the bombs of self-obsession they are hurling into the ever-widening chasm. And social media NEEDS that obsession from you to survive. It needs you to seek attention and validation to thrive. It needs you to be addicted to the feelings you feel when someone has validated you online. It needs you to turn to it every time you feel insecure. And make no mistake, the need to put down others in a self-promotional effort emanates from a deep place of insecurity very few of us are exempt from.
The phenomenon of “This is what I think and you can just delete me if you don’t agree” is one of the most self-obsessive phenomena I have ever witnessed. In essence, you are saying, “I HAVE to say this, with no interest in conversation or discourse, but I HAVE to be be validated, I HAVE to be fed by those who agree with me, I HAVE to feel my opinion matters to the world at large, so I am saying this in the public arena, however anyone who disagrees is not only not allowed to speak, they are not allowed to know me. I cannot control this urge, but I don’t want to be made aware of the possibility that I may be wrong.” What a terrible way to live.
I have never been to a party where someone walked in and wildly proclaimed their views to the room as the only acceptable viewpoint, while rudely stating that everyone in the room who didn’t agree could just leave if they didn’t appreciate those sentiments…..but we see it every day on the internet. Most people who might experience that in real life would likely think to themselves, “Wow….that was very odd, arrogant, and unnessecary”, and yet it has become extraordinarily common place in virtual cocktail party of social platforms. As I witness these things, they test and highlight my contemplations, pushing me further to explore my own attachments, ego-driven sentiments, and neediness to be validated in my beliefs…and that’s where I come to pause at how we treat one another, and the relationship of that with the worship of Self.
There is a parable in the Christian gospels that is referenced regularly in modern speak. We understand the term, “Good Samaritan”, to mean one who does another a kindness in the gravest of situations, when others of perceived higher moral standing would walk by, disinterested in being troubled with the laborious and inconvenient task of helping someone in the middle of the desert, for a multitude of excusatory reasons. There are many layers to this parable worth discussing—for the sake of illustration, I am going to use this particular story to try to explain why the giving up of Self is so valuable, and has been adopted by some of the greatest spiritual thinkers throughout history.
If you dig deeper into the underlying context of this story, it is laid out situationally in a time that is much like today. A divided people, a heated political climate, an overemphasis on arguing semantics, and an abundance of self-righteous indignation. An over-abundance of (you guessed it) SELF. Most Jews at the time expected the arrival of a militant Messiah brandishing a sword—a violent Savior to come with retribution for all of those who were “wrong”. Enter Jesus, a relative pacifist, preaching love instead. This posed a significant problem for those seeking retribution, and the messages delivered posed considerable problems to those who could not listen because of their commitment to their own arguments, pretenses, and prejudices.
On the day of this message’s delivery, Jesus has spent the entire day mentally jousting with the experts of the day in religion and the Law. They questioned him well into the afternoon, setting mental traps along the way—a somewhat heated New Testament internet debate of sorts. The question of what Jesus’ position on the greatest of the 613 commandments in the Pentateuch is eventually raised, the response is simple: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’. On these two commandments hang all of the Law and the prophets.”
Before I continue, I would like you to pay attention to and contemplate if you would the two statements that are most commonly overlooked in that text. “And the second is like it”, and, “On these two commandments hang all of the Law and the prophets.” Mull those two babies over for a bit and you will start to understand the gravity of this particular teaching. Jesus is stating that the two are almost inseparable, and that the entire Pentateuch and the words of all the prophets can be summated in those two commandments.
From here, the question is almost indignantly posed: “Well, who is my neighbor?” To which the response of the parable of the Good Samaritan and his loving care for and rescue of the dying Jew is given by Jesus. For the sake of reference, the Samaritans and the Jews: NOT FRIENDS. The message being clear: “You must love and serve even those in your world that you do not like and/or agree with”. There are several philosophical principles to be derived in this short series of verses, but for the sake of staying on track, let’s discuss how the death to Self concept ties in……you cannot love your neighbor as yourself if there is no room to love others because you are too full of your own shit. It takes dying to Self to achieve the level of humility required to serve those we dislike, those who are awful to us, those we feel morally deficient, and those we disagree with. Only when we let go of all of those self-important grievances do we truly connect to God, because to honor the Self before that which is Divine severs our connection to the spiritual realm, and if you are a Christian, this is EXPRESSLY a sin. It takes true humility to love those we find difficult to love. It takes going beyond our imperfect human inclinations. This has been an extremely difficult challenge for me personally. I am still not successful, except in fits and starts. It is so difficult. It is much more difficult still with the internet whispering in your ear: “Screw anyone who doesn’t agree with you, tell those who defy you how stupid they are, threaten anyone who disagrees with you, YELL LOUDER”.
The Higher Path, in a number of ways, and in a multitude of languages and religious translations across the globe and the expanse of human existence, beckons us back to the concept of letting go of our Self-driven cognitive dissonances. It calls us back to the path of humility and kindness. As the internet attempts to drown those calls with its vicious whispers and addictive self-worshipping principles, I wonder if we will have the strength to find our way to something better. I hope that we can. It is harder now to center myself than ever before, as the collective peace of the world is so out of whack. Confusion reigns as we whip and spur our way towards The Nothing. I will affirm one thing though: in all of my meditations, prayers, and studies in the last few months, in my moments of utter despair, when I am left wondering why on earth I’m even trying to maintain a my tiny bit of balance while the social fabric crumbles around me, a quiet voice comes to me and says, “Don’t stop. This matters. This helps. Stay the course.” I don’t always succeed, you likely won’t always succeed, but the successes are much less important than the clear, concerted, CONSISTENT efforts.
That voice isn’t just speaking to me, I’m not that special, so if you’re out there feeling the same feels and thinking the same thinks, it’s speaking to you too. Don’t weaken. The world needs what you’ve got, even if it seems like no one is listening. You are the grounding agent—the lightning rod—the thin piece of metal that weathers the storm, saving everything around you from lighting on fire. Keep your feet firmly planted on the ground, center yourself, and stand tall—channeling the strength of that which is Infinite and much larger than you. That is the real battle. To remain grounded through the chaos. To let go of worldly attachments. To not be lost. To be still. To prop up the sagging consciousness around you as a well-driven stake keeps a tent from collapsing in on itself. To love against all odds and your better judgement. To recognize the ever-present concept that has been passed through countless religions over the course of centuries: that you must die to yourself to attain true freedom of the mind, heart, and spirit. You must die to yourself to touch Heaven.
Interestingly enough, back in Feb/March, I mentally let go of my possessions, and the solutions suddenly presented themselves. I continued to explore the concept that nothing is really “mine”, that no one in human form truly knows all of the answers—and almost instantaneously, the answers to my queries presented themselves in new and unusual ways. There was an experience of alignment.
To be clear, this is not a one-time realization for any person. It’s a realization that must be made and put into practice every day. Every day must be committed to being better—less attached, less materialistic, less judgmental, more forgiving, more loving, less self-serving and more serving of others, each and every day. If you are committed to these things, you will find the pedantic internet nonsense to be small and beneath you. You will pass by things that would normally enrage you, and show restraint, focusing instead your efforts on more worthwhile endeavors. You will refrain from posting things that actively or passively insult others. You will gain mental discipline. You will lose fear. You will find a better way in a world that is trying to convince you there isn’t one.
There are no accidents. You are alive in this insane moment for a reason. You decide what role you play, and how you play it. You determine our outcome. Act as if the entire human race depended on it. It does.

