i was a sight to behold. hair straightened, lips painted, faux fur michael kors cape fluffed out in a frame around my perfectly made-up face.
the moment my gold-heeled black suede booties hit the bumpy grey gravel, i realized i was a walking fashion faux pas.
amidst rolling hills, pristine pastures, and god-fearing mennonites churning out cheese and handmade crafts, there we were. smack dab in the middle of ohio amish country…and i stuck out like a stiletto-clad sore thumb.
in my defense, the only plan for the day was catching up with family at legacy village, a luxe shopping center close to home. we feasted on sauvignon blanc and quinoa salad, strolled through clothing shops and caught up on life updates and #firstworldproblems.
but immediately after our leisurely lunch, my brother announced that we needed to take a quick detour to middleburg to check out some horses he was considering buying.
“ummm not exactly what i had in mind…”
not one to take no for an answer, he convinced me to come along, transitioning from fancy shops to country farms without any time for a wardrobe change.
when we pulled off the smoothly paved asphalt and hung a left onto the windy gravel entrance to the rayber horse ranch, he couldn’t resist doling out a playful jab at my couture conundrum.
“OMG hahaha!!! good thing you look like a total slut with your makeup and high heels!” he chuckled.
nice… normally i’d have a zinger of a retort ready to fire back but in this instance…in the heart of amish country…i had to concur. “UGH.” i couldn’t help but laugh while simultaneously giving him the stink eye as i slowly climbed out of the car.
we made our way toward the stables, and all the while i could feel the warm, nagging sense of discomfort, starting at my neck and inching bit by bit up to my cheeks. it wasn't fear or panic, but rather a keen awareness that THIS one of these (ME!) was not like the others.
the sight of our shiny car triggered a flurry of activity, as our hosts eagerly assembled at the front of the wooden gate, just under the welcoming animal skull. the city slickers had arrived!
ray looked exactly as you’d expect. kind eyes. flannel shirt. long scruffy beard. faded jeans. if not for the tilted cowboy hat and suspenders, i almost would’ve thought i was in my own hipster hood.
he was a family man, with hands soiled from hard manual labor and a simple life buying, selling and training horses. he smiled as the three of us approached.
“maybe this won’t be so bad after all,” i thought.
he greeted my brother with a direct eye contact and a firm handshake. “good to see you again.”
“you too ray! i’d like you meet joseph.” again, a smile. eye contact. and a firm handshake.
then they turned to me. “and this is my sister, celia.”
smile. i reached out my hand. “nice to meet you!”
my hand still hanging there, in mid-air.
half smile. tilt of the hat. and that was it.
i was almost in shock. did i just get denied?? i could tell from his manner that he didn’t intend to be mean or vindictive, but it was definitely jarring. preconceived notions. mine about him. and his about me… or who knows, maybe even women in general. all encompassed in that single moment. i dropped my hand to my side—or perhaps it was pulled down by the weight of the subtle rejection… and i stepped back, receded really, to let them get to the business at hand. the horses.
this was going to be a looonng afternoon.
i spent most of the next hour removed. uncomfortable. disengaged. i shot a couple photos of the farm, watched from a distance as he brought out each horse, one by one, and paraded them around the circular arena.
i chose a spot away from the action, finding solace on a big log outside of the barn and impatiently checking my watch at regular intervals.
after about 30 minutes, i noticed two figures darting from the house to a location off to the left, just out of sight. i couldn’t make out who or what made the noise, so cast my gaze back toward the barn.
within a matter of minutes, loud noises, thuds and squeals began emanating from the corner.
i left my comfy perch and decided to investigate the commotion.
and there they were. two adorable little amish girls, jumping on a trampoline with wild abandon. they would take turns leaping into the air, and then crumble to the ground in a giggling pile of sweetness. it was heart-melting.
there was a mesh fence around the trampoline and i didn’t dare cross the barrier and intrude on this pure moment—especially given the frosty welcome i had received minutes before. so i quietly sauntered back to my spot and resumed the waiting game.
enough with the ugly spotted one already… next up, the massive brown friesian. i got up to observe through the barn window. walk. trot. canter. round and round…
and then i felt something behind me. a presence. no words were spoken, but i could feel eyeballs burning through by back. i turned, slowly, and looked over my shoulder.
the two girls were now staring up at me with big brown eyes, sandy blonde hair tucked behind black babushkas, and cheeks rosy from bouncing up incessantly to touch the sky.
