Monthly Archives: September 2012

On a Lake with a Camera and Friends


Maybe I was too quick to squash all of autumn last week, when I wrote that it reeked of decline and death and dragged me into depression. A boat ride in September was just what I needed to change my gloomy outlook on the fall.

It was a brilliant afternoon when my friend, Barb, and her family took me, and our friend, Liz, out on Cayuga Lake on a pontoon boat. I could spend a million words trying to describe the magnificence of that afternoon on the lake. But I had a camera with me and it captured so much that I might have overlooked or forgotten.

Even mud, falling leaves and heavy grey clouds look different when viewed through a camera. Maybe that’s what I will do to get through my bleak times: keep a camera between my eyes and the awesome wintering world around me.


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Fire in Autumn

Autumn is not one of my favorite times of the year. Not quite as dark and devastating as the dead of winter, to me, it still reeks of decline and death. And sadness. Enough to drown all my resilience in deep depression. Just thinking about the upcoming long hard upstate New York winter, fogs over the richness of the harvest time and the changing colors of the hills.

Bright lights and time spent with good friends is the best medicine for me this time of the year. And last Wednesday, I went to a campfire at a friend’s house. The night air was still warm enough to wear just a single light jacket; the sky was deep and clear. People, maybe twenty or thirty, sat in chairs around the campfire. I knew most of them from our Sunday morning hikes. Many were musicians and they sang rock’n’roll, American folk and Celtic music. They played Celtic whistles and an uillean pipe, a djembe and a bodhran drum. There were fiddles and guitars.

And then there was my friend’s beautiful, enchanting twenty-something year old daughter. She had baked amazing oatmeal-zucchini-butterscotch chip cookies and she went around the circle offering her cookies and popcorn. She managed the making of the s’mores, handing out the long double-pronged roasting sticks and helping to sandwich the roasted marshmallows into graham crackers lined with chocolate. She tended the fire, bending low to the ground and blowing the coals until the waves of flames danced up and embers riddled the air in cracking jeweled fireworks. A dancer, her every movement matched the music. I sat back in my chair, mesmerized by this magical young woman. And when the fire was really roaring and the music was right, she stepped up on the rocks that circled the campfire, barefoot, balancing carefully. And then she walked all around the fire, gracefully, thoughtfully, from rock to rock. The light of the fire played on her face as she intently studied the flames and each rock.

      “Marika, you’re too close to the fire,” I said, so many times to my own daughter at long ago campfires. “Step back.”

      “Mom, can you put together my marshmallow sandwich?” she would beg. Even as a teenager, she loved roasting the marshmallows and teasing the fire more than assembling or eating the s’mores .

      “Mareek, stop waving the burning stick; you’ll hurt someone.”

The scene of another spirited young woman playing around a fire, and memories of past campfires, sat comfortably with me and warmed me that night. It wasn’t until late the next day, when I was walking in dried crackling leaves and heard the sound of crunching gravel as a car came closer down the driveway, that I felt a stab, followed by the heavy clout of sadness. For a second, I expected the dented old Toyota to pull up, music blasting, leaves flying behind it. Marika would show up suddenly like this, in September, just before dinnertime, tumbling out of the car, carrying a full laundry bag, with her dog pulling at the leash. I feel a soft warm breeze as she rushes past me.

She comes to me in autumn. For some reason, she always returns in autumn.

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Healing from Loss: Things to be Grateful For

On Wednesday, I had my day in court. The day finally came that I was to account for my deviant behavior, speeding and neglecting to keep my car inspection current. I’d stressed about it for two weeks. Friends had warned me that I would pay over a thousand dollars between the two fines and the surcharges. I dreaded it, lost sleep over it and couldn’t eat.

“I’m a wreck,” I broke down and cried over the phone to my friend, Celia, the day before. “I don’t know if it’s the courtroom date or the rewriting of chapter ten.”

“What’s chapter ten?” Celia asks.

“It’s the one where Marika’s dying,” I say, trying to hold back the floodwaters churning and swelling in my brain. “But I know it’s not the book. This is my third rewrite; she’s died a hundred times over for me this past year and I’ve never reacted like this.”

“You’ve got a lot going on,” Celia sympathized.

On Wednesday, I got to the Ithaca City Court early, not daring to be late because of the nearby construction or parking problems. I’d brought a book and a snack, having heard it could take hours to be seen. After going through a security check like the one at JFK INTL Airport, I entered the courtroom almost an hour before my scheduled time and settled into a spot in the front right side of the expanse of wooden pew-like benches. I surveyed the scene to find a familiar face, to figure out where I fit in and if I was over or underdressed.

