Looking for God

Hasta plants growing skyward by Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, who is looking for God in her garden sanctuary.“You’re a week early for the memorial service,” the woman in the parish house at Saint John’s Church told me. She must have seen I was crushed, standing there shrinking in my best clothes, under a raincoat. I’d missed a hike to attend this memorial. “But the organist is in the sanctuary practicing for next Saturday, if you’d like to sit in there for a while,” she offered. And then, for some unknown reason, I tiptoed in and silently slipped into a seat.

A statue of an eagle wearing a cloth scarf stood between the organ player and myself, hiding any view of the only other person in the sanctuary. I looked up and around at the high wooden Gothic-arch-vaulted ceiling and the stained glass windows while magnificent music poured from the organ. The sound was almost physical. It filled the hall, reached out and upward to the sky, and yet hovered over, hugging me. It vibrated through every inch of me. Some chords seemed to hang in the air forever. It felt like I was part of the music, like some part of me was being lifted. The word ‘glorious’ came to mind. What was I doing there, alone in this church? Me. Born Jewish, never found God, rejecting religion because it divides people.

The strange thing is I cried. I don’t know why. Maybe it was something I was missing in my life? Maybe because if I could imagine God singing, that’s how it would sound? Maybe it was because for years I’ve shunned churches and anything to do with God or love or faith, yet I envy those who are comforted by these.

Everyone needs a place they can come to, to feel welcome in, to find hope, find peace, and inspiration. My church is the hills and woods around Ithaca, New York where I hike several times a week. My sanctuary is my garden where greenest stems and leaves grow ever skyward, following the sun. The heavenly one I pray to these days is my daughter who died. I’m no longer looking for God. Grateful that not everyone has had to scramble around like I have, to find spiritual peace, I worship the earth. The planet I live on. It doesn’t matter who or what created it. I am a part of it.

For well over an hour Saint John’s was my own private church. And then I walked out into sunlight, drove home, and shed my raincoat and best clothes into a pile for next Saturday. Coming back for the memorial will be different. But worth missing another hike for, I decided.

 

Where do you find—glorious-ness? What is God and where is God to be found?

 

 

 

 

 

Losing the Garden to Ransacking Raccoons

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops her new container garden being attacked by a raccoon mother with babies.Barking, yipping, screaming, the dog and I defended the new vegetable garden against a ransacking raccoon, for as long as we could. I banged and kicked the sliding glass door mightily as the little dog went ballistic by my feet, and the ‘coon retreated to its place under the deck, but not for long. It popped out every so often, eyeing the garden, and then I’d storm outside, stomping, roaring, waving my arms frantically, leaving the dog to carry on hollering inside. This continued for most of the holiday weekend. Which is why I didn’t finish writing my blog about healing with fresh lettuce.

It was my first vegetable garden. A container garden. My friend had planted a galvanized steel bucket and two horse-sized water troughs full to their brims with kale, six different types of lettuces, spinach, basil, various herbs, and one tomato plant that’s supposed to yield a hundred cherry tomatoes. We built it on my deck, to be close and easy to manage.

It turns out the area under and around my deck is prime real estate for woodchucks, fox, raccoons, skunks, and muskrats. They take turns each year fighting for their nesting spots. They usually avoid the shallow boardwalk, lined with large windows and doors, that cantilevers over the pond. The perfect place for my salad garden, I thought. Until the first day. Right off, one of the resident woodchucks devoured most of the single cilantro seedling. I should have realized then this would be like inviting a whole kingdom of wild creatures for a free smorgasbord.

If my son were home he’d shoot every critter. Friends offered to help trap the offending beasts and carry them off far away. But I’m convinced the raccoon is a mother with babies. After all I’ve been through, how could I shoot or separate a mother with babies?

So I’m camping out by the garden. A lot. With camera, my book (Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale), pacifying mugs of hot mocha with Kahlua, and a water-hose. The dog, now sleeping exhausted on the other side of the sliding door, takes turns with me (from inside) guarding our healing herbs and lettuces. But we are ready to quit. Life’s too short to be picky over who gets to pick the vegetables. And we’re learning to pick our battles. Time to go hiking instead.

