Recommended Age, Grade, and Reading Levels
- Age: 16 to 18
- Grade: 11 to 12
The Saddle Hurts, Too is an excavation through the grit and grime of guilt and shame that seeps in from personal and intergenerational histories. Navigating the rugged and wild terrain of worlds both inside and outside of us, past and present, this collection defines new ways of understanding, relating and belonging. It invokes intimacy—with self, with nature, and with others—challenging us to reconsider our responsibility to ourselves, to nature, and to one another. A hybrid text of essays and poetry, this collection explores the edges and moods of what stands in the way of belonging and what hides beneath anger and shame. It pokes at the darkness, watches it ooze glitter. Even something that helps carry us and offers us support— a saddle, for instance— can be uncomfortable, painful even, excruciating. With this burden, Breezy writes towards joy, belonging, safety and healing. In effect, Breezy reveals an experiment in thinking that attempts to break free from isolation and bind one unconditionally to unions of ritual and kinship.
About the author
Breezy is a queer Métis/settler writer, artist and art educator. Breezy holds an M.Ed from the Harvard Graduate School of Education focused on trauma-informed teaching practices. She has worked with creative violence prevention, restorative justice and arts-based enrichment programming in schools. She currently works as an educational consultant, helping others connect, heal, find joy and grow through making.
Excerpt: The Saddle Hurts, Too (by (author) Breezy)
Quick-morphing brains are hypertuned to protect themselves from hurt. Teenagers are like sharks. They can smell your fear because they need to know that you really believe in what you are telling them. I have never been a good sleeper, but I stay awake now, flipping through their faces. I realized early on that to get ‘difficult’ teenagers to be vulnerable, you have to unzip yourself all the way. I thought the only way I could do a good job was to lean in and love them hard. It worked, but now they are in me. I staggered into my role as a teacher and got sucked in and held by a vortex of toxic, shitty environments; patching holes where I could see them. Money was slippery and stressful and teacher training seemed like a logical, stable-employment backup for drawing weird pictures and taking drugs. Maybe because I started as an art teacher—and angsty kids make lots of art about feeling dark and wanting to die—but I saw pretty quickly how meanness and anger shrouded wounds in young people. Usually, the harder a kid was to get near the more pain there was. Administrators don’t care about art programs as long as you put something pretty in the hallways, so I had a lot of space to build lessons that I thought would help kids feel better. Something that would have made me feel better. Our soft human bodies are trained to look away from pain. Other people’s hurt, hurts us. In my early days teaching I burned watching instructors and administrators losing the quiet ones in corners drawing pictures of nooses and pushing the loud ones out of the building. It took a few years to realize that some of them did see what was happening in those kids, but they were too tired, and it was too hard for them to stare it down. Suffering seeps into us. This is where I think the overworked, exhausted teacher trope comes from: it is not the garbage, mocking paychecks, it’s the endless cyclone of scrappy, forming humans emoting into you and the lack of tools and support you are provided with to process. I have reflected on the motivation in the past to work with teenagers who are “violent” and “difficult”—quotations on those words because I am embarrassed by the connotations. Violent behaviours are rational reactions to feeling hurt and fear. It is important to me that people know that. The real work of keeping kids safe is looking for the perceived threat that queues the fists and spitting (and that not doing that is lazy). People are too lazy. Too lazy to learn and do any better. In the crushing, disintegrating schools and suspension sites I have worked at, people were just trying to keep it together. Breakdowns and sick leave consistently looming. Worse than images face-flipping in my head, are the other memories. The heartbeat of a scrawny 8th grader through his ribs, hot skin, and t-shirt marked the meat of my hand as I held him back from a fight: his terror. The sound of a 14-year-old sobbing into my ear after sharing a story of being beaten so badly that she wet herself: shame. That girl was in my office for being ‘sassy’ to her English teacher. I am angry writing this. I recognize that my anger is a pain, too. I wanted other teachers and administrators to take some of those things; to distribute the weight. I could not afford to pay rent and I thought there had to be a way to get other people to see what was happening. My brother makes jokes about my bleeding heart: “Feelings don’t matter,” he said. “People should just do their jobs and leave each other alone.” When we were small he zipped himself all the way up. I have always wanted to do that. In the fall I was walking to campus one day and had a moment of what seemed like a clear and deep realization: I would be so much happier if I was a welder, a ferrier, anything. I am happy and safe when I am alone and making things or fixing things. Sewing, building, painting, weaving. Touching things. No people. No one else’s hurt to process and sort.
