Tag Archives: depression

Duetting: Memoir 64

Duetting: Memoir 64 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York photoshops a memory of lighting candles on birthday cakes for her daughter who died.

Greg grills steaks outside in snowy December. Still home, waiting to see where his new job will take him next, my son shares his aged Dalmore whisky with me while across the valley Ithaca College lights up the dorm windows to display the digits 2013. Another New Year tiptoes in. Another year that will pull my son far from home. One more year that pulls me ever farther from my daughter, from our times together. The second holiday season without Marika evanesces somewhere between the late night drinks with Greg and the few quiet dinners at friends’ houses.

Awake at sunrise most mornings, half-dressed, I grab my coat and camera, and clamber outside in the cold to catch the earliest morning light kissing the pond. There have been no photography classes over the winter break so I’m trying to continue on my own, but I miss that community of students and photographers. I miss people in general over holidays. Everyone’s mostly wrapped up in their own families, absent to me, making the absence of my daughter even more pronounced. I crave company but I seem to have forgotten how to socialize.

At first, I was not to be the one to host the mid-January birthday party for Stephen, leader of the Ithaca hikers. But for too long I’d let everyone else do all the entertaining.

“Let’s do it at my place,” had suddenly fallen out of my mouth when I was giddy in the company of fellow hikers. For days I think of little else until thirteen of us, including two friends’ daughters, are squeezed around the table where I’ve been writing for a year and a half. After a lunch of make-your-own sandwiches, the daughters help clear the table and light the candles on the cake. They’ve already started to sing the Birthday Song when they hand the cake to me to place before Stephen. Don’t let the flames go out, I think, carrying the candlelit cake ten short steps to Stephen. Suddenly my head reels. There’s a jarring explosion of memories. Presenting birthday cakes to Marika. I was with her for every one of her birthdays. Twenty cakes, each year one more candle added. And one for good luck.
… Happy Birthday Dear Marika, Happy Birthday to …

No. Don’t go there now. It’s Stephen’s birthday and there are twelve people here, I tell myself, fighting back tears. I don’t know if I set the cake down carefully in front of Stephen, or if I threw it at him like a hot potato. But by the time the song ends, I collect myself, clap cheerfully, and serve the coffee. And note that the Birthday Song is now a powerful emotional trigger, along with Christmas carols, carrot cake, and actress Drew Barrymore.

“Susan and Stephen want us to come for brunch on Tuesday,” says Liz, over the phone on Friday, the first of March 2013.
“I can’t. I have my photography class on Tuesday,” I say.
“Well, how about Monday then?” Liz asks.
“No, I can’t on Monday.”
“Whatcha got going on Monday?” she pushes.
“Monday’s March 4th, the second anniversary of Marika’s death. I don’t want to do a get-together with people then. It’s the wrong kind of energy,” I say.
“Well, what are you doing on Monday?” she prods.
“Something quiet, reflective. Like light candles around the pond. Maybe a campfire. Yeah, Marika loved campfires.”
“Well, let me know how we can help,” Liz says, ready to hang up.
“You wanna help me build a campfire?”
“In the snow?” she laughs nervously, knowing I’m serious.
“Yeah. A little warmth in all the wet and cold, I don’t know,” I say, sensing a mutual doubt. “I haven’t figured it out yet. But there’s no way I’m gonna be fit for company on Monday,” I say, ending the conversation.

The period from March 4th to Mothers’ Day is my season of hailstorms and hurricanes. In between those dates fall my birthday and Marika’s, the first day of spring, Easter, and Passover. All are opportunities to wallow in misery and close off the world. Brain nausea sets in as I try to sort out what this day, the anniversary of Marika’s death, really means and how I should commemorate it. What keeps coming up is my Aunt Bertha. My favorite aunt lost her husband on her birthday over fifty years ago. She’s kept to herself for over half a century, feeding on little other than her immense sorrow. That is not living; it is dying in slow motion. The day my daughter died was the worst day of my life. It’s a date I’ll never forget. The only good thing about that time was the kindness and support of many friends. Without them, I would never have gotten through that day. Or the past two years.