 

What did you lose over the long weekend? What do you favor – baby lettuce or baby raccoons?

 

 

I Hate Saying Goodbye

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a scene of how she hates saying goodbye.It was the last photography class. It had been a difficult semester but the class was one of the things that saved me. I showed up even the day after my mother died. Whether or not I had completed the week’s assignment, the instructors and other students always made me feel welcome. But an hour before the class would be over forever, I left. I silently snuck out like I always leave: like I’d be back again next week, like nothing would have changed.

I hate saying goodbye. The painfully awkward standing around, nervous fussing, words spoken, words unuttered, and generally dragging out the inevitable separating make me want to disappear. It doesn’t matter if it’s a routine parting or a departure into death; it means things will be different from then on. I’ve already experienced too many changes, too recently. It’s scary to move onward once again, meet new people, start another class, another project, begin the next new chapter of my life. After all, how many more new chapters do I get? Might this be my last? Goodbye implies an end to something—a Last Time—and I hate Last Times: the last time I prayed for a miracle, a loved one’s last breath, last words, the last time I saw my daughter’s face, the last family photograph before….

There is no One Right Way to say goodbye. You can bid farewell to someone or something without even uttering the dreaded word ‘goodbye.’ A nonchalant “See ya” would work if one musters up a tiny wave of the hand. “It was great to share this time with you” could really resonate if a brief hint of eye contact is added. A simple silent nod could suffice. But me—I don’t do goodbyes.

At times of parting, I wish I could be bold enough to speak up, to simply sum up the situation and spill out what’s in my heart. But the words conveying my sentiments have a long winding labyrinth to follow from heart to head to my voice box. It can take days or months for my message to journey out into the world.

During the car ride home from the last class, and over the weekend, the words I wish I had left the class with finally found their way into my head and then onto paper.
“Thank you,” I would have said. “Thank you all for being here, for amazing me with what you accomplished, and for bringing me happiness. See you around.”
A goodbye message. I
t’s pretty-much what I could have told my mother and friend (who both died over the course of this semester) as well. Might need to memorize and practice.

 

How do you say goodbye – not forever?

Finding Gratitude When Everyone Seems to be Dying

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York photographs her lawn full of dandelions in discovering gratitude in grief.“All I ever do is go to funerals,” my father used to complain, after he retired. And here I am, myself, counting funerals and memorials as major components of my social life these days. Seems I’ve gotten to the age where the people I care about are dropping like flies, one right after the other. I’m not yet sure how to be at peace with so much loss. But I’m learning.

Confession: Until my daughter died, anything to do with death or dying or dead bodies terrified me. I am one of those who never went to people’s funerals.
“We should spend time with our loved ones BEFORE they die,” I used to rationalize. But eight years ago I experienced tremendous love and support when hundreds from the community came out in the cold pouring rain to my daughter’s calling hours. After that, I decided to always show up and reach out to the broken-hearted  bereaved.

On the event of last week’s new moon, I made another new intention: to try to view death through a lens of gratitude rather than sorrow or pain. Not sure about how to find gratitude when everyone seems to be dying, I wanted to be grateful for the time I had with my beloved-ones and for the ways they touched me. Maybe I could even be grateful for the pain—my own, and others’, since recognizing and sharing the pain is what helps us heal.

Friends and family members are going to keep on dying. This is how it’s been forever, and how it will be the longer one lives. Yet I will howl and stomp and drive off alone into the far hills mourning the loss of them, until I drop down exhausted, and then finally remember—gratitude and presence.

The rabbi officiating at my aunt’s funeral last week looked around at all of us who showed up, and said,
“Each one of you is a memorial to her life.” I remembered that, as I returned home later that day and found my front lawn dotted with bright dandelions. Memorials to life itself. Ordinary, plain, not very big or powerful, each bloom contributed to the magnificent glow welcoming me. Consoling me.

