Getting Found

When was the last time you were lost?

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.”

IMG_0302            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 for information and stories about love, health and healing.

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Healing Through Sharing

I sit at the bedside of my failing friend. At her request, each time I visit, I read from my book.

“This is great for me,” I tell her. “I need feedback and criticism before I send this out to the publishers.”

“You know me: I love to criticize,” Annette says, and then groans in pain. Over the years, we traveled together up and down the Finger Lakes to catch art shows, concerts and plays. She shared her poetry, went halfsies on exotic dishes at Thai restaurants and taught me to play racquetball. Despite being twenty-four years my senior, the things we have in common have always outweighed our differences. But the past year she has lost her health and much of her former active life. So now we are related in pain and loss.

“What were you feeling then? Optimism? Pessimism? Anger or fear?” she asks after I read a few sentences.

“Needs my feelings,” I write in red ink for later. This I’ve heard before. I read on.

“Wait. ‘A girl is able to tell her doctors’ isn’t right,” she interrupts again. “What are you trying to say?”

“A girl has the right to tell her doctors – Oh. Yeah,” I say and circle in red what I must change later. I continue. “She lay there prone, mortified, vulnerable, waiting for the inevitable pain.”

“What did you say? ‘Marika produces a sound like a roar.’ You can’t do better than that?” She listens raptly as I read about Marika’s struggles with cancer and pain. In almost every other line she finds faults, and pounces on points no one else has noticed or mentioned before.

“You are ruthless. You’re brutal,” I tell her and try to hide my smile. I want to bat her over the head with the bedpan sometimes but her observations are remarkably right. Even on pain-killing drugs that make her fight to keep her eyes open, Annette is sharp. We take a short break and as we reassemble, she arches her back and writhes in pain.

“It’s okay,” she says. “Read more.”

“Are you sure you want me to continue?” I ask.

“Oh yes,” she insists. “I have to hear this. Go on.”

My knees butt up against the bed as I sit sandwiched between her walker and the commode. My feet constantly knock over one or the other of two Lysol spray cans on the floor beside me. And her cat, that I helped pick out at the SPCA, squints menacingly at me from the spot on the bed it hasn’t budged from in all the hours and days I’ve been here.

“Excuse me. Will all your readers know what EcoVillage is?” she asks. “And what does ‘unconsidered debris’ mean?”

I read painstakingly slowly at my voice’s maximum volume and enunciate so she can hear each word. She stops me in the middle of every third, fifth or sixth line to demand correction or clarification. It is like we are clearing a minefield of internal explosive devices; I never know when she will plant an objection or a question that will rip my sentence to shreds.

“Hold it. ‘PEPPER the sky with endless SWARMS of doves’ is too violent to describe sending out kisses. You need to find better words,” she says. She blasts apart so much of what I’ve written but somehow leaves it, and me, in better shape. And I can’t help but notice she’s having fun in the process.

“It’s been over two hours. I need to go soon,” I say.

“Can you come back tomorrow and read more?” she asks.

“I’d love to but – it’s not too painful for you to listen to this?”

“Oh no, it makes me feel BETTER. Please read on,” she says as she winces, gasps and clutches her side and her middle.

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Healing through Photography

629f2891d0b54c57a1c427f1ff4cb184I wanted to get out of the house more. I needed to challenge myself. My second manuscript would soon be completed and I worried about post partum depression. So I went to the local community college and enrolled in a photography course.

The world looks different as I view it through my rented digital camera. In the past two years of grief and loss I’d forgotten about all the color and texture and dazzlingly rich stories to be told in pictures. When my daughter died, somehow I lost my eyes on the vivid world around me. It’s still difficult to want to draw or paint. But the camera has sparked visual adventure for me once again.

One of the first assignments was to photograph various people in their elements. So I took a hundred photos of my family and friends. I even photographed myself as I turned the camera, aimed on my face at arm’s length, and whirled around in circles. Spinning in space has been my “element” lately.

Here’s a picture I took of my friend, Liz, in her garden. I can’t emit this kind of groundedness and peace yet myself but I can recognize it through the camera and capture it in a photograph.

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To Own October

Tell me something beautiful about October. This is my second October without my daughter. Marika loved this month. To her, it meant homecoming and soccer. It was the time to carve pumpkins and pick apples. In October, we bought new jeans and winter jackets. And she planned and partied and dressed up for Halloween, even at age twenty.

