From a Bag Lady on Earth Day

In Photoshop, Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, restores a picture of three-year-old Marika Warden as a garbage monster, wearing a dress made of plastic bags.“I don’t think I can do this.” I stood over my bin of plastic bags. “Earth Day’s coming, and I should be able to do this one simple thing for our planet,” I told myself. After decades of hoarding plastic shopping bags, I was considering eradicating them from my routine. But I kept coming back to all the things I do with these bags. Like carry gym-clothes and potluck dishes. Like use them for trashcan liners and dog-poo bags. They make great stuffing for stuffed-animal art projects. And long ago, inspired by Tom Knight’s song, The Garbage Monster, I even taped a bunch of plastic bags together into a dress for my then three-year-old daughter to wear in a costume contest where she won 3rd place.

Call me a Closet Bag Lady. I’m very attached to plastic bags. Even though they release toxic chemicals into the soil and oceans when discarded. Even though they’re produced from crude oil (a non-renewable resource), and their manufacturing process results in chemical pollution. And, while they are now made with a percentage of recycled material, they are not biodegradable so it’s nearly impossible to get rid of them. So animals find them and mistake the bags for food, and die choking and strangling on them. Nasty bags. For a long time I wondered if all the old plastic bags and bottles I found in my daughter’s room had something to do with her getting cancer. I kept saving bags anyway.

We’re destroying the planet,” friends wail. “Pollution, ozone depletion, carbon emissions, strip mining, fracking, … ocean acidification.” They write letters to congressmen and go to marches, keening like they’re grieving, “Habitat loss, deforestation, climate change…” laments that sound eerily similar to my bemoaning all the complications of my daughter’s disease. Seeing my planet in trouble reminds me of the helplessness I felt trying to hang onto Marika through the wilds of cancer. In the end, nothing could save her. But there ARE things we can do for Earth.

On Earth Day, all over the world people will be planting trees and picking up trash. Earthlings will take to the hills, to their gardens, to community Earth Day events. On any day, not just this holiday, we can recycle plastic bags and other recyclables, set up bird feeders, learn about the environment, investigate community composting, … to help make the planet a better place to live.

I don’t know for sure if I can really give up these darn bags. But the Earth is my home. Our home. So I hereby pledge: for the love of our beautiful planet, starting now, I will shop with reusable cloth bags. What one simple thing will you do?

 

 

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Easter Bunny Blues

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photographs a pear bunny salad using all fresh fruits and vegetables.

“You can make pear-bunny salads,” my friend told me as the foodie group divvied up the dishes to be prepared for this year’s extravagant Easter dinner. My culinary skills being mostly on the unpredictable side, I usually provide the salad.
“Pear-bunny?” I asked, contorting my mouth and nose.
“Yeah, with puffs of cottage cheese for their tails,” she replied.

When I googled “bunny rabbit pear salad,” I found pictures and recipes from all over the US and Canada. People reminisced about their grandmas sticking raisin-eyes and red-hot candy noses into canned pears plopped onto beds of iceberg.

It brought me back to more than half a century ago, when my father’s secretary sent home Easter baskets for his poor little deprived Jewish girls. I was captivated by the jellybeans and chocolate bunnies wrapped in pink and yellow ribbons. And then there was another gift, a box of carved lamb-soaps nestled in green shredded-paper grass that I carried from bed to breakfast to backyard, lovingly adding bits of dandelion so the sheep shouldn’t go hungry.

I remembered Richard Scarry storybooks with sweet rabbits of every rabbit-color sprawled out in strawberry patches. Some were spotted, and that brought me to thinking about Fuzzy, my first stuffed dog, and then Salty the schnauzer puppy my sister and I used to dress in doll clothes. Then I thought of how decades later, I made big beautiful Easter baskets for my own kids, filled with books and tiny toys as well as candy; and how we’d curl up with our own real rabbits, feeding them the packets of carrots and kale we’d prepared. Life was so pretty. Simple. Innocent. Oh, so deliciously cuddly and cute.

