Tag Archives: life is precious

Lost my Empathy

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops her tesselation of squirrels.My father was the one who taught me to love animals. For years, he had a wild squirrel he named Oscar that he trained to eat peanuts from our hands. He had an old drooling boxer dog who was my big brother the first years of my life. Animals were as important as people were to me. As an adult, I made animal designs for tee shirts, and coined the slogan “Creatures of Earth Unite for Survival.” I would cry copiously anytime I saw commercials showing neglected or abused animals. And whenever my son brought out his shotgun, I’d stomp and shriek a ruckus to scare away his targets, yelling, “Not the bunnies, not the birds….”

But something changed. Somewhere along the years, I lost my empathy. For animals, anyway. Maybe now that my daughter died it’s difficult to recognize the preciousness of a wild critter’s life.

Last week the visiting wildlife control operator confirmed that my house has squirrels, mice, chipmunks, woodchucks, raccoons, ground bees, cluster flies, and more. This was fine for outside. But they’ve been nibbling their way into my home. And into my humaneness.

The operator reminded me of all the reasons I didn’t want to live with wild creatures. The potential fire hazard of gnawed wires, Lyme disease, chew-holes in the stucco and trim, destroyed belongings…. We would start with the squirrels. We’ll eliminate them from the house, he said, informing me that once squirrels move into a place they’re not likely to move out. I suddenly remembered that squirrels were my son’s old girlfriend’s favorite animal.

The operator was listing all the options and processes he intended to employ. Video-taping, trapping, removal, … euthanizing. I squirmed, and scratched at my underarms, thinking of all the creeping, the chewing on electrical wiring and insulation, the dropping of turds. The twitchy-thing squirrels do with their tails that probably shakes out whatever fleas and ticks they’re carrying. Squirrels scuffled between floor joists, sounding like a herd of greyhounds racing overhead, through the house, north and south.

My father would have said, Poor squirrels—they’re just trying to make a living too.

The operator squinted, pointing at a hole in the house’s exterior. You might have some Flying Squirrels here, he said. And the thought of squirrels flying in my house put me over the top of my tolerance.

Okay. I’m in. How fast can you euthanize them? I gulped.


Wasn’t Rocky, of Rocky and Bullwinkle, a flying squirrel? What destroys your empathy?

Taking Lives

Robin Botie of Ithac, New York, photoshops a zinnia to make a heavenly bed for the millipedes she deprived of life. Life is precious.Over the last four days I mercilessly snuffed out hundreds of little lives. Millipede lives.
Fleeing harsh conditions in their natural environment, thousands of millipedes were crawling up and down the exterior of my house seeking refuge from the horrendous heat and drenching rains. They wormed their way inside to wander the more hospitable vast plains of my carpeted and tiled floors.

But I did not want millipedes in my house. Even though I knew they were just trying to survive. I have it good here: a fridge full-to-bursting, air-conditioning, Netflix, cozy furnishings…. Comfortably holed up in the house during the heat wave, I wasn’t eager to share, especially with creatures that had more legs than my dog or I. The arthropods managing to penetrate the sacred walls of my home found me standing guard with my Dust-Buster. The first day I sucked up over a hundred. As my almost-hourly dust-busting raids continued, I lost track of the count.

Days later, dreading emptying out the Dust-Buster, I knew I’d find maybe a thousand millipedes crammed into its dark bowels. Dead or still squirming. Small sparks of life languishing or extinguished by my own will. I put the recharging Dust-Buster out in the mudroom where I wouldn’t have to think about that.

But I did think. As one who watched my beloved daughter’s life slip away, as one who knows how fragile and fleeting life is, I hate the thought of taking lives, taking the life out of any living organism. And I had to wonder: who am I to condemn a whole population of these creatures? Do millipedes have hearts? Can they hear the roar of the approaching vacuum? What drives such a creature to survive? And what is it that gets me feeling so invaded and hell-bent on squashing all that out?

I went to photograph zinnias, and peeked into their wavy wormy-looking centers that I could photo-shop into heavenly beds for the poor creatures I deprived of life.


When is it okay to torture or take a life?

Another Precious Summer, Training for Life

Another Precious Summer, Training for LifeSixteen summers ago, in June, when peonies bowed their heavy heads, wispy clouds wafted over the still lake at Camp Scatico in Elizaville, New York. It was early morning a few weeks before camp would open, and that year’s new group of lifeguards was in training. Polar bear swim. To get a head start I ran into the lake first, breaking the calm surface into ripples. Two great blue herons suddenly soared up out of the mist. They flew over me, and before I could shout, “Look,” the other lifeguards, decades younger than I, splashed noisily by with great speed and strength. They swam all the way to some far marker and back again, twice leaving me in their wake. But that didn’t matter. Even then, I knew it was the beginning of a new journey. For me.

Two months before, I had turned fifty. Always afraid of drowning, I’d never dreamed of becoming a lifeguard. In order to afford to send my kids to camp though, I’d taken a job as a hiking counselor, and then the camp had me trained and certified. I spent the next four summers hiking and lifeguarding. And training. Every time the peonies bloomed I set off for camp for more lifeguarding instruction. It was good training for what was to come later, when my daughter got cancer.

Years after those lifeguarding summers, peonies were just starting to bloom when Marika was first diagnosed and I became her caregiver. Caregiving and lifeguarding were similar. Except with caregiving there was only one life to keep from drowning. And after the first summer with cancer Marika got her own lifeguard certification. Being a cancer survivor and a lifeguard, she knew something about the nature of life. A local camp hired her, but for the next two years, just when peonies perfumed the air, cancer came back. Marika and I were stuck in hospitals. Three whole precious summers lost. And after, there were summers when the peonies were lost; everything beautiful was lost on me. I was living in a downward wafting cloud.

The memoir I’ve been writing for the last six years was, at one point, to be titled Lifeguarding. A friend suggested that Guarding Life would be better. That got me thinking. Because guarding life is what I do now. Life and lives. And time. All bright, fresh, bursting with promise. Mysterious. Fragile. Elusive.

Whenever peonies bloom I get excited about summer, and I remember Camp Scatico where each June they train more lifeguards and leaders. I wish them a brilliant season, and hope these new leaders get to see the herons. My best wishes to all of us for a most magnificent summer.


Where will summer take you this year? Where will you allow yourself to go?