How Lucky I Am

My little dog is working well today. There’s a cow slowly making her way towards the trees. She believes if she takes her time doing so, I won’t notice. I smile as Luna quickly crosses behind my horse and trots around to put her back in line. My girls and their babies, along with a fair number of yearlings and a few big black bulls, are strung out nicely along the lakeside on a peaceful morning in mid-July; just enough fluffy clouds in the sky to make for a couple of charming photographs as I ride along, final destination: Long Canyon.

The stresses of life are heavy on me often due to troubles back at home and the costs associated with them, but it is difficult to recall any of that nonsense as I admire the reflection of the sky and the clouds and the cows in the still waters of the lake. I listen to the cattle plod along, occasionally one pauses to emit a low moo to her calf that has fallen behind. I urge the stragglers in the back along gently, and quietly remind the wanderers this is no democracy, escorting them back into line. Luna helps with each of these tasks, although it is her preference use a bit more force than I if given the opportunity. She’s a good little dog.

My lips are sunburnt and taste of sage and the sweet, earthy dust kicked up from the ground beneath our feet. My big bay colt strides along, sharing my great joy in predominantly cooperative cattle. For a moment, we are all peacefully in sync; the cattle, the dog, the horse, myself, the mountain, the lake—we have fallen into a perfect rhythm. I imagine that may be what heaven is like: everything running smoothly, efficiently, quietly; blissful harmony on a perfectly picturesque morning. The cows move along without stress. Their babies walk alongside them, occasionally trotting gingerly to catch up when they inevitably fall behind. There are few things in the world cuter than the backside of a trotting calf, of this I am certain, and I smile every time I see one pop it’s little head up to get going, without fail.

We continue along the lake and I watch my little busybody of a dog chase a butterfly or two as her job has become increasingly boorish in this tranquil march down the canyon. She’ll return her complete focus as soon as she’s needed again. Eventually a cow will allow herself to fall prey to folly, once again believing the march to be optional and attempting to quietly wander away. Luna will relish the opportunity to correct her. Unbeknownst to the moderately rebellious young cow, I am only requiring her participation in an effort to provide her with fresh grass and an even more magnificent setting in which to bed down for her afternoon naps. Her protests will be few upon passing through the Long Canyon gate.

