Author Archives: Robin Botie

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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Changing Yourself, Finding Yourself

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a trans man who has found his true gender identity and shares his joy.After my daughter died, I took a kind of inventory of my life to see what was left, what remained of my old self. Who was I? What was my purpose now? No one seemed to understand the pain I was going through. I was alone, searching for my self, my true barebones self.

Sometimes you need to redefine who you are in the world. You don’t know how things will end up but you know they will have to change if you are to survive. Shaking out old identities does not come easily. It does not always come with the support of those around you. You’re a different person now, I’ve been told. Maybe my friend Ray has heard this too.

Ray was born Rachel. Through medical intervention, he altered his appearance to match the gender he has long identified with. Trans man, he wrote. Female-to-male. I asked him, What is it like to be a transgender man?

“Liberating, painful, …rewarding,” he told me. “It’s liberating to see hormones completely change my body. It’s painful in two ways: emotionally and physically. Emotionally because, while hormones give you a lower voice, facial hair, change the shape of your face and muscles, when stepping out of the shower, there are still pieces of me that don’t belong, which is sad and disappointing. Physically it’s painful because I still have breasts, which means I spend 12-14 hours a day wearing a very tight binder that compresses my chest to make it look like I’m flat chested. If binding is done incorrectly, it can crack ribs or cause bruising and trouble breathing. It’s been a long road of self-discovery. Rewarding … changing from one identity that was given to me at birth, to becoming someone else with an identity I’ve created for myself.” 

What did you lose? I asked.
“I never really lost Rachel. Rachel is incorporated into my life as Ray. The key has been turning the parts of the old me into the person that I am today, with no shame or guilt. I lost an old name, but I gained a new one.”

“What did I find? I found true self-love and happiness. I found someone who has so much to offer the old me who thought there was no self worth. Now I carry myself with pride, with joy, with new eyes. I feel free.”

Finally, I asked, What do you want people to know?
“I want people to know that I am human and I am worthy. I want people to know that being transgender isn’t a punishment, or a burden, it is a process, like a moth becoming a butterfly. I want people to know that kindness and acceptance goes a LONG way.”

Ray didn’t care about having his image camouflaged. But I wanted to experiment with the idea of binders. Binders being shed, maybe. To let loose pain, shame, or whatever keeps us from being our best selves.

 

What changes have you or a loved one made to be your most authentic self?

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People and Their Stories: Firefighters, When They’re Not Saving Lives

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops photographs of firefighters when they are not trying to save lives, to make their portraits anonymous, unidentifiable.Some people hate to be photographed. And some, like the firefighters at a local fire station, will dress up, drag out all their equipment, pose draped up and down over the fire trucks, and entertain you for a whole afternoon. As long as it’s quiet. No emergency calls.

The assignment in my photography class was to make environmental portraits. That means you take pictures of your subjects in the location where they spend a lot of time, so you can show what their lives are like. An environmental portrait is supposed to tell you something about the person. But, because I post my pictures all over social media, for my particular project I have set challenging limitations for keeping the identities of my subjects hidden. Anonymous, non-identifiable portraits. Not easy when each helmet and truck is labeled. I hesitated to ask my main question, What did you lose and what did you find, as the ID tags hanging from every single article of clothing suggested this was a major issue. So later, in Photoshop, I blurred out as many identifiers as I could. Also, I photo-shopped layers of added texture or fabric, to obscure the firefighters’ faces.

“What’s it like to save a life?” I managed to ask as I shot them showing off their hatchets and hoses. They spoke of the scariness, the awesomeness, and adrenaline rushes. These people had seen a lot of loss. Maybe even some close scrapes with death. But here they were whooping up a shower of exhilaration. I, too, was feeling intense excitement just from their enthusiasm. So much so, that I forgot to record their answers.

Still, after I rubbed out their facial features, I was amazed at how much character could come out of the remaining stands of heavy canvas and rescue equipment. Firefighters taking a break on a quiet afternoon. When they’re not out saving lives.

 

If I were to make an environmental portrait of you, where would it take place?

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People and Their Stories: Working Hard, Saving Lives

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a portrait of a paramedic in the style of photographer Chuck Close.This is my portrait of – let’s call him Working Hard. W.H. for short. He admits he’s a workaholic. Proud of and dedicated to his calling as a paramedic, W.H. would probably not be impressed by this quirky style I chose to experiment with for his portrait. Inspired by the works of artist/photographer Chuck Close, I, myself, worked hard turning my original photo of W.H. into a grid, and then twisting the individual squares to demolish his identity.

W.H. deserves to have his image treated with a lot more respect. He should be portrayed with monumental dignity. After all, he saves lives. As opposed to me. I gave birth twice, but miscarried twice, aborted two lives, and pulled the plug on one life. Not to mention the countless pets I’ve put down over the years. I don’t think I ever saved a life.

Years ago, I tried to keep up with a speeding ambulance as it rushed my daughter from a hospital in Ithaca to one in Rochester. She almost died on the way. But the EMTs saved her. So, I’m in awe of EMTs and paramedics. Touring a nearby fire station last week, I literally jumped at the invitation to enter their ambulance. It was my first time inside one.

“What’s it like to save a life?” I asked W.H., as I examined every inch of the neatly accommodated van with its medical supplies secured behind straps and doors.
“Sobering,” he replied, “It’s a large responsibility to shoulder. We cannot predict when something life-threatening happens. When we do save a life, it’s a moving experience.”

“What did you lose and what did you find?” I asked. He struggled with this.
“What I didn’t lose was my compassion,” he finally said. “It’s very easy in emergency medicine to become hardened to the circumstances of the people around you…. Emergency medicine tends to lead practitioners to feel that people are essentially suffering from their own bad decisions, driving drunk, smoking … but I have not lost my sense of compassion.”

He’d said, “Sobering,” about saving a life. “A moving experience.” I wanted to hear something more like Soaring. Something related to glory, jubilance, elation, and ecstasy. Because “sobering” is kind of what I felt watching my beautiful girl take her last breath. And compassion? That’s what I eventually found, after becoming a mother who could not save her daughter’s life, when I discovered too many others experiencing the same sorry thing.

I’m grateful to W.H. and all practitioners in Emergency Medical Services, for working to save lives. It can’t be easy, straddling the cusp between life and death.

 

What did you find and what did you lose in your life? Who or what saved you? Who or what did you save?

 

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