Sometimes simply being there, showing up and shining with your best intentions, can ease someone’s aching heart. And fill your own hurting heart to its capacity, gushing with the warmest gratitude.

 

How or where have you found gratitude during painful times? Who are you missing today?

 

Final Words

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a friend floating in space to illustrate losing a loved one.“How would you like me to remember you?” I asked my friend who was in the active stage of dying. Death was days or maybe only hours away. She lay silent for a long while in a hospital-bed newly parked in her sunroom. Her eyebrows scrunched up. I felt bad that my question was making her work so hard, so I rephrased it, “All this time we’ve spent together, what do you want me to remember?”

She finally whispered her response and I repeated it out loud so I would never forget. And shortly after, howling in the car, I wrote down what she said, and then dashed off to roam the unfamiliar country roads north or east of her house, to lose myself before it could be announced that I’d lost my friend.

Over the next three days I became more and more unmoored, ungrounded. Restless and unruly, I waited as family members and a vast community of friends made their farewells. I thought there would be time to be with her, to hear more of her final words.

For the last two years I’d known exactly where I’d be Wednesday afternoons—in my friend’s sunroom, sipping tea, surrounded by her cats and my dog. We would read aloud each other’s words and missions—hers to leave a legacy for her family, mine to record the journey through the wilds of cancer with my daughter, and to address the issues my daughter and I never talked about. The tough conversations about living and dying. Cancer. And loving. In my friend’s sunroom, on Wednesdays, ideas and words I could never before discuss became routine. We learned words could plant one’s footprints firmly for others to follow, or set a person floating off into space. We explored and captured the right words, the best words, ever aware that my friend’s time was running out.

Three days after that last visit, when I got the text, “She left this morning very peacefully,” I pulled out the page on which I’d scrawled what my friend had responded:

“Remember that the two of us, together, asked the hard questions.” Except for “goodbye” and “I love you,” this was the last thing she told me. Rereading her words, the ones I am now taping to my computer, was like finding a map that pointed the way home from a long odyssey.

 

What are the hardest things to talk about? Do you remember your loved one’s last words?

Giving Gifts to the Dead

Giving gifts to the dead, Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a new dress for her daughter who died.It’s birthday time again—for my daughter—who’s been gone physically for eight years now. Happy Heavenly Birthday to Marika, some people will say. I love it when she gets birthday greetings; it warms my heart even after all this time. Bereaved parents, other than getting their beloved deceased ones back, just want their children to be remembered. And often, on birthdays, they feel compelled to do or get something ‘for’ their beloved. So, as our big day approaches, in my resolution to keep Marika close and include her in my world, I am considering the various options for giving her a present.

Maybe you’re thinking, I’m taking this a little too far. But I did not invent this idea of gifting the dead, myself. Since the Neanderthals, people have been burying their dead with all kinds of offerings. And today, Cambodians, Mexicans, Chinese … people all over the world have holidays where they leave flowers as well as food and drink at the burial grounds of their ancestors and other deceased loved ones. Go visit any cemetery to see lovingly placed teddy bears, toy cars, … balloons. It is a positive coping strategy for mourners. The folks at The Conversation call it “restorative giving,” recognizing that giving gifts to the dead is one way to deal with the pain of loss while maintaining ties with a deceased loved one.

If there’s no grave, a griever who wants to gift the dead has to be more inventive. Some possibilities for making a meaningful and beneficial contribution of some sort that day: I could buy a gift Marika would have liked and, with the help of a local pastor, I could give it to some girl from a needy family. Or I might leave a pretty bracelet in Marika’s favorite park for some lucky person to discover. I could make a donation to a charitable organization in her name. Maybe I’ll plant a rosebush. Maybe I’ll make a small campfire in the yard and invite a couple of old friends over for s’mores. Or I could bake (or fetch) a cherry pie and do a ritual with peach tea by candlelight, reading a special poem aloud.

And, in addition, because Marika opened the doors to social media, technology, and photography to me, I will take this opportunity to Photoshop a new dress for the girl who, even dead, still changes my life every day.

 

What do you do to honor a deceased loved one on a birthday?