This was where my head was today when I found among my emails, a Facebook message from a stranger, “My offer still stands. When you’re ready.” The cover photo showed an unknown bearded man on a motorcycle. Upon checking his Facebook page to see if he might possibly be one of my old hiking buddies, I discovered multiple pictures of furry naked men, and was reminded that all that’s fuzzy is not necessarily an adorable Easter bunny.

 

So, what pretty sweet things are you thinking of as we approach the Easter and Passover holidays? Can you guess what I used on the pear-bunny to make the eyes, ears, and nose?

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Digital Afterlife

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, considers digital afterlife as she emails her dead daughter and photoshops her digital duplicate.Don’t tell me I’m the only one emailing a dead loved one, “still loving you and missing you lots.” Admitting I occasionally email my daughter, who’s been dead six years, is no longer an embarrassment. Because now people are texting their deceased loved ones – and getting text messages back from beyond the grave.

The possibility of digitally interacting with a loved one who died is not science fiction anymore. If your beloved chatted online, texted on a cellphone, posted on social media sites, emailed or blogged, she left behind a digital footprint. Billions of gigabytes of data can be collected from this. With a trillion gigabytes, digital afterlife technology can capture speech patterns, expressions, and personality, and then craft a digital version of an individual. And a computer system modeled on the human brain now allows this digital version of your loved one to process new information and keep up with current events, so her digital being can continue to evolve long after her physical being has passed on. Is this eternal life?

This could change a lot about how we view death, and how we grieve.

OMG, I used to tell my daughter she was spending too much time on her electronic devices. And now, if only she’d spent more time on them, she could be living on in my computer. Or in my phone. And then I’d be the one glued to these things. But would I really want to get texted from the Other Side, “Mom, get a life,” and “Way to go, mom. You just showed everyone on the internet how clueless you are”?

Anyway, most of the healing and comfort come from my own communications to my daughter. Writing to her, talking to her. Unloading my heart calms my grief. I don’t need a digital duplicate of my daughter. Her voice still echoes in my head. Almost daily. And even without digital afterlife technology, our relationship has evolved. After six years, instead of her bellowing “Mom, you’re a wimp,” I now hear Marika whispering, “You can do this, mom. You’ve got this.”

 

If you could get a text message from the great beyond, what would you want it to say? If you kept “hearing” from the one you’re missing, how would this change your grieving?

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An Old Lady’s Song of the Open Road

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a cabbage in winter.“The roads are open. Let’s do dinner and the opera,” my neighbor announced.
“Well, MY weather app still says ALERT, Winter Storm Watch, and Weather Advisory in effect,” I said, immovable like an old cabbage in winter, lodged comfortably in its patch.

“The weather advisory is over,” she said, desperate to get out after two snow-days stuck in her apartment.
“We’ll never get out of the driveway. There’s a huge mountain of snow where it meets the road. And I don’t know when the guy’s gonna plow.” She and another neighbor then began shoveling the 2500-foot long driveway we share. I stayed inside wondering if we weren’t all just begging for heart attacks with all this restlessness and shoveling.

“So, will you go?” she asked, all red and steamy from working in the snow.
“But the roads, the travel alert. Nothing’s been plowed yet.” I went on and on.
“I have four-wheel-drive,” she said, smiling smugly.

We threw my snow shovel in the backseat. In case. And we held our breaths as the car clambered through deep snow that hid the driveway’s hills and holes. Inching out onto the road, I checked my seatbelt. And suddenly it was as if the car was flying towards town. We sailed the slushy deserted streets in search of an open restaurant. And in the almost empty theater, we giggled, “See, all the OLD people stayed home.”

For hours, I was transported back to the times in my 20s and 30s, when adventure overpowered any fears, and a storm watch was an invitation to take off and go who-knows-where. Like Walt Whitman’s poem: Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me…. I was back in the good old days before I became a cabbage in winter.

Later, when we returned, the roads and shared driveway had been plowed. My neighbor parked the car and handed me the shovel from out of the back. Laughing like we’d gotten away with stealing something, like we’d conquered something bigger than ourselves, we said goodnight several times.