A man in a black suit stood before the judge and was told to pay four dollars to a local food store he’d had some entanglement with. A redheaded teenager squirmed in his seat, nudging his father who wore khaki shorts and rubbed his face every five minutes, looking nervously from side to side. There was a thin, pale woman who was six months pregnant, out of work and paying off hundreds of dollars on previous violations, including driving without a license, five dollars at a time each month. A young man in an orange jumpsuit with chains around his wrists and his waist, had papers removed and then tucked back into his chest pocket by the courtroom police officer who soon came over to me to collect my own papers.

The judge was the one I felt the most kinship with. She was about my age and she wore a neon pink shirt under her black robe. She looked interested, content and tolerant. She seemed like someone who would listen and understand about a fleeting loss of control, about being human and making mistakes. This was a woman, I thought, who’s probably seen everything.

The judge never even saw or heard me. I did not get to stand before her and plead my case. My day in court was sideswiped. The judge left the courtroom and the city attorney suddenly stood over me. He shook my papers at me, the papers which showed how I diligently got my inspection taken care of the day after Officer Barr stopped me for speeding and discovered, in the process, that my inspection was three months past due.

“I’ll make you a deal,” the attorney said.

“Uh, is that how it’s done?” I asked doubtfully, wondering why no one else had been offered “a deal” and why the judge had gone without seeing me.

“I’m going to dismiss the ticket for the inspection and charge you fifty dollars for the speeding. That’s the deal.”

“This is legal?” I asked, looking around for witnesses and still praying that I wouldn’t get charged the thousands of dollars my friends had promised I would.

“You can wait and present your case to the judge but she doesn’t make deals. I make the deals,” he said. It sounded like a great bargain. It felt like a bribe. It seemed they were as eager to get me out of there as I was to be gone. I actually had no evidence to show for the speeding ticket and hadn’t even figured out what to say to a judge about it. “And there’s an eighty dollar surcharge,” he added. But my mind was already made up.

As I left the courthouse, I passed by people in suits, in uniforms, in tee shirts and shorts, and in rags. There were people in wheelchairs, in chains, in tears, in defiance. Some were in dire straits. I passed by a hundred different stories. I was out a hundred thirty dollars but there was so much to be grateful for.

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Healing from Loss: Losing Control

It may be my imagination, but it seems I am prone to accidents, inclined to make poor choices and not at my sharpest during periods of healing from loss. Early on in my time of grieving, I recognized an uncharacteristic inclination to lose track of things and be forgetful. Losing keys and missing appointments was something someone else always did until recently, not I. I had always written lists but suddenly, after losing my daughter, I started losing my lists. Then I started leaving myself phone messages to remind myself of important dates and things to remember to do. Most recently, friends who visit my house chide me for leaving notes to myself, and signs, on the floor. It really bugs me to have things litter my floors so I get things taken care of. I have stock signs: DO LITTER, DO LAUNDRY, GET GAS and GET CASH as well as the novel SUKI TO LIZ 9AM or PAULA BIRTHDAY. I slipped on one of these recently so I think twice now before putting more than one sign on the floor at a time.

 Except for childbirth, I can’t remember being in a hospital for my own care until this past year. It was always my son with a broken limb or Marika with leukemia being examined and treated as I stood by on the far side of center stage. In the last year though, in three separate occasions, I broke my wrist, my nose and two toes, sending my sister, a family physician in Massachusetts, into a scurry to test me for neurological impairment. Did I mention my virgin bout with vertigo this spring, most likely due to lyme disease?

And last week, I was pulled over about a mile down the road from my house, coming up Route 79, by a police car that blinked bright red lights and trailed me until I pulled over in disbelief. It was Officer Barr, the same Officer Barr who had stopped me in the exact same spot about eight years ago, shortly after my divorce. And here he was, again telling me I was speeding, but this time, he also noticed that my inspection was three months overdue.

I sat frozen in the car as he did whatever police officers issuing tickets do while their victims wait and suffer and hope no one racing by will recognize them. He finally walks back to my window. He looks no different from when I saw him eight years ago and I wonder if he is also experiencing a déjà vu.

“It behooves you to go to court,” he tells me as he hands me two tickets on four pieces of unruly curled paper.

All I can think is: I need a break. Maybe I should just not leave the house for a year or two. My poor old Prius can’t even go that fast up this hill. Where was my head? And how did this happen? What do I say in court? What do I wear in court? Do I “pull the cancer card” as Marika used to say? The “my daughter just died of cancer” card? Or do I just let come what will and stoically swallow the consequences?

I’m a person who prides herself on being in control and doing things right. But stress, somewhat like cancer, can change your life and take you to places you’ve never been before. So I’m going to Traffic Court this week and have no idea yet what will come out of my mouth. Got any advice?

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