Up ahead, I see the first few cows dropping down into the meadow beneath the lake. I’ll hold them there and wait for the boys to join me with their individual portions of the gather before we continue on to Long Canyon. My lead cows are slowed significantly by the deep green grass. I push the rest of the cows up a bit from the back and wait for them to continue to drop into the meadow, get a drink, and drop their heads into the grass. I take the opportunity to slip around the group of moderately distracted and mildly pacified bovines to inform the leaders that we will be taking our lunch here for the next few minutes. The leaders do not appear at all inconvenienced by this notion, and proceed to slow to a halt and drop their heads once again.

The breeze picks up a few wisps of my hair and chases away a multitude of mosquitoes that have taken an exceptionally unwelcome interest in my presence. The breeze subsides. I put the collar of my denim jacket up and swat the air in front of my face with the tail of my get down rope. I’m looking forward to that breeze again. It will return, and when it does, it’ll drive away the mosquitoes yet again before dying back down once more. We’ll do this dance until the boys arrive; or until the increasing clouds decide they are full to the brim, releasing their moisture on this lovely valley, and me. Monsoon season has arrived a bit early, but seems to be commencing nonetheless. Light afternoon showers will be relatively regular for several weeks. I welcome that as well. Last year’s drought was so hard on this country. I am grateful for the moisture. So is the earth. So are the cows. They’ve been much happier this year. After this last excruciatingly severe winter that followed last year’s unprecedented drought, I am happy to see them finally blooming like high country wildflowers in the tall grass and warm summer sun. They look well. Scrappy coats are blossoming into a slick sheen, and their bodies are becoming less angular than they were upon arrival. Their calves are growing rapidly and are gaining weight with ease. The entire lot of them have definitely come alive in the last month, and it does my heart much good to witness the transformation.

The cattle have temporarily abided by my decrees and are swatting tails and munching happily, so I step down off my horse and take the opportunity to air his back a bit. He’s a big, handsome bay with a fine head and one white hind sock. Bays with a single white hind have always been lucky for me, and he is no exception. He’s a good, honest colt who is becoming quite adept at learning his job. We get along pretty well, and the more I ride him, the less of a prick he is to the other horses in the trap, so it’s genuinely a win-win. He’s tall and carries himself gracefully, with a float to his trot and a comfortable, silken lope. He’s good in the rocks, stout to the horn, and sure-footed, and we trust each other, which is undoubtedly the most paramount component of our relationship.

The boys are held up with somewhat of a “genuine western conundrum”. They report that they will be with me shortly. On the ridge just south of the meadow, a calf has fallen into a 12’ hole between two rocks that is just about exactly as wide as a calf. A conundrum, indeed. I cinch back up, climb aboard, and ride to the other side of the meadow where I can get a visual of their cowboy ingenuity at work. My cows have blissfully full tummies and warm sunshine, and so are beginning to find soft places to lay down for an afternoon nap. I let my horse water as I watch the spectacle on the ridge from afar, giggling with every “Goddammit!!” and “Sonuvabitch!!” that rolls down the mountain to my welcoming ears. I’d be more concerned if I didn’t know they’d find a way to make it work. Justin always finds a way to make it work though, and he won’t quit until he has a baby calf kicking the ever-loving crap out of him as it makes its way out of the top of the hole. Time would prove me not to be incorrect in my assessment or my faith in Justin’s ardor. Up pops the kicking calf, and down rolls the cacophony of colorful expressions and expletives associated with its protest-filled arrival.

In the midst of the excitement, the hobbled roan mare finds no humor in rocks abruptly birthing violently kicking calves, or the emotionally charged expletives that burst forth from the gentleman embattled with the kicking calf, and she commences to blow up; bucking all the way up the side of the hill. She is halted post haste by her own self preservation instincts as she nearly flips herself ass-over-teakettle on the side of the mountain. Not to be outdone, the neighbor’s bay colt at her side looses himself of his anchor and makes a run for it. It’s quite the scene from my vantage down below, and several more inappropriate giggles at their misfortunes leave my body than I should readily admit. That being said, not a one of them would react any differently, and I will shamelessly hide behind that feeble reasoning for my blatant insensitivity until my dying day.

The kicking calf is extraordinarily ungrateful, but free nonetheless, and soon the hollering subsides, the horses are gathered up, and I am eventually joined by the three men and their share of the gather down in the meadow. They give account of their version of the story in typical cowboy fashion: mildly aggravated, with the now obvious humor in the debacle beginning to win them over. There are rolling eyes and laughter and jovial jabs about which tasks each could have performed more competently, giving the air that each of them would have expected the other to have read up on how to handle this highly routine situation in their handy dandy cowboy manuals: page 34, “calf spelunking rock extractions” section. Any decent hand should know that entry by heart, memorizing it as Bible verses in Sunday school, or so bring shame to the family name, clearly.

