Ever live for a time in a place without hope? My trip through the valley came after I had spent myself at a job running a very troubled older property in a very troubled place. For two years I was beat up it seemed, virtually each and every day. I worked for absentee owners, that were not very experienced, and who viewed the property as the bastard stepchild they believed it was. It was the first point in my life I ever came close to giving up on myself, a scary place for one who equates the end of ambition as the onset of death. The loss of people to death, professional betrayal, and the passage of time , had called the underpinnings of life into question. Then I met the guy who changed my life. The greatest teacher I have ever had, was a Mammoth Jack Burro, who cracked open my heart. His name was “Oneness”. He saved me.
Oneness and I were an unlikely pairing. My visiting a burro sanctuary was an unlikely event, and started as a civic project as Hotel General Managers are known to do. Never having had spent much time with animals growing up, and seldom traveling through any place marginally rural, I was the most "urban" person my friends had ever known. Nothing prepared me for seeing how Horses and Burros roaming freely. Nothing prepared me to see how many were neglected and abused in past lives. Oneness arguably was the worst case.
I was unprepared for the wounds he so obviously carried from his past life of no small neglect, or the gentleness of this massive being. Little did I know this special soul would crack my heart wide open, and in many ways save my faith in all that is gentle and brave and good. He lived with great pain, deformity and illness and never ceased to be loving, abundantly affectionate, and always serene.
I remember the first time I fed Oneness a carrot, and the sound I heard as he sought to speak. At first we were scared as if our treat had choked this huge animal, and then we realized he had just heard the deepest and most heartfelt bray we had ever heard in our limited experience. It was like the line in Jerry Maguire, he had me at "hello."
Being blessed with an unprecedented amount of free time, and a definite deficit of friends locally, Oneness became my friend, psychiatrist, and career placement counselor. In the weeks before winter came to Northern Arizona, I had the volunteered for the challenge of learning to bathe this huge mammoth burro, and washing the wounds he still carried on his body. Having borne the scars of adverse encounters with an evil Chihuahua, I was suitably respectful of what could happen if a large animal did not like shampoo in their eyes. It did not take me long to realize that despite some technical errors in water temperature and technique, Oneness always gave me an "a" for my efforts instead of a well-placed kick.
As time went by life settled into a ritual and routine, with Oneness and his friends the central organizing factor. Inevitably the first stop would be wherever Oneness was standing, for he called out to the car as soon as it appeared. As we sat there enjoying breakfasts of lattes for me and carrots and apples for him, I found ways to entertain my new friend and myself. For one thing I found that a certain mammoth burro had defined tastes in music, and preferred classic rock and roll to AM talk radio. He liked to sway along with certain beats, and you could sense his enjoyment of the chance to jam out.
Despite his love of Springsteen and the rest, Oneness adored hearing his opera singing friend’s voice both live and on CD. As part of an effort to do well and do good, Leah dedicated her Christmas show at the Elks Opera House to Oneness’s sanctuary. Sooner than later I found myself talking photos of two dear friends wearing Santa caps and getting into the Holiday season. As I looked at the images of the two of them, I noticed the image that found its way to her finished Christmas CD. It was a picture of Leah smiling, with Oneness smiling, literally smiling as well. As one who always hated the tendency of writers towards "anthromorphizing" creatures for their own purposes, I struggled with the idea and assigned it to chance for a time. But in subsequent shoots it was obvious that my friend knew exactly what he was doing. He was always that aware.
In the weeks before his departure, I often was in tears over Oneness and what might come down the road. It was a constant struggle for my friend to remain among us, how desperately he tried to stay. He endured an awful round of surgeries and procedures. All of us who loved him, sought to find a way to keep him in our lives forever. Each day he encountered discomfort and pain, and was stoic. His countless friends were hopeful then shattered, for many felt in his absence, the world would once instantly become a lesser place. It has.
I never shed a tear at most of life's tragedies, but when it came to Oneness I suddenly found myself unafraid and unashamed to cry. That is because tears are often a sign of healing, and each time I thought of him or was in his orbit, I knew that I was in the presence of one who instinctively understood our conflicted human nature...both the depths of our cruelty and the love souls like his are placed into the world to tap. He understood the part of man that was neglectful and cruel, and his most lasting gift was giving hope that there could be healing for another wounded soul joined with some hope of human redemption.