I couldn’t find a job. Over the past year I’d spent too much time cooped up at home writing my manuscript. And my aversion to producing visual designs had grown stronger; it had not faded as I had hoped. So I enrolled at Tompkins Cortland Community College to take a Photography/Photoshop course.
I knew nothing about photography. I’d borrowed a small point-and-shoot to take to Australia and could barely manage that. Computers and technology in general confound me. And here I was, in a class with tech-savvy college students and a couple of my-own-aged men with impressive digital cameras. The only things I had going for me were my “good eye” and an adventurous spirit. And a keen desire to breathe life into my memories of Marika, like one huffs and puffs at the last embers of a dying campfire.
So I rented a digital camera from the school and started playing with digital ghosts, shadows, images of Marika, and shots of whatever I could convince to sit still long enough for me to consider F-stops, apertures, ISO settings and how to hold and shoot without my habitual tremors and jolts.
Learning all this is a headache of a challenge. I stagger out of class each week seeing stars. But it allows me to share some of what constantly swims around in my head. It lets me put things and people together in impossible places and situations, and make it all look somewhat real. This is comforting to me, if not actually useful. One day, maybe I’ll discover exactly why I need to do this. For now, I’ll just call it part of my healing.
The dark silent house brightened and hummed at 1AM when I finally arrived home after 4 days in New York City. The house hugged me as I dumped my bags in the mudroom and crawled straight away into bed. Happy to have a few hours of sleep before I would tear away again the next morning, I counted my blessings. And now, there is even more to be grateful for. Over the last week, I received several invitations for Thanksgiving dinners. Even Suki was invited to a few. Many, many thanks. But, more this year than ever, I look forward to Thanksgiving at home with my sweet inherited dog that has carried me through the most terrible troubles.
On Thursday, Suki and I will hike in the morning with friends. In the evening we’ll cuddle on the couch while I watch DVDs. In between, I will roast a turkey breast, cook up a yam dish with Calvados, make a gluten-free stuffing, watch the wildlife on the pond and read Alexandra Fuller’s Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.
Have a cozy Thanksgiving, my readers, my friends. A toast to you all, to your happiness and healing. And to the memories of the ones we lost and love still. Cheers!
Keep moving, keep busy. That’s how I got through the holidays last year, my first holidays without my daughter. Mid-November starts my crazy season of trying to be everywhere at once in an effort to avoid being home, alone and miserable. This year, with my son in Afghanistan and my friends leaving town for Thanksgiving to be with family members elsewhere, it’s a perfect set-up for a panic attack. And I almost had one. But I have a responsibility now to put out my weekly blog about healing, taking care of oneself, and finding life again after loss. Falling apart and drowning in sorrow for more than twenty minutes or so at a time is unproductive, and not worthy of blogging about.
There are options. For Thanksgiving, I could help out at a local soup kitchen. I could go to lots of movies and get Chinese takeouts. I could hope for a last minute invitation somewhere. Or I can make a special time at home just for myself. And Suki.
This year, I choose to renew my relationship with holidays and home. And recognize the many things I still have to be grateful for. Thanksgiving is a good time to focus on what I have, rather than on all I have lost.
So I will gather a small feast at Wegmans, with a honey-brined turkey, chocolate, candles and wine. I’ll play with Suki, go for walks around the pond, experiment with the camera. There are two simple but long deferred projects I am ready to spend time with. And if Suki will leave me a little space on the couch to camp out with a good book or a DVD, I will be cozy and content, at least until the Black Friday Midnight Madness sale begins at the mall.
Elaine Mansfield found me in the tiny kitchen just off the oncology unit at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York. It was in the spring of 2008. Marika and I were just entering the labyrinth of cancer as Elaine and her husband, Vic, were exiting that daunting world of hospitals, doctors and drugs. Our paths intercepted again three years later at a memoir reading group offered by Jill Swenson at Swenson Book Development. Elaine recognized me right away. It took a few seconds but then I remembered the aromatic curried greens with garlic she’d heated up in the microwave at the hospital. Back then, I was so lost that my brain required strong sensory input to record or remember anything.
Two weeks ago, Elaine and I went on a walk. In her woods, with our dogs. She showed me the peaceful spot where Vic’s ashes are buried. And soon after, we got lost.
With GPS and cell phones and suburban sprawl, there isn’t much opportunity to get lost these days. So I wasn’t too worried.
“But I feel like I’m not taking good care of you,” says Elaine.
“You’re giving me a gift – an adventure,” I say. Anyone who reads my blog regularly, knows I can embrace a broken nose, getting a speeding ticket or replacing an old refrigerator as a gift.
Elaine’s dog, Willow, lead the way. I followed Elaine. It seems Elaine is always a few steps ahead of me. She has just finished writing a memoir about her remarkable time with her husband and is almost ready to find a publisher. My own manuscript is not quite in its final polished state. We talk about all the things we need to do to attract readers and interest in our work. We lose track of the time and where we are going.
“I have that effect on people,” I tell her. “This isn’t the first time I’ve disoriented someone.” I pull on Suki’s leash to get her to stop pulling me.
“Why don’t you let her off the leash?” Elaine asks.
“I don’t want to lose her. She’ll charge after a deer or a squirrel and end up two counties away and I’ll never find her again,” I say.
“You stay here while I go see if that’s the right trail,” Elaine says. This is the second time we try this. It puzzles me how, both times, Elaine finds me again, not retracing her steps but by walking clear around so as to approach me from a whole different direction.
“If Willow could talk we’d have no problem,” I say, nodding towards Elaine’s gracefully bounding dog. “I don’t believe Willow’s lost; she’s just enjoying an extended romp in her woods.”
Were we lost? We’d certainly walked a few times around in circles over the fallen leaves that camouflaged our trail. But I was not lost that day in the woods; I was with my friend, Elaine. Lost is the day I found out Marika had leukemia and I couldn’t imagine what lay ahead of us. Lost is not knowing “What’s Next,” whether it be in the landscape that surrounds you or in your life in general. In the woods that day, we knew where we’d be by evening. And we both knew we had long journeys before us as we begin to launch our memoirs and find peace in our new lives. Maybe lost is not having a “Next” that we can see and share, like our loved ones we say “we lost.” Lost is not necessarily a bad state to be in or something to fear. One can be lost in one’s work or lost in love. Lost could be a heavy sick Marika Warden’s dog, Suki, a Havanese, lost in the leaves in the forestsinking feeling but it was lovely there with the yellow leaves all over the forest floor, reflecting a warm golden light.
“We need to stay on this side of the stream,” Elaine says. “That’s my neighbor’s barn, we don’t want to go there.” She wasn’t lost. She knew we were somewhere in her back yard. She just couldn’t find the path that was so obscured by the beautiful bright blanket of fallen leaves.
Almost three hours from the start of our walk, we finally find ourselves back at Elaine’s cozy home and she sets out hot welcoming soup made from her garden. We find we have a lot in common. We find five tics on Suki. We are being found by more and more people who want to read our stories. And hopefully, when we are ready, our books will be found by publishers who are excited about what we have to say.
Visit Elaine Mansfield’s blog at www.elainemansfield.com for information and stories about love, health and healing.