They let off their steam as I laugh to the point of tears and then I gather up all of my cattle and begin to kick them across the creek to the other side of the meadow and on up to the road. The cattle are noticeably unimpressed. Despite a ruefully slow upstart, we get moving down the road. No longer on the peaceful side of the lake in the early morning light, we will face a number of Texan tourists as we make our way up this road for the next several miles. Although we are in Southern Colorado, in the eyes of a Texan, we are now with their presence simply living in an extension of Texas, and we are truly just privileged they have allowed us to exist here while they grace this place with their temporary occupation. There is a Texan in our group, and he receives his due ration of shit for being a member of this particularly objectionable subgroup of society. Every Texan in Creede is more important than you, and every one of them is in a real rush to go relax. Every moment you keep them from their road coach is an unforgivable offense, and for a state that takes so much pride in their cowboying culture and their vast open ranges of the West, Texans certainly do not have any time for a cowboy and his cows to keep them from their UTV machines for even five minutes. And what is their fucking hurry? Well, you see, they have tasked themselves with the ever-important job of leaving a copious number of gates open all over this country we run cows on so that we may better perfect our cowboy craft through an excess of practice. If we keep them from those UTV’s, by crackie, those gates we closed in their wake yesterday may never get opened back up again, and we may never learn to be real cowboys! A thoughtful lot, those Texans; always trying to help us improve. Making America great again one scattered herd at a time. God bless ‘em.

The gauntlet has finally been run and I trot ahead to get the gate. It comes as no surprise that there are a handful of pairs just beyond the gate already. Those Texans, always helping. God bless ‘em. I see the first cow come over the rise. She sees the gate and catches scent of the other cows and takes off at a high-headed lope. The rest of the herd follows suit behind. The boys appear with their ropes down, so I pull mine down too. The clouds are beautiful today, and this canyon has a way of looking particularly gorgeous under a bed off fluffy afternoon clouds. Justin heads a rough-coated calf and takes a moment to get short. I trot in and pick up her heels. My colt is getting better at this every day. We are finding a groove. I smile at the thought. We give the calf some medicine, pop our dallies, and send her on her way. She hops up and trots off, happy to be rid of us, kicking my heel loop off with a sardonically dirty look and a bit of extra gusto. I grin an empathetic grin. It is fair to assume I’ll feel akin to the little squirt as I gather up a cocktail at the end of my day and kick myself loose of my boots, making way to admire a minor head change and the majesty of the setting sun.

It’s everyday shit for a cowboy, but when strung together it makes for a life we won’t give up until we are ostensibly forced to by the unrelenting hand of time. I detect a slight twinge of envy towards those fortunate enough to realize this need sooner than I, and while comforted by the internal knowledge that my path is as it ever should be and should have been, I mourn in silence momentarily for the younger version of myself that would have happily exchanged much to have lived days like these in a more youthful, more physically capable body. We come to it when we come to it though, and far be it from me to question the sequence of events that comprise my existence with a determined timing that prevails for reasons outside of my narrow understanding. I am here now, and hopefully I am gifted with a similar tomorrow. With each further concordant day’s allowance I will savor the romantically mundane moments that compose this bewitching way of life. I’ll sit astride my big bay colt on the tops of mountains amongst thousands of blooming wildflowers, and I’ll cross beautiful river bottoms full of crystal clear water rushing it’s way to the sea. I’ll rope stray calves in thunderstorms I was unprepared for and they’ll relieve themselves all over me as I, shivering and soaking wet and now stinking, help load them in the trailer to get them back up the hill to their mommas. High highs and low lows will never be in short supply, and I’ll rejoice in either alternative. I’ll keep the snapshots in my brain, I’ll keep a spare shirt in the truck, and hopefully when my body reluctantly cries out, “No more,” I’ll have had enough to keep me assuaged until I am eternally dispatched. How lucky am I to have been afforded a richness I never knew I’d know. How lucky to be free. How lucky to be here. How lucky to be a cowboy. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is certainly and most definitely mine; and what a most blessed and delightfully delicious brew it is.

“The Last Great Place”

I shut the door behind me and step down off the porch of Arp’s Restaurant into the street. A light breeze picks up my hair as I move on to the sidewalk, out of the protection of the bay windows surrounding the doorway. The streetlights are soft and wonderfully dated, dimly emanating their pale orange glow one after another in two perfect, parallel rows along either side of Main Street. I almost mistake their aged luminescence for the faint tangerine flicker of freshly lit lanterns radiating warmly once-upon-a-time against the old facade storefronts and brick buildings of a forgotten era that were constructed in this place so very long ago by brave and enterprising men seeking fortune in the new West.

It is a little after 10pm, but the street is serenely alive and noticeably busy for this late an hour. Couples walk arm-in-arm, silently smiling to themselves sedately as lovers often do in the afterglow of a romantic evening coming to it’s close. As I step out into the street, I am cognizant of the soothing and reposeful electricity in the air—except that it is more of a tranquil vibration than an electricity. The only sounds are the gentle wind in the trees and the happy clicking of ladies heels as they cheerfully step in time to keep pace with their handsome escorts striding along the sidewalk. The evening show at the renowned repertory theater has concluded, dispatching patrons that are now contentedly making their ways home afoot in the cool and pleasant air of this typical mountain evening. It’s a scene from a movie or some peaceful dream, with such a mysterious and unmistakable nostalgia attached to it that I can’t help the feeling of euphoria gently sweeping over me. Everything striking me as surreal, I take the opportunity to soak in the scene and the feelings of convivial kinship I gather from each warm and unfamiliar smile that passes me by, many of them dancing between wisps of wind-tousled hair.