“Hey Liz,” I call back. “Did you finalize a day for the brunch yet? Because I think getting together with friends is exactly what I need on Monday.” So, in recognition of the day I lost Marika but found my caring community, I take Suki to brunch with Liz at Susan and Stephen’s house. An hour later on the same day, my friends Barb and Jan take me out for lunch. I take Marika’s friend Rachel, now Ray, and the woman she will marry, out for sushi dinner. And in between, because the assignment in photo class this week is to take seventy pictures of people in their environments, I go to hikers Dennis and Virginia’s place, and then Dan and Celia’s with my camera. Counting friends. Counting blessings.

 

 

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 62

Duetting: Memoir 62 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York photoshops a scene of a wild dance around a campfire as she considers the meaning of 'always'

In late September 2012, at a campfire with musicians, a friend’s daughter tends the fire. Bent low to the ground, she blows at the coals until waves of flame dance up and embers riddle the air in fireworks of crackling jewels. Her every movement matches the music, and I sit in a lawn-chair, watching, mesmerized. When the fire is really roaring and the fiddles whinny at a feverish pitch, the young woman steps up barefoot on the rocks that circle the campfire. She tiptoes around the fire gracefully from rock to rock as the firelight plays on her face.
“Marika, you’re too close to the fire.” That’s what’s about to burst from my mouth as I watch this girl-woman. I catch myself just before toppling off the edge of my seat.

No one is like Marika. My friends’ daughters don’t really remind me of her. But late the next day, as I stroll over crack-dry leaves in the driveway, there’s the sound of an approaching car crunching gravel, and I feel a hopping in my heart. For seconds, I hear the old dented Toyota pulling up, music blasting, leaves flying behind it. Marika would show up suddenly like this. Just before dinnertime. She’d tumble out of the car carrying a full laundry bag, with Suki pulling at her leash. A cool smoke-tinged breeze brushes by. My deepest sadness is triggered by these sounds and smells. Marika had come to me like this last autumn too. And it had taken a whole winter to creep up out of the dark depths of despair.

“You don’t magically recover in a year’s time,” says Meg, my CompassionNet social worker who still keeps tabs on me, a year and a half after Marika’s death.
“But I’m tired of these triggers wrenching my emotions, at being accident-prone and making poor choices. Forgetting. Falling. Losing things. Breaking things,” I tell her. “Missing appointments was something someone else always did. I can’t even dress myself right. I used to be a teacher. I was a lifeguard. I took care of other people’s children. Except for childbirth, I was never in a hospital for my own care until this past year. Now I’ve broken a wrist, my nose, and two toes. My eyes are cried permanently bloodshot. I had vertigo last week. And Lyme disease. My sister wants me tested for some kind of neurological impairment. Is this how it’s always going to be from now on?”

“Take care of yourself,” Meg says, her brows twisting in opposite directions off her face. And I think, Yeah, I’m my own lifeguard now.

Sometime after, Rachel phones, “You hafta meet my new girlfriend.”
“Girlfriend?” I’m caught off guard. Why would she want me to meet her new friend? This must be a really special new friend, I think. And then I finally meet up with them, Rachel and her Girlfriend. Not a boyfriend this time. I mull it over and over, trying to get comfortable with an ever-changing Rachel.

These days I’m desperate to have something stay the same. My whole life has changed. It seems like to live is to change, and I’ve been fighting it. And I thought that Marika, being dead, would not change. I’m finally getting to know who she really was, but even dead—and after a year and a half I can finally say ‘she is dead’—she is changing too. Or, maybe it’s our relationship that’s changed. Marika—her ghost—is no longer fighting me. I noticed that. Somehow, now, she’s cheering me on.

“Always, Marika,” she used to sign her letters, notes to friends, emails, … everything. Was that a plea to remember her or her pledge to always be there? Was it a wink at immortality? Or was it simply a pretty word that could sit next to one’s signature instead of ‘sincerely’ or ‘yours truly,’ without too much thought behind it?

Who dares to say “Always” in a world plagued by climate change and ozone layer depletion? How could she sign something “Always” with deadly global viruses, nuclear weapons proliferation, water pollution, terrorism, financial meltdowns, and ecological destruction all over the planet? With freak accidents, madmen with guns, asteroid impacts? With cancer. A million things can go wrong. It takes just one to end your “Always.” Always is every time, at all times and for all time. Forever. Continually, repeatedly, in any case and without end. Always is the sun rising and setting, hopefully. Time. Space. Rocks, maybe. Even earth may not be around for always.

I will not be around for always.

