For me, safety has never been in numbers. Big family gatherings, business meetings, large crowds of gathered people—for any reason—these were things I dreaded and avoided. I’m what the writer Fenton Johnson, author of At the Center of All Beauty and Solitude and the Creative Life, refers to as a solitaire. I’m best off alone with a horse, with one friend for lunch in a quiet place, with my wife at home reading books. Self-isolation is something I’ve perfected since my early childhood.
I was mute until the age of six. I spoke to no one, and no one seemed to be bothered by it. My family, an Irish Catholic northeastern family, filled in my blanks. Not speaking is one form of isolation, no eye contact is another. Keeping my physical body a good healthy distance from intimate activities was another strategy I perfected. From one corner of a room to another, I figured out the angles of space needed to be left alone. No one knew how calculated I was, not even myself. It seemed to be my first nature, and to this day when I enter a room filled with people I’m deftly aware of the space between tables, between the door and the far corner, and never can I enter a space that has standing room only. I’ve lived this way for over fifty years.
These days, when I go into the public, I see many people who look just like me. Heads down, eyes averting one another, torsos yielding sideways to gain more space between us. I have always known how our bodies hold an honest form of language; I’ve been listening to this language my whole life. What is most striking to me in this time is how our bodies have become more monotone, less diverse, a thin shell is covering our body language, and all I hear is fear.
There is no safety in numbers. Numbers, us, our human form; we are the threat to ourselves.
In my twenties I began riding horses to save my relationships. Seems an odd thing to say, but it was true, and even I did not know how or why. I had received enough counseling to realize I had issues with intimacy. Running through lovers without remorse, self-reflection, or interest. Horses demanded I stay put. They needed me to bring my full self to the moment, and when I strayed, they would bolt, buck, or twirl. There was no faking it. I watched how the horse moved away from me, wary of this body who did not know how to connect.
Horses are herd animals, yet inside the herd there is a distinct sense of each animal’s space. They have a pocket of air, a bubble which surrounds them, and each horse needs that space to keep their relationships clear, clean, and understood. When a horse senses a break in that order of space, an infringement on the verge of happening, they send out signals first. One ear goes backward. One eye slides into the corner of its socket. A partial flick of the tail to the left. Keep yourself over there and we will be fine. And then, everything is fine. Things go back to the normal peaceful moment that most horses enjoy every day.
Over the last twenty-five years I have turned my love of horses and their language into a career as a horse trainer, and one of my biggest challenges has been to teach humans how to understand body language—both their own and their horse’s. How the movement of bodies in space has so much to say. When I’m out in public now, during this early moment of the epidemic, which will most likely last a long time, I want to tell people about what the horses have taught me.
Silence and distance, these do not make us strangers. Intimacy, the language of our bodies, is reflected in the smallest gestures. A tilt of your head sideways and a gentle smile when you pass someone on the street is a thousand kind words. Soft eyes, soft eyebrows, eyes that blink a little slower and longer can help slow our heart rate, relax our anxiety. If we notice how our faces hold tension, and let that tension release with a long, audible sigh—this alone could help the person standing behind us in the line at the grocery store. We can care for each other even when we keep our distance. At the park, or wherever you are heading out to these days, remember space is a natural part of our co-existence. Safety comes as much in giving each other space as it does when we gather in numbers. Right now, space can be a blanket for our well-being.
These days when I head out to the horses, I’m ever more aware of how our bodies reshape each other from a distance. I feel pressure on my chest as my horse gets too close. I hear the sound of each hoof landing in an even four-beat cadence just behind the soft padding of my own two feet in the sand. I feel the mist of breath on my forearm as we walk to the arena, my horse right next to me—three feet away. I notice the soft wrinkles above my horse’s eyes, the slow opening and closing of his nostrils, and I wonder what does he see in me?
Can I do better? Can I go into the world and trust the space between us? Can I meet people in the eye, open my chest, drop my shoulders, tilt my head to the side and smile? Can I help make someone feel more cared for in this very difficult time, just by letting my body have a kinder language? For so many years I hid myself in this space between us, but now I want to reach out. I want to try.
Ginger Gaffney is a top-ranked horse trainer and the author of the memoir Half Broke, published by W. W. Norton in February. She received an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, and her work has been published in Tin House and Utne Reader. She lives in Velarde, New Mexico.