This place is absorbing me. It is softly pulling me in to its being. It is allowing me my own seamless space in its new normal. I struggle for nothing. I want for nothing. I am accepted and embraced by all I meet. It is a place of tolerance and kindness. It is a place where all walks converge, and are welcome and somehow understood. It is a place of peace and happiness and sincerely-delivered smiles and a joyous intoxication of the senses. It is a place of rigorous work and vigorous play and the joys both bring to the soul. It is a place of rest for those made weary by the woes of our modern day troubles. It is a world away, and I revel in the knowledge that the meaningless bitching and the sickening bite of what many may deem so ruefully “important” in our current world and socio-political climate cannot touch me here.

I come to the entrance of The Creede Hotel and am greeted without fanfare by two of my new friends, the hushed tones of their voices in step with the soft vibrations of the street. It’s as if no one wishes to disturb the perfect energy in the cool night air. We briefly exchange pleasantries and accounts of the evening’s happenings before venturing off to hustle up a cocktail or two and find our way to the the local improv show, to which I am virginal. The crowd is as you would expect: wildly varied, imbibing, and oddly hemmed together in the most beautiful and strange of fashions. The show all of the good things promised to me it would be, entertained and amused thoroughly. My compatriots will continue on into the evening, no doubt; drinking and frolicking and reveling in the joy of their time together in this most interesting place, shedding themselves of the stresses of the day one libation at a time. I, however, will happily return home under a blanket of a million twinkling stars, ever-grateful for the opportunity to share in the unique experiences of the evening before doing so.

As I step back out into the night, I am acutely and definitively aware of how much I needed this place. Permitting myself to let go of the past and the anger and the hurt and all of the shit I had encountered prior to my arrival, I have surrendered wholly to the magic I have found here. I have become jubilantly lost in it. It has become a cocoon for me in which to heal my broken wings as I begin to reformulate the future. I realize that I am not alone in this. She welcomes with her restorative powers and bestows them so graciously upon those so desperately in need. She is my shelter for now, and I am quite certain my time here, no matter how prolonged, will be entirely too brief; but there is a triumphant relief in the knowledge that I am likely to rejoice in many more summers here on this mountain, away from the negative cycles of the screaming outside world. Here, we will talk of the weather, the cattle and the horses, the fishing and recreating, the plays, the arts, the love-filled weddings, the beautiful hikes, the parties, and the musical events while the rest of the world broods upon the countless sorrows mankind brings upon itself with an unrelenting heavy hand. The jaded, the callous, and the cynical may mock this place for her unabashed frivolity and revered disconnect from modern realities, but she remains as resolute in her commitment to these conditions more so than any town I’ve met. She is unwavering in her devotion to life’s many joys, and in her rejection of any foe desirous to snuff them out. Cy Warman’s most eloquent observations from over a century ago still provide a profoundly accurate snapshot of the magic procured by the spirit of this tiny mountain town:

“While the world is filled with sorrow

And hearts must break and bleed –

It’s day all day, in the daytime,

And there is no night in Creede.”

(Quote taken from the poem, “Creede”, by Cy Warman)

What Is, And What Once Was

“Who the hell does she think she is??”

As an individual possessed of only a first-year community college education and an extraordinarily insufferable itch, it may be necessary to address this matter straight away, before the judgement-mongers grab ahold of it. I am not entirely unaware I will be blessed with a small audience of the sorts so gobbled up by what strikes them as bothersome that they must pursue it tirelessly, hoping to feed the insatiable appetites of angst, hatred, and jealousy. If you fall amongst them, shame on you, but welcome just the same. I am sure I will supply all of the material necessary to disappoint you further. I am endlessly at peace with that. So, who the hell do I think I am? Good question.

To have asked me at 21 or 22 years of age, my playfully brazen response would have been delivered to you with a cheeky, almost flippant, grin and an air of sporting pretension: “The Queen of Fucking Everything”; and you would have seen in my dancing, convicted eyes the retort presumably was meant to be taken quite literally and without irony. I was truly a wild child, “l’enfant terrible”; a free spirit and a charming troublemaker—and a little bit of a shit. The world was simultaneously in my sole possession as it was likewise entirely beyond my grasp—tragically troubled and as fiercely full of love to give as I was filled to the brim with piss and vinegar. Exhaustively and utterly relentlessly in search of the highest promontory pinnacles of fun and amusement at all times, my sole motivation was to hunt my own enjoyment and indulgence in any direction I pleased at an irresponsible rate of speed while narrowly avoiding the kinds of lawlessness that were damaging to others and/or worthy of significant jail time. I typically succeeded.