Never warming to October before, the past two years I tried to establish new traditions to enliven this time of the year. Like going to Monica’s Pies in Naples, NY, for grape pies. And planting solar-powered garden torches in the driveway to lighten the dark nights. I drink hot chocolate in the chilly mornings, light candles over dinner and plan winter escapes.

During her last October, Marika wrote this poem to the young man she loved. It’s a sad poem. And for me, this is just a sad month. All the grape pies, cocoa and candles can only brighten small moments of it. But that is okay. I can allow myself to acknowledge sorrowful times. I will embrace both the beauty and the sadness of October.

Goodbye October
Marika Warden, 2010

There’s a rustle in the bushes
Not a cloud up in the sky.
I’m just watching trees change colors
And pretending they won’t die.
So I’ll take as many photos
As these canisters can hold
‘Cause I feel like I’ve been dying,
I’m not even growing old.

Turning pages through my story
Running smoothly ‘round the bend
I’ve outwitted every obstacle,
But every story ends.
Now I’m sitting on the terrace
Looking up at eyes of blue
And nothing really matters,
Not while I am here with you.

Goodbye October.
Goodbye to pastures lush and green
‘Til the springtime winds of April
Blow away this winter dream.
Goodbye October.
Goodbye my wide-eyed rambling man.
Tell your stories to the wind
And I’ll be with you once again.

 Goodbye October.
In a year you’ll reappear
But forgive me if my story ends
And I’m no longer here.
Goodbye October.
Let these memories stay true
And one day across the sea
I hope that I can be with you.

 What about October should I look for? What fading memories do you love? What does October mean to you?

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In the Woods with Friends

My friend, Andrea Riddle, told me to follow my inner senses.

“Trust yourself,” she always said when I taught for her at the Elizabeth Ann Clune Montessori School of Ithaca.

I went to her memorial this afternoon, but first, this morning, I went to the woods. Because Suki and I always go hiking on Sunday mornings and because walking in the woods was the last thing I did with Andrea. But I did not go on my regular Sunday morning Ithaca area hike. It was going to be too many people, too muddy and too late to clean Suki and myself up in time to get to the memorial. So instead, Suki and I went hiking with our friends, Dennis and Virginia, and their small dog.

They were very excited; they were taking me to a favorite trail on Connecticut Hill, in an area they’d hiked in for forty years. We were going to be over and done and back to the car by 11 so I could get home by 11:30, do tick-checks, get changed and go.

“We take the yellow trail and then the red trail,” Dennis says shortly after we start out.

“No, we take the orange trail which crosses the blue,” says Virginia. We keep walking. The woods are aglow in color. The trails are hard to keep on because of the bright fallen leaf cover. I am comfortable and at peace.

“Dennis, we go left on the orange trail for the Cameron Loop,” Virginia says.

“No, it’s this way, across the blue trail.”

“We passed the blue trail already. And this marker is green, not blue,” she points out.

“Look at the map,” says Dennis. “Here’s where we are. We go on the blue to the red.”

At that moment, I remember hiking with the two before. One time I got lost in the snow following Virginia. Another time, when they said they’d done the trail a million times, we ended up walking in circles.

“The compass says we’re going west and we need to go south,” he says.

“No, here’s the trail. I know this is the Cameron Loop,” says Virginia.              “We’ve been here a million times.”

So we follow the orange blazes and it’s beautiful although it becomes obvious it’s not the trail they intended to take me on. The woods are a stunning kaleidoscope of reds, yellows, green and brown. And I think of Andrea walking in falling yellow leaves a year ago. I think of how she changed the course of my life, giving me my first teaching job. I silently thank her for all she’d done for Marika both before and after leukemia. I consider the cruel fate of Andrea getting diagnosed with cancer shortly after Marika’s death. Suddenly it’s time to turn back so I can get to the memorial.

“We need to go west to get back,” says Dennis, “and you’re headed east.

“No, Dennis, this is the way,” insists Virginia.

“Is this the way we came?” I ask, totally disoriented. “It doesn’t look familiar. I’d have remembered this dead tree.”

We walk on, trying to reverse our tracks but there are two different blue trails, an orange-blazed trail, an orange-tagged trail and a red trail that shows up occasionally and looks almost orange.

Andrea had told me to follow my inner sense. To mindfully choose and follow my own path through life. Today was just a small example of how I’ve failed miserably at this and allowed people to lead me this way and that. I get swayed by voices and judgments and expectations of others too easily.

“If we follow this blue trail we’ll get right back to the car.”

“No, we have to go back on the orange trail.”