It was late. Dark. The small mountain of snow by the garage could wait ‘til morning. But the shovel was already in my hands. Digging it in deep, I lifted and tossed chunky piles of snow over my shoulder. High. Like in the good old days.

 

When’s the last time you ventured out in a storm? Or took to the open road? When’s the last time you felt lighthearted, healthy, and free?

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Trespassing

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photographs an abandoned farmhouse somewhere off NY route 96 near Ovid while on a photography field trip with the Finger Lakes Photographers.

“They’re hard, like porcelain,” a friend said, referring to her recently reconstructed breasts. “Do you want to see them?” she asked. I said no. She showed me anyway. “Feel this,” she said. Gently pressing a small spot with two fingertips, I felt her breast, the way I might have touched a dead fish.
“It’s soft. Like memory foam.” I was surprised. “They’re beautiful,” I said, admiring their perfect roundness, and grateful not to have to contend with the gutted ruins I had expected.

Gutted ruins came two days later. On the photography field trip. Ten photographers in three cars careening across the countryside, stopping to shoot old farms, demolished derby cars, and tiny towns that had seen better days. And the abandoned farmhouse somewhere off NY Route 96 near Ovid.

It stood among tangles of thorny shrubs and gnarled trees. We emptied out of the car and padded carefully on spongy ground toward it, behind our cameras, all trained on the house like we were attacking it. Someone tried the doorknob. Not locked. The others went through the door, crept into every room and up the stairs. I held back. It was someone else’s property. Someone’s home. I was not comfortable trespassing.

It was cold waiting outside, and the photographers were taking a long time. I hovered near the door, and finally inched my way in. It was a wreck. The whole house was cracked and crumbling. Ravaged. Debris lay everywhere. I looked to find traces of former inhabitants. It was just shards of junk. Little survived of past lives. The place was less haunted than I was. So I staggered back out the door, and took a few last shots of the house’s shell. It was still beautiful, even gutted and scarred. And it was still standing.

Gutted ruin. That describes my heart. Although I can laugh and love life again now, there are days I wonder, what am I doing here? Sometimes it feels like I’m trespassing, like I don’t quite fit in with my company or surroundings, like I need to be extra careful not to offend anyone by talking about my loss. I consider myself a survivor though, as in: my daughter died of cancer but I survived. I’m gutted. Scarred. But still standing.

When was the last time you felt like you were trespassing?

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Parallel Lives

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a rorschach inkblot to illustrate parallel lives and shared journeys of bereaved parents.As a child, I used to imagine that a double of myself was walking around somewhere else on the planet, far away. Later, when my world expanded to college, instructors and fellow students insisted I had a twin on campus. And when I was busy birthing and raising children, I saw myself replicated in mothers everywhere. But after my daughter died, for a long time, I felt like the only one on earth to ever lose a kid. Nobody was like me.

Last week, before writing my post, I googled “grief and gratitude.” That’s been my focus for a while; somewhere around the fifth anniversary of my daughter’s death, gratitude started sopping up some of my grief. And there in Google was someone else named Robin whose life was like a Rorschach inkblot of my own life. If you folded a map of the US in half, her home on the west coast would be juxtaposed with mine in the east. On the opposite side of the country, a stranger’s life was running parallel to my own.

Four months before my daughter died, this other Robin lost a son who was the same age as my Marika. This second Robin, also an avid hiker and writer, started blogging about her grief journey seventeen months after her son’s death; I started sixteen months after my loss. She wrote, “I am not the same person I was and this loss is an integral part of who I am now.” In over 97,000 words posted since 2012, I have tried to express the same truth. West Coast Robin currently facilitates grief support groups while I organize a bereaved parents group and make bereavement calls for Hospicare.

There may be millions more of us lighting candles for loved ones, posting their photos on Facebook, watching the Afterlife TV series on Youtube, and reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Maybe tens of thousands of us are hoping to publish our own memoirs. And if there are hundreds of Robins howling to the moon, how many of us are now out there somewhere, contemplating the chances there’s a double of our child who died? A twin who’s still singing.

 

Did you ever wonder if there is someone just like you somewhere in the world? Did you ever find a soul mate? Or a look-alike?

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