I was fast-talking, fast-living, fast-thinking, and adept in divining my own survival, which was recurrently a perplexity I endeavored to set about day by day, rather than in the lengthy, uninterrupted swaths and breadths most would customarily propone. I was commonly the convivial and flirtatiously antagonistic life of most any soirée; and I was uncommonly elsewhere. Men were never short in supply and I typically enjoyed the company of one that suited myself and my love of dedicated companionship amply enough to run with for extended spanses of time until our romance burned out and we amicably parted ways. We often remained exceptional friends. Sandy beaches, snow-peaked mountains, dusty roundpens, and smoky dive bars possessed of juke boxes full of classic punk rock records were my home. I drank copiously, smoked pot, dabbled in drugs, and enjoyed adrenaline infusions of all sorts. At times, I enjoyed them all in tandem. I steered clear of what I considered dangerously addictive substances, but addiction was never an actual danger. I simply relished stepping outside sobriety more than I enjoyed residing within it, and disembarkation from pleasure aside, turning inebriants loose was never problematic if internal suspicions arose regarding the nature of my attachment to or reliance upon them. I would not realize how acutely luxurious and unusual a trait this was until observing several of my closest companions slide off the rails and fall into the grip of addiction—or worse, death. My keen awareness of the line between “want” and “need” controlling my relationship with my extracurriculars, I managed to entirely purposefully and somewhat wearily maintain a modicum of semblance in that arena of the veritable coliseum that was my mad and joyful life. It may have well been the only space in my life at that point in which I desired any such semblance at all.

I was extraordinarily self-possessed, especially considering my youth and my penchant for enjoying the act of walking away from what the world estimates to be reality as often as possible. I was undissuaded by occasional bouts of homelessness, creatively procuring new and exciting solutions to my ever-present need to bathe and apply makeup; food would figure itself out—so would cocktails. I worked like a horse behind a bar or behind a lens in between spells of what I regarded real life, and was exceedingly good at whatever I did despite the fact that I was typically a little hungover, and occasionally intoxicated, while doing it. It is my hypothesis as I peer back in retrospect that I was relatively if not incongruously anomalous; and likely a tremendous joy and egregious frustration to any poor soul in whom’s charge I was placed.

The title of “legendary” is ofttimes flung about when old cronies and comrades from what seems like another lifetime wax poetic of the beautiful, barbarous territory between 18 and 30–but I believe that to be largely overblown, if not completely preposterous. I simply didn’t give a shit, reveled in the opportunity to push the envelope so long as the air of good humor dominated and prevailed. Enjoying the company of those geared similarly, we set about the satisfying task of contentedly creating a family and genus of memories no one in my assemblage would readily let slip from grasp. I was nothing if not memorable, and for as ridiculous and wild as I was, I was very, very loved by the people around me who replaced my family when I suddenly found myself without one.

To ask me now what audacity drives me, I expect the rebuttal to be immeasurably more convoluted than 21-yr-old Nicole could have possibly envisaged. I’ve moderated myself substantially, and predominantly voluntarily. With clicks accumulating on the odometer, I acknowledge now that fast living beyond a certain age befits only rock‘n’roll frontmen and burn outs. Seeing as I have never been one for the stage and have no desire to be the old bag hanging on to the past and my youth with the horrifying and repugnant claws of unsightly desperation, I have instead opted to wind down and focus on exploring other methods of joy-creating. This brings me to the words of a true rock and roll demigod:

“Listen, if you’ve just flamed out, you know, you’re in such voluminous and undistinguished company, and then all your works will flame out quicker with you.” | Iggy Pop, at age 68, while conveying this very sentiment

An interesting notion from a punk rock god and hero of mine, calling into question and affably making light of the reality of the trivial nature of our arrogant battle fought against time and ourselves, departing from his lips with a laugh and a smile while quietly dining at a health food restaurant on the Florida coast where he now resides, a glass of white wine and Anthony Bourdain as company; words lavished upon my consciousness at a tremendously pivotal time—a time in which I called into question my own identity in having begun to part with the majority of my rough and rowdy ways. These words bestowing upon me permission to admit the unavoidable truth: I have flamed out. It is undeniable. My age increases, and I am not my once-indestructible former self; and that is entirely acceptable. I have given leave to the March Hare within; the Alice In Wonderland days now off in search of a more youthful hatch of fledgling hooligans. I am in no way altogether saddened by this. I brim over with the happiest of contented melancholies, nostalgic satisfaction and prognostic release; and the embers within still give off a healthy glow. I am forthwith in pursuit of new and unfamiliar fuels, advancing towards improved methods of fanning the bellows, and observing fresh sparks crackling and popping into existence. It is altogether terrifying and exhilarating simultaneously.