Much of my early time was spent wordless with animals. The body communicates motivations in its gestures, sounds and breathing. I have met many young people whose fearful, aggressive and disruptive behaviour was reacted to with more fear, anger and aggression: a cycle dealing cruelty. Curious about what fed that sequence, I looked and found self-preservation backfiring on all sides. In order to meet students in a place where they are able to open up and contend with that fear you have to be vulnerable. I had to unzip all the way. A dog that feels safe will roll onto its back; a comfortable horse will not shy from a hand run under its belly; a person unthreatened will meet you with arms open, uncrossed, shoulders back and lead with their middle. Each time I let them in and walk in pain, I learn a little about healing my wounds—ones inflicted in that space of vulnerability—and am marked by theirs. The only way out of that quicksand is to sink all the way to the bottom and chip through the crust on the other side. To be free from pain you sit in it, let it burn out and then polish yourself with the ash. Wear it. The shared experience motivates a deeper push, it feeds me, and it taps me to pour out onto the floor. Reconciling whether constantly being unzipped—letting more people into that generative space of hurt and healing—I will ever be able to come out on the other side. By that I mean: will I ever feel both healed and whole enough in myself, and that I have done enough to support learning and healing around me? My teacher said “justice is the process of becoming whole.” Who gets to be the most whole, with the most access and the most love? Will wholeness soothe those somatic engrams left: in the meat of my hand; the shame of a child weeping in my ear. I am comforted that our bodies, the earth, ideas are all constantly in a state of simultaneous growth and breakdown. Newness and decomposition. Maybe the answer to my questions is in that truth—by constantly pushing to disintegrate harm through facing it, the pain surrounding it is allowed to dissolve—maybe the creation of more connection, more healing in that vulnerable space will breed more, and more, and more, and more and allow the hurt to fade out. Zipping is protective. An insulating barrier keeps the unwanted out. It also keeps the everything-else out. Zipping-up is a muffling of all perceptions. Limited input means stunted understanding of other people and your environment. You can’t be curious about other people’s behaviour if you can’t see them. You can’t totally hear another person’s experience if your hearing is deadened. True joy, feelings of belonging, and an honest and enduring feeling of safety comes with a loose zipper. Exposing yourself to the fullness and nuance of another person means opening to the spectrum of what they hold (in their bodies and consciously).
We experience extremes only in contrast. A sunny day is warmer and alive when led by a shitty one. Colours are brighter held against their opposite. Getting really fucked-up happens by accident when you have tried to stop drinking for a while. The moments of joy and love I have experienced in those little factories marred by pain and trauma sustain me because resilience in that shared territory is confirmed. I am not fed by the process of accessing that vulnerable root (of aggressive and bad behaviour)—the place where hurt is held—but by the blinding joy that lives there, too. Permeated boundaries. Picked at borders. Exposure. Vulnerability is the site of harm and of healing.
In order to feel better and build the positive self-identity that healing necessitates, it is essential to drink the kool aid. Believing that feeling good is possible requires examples of people like you, around you, feeling good. A sugary promise to feel better. I have found that this requires showing up eyes on, looking as much like myself as I can. This is especially true for the ones who have developed a self-protective distrust. Some kids—you know the ones I am talking about—get trained hard against the experience of being written off, and do whatever it takes to get the writing-off over with as soon as possible. Rip off the band-aid. I sob at small but loud victories, defined by their opposite: dramatic loss and longing. Pay closer attention.