Shortly after Marika died I found a small gold ring in her room. In many cultures a ring, an unbroken circle, symbolizes infinity and undying love. However, this ring is one of those adjustable bands where the ends don’t meet. As soon as I put it on, I knew it would snag on something someday and fall off. Sooner or later I will lose it. But I’ll wear Marika’s ring as long as I have it; when it’s gone I won’t regret not tucking it away in a box or someplace safe. Can I treat people this way? Like they are not forever? Can I treat my own life this way, like it’s not for always? Marika lived like she had only an hour left. How differently might we all live if we had expiration dates stamped on us like cartons of milk?

We Need to Take Care of Each Other

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a dead butterfly into a perfect setting, in considering the life of beloved chef and author Anthony Bourdain of CNN's show Parts Unknown.Leaving the house one morning last week, I noticed a bright Monarch butterfly flying around the spirea bush outside my front door. I stood a moment watching it flutter over the tiny nectar-rich blooms, the most perfect setting a butterfly could want. Then I left in a hurry. Later that day, I noticed the butterfly was still there. It was flapping its wings only occasionally and seemed to be settling in for the night. Strange how it was still there, I thought. Maybe it was laying eggs, or maybe it was a sign from my daughter who died. I went about my long list of things to do before bed and forgot about it. The next day I found the butterfly. Still there. Only now it was lifeless.

When I tried to gently remove the poor thing from its perch, I found one of its antennae was wound around a small branch. The butterfly had gotten itself stuck. And now it was dead. All that time, I never noticed it had been struggling. If only I had reached out my hand when I first saw the butterfly, I could have shooed it away and maybe it would still be alive. If I had spent more time, I might have seen it was in trouble. I could have helped.

That was the same week Anthony Bourdain took his life. CNN, the TV station that keeps me company as I photoshop, was broadcasting information for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. In between they were playing clips from the celebrity chef/author’s popular world-travel documentary, Parts Unknown. It was hard to believe. The man who had everything. A perfect life. Now over. Where did he get stuck?

It made me realize we need to take care of each other better. We need to slow down and pay attention. Love, listen, and reach out more. Sometimes I can be oblivious to the inner workings of my fellow humans and other creatures around me. But these are the ones I share this time on earth with. We are all related. And each one’s well-being matters.

 

How do you help a friend who’s stuck in a bad place? And what can I do with this dead butterfly, too beautiful to throw away?

 

What They Don’t Mention About the Cold

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops kangaroos in the snow during the bomb cyclone.Just when you thought it couldn’t possibly get any colder, the weather channel challenges you with The Bomb Cyclone. A new term for winter hurricane, it means more cold. In your head you see scenes from the movie The Day After Tomorrow, where a super-storm plunges the planet into a new Ice Age.

There are things no one mentions about the freezing cold. How it makes you want to just hole up at home. How you crank up the heat to avoid facing frozen pipes. How you can hardly get out of bed with forecasts promising arctic blasts, massive polar vortexes, blizzards and blinding snow, damaging winds, temperatures hovering around zero, and wicked wind chill factors. Bone-chilling cold. You begin to understand the appeal of hibernation.

But sooner or later you have to brave the elements, despite the severe winter storm warnings. You dread having to dig the car out of snowdrifts, and scrape thick ice from its windows. Its engine needs warming up but you don’t dare sit in the car while it runs, for fear of carbon monoxide poisoning, so while the car idles in place, you shovel a path out the driveway to the road. And then pray as you drive over icy roads through blowing snow.

You dress in layers. Long underwear. Corduroy pants. High, SmartWool socks and waterproof shearling-lined boots with chunky treads. Hats, scarves, gloves. You throw on your warmest hoodie and downiest winter jacket with windbreaker shell and polyester-fleece lining. You’re exhausted from the effort of wrapping up when you notice your dog giving you The Signal. It needs Out. Remembering how the poor dog shivers, and limps on alternating legs in the snow, you dress it up as well. And you don’t dare let it go out alone because all the small rodents have frozen, leaving hungry coyotes out hunting.

It feels like every part of your body is shriveling in the cold. Your joints and muscles ache. Lips crack. Cheeks burn. Fingers and toes go numb. Your nose runs. It turns red. Breathing in the coldest air, the hairs in your nostrils stand on end. Your skin dries out. Hands and feet feel itchy, rough and flaky. If exposed to the bitter cold long enough, frostbite sets in. Or chilblains. And in the dark frigid winter something in your heart turns hard and cold, as well. Depression. Irritability. You become a hermit. You become a glacier.