I think when you live with an excess of freedom for an extended period of time, the slightest speck of responsibility can feel as a shackle; and when you’ve lived as an admired beacon of a busted give-a-shit for years on end, having something to lose can masquerade as a loss of identity. Permitting myself to delight in this new experience of life as I attempt to grasp towards something more profound verges softly on the peculiar for me. I am unsure of the girl that lies beneath the reputation, be it good or bad, and as I sift through the uncertainty into the depths of my soul, I incorrectly worry my fantastically glamorous ill-repute is all there was. If the company you keep is truly an indicator of one’s true self, it is absolutely impossible that I was entirely lost, if even lost at all. I consider that often. My past friendships were ironclad—my friends and friendships so loyal and strong and entirely wonderful—it’s unimaginable to presume I had had it all wrong, no matter my irresponsibility in and repulsion demonstrated towards the matter of adult temperaments and obligations. As I gaze into the gloriously debased images fading evermore minuscule in the rear view mirror, I cannot suppose I was as misguided as I might be guilted into believing or as could be surmised at surface’s scratch, and I release this notion as I endeavor to find a new jubilance in my capacity for refinement and improvement.

As I quizzically study the version of my current self that stares back through the mirror, it is assured that 21-yr-old Nicole would deem me marginally disinteresting in my now more calmly calculated decision making processes and my desire to spend quiet days horseback that lead to quiet nights at home, but also decidedly fascinating in my agglomeration of much hard-earned prudence from which she could garner some fruitful bits of wisdom. It is quite accurate to suggest that 37-yr-old Nicole still greatly admires her younger self’s striking confidence, fearlessness, liberated demeanor, savvy street sense, and untiring grit. I miss her terribly from time to time. Other times, the very thought of her preferences and pace drives me to absolute exhaustion. As I continually progress into new spaces of consciousness and a partially new identity, it becomes glaringly obvious having nothing to lose was both positive and negative, and that my younger self did whatever she desired in the moment and whatever was necessary to survive completely synchronously. When traumatic upheaval came crashing in at 18 and she was suddenly left to her own devices with little support, that young woman let go—completely—of everything. While exist several invaluable lessons my advancing self can garner from the act of letting go in totality, current Nicole is concurrently not unaware that the younger version of herself was at times attempting to stash a body under a mound of leaves. Masking it from view may have indeed assuaged her sorrows temporarily, but detracted not from the certitude that the catastrophic wreckage was invariably and undeniably present. These injuries require constant resolution and this habit of suppression requires disjunction. I am now prepared, and for that I am inexorably grateful.

So, who am I?? Who fucking knows. I am a retiree of a vibrant, brightly-lit world of reckless enchantment and frolicsome freedom to the point of abject irresponsibility. I am a partially changed woman, and most sanguinely for the better. A woman who is endeavoring to captain the ebb and flow of existence without antiquated crutches; without reflexively taking flight. A woman who is trying to search out the most commendable attributes of her younger self, which were numerous and considerable, without lighting the whole damn world on fire to do it, and without denying the existence of a requisite to cope with her numerous exceptional injuries. It is time to put the things that are to be laid to rest, to rest. It is time to bury what needs burying, and to look back at that young woman and appreciate the numerous successes she achieved against all odds, and with the help of carefully and strategically placed individuals which were gifted onto her path at extraordinarily specific times. I had fire and confidence and courage in spades, I was gritty and most assuredly didn’t take shit off of anyone who hadn’t earned the right to give it to me, but I also believe and have always believed to the depths of my soul that the benevolence of a gracious and understanding Higher Power influenced my passage often and without inquest throughout the entirety of this most personal and fascinating journey. I am a woman who could not have made it this far on my own, and who is attempting to dovetail this knowledge with my current reality each and every day from a place of unlimited gratitude. I am a woman who anticipates an enlightened, au courant account of the stuff of legends without dismissing or vilifying the now outmoded definition. I am still delightedly ever-seeking “maximum fun”. I expect the visage of such to evolve innumerably by the time I am finally and eternally dispatched.

Bourdain: “You’re the template for the rock star, meaning other rockstars sort of look to you to figure out, how should I behave? Along with that, even at its very worst—even if you’re broke—you’re a guy that at various points in life, one way or another, has pretty much been able to have a lot of things ordinary people would never have. You’ve had many, many adventures…..given that, what thrills you?”

Iggy: “The nicest stuff right now—this is very embarrassing, but—it’s really embarrassing….. Being loved, and actually appreciating the people that are giving that to me.”

Ahh, the exquisitely ousted flame of one of the world’s most renowned rock‘n’rollers. The bewitching afterglow of a life lived on the border-edge of normalcy and insanity. The sublime luxury of being afforded the time and fortuity to delve deeper in an equitable and virtuous effort to procure a higher form of happiness, grappling with the knowledge that not all seemingly godless heathens of our ilk were granted such generous benefactions due to the unforgiving natural order of the universe, our proclivities towards tempting The Fates, and our insistence upon placing bets against our own mortality. The enchanting comfort garnered from the past and present both surviving and evolving restfully at peace with themselves. The blushing and triumphant attempt to live from the heart; humble in the commencement to and appreciation of a love affair with the passage of time and earning of wisdom. If it’s good enough for Iggy, well, by God, it’s good enough for me.

