Taking on a Different Project

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops her dog and her new red pcornet bought to practice her embouchure for bugle playing.Sometimes it feels like I’m just treading water, going nowhere. Simply staying afloat. It’s during those times that I tend to take on projects, maybe because I need something to dive into or some material thing to account for my time. Usually these projects have a predictable end upon which they get photographed and planted on Facebook. My newest project is different.

“I want to learn to play the bugle,” I told the guys at Hickey’s Music Store, last week. They put me in a tiny room to spit and blow raspberries into a rental trumpet, until I hyperventilated myself to exhaustion. They sold me a red plastic cornet. Cheaper than renting an instrument, we all understood a stunning bugling career was unlikely.

As a kid, I roller-skated over the cracked basement floor to recordings of John Philip Sousa marches and US military bugle calls. Bugle calls followed me through decades of summer camps, signaling wakeups, bedtimes, and changes in activities. This past winter something got me searching the internet for these calls, bookmarking various sites on my computer so I could play them all hours of the day. And one day, I came up with the notion I should learn to play Taps myself. It was only four tones. Twenty-four notes. Old, puny, and never very musically inclined, I hoped I had enough resolve to learn the four tones.

It’s not like I needed another project. Certainly not one that keeps me holed up in the house with windows shut tight to keep neighbors from hearing the horrible racket. The dog hides behind a wall when I practice. She peeks out at me in disbelief at the only sound I could produce for days, blasts that brought up images of an elephant yowling with bellyache. But yesterday I managed a second sound, somewhat like a foghorn. The dog crouched closer, cocking her head. And today I added a screaming duck call to my repertoire, though I still can’t control which of these noises will spill forth.

For this project there will be no end product to display on Facebook. From the start, I knew I would invest a lot of time and energy just to produce one beautiful solid note. I went into this hoping to be able to play one tune to my own satisfaction. What I didn’t know was that the reward would not be in the tune, but rather in the witnessing of progress in its rawest form. I’m experiencing slow but steady increments of improvement forged by dedicated effort. What a simple strange joy.

 

What’s your latest project? Why do we take on projects? What brings you simple joy?

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My Trees are Dying

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops a negative image of her ash trees that are dying of emerald ash borer beetles.“Your trees are dying,” the guys working around my home pointed out. Something about emerald ash borer beetles and fungal infection. “They should be chopped down before they fall on your house.” One more thing in my world was falling apart, along with the clothes drier quitting, the dog getting sick, and the driveway flooding mudslides into the garage. The earth beneath my feet was crumbling. The safe haven, always solidly set in my heart’s GPS to ‘Go Home,’ was going kerflooey.

I don’t believe you really own land or trees. The land you live on, pay taxes on, and love. I believe the few gravely acres I’ve parked myself at for four decades own me. So I’m having a hard time understanding how it falls to me to make huge life-or-death decisions about these skeletal trees. Do trees have ghosts, I wonder? Because I’m already haunted by the ghosts of countless fellow creatures I’ve ‘put down’ over the years. Cats. Dogs. My daughter.

For months, I tried to ignore the bare branches that never leafed out. But eventually I brought in tree specialists to get a second opinion. By then, even I could spot a sick tree. Twenty-four of them. Or more.

“Do trees have spirits? Do they have some sort of consciousness?” I asked a healer friend, “What can I do for them?” There were several things. Nothing that could save them though. Over the next few weeks, as guided by the healer, I went about touching them, communicating to them what was to happen, saying sorry. I sang Day is Done to the tune of Taps. Even the dog sensed something was up, lying on the grass under the trees rather than peeing or poo-ing there.

If trees can read my thoughts, if they leave lingering ghosts, I am surely in trouble. Weeks before their chopping-down day, as I hugged my doomed trees, and explained and begged forgiveness of them, I was already eyeing the not-yet-vacated space, considering all the possibilities of how I could fill it.

 

Have you ever loved a tree or land? Have you ever had to destroy something you thought was beautiful? Have you ever felt guilty for being the one still standing? If I don’t watch the trees coming down, can I pretend I didn’t kill them? How could I not watch the trees coming down?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Learning to Sit Vigil with the Dying

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops her eyes watching over her dying daughter's face to illustrate sitting vigil with the dying.Always squeamish about facing death, after years of volunteering solely with the bereaved through Hospicare and Paliative Care Services, I finally attended the workshop for how to sit vigil with the dying. The main idea of sitting vigil is to listen, stay present, and direct your energy and compassion to the one who is dying. To practice this, toward the end of the training, the participants paired off for an exercise where we took turns playing each of two roles, the Thinker and the Listener. First my partner sat, thinking of something. I, the Listener, was to simply watch her and be with her. Silently. This, I imagined, would be the harder part. But it went smoothly as I observed attentively, breathing in sync with my partner for what seemed like forever, until the time was called and we switched roles.

I intended to fill my time as Thinker with memories of my daughter who died seven years ago. Marika having tantrums, rolling her eyes when she disagreed with me, laughing, her hoop earrings and iridescent eye makeup…. But shortly after I started thinking, something unexpected happened. Instead of remembering our sweet and sour interactions, I was transported back to our last two days together, when I sat vigil with her, watching for the tiniest twitch of her brows. Staring at her face to remember her features forevermore.

Suddenly something in the exercise went screwy. My partner seemed to be me. And I felt like I was my daughter. Looking up into brown eyes that waited patiently with me, I became Marika, lying still, waking occasionally from sedation to find my sad loving eyes fixed on her face. The rest of the world disappeared beyond the bubble that contained our two sets of eyes.

