An interview with memoirist and horse lover Marjorie Simmins
Year Of The Horse is a memoir of Marjorie Simmins, a 55-year-old woman who experienced a severe horseback riding accident in 2011. As a result, the author could not walk (or even turn over in bed.) What transpires as a result of this accident is both heart wrenching and heart warming. Sandra Phinney conducted this interview with Simmins for Atlantic Books Today:
Atlantic Books Today: When did the notion of writing Year Of The Horse pop into your brain/heart and why?
Marjorie Simmins: It was when I fell in love with the phrase, Year of the Horse, in January 2014, and the Year of the Horse in the Chinese zodiac began. What a great title for a book, I thought. I could write that book, I thought. I am living that book, and that title, I thought. And so I started the first chapter.
ABT: The back cover states that “Year of the Horse is about horses, healing and improbable dreams.” Tell us about improbable dreams … and the importance they play in our lives.
Simmins: I wanted to convey the idea that regular, ordinary people such as myself could dream big, and make the dreams come true. We expected Ian Miller and the late Big Ben to be brilliant at show jumping. We don’t necessarily expect a 55-year-old woman of modest ability and fitness to go in her first horse show in 43 years and come out of the ring covered in red, first-place ribbons. Again, it wasn’t because I was so special. The people who coached me are special, and the horse I rode was gifted. But I gave the effort everything I had, and that counted, too. I believed in the power of my own story. Everyone can.
ABT: Your book is multilayered. One layer that stands out is the parallel between your physical healing from the accident and healing the fractured relationship you had with your sister, who died from an overdose. Do you think this healing would have happened if you had not had the accident?
Simmins: I cannot guess if the emotional healings with my late sister would have occurred without the accident, and without the book that resulted from that event. All I know is that within the artistic process of writing the book, the conversations began to present themselves. As a person and as a writer, I was a little surprised, a lot curious and a lot wary. I even said to my husband, “I won’t let Karin take over this book. This is my story.”
But once I saw that she “came in peace,” and once I saw an opportunity for even greater peace and healing, I nudged open the door to her voice just a bit wider. When that happened, the exchanges grew richer. It was similar to getting back on the horse. I was only just brave and determined enough to say yes to a reconnection, and to keep moving forward. It was crucial to me that “Karen the memory” knew she was there by invitation only. And on MY terms overall. We’d never had the chance to relate to one another adult to adult. Now we did. It was wonderful. And sad. And very real. I don’t seek her company often. It just doesn’t make good emotional sense to do so. But I can always send her good thoughts.
ABT: You quoted your mother saying, “Don’t ask yourself how you feel, just do it.” In terms of a life lesson, how important is this?
Simmins: There is great, great dignity is the quiet and effective management of overwhelming grief and personal chaos. People do this every day — with deaths, addictions, misfortunes of all kinds. I am not talking about repression. I am talking about the healing power of the mundane and ordinary. What do the British do at all times of pain and confusion — even horror? They make tea.
We all know when we feel so awful we can barely manage our lives. But the people we are in awe of are those who quietly make their way along and even continue to give to others when they have barely anything to give at all. That was my Mum. And yes, it was a great life lesson for me.
ABT: You talk about “memory jewels” helping you build up your courage and the importance of “daring to believe in the power of your own story.” Can you elaborate?
Simmins: Memory jewels are the mental images and emotions I play back to myself when I am in need of courage and a bolstering of resolve. These are happy memories, and because of their retelling over the years, strong and vivid memories. It’s a way of saying, “Look at all that love and magic you had, it’s still here, still supporting and helping you.”
As for believing in the power of your own story — really, if you don’t, who will? There’s so much chatter these days about positive this and that, and how your very thoughts can cause good and bad outcomes. I think carelessness can cause bad outcomes, but not your own thoughts. You are not God. You can help good outcomes come along — by hard work and focus. You can plan for the best outcome, too — again by doing the mental, physical and emotional work that needs to be done to achieve the culmination of “your story.”
Of course being as sunny as you can be attracts sunny outcomes, too. But I hate the idea that one little “bad” thought in my head can harm me. That’s a terrifying way to live.
ABT: Your book raises many issues and themes including: the push-pull of love-hate in relationships; the struggle between being despondent / depressed and being hopeful / positive; the importance of setting goals and working towards achieving them. Why are these significant in our lives?
Simmins: There is always a price for passion. I’ve known for a long time that I felt everything very deeply and could go over edges that would be hard to climb back from. This isn’t necessarily the artist’s way, but it can be, and perhaps is, often.
I no longer apologize for my loving heart, deep capacity for joy and now-occasional dark times. I have better coping skills as a 50+ woman than I did as a teenager or even into my 30s.
These include goal setting. My dad used to talk about putting “good into the spiritual system.” I do this. I take good care of friends, family and my animals. I try to walk lightly through the world, with eyes open to its spectacular beauties; to live mindfully, in the present, and yet with respect for the past and its lessons and memories.