Go into the school, meet the kids, get them to trust you, work with them to build relationships with each other so they won’t fight each other and maybe learn about empathy—so they can practice it better. Show them how to sing. Then maybe everyone will be safer. More alive. Get them to stop fighting each other and hurting themselves. Violence. Meanness. Cruelty. To meet these properly requires vulnerability. I re-read something tonight that I wrote when I was drunk. A note that said: “I will be apologizing to that moose for the rest of my life.” I was referring to the moose whose hide I destroyed when I was 11. My dad was a hunting guide and the leather was probably left to him by an American who was only interested in putting the animal’s face in his living room. Nobody put tobacco down. Moosehide is thick and durable. It’s utility makes it valuable. The rich girls who rode horses always had tack with fancy silver bits on it. I decided one day that I wanted a pair of saddle-bags with stars so I could be shiny too. I took this big, magic animal’s skin—a material that had taken a lifetime to grow, and a man to skin, a man to process and a man to tan—and I cut it into stars and left it in a plastic bag. I never sewed them together. That drunk scribbling was not the first time I thought about that moose. I think about him all the time. I have so much guilt wound up in the moose, and so many other moments of irreverence and harm that I have inflicted—either through carelessness or retaliation. I wonder how much of that guilt is a part of my character. How did it become mine? If the practice of feeling pain and dipping through it lets it diminish little by little—sustained by moments of relative joy—then is it worth it? Scars are markers of healing: reminders of bodily resistance; of perseverance; of a healthy ability to meet an attack on boundaries. As a child my vulnerability was not chosen and the moves past those borders left me weak and hurt for a long time. My desire to feel confident and intentional in vulnerability is based on some evidence that it is possible to balance the harms done with the gains it affords. Where does the fulcrum sit? Is there a remaining possibility to stitch the pieces and make them whole again? Wholeness as justice.
Big victories are exaltations. The: “this room feels like family,” “I feel proud of myself for helping” and the “I don’t want to hurt people anymore(s).” Seeing young people who entered a space turned-in, or lashing out, who smile with their eyes, talk and walk with gentle confidence. The small glittery moments are just as sweet: a kid getting to school 4 days a week instead of 2; a student lifting their head up off of a desk to hold my gaze; a handshake or hug in the morning. Healing is moving past and gaining a clearer picture, a more useful map of the emotions and protections. The joy that holds my course in this work shapeshifts and surprises, as the shame that it balances does. I have been thinking a lot about the distinction between shame and guilt. Guilt is directed at actions–something we have done that caused discord or harm in relationship with other people, it lives outside of bodies. Shame is directed at an entire person: something you are doing or have done makes you bad. Shame puts on a mask that looks like rage or anger: turned inwards, or out. Healing as balancing harm by coming into community. Wholeness. Getting to that shame requires a look directly at hurts that we are programmed to run away from. Modelling that unzipped vulnerability is the only reliable way I have found to do the work of healing. Leaving us both open to wound, if the process is left incomplete–or if it does not work–everyone just leaves more harmed. My own healing is no doubt a draw. The closer I lean into those burrs of self-hate the more connected and safe I feel in relationship and with myself. This process has been long and is unresolved—likely it will never be. I see clearly the value of this effort in my own experience, but also the unending nature. Healing is not an absolute, it is an action. It is work. Healing is practice recognizing the true character of our feelings and calibrating responses that do not create more harm for ourselves or others. No need to define healers, the healed and the healing. People are in-process: building and dying back at once. I attach the idea of healing to the concept of wholeness, and wholeness to identification with communities that hold us, and to other resources necessary to maintain a sense of self-respect and safety. If I understand the unremitting nature of this project, then a little healing should be better than no healing. The risk sits in the gulf between where people open themselves, and where confirmation of true belonging to the group happens. A place where you sit unzipped and not wrapped by protective kinship. Can we become good enough at being together to get the confirmation of real togetherness, and avoid sending people out open-to-wound and un-encircled? Part of me thinks that sending people out exposed and untransformed as those scraps of hide, that there is fundamental value to exercising that muscle that opens and makes possible deep connection to other people. A little exercise is better than none/ a little community is better than none/ a little healing is better than none/ a lot is better/ more could always be more. What I have looked at as a tendency in myself to feel guilt, I see now to be that lingering, sticky shame: the creeping back-brain sense that whatever I do will not be enough—that it won’t secure my spot in ‘the group’. When I was a child I found a moosehide in a box in my basement and cut it into stars. I wanted to make myself a pair of saddle bags. After dissecting the thick, durable skin I left it in an old grocery bag. Cut-up and untransformed. I think about my father’s disappointment. It looked like sadness. Or it was sadness: a noticing that amplified the shame. This story sucks at me each time I feel my action or inaction is hurting someone—moving them, or me farther away from one another. But, maybe the stars are enough. Maybe some transformation is better than none.
The skin is protective and permeable.
She wrote to me: “I read your final paper on my phone. In the dark. Curled over the white light in the dark of my living room. Long day. I felt like two eyes sitting in the dark. I did not feel my body in that moment. I did feel my eyes, heavy, lit up, suspended. My eyes teared up on my second read. I remember thinking my tears would float through the dark if the light never caught them. I wondered if the light never caught them, or I never told you, were these tears mine? Where did they go?” Where do we put it all down?