“hi there,” i muttered…all the while i kept wondering if ray was watching. would he be concerned about this all-black clad, make-up wearing maleficent corrupting his sweet little girls? i tried to keep the small talk to a minimum and diverted my gaze.
but their eyes were locked on me. and their faces were beaming. with innocence and light…but most of all curiosity.
it was utterly disarming. i cracked a huge smile. and the floodgates opened.
“what’s your name?”
“wow! my name is julia. did you know that you just need to switch two letters—change the ‘ce' to a ‘ju'— and we’d have the exact same name? this is my big sister anna, and we have a younger brother, but he’s in his crib right now sleeping. do you have any kids?’
i told them about mine.
“do they like halloween? most people carve their pumpkins, but we paint ours. mine is the one with pink and purple glitter because i like sparkly things.”
“i love sparkles,” i said. #kindredspirits
“what about easter? i love holidays. we get to eat the best food like cookies. do you like cookies?
“yes chocolate chip are my absolute favorite.”
“oh i like those. and also those things that have like 7 different things in them…dream bars, yeah! and whoopee pies. mmmm….”
“julia, you should only say the one cookie that is your favorite.” her older sister was trying to get the eager beaver to play it cool.
“but how can i choose just one?! you can’t forget about the snickerdoodles!”
“don’t worry, keep going. i love food! it’s impossible to choose just one,” i reassured her.
“yeah… thanksgiving is fun too. i like it because i get to celebrate it with my whole family. it’s really fun, except when my brother annoys me.”
“hello! tell me about it.” mine would still have to pay for the teasing that kicked off the trip!
“...and we have all these people over to eat turkey and stuffing.”
“i love stuffing too!
“also the animals on the farm. they're so cute. i love animals…”
they went on and on, about literally everything they could think of that they loved about life…and it gave me pause. i thought to myself. “wow… girls, i completely feel you.”
worlds apart in nearly every imaginable aspect (age, race, religion, upbringing, lifestyle), but all they saw, all they chose to focus on, from the second they saw me… was me. another human being. another girl, just like them.
just then, a big shadow appeared, looming over our cocoon of light.
“you better watch out now.” it was ray.
a lump formed in my throat. was he warning his girls not to talk to me? should i have just cut them off when they tried to engage?
all three of us simultaneously turned to suffer the wrath.
“i’m telling you, be careful. those girls of mine, they’ll talk your ear off if you let them!” then he smiled wryly, winked and walked back to the barn.
it was a moment of realization. how much our daily interactions with strangers are colored by fear of the unknown, insecurities, prejudice, narratives from tv shows or news reports. there were stark differences between us, sure. but those girls started from a place of commonality. sameness. not the dark chasm of difference that conspires to divide us daily.
our worlds fused in that moment, from separate into one.
we could see the guys approaching now.
in a sweet sense of urgency, julia looked up at me with those big brown eyes. she didn’t grab my hand, but she leaned in as close as little kids do when they have yet to learn the rules of personal space.
“ummm. maybe next time you come, you can stay a little longer so we can play.”
done. she crushed me. broke through that wall of protection—carefully built and fortified from living, in the city, in this country, in this world, that alienates us from each other and even ourselves.
it was a simple human connection in the unlikeliest of places. we all knew we’d be returning to the concrete jungle. our complicated, chaotic lives would resume, and things wouldn’t be as innocent or pure as they were on this day. but she opened up my heart so unexpectedly…and maybe even her dad’s.
sometimes it takes a pattern interrupt, going outside of your comfort zone, to see things or people, differently. it was a flutter of hope--however small, not insignificant. a reminder that in truly seeing another, you might also see yourself.
the horse hunter would leave empty-handed that day. but i walked away with a treasure.