Finding God

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops her friend who has found a strong connection to Source.What did you lose and what did you find? I always pose these questions. But maybe what I should be asking all the people who share their smiles and stories is, What DIDN’T you lose? What is it that survived throughout all your pain and suffering?

I went to see an old friend who grew up in the same neighborhood as I did, in a similar household to mine. Neither of us had been exposed to religion as children. Yet, as young girls, we each prayed on our own. And we watched our other friends get confirmed or bat mitzvah-ed. “As long as I can remember I have been on a path to know God better,” my friend told me. “I always had my own connection to God, to Source, to All There Is.”

When we left home for college, we lost track of each other for almost two decades. During that time she explored the spiritual world and grew a strong commitment to God. I’m so in awe of this. Other than my kids and my inherited dog, my connections hang on fragile threads.

My friend is now a psycho-spiritual counselor and interfaith/inter-spiritual minister. Originally trained as a social worker, she went into a seminary and ended up teaching ministers-in-training. From all spiritual paths and traditions. Even atheists. How did she come to love serving God this way, I wondered?
“You don’t just get struck with a spiritual practice. It’s a discipline,” she said. “Like working out, you have to do it every day, seven days a week, in order to maintain connection.”

I asked, “What changed your world?”
“Having my daughter. Having my grandson. Losing my sister. Being diagnosed with cancer, being a three-time breast cancer survivor,” she replied.
“You lost your health. And your sister. How do you reconcile this with God, with your faith?” I asked.
“I believe that nowhere in any sacred text are we promised by God (or any entity or spiritual master), no death, no suffering, no war or sickness…. What I believe we’re promised is that God is there to comfort us. When I cry out in anger, ‘God, how could you…?’ I will be comforted.”

We walked around her yard and she told me she felt connected to earth through the trees, birds, and rocks. There were rocks everywhere. In the garden, on the path leading to her little rock-studded house, and particular piles of rocks that she proudly pointed out. She said, “God is the energy or conscience that moves through all of us and everything.” In my own current state of still thawing out from years of feeling like frozen mud, I’m considering this.

 

What didn’t you lose? What survived your times of pain?

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Death Midwife

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a death midwife's portrait veiled by the last snow of the season.We look at things differently when we know it’s the last time. On an early morning last week, my driveway was exquisitely patterned with bright patches of snow. The last snow of the season, I thought as I photographed it and then photo-shopped it to veil a portrait of the death midwife who patiently waits for and watches the last moments of life.

“What does a death midwife do?” I asked Iona (a name I chose for her after we spoke).
“…hold a conscious awareness of the naturalness of death. Sit vigil at the deathbed—holding space and bearing witness. Provide accompaniment, non-medical support, and education for the dying and their loved ones in the final months, weeks and days of life,” she answered. “Holding space,” she said, several times. I had to look that term up. It means to make oneself entirely, wholeheartedly present to someone, offering unconditional, non-judgmental support.

Iona told me the story of the first person she sat with. It was a woman with end-stage Alzheimer’s who talked constantly but incoherently. For six weeks Iona visited her and listened without understanding a word, until one day, at the very end, in a moment of clarity the woman said, clear as a bell, “Those of us with wings can fly away now.”

“What did you lose and what did you find?” I asked her, because I always pose this question.
“When I do this work, all judgment falls away. It is such a relief to stand in a space that is completely neutral…there’s nothing to do, you’re just asked to be. It lets me be a kinder, gentler version of myself. I found my true calling.”

“What have you learned from sitting with the dying?” I asked finally.
“That one is living until one is dead. There is always a possibility of growth and transformation up ‘til the last moment,” she said, and “You die the way you lived.” Which gave me a lot to think about.

 

If you die the way you live, what changes might you want to make while there is still time? What would your own dying look like, how would you want to die?

 

 

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Self Care Day

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a child sleeping in a slipper-shaped bed to visualize away her back pain.When the pain in my back got so bad that I couldn’t sleep left-side or right, or even belly-up, I went shuffling to my doctor’s where the nurse weighed me, took my blood pressure, asked where it hurt, and finally looked at me, cocking her head, and said, “Have you been depressed lately?” At which point I broke down into a drippy, wailing mess.

Without going into the whole story of my daughter’s dying seven years ago, I wanted to let the nurse know I felt entitled to some depression. But the question left me speechless. I stood there shaking and sobbing, looking anywhere but at her eyes, wondering if I had liver cancer, and wishing I could just curl up to sleep. Hanging on the wall was a children’s book illustration of a sleeping family. They were floating in the sky, each member cozily cocooned in their own fuzzy, quilted slipper-shaped bed.

