Hardly Dashing Through the Snow

King RICHARD didn't stamp his hooves or shake his bells. He just stood patiently while the driver finished hitching him up. My daughter and I, on the other hand, were eager for the evening sleigh ride to start. I danced around, examining the big gray Percheron, patting his massive head and asking the driver questions about him.

In my excitement over this romantic event - the highlight of our bed-and-breakfast holiday - I could keep neither my limbs nor my tongue still. Both driver and horse met my zeal with gentle forbearance. My eagerness seemed not to have the slightest effect on them. King Richard's eyes remained half-closed, and the driver continued his preparations at the same unhurried pace. This didn't bother me. It charmed me.

On the "Climb aboard" command, Christa and I hopped in, tore at the sheepskins and blankets, and settled ourselves a few times on the wooden seat of the red one-horse sleigh.

The driver took up the reins, and everything creaked and groaned as we pulled away from the inn. The bells sounded their merry rhythm. We were off. But we were ... walking. We weren't trotting, hooves throwing up clouds of snow, mane streaming in the wind. "Maybe we'll trot when we get out to the track at the edge of the field," I thought.

But we kept walking, and after a while it began to feel like plodding. My enthusiasm faded into the monotonous dark as the bells' merry ringing began to seem too much of a good thing. The little grass airstrip, whose perimeter we were traveling, seemed to stretch, mocking. Even in a single-engine plane, airstrips like these go by in a few seconds! Why was this taking so long? Why couldn't we trot? My husband and I had spent our honeymoon at this inn and we'd had a delightful, frisky ride in a sleigh pulled by a horse much smaller than this one. This was not what I had expected.

I looked over at my daughter, the ski racer, lover of speed. "Are you bored yet?" I inquired. "No," she replied, surprising me.

"We'll probably trot on the way back," I silently reassured myself. Horses love to go fast when they're headed back to the barn.

But the steady draft animal made the big arc to the other side of the field without missing a beat. The bells were driving me crazy. I was a prisoner in a sleigh, chained to an alien pace, an interminable waiting.

Suddenly I was reminded of two tiny creatures who shared this horse's style. I had once been the caregiver for a pair of box turtles at the nature center where I'd worked. Feeding them each day was a lesson in the definition of slow.

The pace at which these prehistoric animals eyed their dinner, moved toward it, and swallowed each bite showed that they lived in a mental realm eons away from mine. As I observed them eat (a requirement for record-keeping purposes), I used to feel all the hurriedness and tension of my overly busy life melt quietly away.

THE memory of those turtles began to have the same effect. I began to relax. I began to notice the beauty of the starry dome over our unroofed heads. I got lost in the stars, wondering. At last I was feeling the peace that had been there all along. What I was aware of was being gently turned inside out.

Then I began to think about the meaning of speed. I began to question the value - even the meaning - of a speed that takes one nowhere. King Richard would never win a race against a sleek Thoroughbred, but he had taken me from jumpy excitement through bored impatience to an appreciation of the loveliness of the moment. With immortal speed he had taken me to a place where I felt what Robert Frost called "the power of standing still."

My daughter later confessed that the sleigh ride was her favorite part of our holiday. This time I wasn't surprised. We had gone fast in that sleigh - so fast we had left hurriedness behind.

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