Over the past seven years, I’d never thought of those last days from Marika’s point of view. I’d never considered that my being there, caressing her with my eyes, might be a comfort to her. Before this, I couldn’t have imagined what a gift it was, for us both, to just be there together at the end.

How could I possibly try to illustrate this? I don’t know. But I do know, now, how I will sit with the family members, friends, or strangers I am privileged to be with in their final hours.

 

Have you ever sat vigil with a dying person? What gifts can we give to someone who is dying?

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Bereaved Mother at Wedding

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops an image of her daughter who died onto a screen of flowers to illustrate one of the emotional triggers encountered as a bereaved mother at a wedding.Extra tissues were stuffed into the small purse I’d made to match my dress. The dress sewn with my daughter’s image tucked into the folds so I could ‘take’ her to her friend’s wedding.

I’d set rules for how to conduct myself at this wedding: Be inconspicuous, don’t glom onto any one person, look for others who appear lost or alone. And, to anyone who might ask about the image of Marika on the dress, reply, “It’s too long a story to tell here. What’s YOUR connection to the bride or groom?”

There were some thorny things about weddings I’d failed to think of. Like, how memories would be triggered by rollicking flower girls spinning in shiny shoes and pink twirly dresses. The father-daughter dance. Like having people pop up from my past, from my time with Marika. Plus, I was stunned by how grown up and beautiful her friends had become over the past seven years.

My plan was to leave before the reception. But the ceremony was short and I soon found myself talking to old acquaintances, inching towards the drinks and cheese platters. Besides, it would be rude to go without greeting the mother of the bride who was off being photographed. When I finally caught up with the wedding party, they insisted I stay for dinner, and showed me the seat where my name was written on a handcrafted coaster. The seat next to the mother of the bride.

So, gathering up the skirts of my dress, I sat down for dinner across from the family’s closest friends who all seemed to know about me and my daughter. A woman came over, followed by her husband who told me they’d lost their son, and knew how I was feeling. That’s when I remembered I wasn’t the only one with a story. Weddings are bittersweet events for many. I made silent toasts to Marika and to the son of the kind parents, and then laughed and applauded with the crowd.

Occasionally, my eyes got watery. But I did not have to dig out the tissues.

When dinner was over, just before the cutting of the cake, before anyone could ask me (or not ask me) to dance, I slipped out. Away from the party, dashing down the driveway like Cinderella escaping the ball. But first I grabbed a piece of the bread-pudding cake to-go.

And at home, in the lightest rain, I danced with my dog in the driveway, spinning like a little girl in a twirly new dress.

 

What is it about weddings? That makes you cry? That makes you want to dance?

 

 

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Triggering Grief, Triggering Joy

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, Photoshops a scene from a morning hike off a country road that triggered happiness rather than grief.Smelling ripe peaches or hearing certain Christmas carols can trigger emotional meltdowns that leave you sobbing your eyes bloodshot. But what I didn’t realize before is that triggers like these can also bring memories that warm and comfort you. Sometimes, the thing that plays with your passions smacks you plainly in the gut. Other times, you find yourself shaking your head in disbelief at how the mind can mash your feelings.

Like last Saturday, when a mysterious euphoria set in after a morning hike through lush woods. What on earth could infuse my brain with shear bliss? Was it the wildflowers? The sun? We had new haircuts, the dog and I, and we climbed down a small hill at the end of the trail, and found a shady spot on the quiet country road. There was a pond nearby. Swallows soared overhead. And a cool breeze stroked my bare shoulders. Maybe it was the perfect temperature of the air. Or perhaps it was the sound of my dog lapping water from the cup I held, her whiskers brushing my hand as she gratefully gulped. Could it have simply been my anticipating Chinese leftovers for lunch? I don’t know what it was, but something felt right and vaguely familiar.

Catching up to the friend I’d hiked with, in giddy bewilderment I announced,” I think I feel – happy.”

 

What triggers your happiness? What triggers your grief?

 

 

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Lost Children

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a scene in the country of two unhappy children running away.Where in the media are all the scenes and stories of separated immigrant families reuniting? Where are the videos of children running joyfully into the arms of their parents? On TV and Facebook, I need to see tears of joy, arms reaching and clutching, border-crossing mothers ecstatically hugging sons and daughters.

We need more time, the government says. More time. As a bereaved mother, I know that more time without one’s child is tormenting. Time is not a friend when it accumulates mercilessly between the last time you held your loved one and the present, looming dimly into the future. I know how it is to yearn to be with your beloved child. I’ve lived with longing, spent days aimlessly wandering in despair, and cried myself to sleep too many nights over the loss of my child.

A child is lost if you don’t know where they are, or whether or not they’re safe. If you cannot be with your children to hold and comfort them, they are lost to you. If DNA tests are needed for your reunification, a child is surely lost.

The aching for a child who has been taken away is different but not unlike that of bereaved parents. For people who have had a child die, their worst nightmare has already taken place. They are not in the middle of agonized waiting, wondering if and when they might be reunited in their lifetime. Hope is different. And bereaved parents don’t have to consider the aftermath, the psychological effects of separation on children who died. But these immigrant parents, whose children were torn from them as they tried to secure better lives, are now facing a slew of their worst worries. Will their family survive? Intact? How and where? On top of an undocumented family’s uncertain future, there is added anguish in fears their child may be scared, hurt, confused and lonely. And knowing one’s child is also suffering the pains of separation, only adds to the grief.

There can be no beginning of relief or peace for these families until these children are returned. This has to be one of the cruelest forms of torture. I cannot relax until they are all reunited. And the media is gushing with videos of joyous reunions.

 

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