All week long I’ve been on the lookout for something funny or uplifting to write about. I can’t bear to photo-shop my frantic face for a third week in a row. But it has not been an uplifting week. I attended a memorial for a cancer-warrior friend, got a fever and a bloodshot eye from a shingles vaccine, broke a nail, barely rescued my car from being towed, and took seven ticks off my dog, Suki. Okay, I’m in the midst of dealing with death, surviving grief and looking for life after loss. But I have to do better than this. There must be some silliness somewhere in my life.
So on Saturday I go to my friend Celia’s house to photograph her dog, Rosco. I want to make a unique gift for Celia’s husband’s birthday. Doing things for others is one way I avoid depression. And a sure way to take any mind off trouble is to try to photograph a small but quick, squirming dog. It’s a crazy combination of fun and frustration.
Today I couldn’t wait to photo-shop the pictures of Rosco, a silly little chi-poodle with big dreams.
My mother used to say something like, “Don’t hang your dirty laundry for all the world to see.” I never knew exactly what that meant but assumed I should keep shady little secrets to myself. Of which I didn’t really have any. But I did have feelings. Strong ugly scratchy feelings that lurked low in my gut. I thought I could keep that dirty laundry to myself.
Those feelings though, they’re messy and often uncontainable. They drip out when I don’t even know it. Like when I’m on the phone for what seems like forever with some anonymous guy somewhere across the world.
The Verizon Tech Support guy is trying to talk me through getting back my lost internet connection. Only I don’t know the difference between a modem and a browser. And I can’t find the blasted yellow-bell icon or the folder of applications. Suddenly the downloads are flying in a line across the screen like a clothesline of tiny white sheets in a breeze.
The tech says, “Put the yellow-bell icon in the folder, ma’am,” and I lose the icon. I lose my reserve. When I finally figure it out he says, “The ten minutes have expired, ma’am,” and then we have to go through the whole process again with a new code and a different password. And I cry but don’t dare let him know that I’m wiping tears that drip from my hot face onto the keyboard. We’ve been at this for hours.robin botie having a bad day online with Verizon tech support
“Are you there?” I ask frantically. “Are you still there?” There is silence. And then I hear choking, a sob, and sniffling over the phone. “Are you laughing or crying,” I boldly ask in a timid voice. He coughs.
“You are absolutely right, ma’am,” he says in his exotic accent that half the time I don’t understand and have to pipe up to interrupt and beg pardon.
“Excuse me? Excuse me? I’m sorry, can you say that again more slowly please?” Now the technician apologizes, says he is transferring me to his manager. I manage a small, “Well, thank you for your patience,” with a question mark at the end. And then there is a new voice on the line. And a new window is up on the screen and it won’t accept my old password. And in less than two minutes this new manager hangs up on me.
“Are you there? Are you still there?”
After sitting for a while in shock and shame, I fool around with where I’ve been left, with a million windows open on the computer. I enter a new password just for the hell of it, because I’m shot now and there’s not much left to lose.
And in very little time I’m back online. Still stunned, I decide to try something else I never do. On Facebook I post a photo of myself tearing my hair out in front of a tree. It looks a bit like Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream.” And then I air my dirty laundry to my whole internet world: “I just spent hours on the phone with Verizon Tech Support and I’m miserable.” But I don’t say I made the poor guy cry.
Oh No! The blackbirds are attacking my just-seeded lawn. The minks are gouging tunnels from the yard to the pond-banks. It’s tick season again. Marika’s birthday and Mothers’ Day are coming up. Oh, what time is it? Oooops – I’m late for my appointment.
“Do you remember what I was worrying about the past few days?” I phone my friend, Celia, who usually remembers everything.
“Why?” she asks, and then runs off a list. “Your manuscript, is it really done yet? Will you find an agent? Your son’s going to Afghanistan. You can’t fit everything into your days. What you’re going to wear, …”
“Oh yeah. I remember now.”
“Did you forget what you’re worrying about?” she asks, laughing in disbelief. I wasn’t ready to explain that I’d been photo-shopping all afternoon and had forgotten dinner and my daughter as well as whatever I’d been worrying about. It’s been so long since I’ve been able to lose myself and find myself in anything – I almost don’t mind that it’s bedtime and I haven’t had dinner yet. But maybe there’s still time to photo-shop one more picture.
Exactly a year ago, on April 4th, I broke my nose on my return from Australia where I’d gone alone to scatter my daughter’s ashes. April 4, 2013 marks two years and one month since Marika died. It seemed like a good time to end my book.
Over these past two years, I noticed that almost all my friends still had daughters.