Things could be worse, you tell yourself.

Somewhere in the world, say Australia, it is summertime. And if you were there now, watching kangaroos sleeping in the sun, you know you’d be whining about the heat.

 

How does cold affect you? What do you do to escape the cold?

 

Making Mandalas for Healing

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a healing mandala.After the election, stunned friends flew to their therapists. The TV flashed scenes of protests across the country. People all over the world were in various stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I was numb, my mind too scattered with other problems: pipes leaked under my driveway, contaminating the water system. The well pump was close to burnout. My mother’s dieffenbachia plant was in trauma. And my closet shelf, once securely screwed to the wall, had torn away and collapsed under the weight of my belongings. It felt like everything was falling apart or failing. So when a friend phoned inviting me to walk in the woods, I said, “Yes, let’s go right now.”

“It’s gonna be slow,” my friend warned. “I want to gather some things along the way to make a mandala.” She mentioned something about needing to “right the world.” Maybe she said “for healing” and “to calm spirits.” It didn’t matter what she said. It resonated. And I was desperate to escape.

In the woods, on the way to locating the creek that would be blessed with our “round symbol representing the universe in a search for completeness and self-unity,” my friend and I collected leaves, ferns, twigs, small patches of moss, and a single red berry.
“We need seeds for the mandala,” she said, something about “planting change and growth.” My previous mandala-making was mostly out of the peas and potatoes on my dinner-plate. So I kept quiet and my friend showed me how to string red and yellow leaves together, threading their stems through their papery skins. She arranged the elements while I photographed leaf veins that resembled tiny trees. She planted a feather in the middle of the masterpiece when it became apparent that I’d stepped on the berry.

Finally my friend was satisfied. She’d done her part to foster peace in the world. So we left the woods and went to my house where she screwed the shelf back into the wall and rescued the dieffenbachia plant. Maybe she said a prayer over the driveway’s leaky pipes and contaminated water too. I don’t know. But things felt a bit lighter, restored to order.Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, Photoshops a friend making a mandala for healing and peace after the election.

The next day it rained. The wind was blowing the trees bare. Unsettled as the weather, I hovered over the computer with the TV on for company. And, thinking of seeds and leaves with tiny trees reaching out to the world, I photo-shopped a mandala of my own. For “self-unity.”

 

Do you have any rituals or remedies for coping with things falling apart and failing? For things changing?

A Black Hole

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops the eye of a flower to represent the black hole that happens when a loved one dies, that happens when a writer falls into creative block.A black hole can happen when a star dies. It can happen when someone you love dies. And when artists or writers run out of inspiration, losing the ability to create new work, they may wail, “I’m lost in a black hole.”

In a black hole, the pull of gravity is so strong that nothing can escape it, not even light. Powerful tidal forces exert pressure that compresses matter, making it plunge at the speed of light, stretching it out lengthwise and squashing it sideways, tearing it to pieces, smashing, disintegrating, instantly incinerating and obliterating it to ashes.

I remember the early days after I lost my daughter. I remember the crushing feeling, the slow leaking of my energy, gravity ripping me apart. The hopelessness. My insides were imploding. I was alone. Aching. Trapped. Lost in a deep, dark, endless emptiness.

Black holes come in different sizes, from micro to supermassive, from death and grieving to creative block.

“If you feel you are trapped in a black hole, don’t give up. There is a way out,” says world-renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who has spent a lifetime studying black holes. But even he questions what kind of shape you, or any matter that gets sucked into a black hole, might be in upon escaping. Hawking says whatever gets freed from the hole is “for all practical purposes … useless.” Still, somehow, my hope survived my black hole. A battered ounce of hope is enough to fuel one forward.

Last week I started off my “new season” of photographic images. Taking cautious baby steps, keeping it simple, I photographed all sorts of orifices with my newly repaired, cleaned camera. Openings in foliage, depressions in trees, eyes of fall flowers… I made a circle. A square. And the beginnings of a plan to bring joy and color back into my life:

Start with a black hole. Put it in a box, to contain the chaos that might grow from it. Hug the negative space around it. Skirt the edges of its perimeter, aware it could suck in and swallow whatever approaches its point of no return. Surround it. Expand it. Drag it around and poke at it. Keep peeking into it to look for light. Learn to love the black hole that periodically pulls. And find new ways to fill it.

 

What can you do with a black hole? How can you fill it? Should black holes just be avoided?