Don’t Worry About Anything Except the Horse

Submitted by KJ Dell’Antonia

Sometimes you need to turn your thinking brain off.

Maybe you’re exhausted from a stressful work week. Maybe you’re stalled on a creative project, or facing a hard decision. Your brain goes around and around, marinating and prevaricating on the same facts, problems or alternatives. It’s not fun and it’s not productive, either.

For me, this is the time to get on a horse.

Getting outside is good for almost anything, but when you take a walk, it’s too easy to keep your brain in the same rut you’ve been in. Same goes for bike riding on the road—aside from the terror of cars, it’s easy to think about other things besides the ride. Treadmill running or a familiar gym workout are probably not going to work. But horseback riding—and mountain biking, for me—demands full concentration from a different part of my brain.

We’re all familiar with “flow,” the state of mind made famous by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in which you become so engrossed in your work that you don’t notice the passage of time and gain the sense that things are coming, if not easily, at least steadily. This, too, is flow, but flow for a different part of my mind. I think of it as a flipped flow, or even a flood. I’ve engaged another part of my brain so thoroughly that my creative mind is forced into a holding pattern. I can’t worry about the story or the character’s motivations or whether I’ve properly nailed down the details around some complex event, because I’m entirely focused on the horse.

I can imagine a number of other sports that would achieve the same thing—kayaking, rock climbing—anything with enough risk to fully engage the senses. I can also imagine that team sports have a similar but different effect. The goal, for me, is almost a cleansing. While “I” am engaged elsewhere, my creative mind can sleep or sort itself or even find a solution to some problem that was stuck because I was trying too hard. If nothing else, it’s sometimes the only way to get a break from a particularly demanding piece of work, because my brain will often insist on continuing to write or organize or sort through difficulties even when I’m not sitting at a notebook or keyboard. Some stories are really hard to set aside. They’ll even invade your dreams and certainly your nighttime musings—and yet I don’t think you can write them unless you manage to give your brain something else to do and the story a chance to marinate.

I love being creative. I love building the story, then finding the real story and bringing the whole thing into the light. I love nearly every part of this work, but it definitely leaves my mind badly in need of a rest. Putting my body to work in a way that demands focused attention is my favorite way to shift gears and come back fresh.

KJ Dell'Antonia
KJ Dell'Antonia
KJ Dell’Antonia’s debut novel, The Chicken Sisters, was an instant New York Times bestseller and a Reese Witherspoon’s book club pick. It’s a timely, humorous exploration of the same themes she has long focused on in her journalism: the importance of finding joy in our families, the challenge of figuring out what makes us happy and the need to value the people in front of us more than the ones in our phones and laptops, every single time. Before turning to fiction, KJ covered the personal and policy aspects of parenthood for the New York Times, writing and editing the Motherlode blog from 2011 until 2016 and serving as a contributing editor to the Well Family section from 2016-2017. Before taking over Motherlode, she was one of Slate’s XXFactor bloggers and a contributor to Slate, where she covered parenting and a broad range of subjects, from legal issues to pop culture.

Her earlier book, How to Be a Happier Parent: Raising a family, having a life, and loving (almost) every minute of it, is a practical, thoroughly researched guide to bringing more joy into our everyday lives, not by doing more (please, no) but by doing things differently. For the Times, she has covered “how it’s done” in the broader sense, from how parents bribe their children to read to how they afford summer, manage on minimum wage or handle the ramifications of jail time, as well as writing essays like “I Refuse to Be Busy” and “Am I Introverted, or Am I Just Rude?”

She’s the co-author of Reading with Babies, Toddlers and Twos (Sourcebooks 2006, second edition 2013), and contributed essays to On Being Forty (ish), edited by Lindsey Mead (Simon & Schuster, 2020), The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality, edited by Avital Norman Nathman (Seal Press, 2013), and Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hilary Paradox, edited by Joanne Baumberger (SheWrites, 2015). Her work has also appeared in publications ranging from Parenting Magazine to the Bellevue Literary Review.

An attorney and former prosecutor, KJ is a graduate of Kansas State University and the University of Chicago Law School. She lives in Lyme, New Hampshire, with her husband, four children and assorted horses, chickens, dogs and cats, although not goats. Her older daughter, who has a very healthy idea of what additional chores goats would involve, has forbidden goats. KJ is working on maybe an alpaca.

ABOVE Photo credit: Lars Blackmore

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