“Do you two always hike like this?” I ask. I’ve often admired the easy way they genially disagree. And they always manage to make it home. Eventually. And they’re always up and eager to hike again the next day. “My heart gets an aerobic workout every time I hike with you two, just wondering if I’ll survive.”

I am standing with Suki and my head turns from side to side, like I’m watching a tennis match. And then, one stubbornly takes off one way and the other takes off in the opposite direction.

“Oy!” Andrea would say at this. Here was my opportunity to make my own first decision of the day: to follow the big guy with the map and compass or go with Virginia, who was flying by the seat of her pants, with the dog. I go with Virginia. This is a woman who follows her instincts, for better or for worse. Remembering Andrea’s words, I actually even take the lead with Suki at times as Virginia and I scour the forest for orange blazes.

“I sure hope to hell this is right,” she says, about two miles and several debates later about how familiar and unfamiliar it feels. Virginia and I find our way back to the car two minutes before 11.

“Well, what do we do about Dennis?” I ask.

“Leave him. He’ll be fine.” But we call and whistle and Virginia howls her special call that carries through the woods. No response. She walks up and down the road while I wait with Suki by the car. Ten minutes later I hear another howl from the woods and soon we are reunited. Everyone is happy and they get me home by 11:30.

At the memorial, I make a promise to Andrea to follow my heart, finish the last hard steps for the book and not rush out into the wrong road afterwards, just to secure a salary and health insurance. And I promise myself to go out hiking again soon with Dennis and Virginia, because it was exciting after all, but not when I have to be somewhere anytime soon after.

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Growing Home

I am riding home from my mother’s place in Massachusetts. In the car is Suki, my perfect dog in her car seat, which is secured next to me, in the passenger seat. A cooler filled with leftovers is on the floor under Suki, and wedged in next to it, so it shouldn’t tip over, is an old houseplant, a variegated philodendron that’s seen better days.

It was the annual weekend celebration of my Mother’s birthday. Which also marks the end of the summer season and the closing down of her condo in the Berkshires until next May.

Last year, as we were abandoning the place for the winter, at the last minute, I threw the plant in my car, hating to think of it perishing along with the annuals that, by October, are over-blossoming beyond the tops of the planters and hanging baskets on my mother’s porch. I am not a plant person. Plants do not talk to me. In fact, my friends know me for killing plants, not intentionally; they no longer give me seedlings or bulbs or potted herbs that they all fuss over and trade among each other. But I took that plant off my mother’s porch, and home with me, back in the fall of 2011, perhaps because Marika had died that year and I couldn’t let a single other thing die. I couldn’t save my daughter but there was a plant that I could save from death. Maybe.

When I got home from my mother’s last October, I put the plant smack in the middle of the dining room table. It was only a week later that I started writing my book. The plant was there on the table in the corner of my house overlooking the pond as piles of papers and tissues and chapters started growing up around it. And it started growing around the photo of Marika that I would talk to when I wasn’t talking to Suki who, when I write, lays under the table on a blanket by my feet. During the eight months the plant was there, the cat nibbled on it, the vine grew tighter around the photo of Marika, and its leaves grew more green with their fine white lines getting more defined.

IMG_3707In May, I took the plant back to my mother’s house in Massachusetts when I drove her up to open the place for the new season. The spot on my table that had been occupied by the plant quickly grew over in papers and I did not miss that plant. And another summer went by in a blink. Soon I was back for another birthday and another locking up of the house.

The plant waited in its place on the porch as I spent a jolly weekend with my sister and my mother and her neighbor, Pearl, who was also our neighbor fifty years ago on Long Island. Our houses there were separated only by a small rock garden where the daughters would picnic, bury dead birds and play. My mother and Pearl have spent so many summers in the Berkshires, in their adjacent homes, that neither knows who followed the other there. Mostly now, it is Pearl who does the following as my mother takes her to restaurants, to shows, to some of their old favorite places, shuffling slowly and carefully with her, making sure the cane and the coat are not forgotten, left.

The plant looked at me this time. If a plant can have a questioning look, this one did. It had paled over the last five months on this shaded porch. It had not grown. I consider for a while. Because I am not a plant person and that spot it occupied on my table has long since grown over and who knows what kind of insects are living among the plant’s leaves and roots. I come up with a hundred reasons to leave this plant behind.

Sunday morning the car is all packed up for my trip back home to Ithaca. Suki is secured in her car seat and I say my goodbyes to my mother and to Pearl. It is my time to wonder who will or will not be back here next summer. I pick the plant up carefully and carry it to the floor of the passenger seat below Suki. So here I am, bringing an old friend home again for the winter.

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