I returned home with comfort food from Wegmans, Aleve, and a prescription for physical therapy sessions, and spent the next several hours visualizing my pain away in Photoshop. I’m calling it a Self Care Day.

 

What do you do to take care of yourself?

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Perfect Strangers

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a stranger's image behind a blanket crocheted by strangers for her daughter who died of leukemia.Every stranger is a potential friend. That’s what I kept telling myself each day as I found excuses to put off the week’s project: Stranger Portrait.

Doing the assignment meant I’d have to really look at a person who I didn’t know. Most likely I’d first need to ask permission to take a photograph. Who knows what else would take place after that, as I couldn’t simply snap a dozen shots and then disappear without saying thank you. And in the process of thanking a stranger anything could happen. The scary thing about strangers isn’t so much that you don’t know them, but rather, that you don’t know what they’re capable of or how they might react to you.

My world is full of strangers. The “friends” on Facebook, who respond to my posts and sometimes tell me what I wrote touched them, are strangers. In the hospital, during my daughter’s cancer, we constantly put ourselves in the hands of strangers. They CAT-scanned and radiated Marika inside out, took her vitals in the middle of the night. They came by with docile dogs, massaged her, showed me the secret broom closet where I could take a shower…. Complete strangers crocheted blankets for us.

My mother used to tell me, Don’t talk to strangers. And here I am, volunteering at Hospicare, making quarterly phone calls to check in with the recently bereaved. People I rarely get to meet. The first call is always harrowing. Until I find this new person is as shy, or as scared, or as dazed by the challenges of being a living human, as I am.

Apprehensive, but determined to do the photo assignment, I stood at the entrance to Wegmans and, from a distance, snapped shoppers coming and going. Finally I got the nerve to get closer, and asked one of two guys moving long trains of carts, D’you mind if I take your picture? He had red hair and looked safe in the camera’s viewfinder. But suddenly there was a dark blast. The other guy had his hand up like he was going to slap me. He growled, Wegmans employees don’t get photographed. I whimpered, Sorry, and slinked off to my car and drove to a nearby tiny storefront where I found a perfect stranger. She stood still smiling sweetly as I clicked the camera, only twice, and promised I’d drop off a print if it came out well.

 

How did a stranger surprise you? What have you done for a stranger?

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Changed

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops changes in landscape and life.This (losing a loved one, losing a child) changes us. We are not the same as we used to be. If the wilds of grief do not completely destroy you, they may turn you into a better person. More compassionate, more grateful, more aware of how fragile life is, and more conscious of the closeness of death.

 

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Continuing Bonds

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops her self-portrait over that of her daughter who died in an illustration of continuing bonds.I was ashamed to admit I still talk to my daughter who died. And I was afraid that if I let go of her, or allowed my grief to dissipate even an ounce, we would both be lost. Other than that, seven years out from Marika’s death, I thought I’d figured out this thing called grieving, and was finally, kinda pretty-much (most days) at peace with the way things had turned out. I was okay, except for hanging onto her and feeling like maybe I was defective because I wouldn’t let myself detach.

Then, last week, I learned about continuing bonds, a modern view of grief where therapists encourage preserving but redefining the relationship one has with a loved one who died. Even altered by the absence of the physical presence, connections with the deceased can still grow and continue for the lifetime of the one left behind. The continuing bonds theory contends that staying connected, rather than ending the relationship, helps the bereaved cope with loss and the ensuing changes in one’s life.

For years, to feel closer to Marika, I’ve been talking to her, letting her inspire and guide me, taking up some of the things she did, learning to love what she loved, wearing her scarves and tight jeans, and eating sushi every chance I get. She was a writer and blogger so I became a writer and blogger. She loved Facebook and photography. So…. This was the only way I could survive.

This week’s assignment in photography class was to turn the camera on our-selves to make conceptual self-portraits, ones that express some facet of personal identity. I answered the same questions I pose to my other subjects: What is it like to do what you do? What did you lose? What did you find?

What it’s like to keep on loving Marika’s ghost – It’s comforting. It’s like I’m carrying her, like I did before she was born. Like I always have her close by my side. It makes me stronger. Braver.

I lost the feeling that I had to hide my ongoing attachment to my daughter. I found that our once rocky relationship has matured and mellowed over the past seven years. Marika used to say, “Mom, you’re a wimp.” And now I hear, “Mom, you can do this.”

 

How do you cope with loss and the accompanying changes in your life? In what other ways can one stay connected to a loved one who died?

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