“Will it be okay if my daughter joins us?” they asked, at first hesitantly, nervous I’d feel uncomfortable. But I quickly found I enjoyed having the daughters with us. Their energy and interests, the places and things they get themselves into and out of fascinate me.
“Everything has to fit in my pack and weigh less than twelve pounds. I should carry only ten percent of my body weight,” says Nicole, my friend Liz’s daughter, as she shows me what she will bring for her hiking trip on the Camino de Santiago Trail in Spain and France. Behind the camera I smile in awe of all her careful calculations and planning. On her blog-site, Nicole Takes a Walk, I sympathize as she adjusts her plan due to a knee problem.
My friends’ daughters do not remind me of my own. All daughters are remarkable in their own ways so I listen to what they say. I don’t want to erase them or pretend they don’t exist. After all, half the people in the world are daughters.
On April 4, 2013, the day I have designated as my book’s ending parameter, I am at the library in a new writers group of twenty strangers. We go around the circle to read what we have written the past hour. The woman next to me has just begun her memoir. She is about my age. She reads the first pages about her mother who cleans, cares and holds home together. Her mother who she hates to disappoint … I half-hear what she reads as I ready myself to read next. Then suddenly her words smash into me like a seismic sea wave. This woman is a cancer survivor. She is reading about how she felt when she had to tell her mother she had cancer. Here is a Daughter with cancer writing about her Mother.
The woman is my age. She does not remind me of my daughter. But I feel if I listen, I might hear my own story, how it would have sounded if my world had not turned upside down two years ago. If Marika had lived and one day found herself at the Library in a writers group.
Whose words grab your attention? Has your curiosity ever been stirred by a stranger?
The whole digital photography thing fascinates me: here’s this postage-stamp sized plastic chip in the camera that captures and contains so much of my world, so much of what I miss. With it I can hold and reproduce a million memories in tiny thumbnail scenes that I might enlarge or erase, copy as-is, or change.
A year ago today I borrowed a small point-and-shoot and could barely manage it. And today, if I’m up at sunrise, I scramble outside half-dressed with my new compact Canon PowerShot to catch the earliest morning light kissing the pond.
It’s the Photoshop program that really excites me. Photoshop has intriguing “Tools” to work with. There’s a Patch Tool and a Path Selection Tool, a Dodge Tool and an Add Anchor Tool, a Magic Eraser, a Magic Wand, a Clone Stamp, … a Healing Brush. From the beginning, I played with digital ghosts and photo-shopped pale images of my daughter’s face onto all my landscapes. There is something comforting about being able to “put” your loved one in a cozy place, maybe sitting next to you, even if it’s just in a thumb drive or on paper.Photoshop has intriguing tools to work with. Like a magic wand, a healing brush and a clone stamp. Using layer masks I put my own image into a picture many times.
“Mom, I leave for Afghanistan next Friday,” my son announces. I feel like I’ve been shot. My days disintegrate. It snows in April. My driveway floods. Another friend is diagnosed with cancer. The cat won’t stop tormenting the dog. But I photo-shop away wrinkles and add candlelight to my pictures. I put cats in Times Square. I clone myself. Maybe I like photo-shopping because I can control my universe. I’m not at the mercy of cancer and changing tides in Photoshop. I can Shift-Click, drag and drop a girl running with her rabbit in the flaming sun. Stars shine and flowers blossom in my living room. I can move the moon.
“Oh no!” I cry out in class one day. “All my work just disappeared.” With an unintentional click, the project I spent hours on is gone. My heart stops and I stare in disbelief at a dark empty computer screen.
“Just click on Float All In Windows,” says Harry who teaches the class. In a click my precious “lost” images are all lined up neatly before me awaiting my next command.
“You can’t lose anything in Photoshop,” says Harry. “It’s all right there. It’s just hidden in another layer.” I imagine Marika, not gone, just hidden in layers that surround me. There are adjustment layers, restoration layers, background and mask layers, layers and levels of saturation, shadows and curves. The possibilities for change and control are endless.
My approaches to photography and writing differ. I work hard to find the right words to describe reality, the truth. The way something looks, feels, sounds, smells and tastes. I could never write fiction; it just isn’t in me. But when I photo-shop, I can tell a different story. So I tell the truth in words but shamelessly stretch it in my photos. And I call the whole thing “healing.”
I didn’t take the photography course with any expectation of finding it helpful in my healing process. But photography distracts me from my depressing drab world. And it simultaneously beckons me to zoom in on the fresh brilliance of my waiting world.
What helps you feel better about yourself and the world around you?