Who the hell do I think I am? I am a hopeful student. A hopeless romantic. An elaborately and unusually constructed nobody—just like everybody else. A masterpiece in progress, and one the world will likely forget, just as it ultimately forgets each of us in its eventual and endless perpetuity. I am composed of stars and saltwater, and one day I will unceremoniously return to either or both, and joyously so. I am everything I have been, and every bit what I shall be. Nothing, and everything. That’s who the hell I think I am.

Preface

As I embark upon my maiden voyage into this most uncomfortable, yet willful dispensing into the public space my sensibilities, struggles, analyses, and evaluations of my relatively menial existence, I am struck by the notion there may be cause for an appropriate preface. A fair sum of you know me as, well, me. NOW me—cowboy hat, horseback, charming photos, occasional cheeky jokes, routinely blithering on about blue horses and music and western culture as I have come to understand it. A portion of you quizzically speculate both to my face and behind my back as to where the hell I came from, why the blue hair, why the tattoos, why suddenly a cowboy. There is a chance we were never acquainted before I quite accidentally tumbled into the cowboy world, fell in love with it, and then sort of battled my way in despite the numerous things about my personage and appearance perceptibly working to my disadvantage.

Factually speaking, there was decidedly a me before this me, and she is the me that is the sherpa responsible for my escort into this new life adventure. While horses and starting horses have remained a common thread throughout the entirety of my life and have largely acted as a compass influencing my ultimate directions, there was a time when I was definitely as extravagantly uncontrollable and undeniably uninhibited as the hair and tattoos should have already indicated, and I loved that past as much as I love this present. If you knew me in those most reckless years, nothing I may expound upon in these pages threatens to stun or bewilder you. You’ve already witnessed the best and the worst of me. However, if we were unacquainted in those times, it is not outside the realm of possibility you are in for more of a ride than you realize.

My lifetime is rife with innumerable noteworthy and wholesomely happy times: the majority of my childhood, the building of careers and professions, magical swims with dolphins and octopi in the oceans of the world, lazy days floating lazy rivers, pushing cattle in the Colorado mountains, branding calves in the California desert, hot spring soaks under the stars, beautiful rides leading long-eared companions through the Eastern Sierra, African sunrises and Hawaiian sunsets…..but nobody ever bitches when you write about the quaintest of times. They bitch when you address the messiest of times. They bitch when you write about reality. For me, it was all intertwined loveliness, and I’m not going to deny the beauty in the throes of my rebellion anymore than I’ll deny the classically appealing moments. You will not be shielded from the messiest of times here, and I’ll be altogether honest when I confess that some of it may astonish and disillusion you. There was enlightenment and ethereal stillness in the face of God, and there was sex, drugs, and rock‘n’roll. I am free from remorse for any of it. You may have different concepts about which paradigm was genuinely more dangerous depending on your belief systems and preferent core values, but whatever your opinion, remaining in this space with me will translate that you accept the good with the bad, as I have to reach this point. Alternatively, you are welcome to silently decamp and feed your wondering eyes elsewhere.

So here is your unapologetic, aforementioned warning: this isn’t all going to be cowboy shit and the endless picturesque wonders of western life. A number of devotionals will occur to that end because that is my current state of existence, but this is primarily a space for my approximations of the world at large as I have experienced it, recollections of my happy, sad, wild, evolving life, and the encounters, ordeals, and affairs that have so graciously and indiscriminately ushered me into the present. Occasional varietals of colorful adult content will no doubt be sprinkled throughout some of my experiences. As always, carefully and thoughtfully placed profanities and inappropriate expressions are to be expected in most everything I compose. Undeniably gritty and irrefutably grizzly truths will at times arise. As with any conversation one would enter into with me, one should expect a movie rating of PG to R, depending on the day, my mood, and the narrative. If this repels you, if you only want the face I’m “supposed” to show you, please do us both a tremendous kindness and exit immediately.

My writing is me—the good, the bad, and the ugly; and no subject is taboo. In photos I am focused on what I find to be captivating and peaceful around me; what soothes me. Writing is where I dig within. It is recall, therapy, and surgery concurrently. I have traveled extensively, educated myself broadly in several arenas, witnessed both the heights and dregs of society, debated which was actually which, and have personally acted in ways most honorable and most unbefitting a lady, to my glory or infamy, depending on who is recanting the tale and how much whisky has been served. I will not make sweet these words and stories because this is and was my actual life. Conversely, I will not alternatively embellish for the sake of shock. I have enough respect for you as a reader to provide you with truth. The truth is all I have to give.

In summation, you cannot say you have not been warned. You have. Should you retreat, no hard feelings. Should you step into my slightly unhinged and lavishly moonstruck world with me, it is my sincere hope that you are afforded an encounter with something you believe worthy of taking with you. I find myself now in a unique space in time in which all I have to offer of myself is that which resides in this humble hat rack inhabiting the space atop my shoulders. It may be but the meagerest of offerings, but I swear on all that I hold dear I will at the very least attempt to hold your interest. Thank you for joining me on this most exciting and terrifying journey. 💙