48 essays by Elizabeth Shé

Archive for May, 2011|Monthly archive page

Essay #13: memorial

In Love on May 30, 2011 at 6:35 pm

Several Memorial Days ago, when I was working for the state House of Representatives, the names of beloved dead were projected in the rotunda of the Capitol. A group of chamber musicians played while high up on a wall scrolled names of fathers, mothers, soldiers, sisters, brothers, friends.

Earlier that week, in response to an e-mail about the project, I wrote and asked if it was okay to add my brother’s name, even though he wasn’t a soldier. The project organizer replied immediately, “Of course.”

At the appointed time – I think it was late afternoon – I sat on the Rotunda steps amidst a crowd of people and waited for his name to appear. When it did – John VanTine Braunlich – I cried.

Yes, it was just a scrolling of names, of words, but each name had people attached to it, people who didn’t want their family or friends forgotten.

Words have power. We’ve all heard this, and it’s true. I felt better (and worse) for seeing his name in a public place. It comforted me, and in a strange way I felt vindicated. John’s name on that list meant I didn’t make him up. I didn’t just imagine racing snails and eating peanut butter toast and playing Batman and Robin with him. Those three years actually happened. He was here. He lived.

Why is this so important? Writer Annie Lamott’s friend Tom, as quoted in Grace (Eventually), says ‘why’ is not a useful question. So let’s drop it, and just know that there is something powerful in the reading of names, the speaking of names, in memorials, be they of stone or pixels on a wall. I wanted others to know Johnny existed, though it was long ago.

We are all, ultimately, ephemeral. We all laugh, we all cry, we all love, we all die. That’s the way it is on this planet. With such major similarities, why focus on the minor differences?

Here’s my list (to date) of beloved dead. They are not forgotten. Feel free to add your own, or sing them on the breeze as you go about your day.
Peace.

John VanTine Braunlich, Emmett Ocean Shé, Bianca Kitty, Hazel, Dumbala, Mary Cat, Coe Coe, Noah, Maureen Marten, Rosemary & Paul C. VanTine, Sidney Duzen, Aunt Jean, Great Aunt Maude VanTine, Great Aunt Terry Magonigle, Nana & Grandpa Braunlich, Father Tavard, Bronco, Julio, Gordo, Grey, Carolyn’s sister, Sophie’s Chris, Jacinta McKoy, Sasha, Gene, John Lennon, Martin Luther King Jr…

Essay #12: the third way

In Love on May 23, 2011 at 3:53 pm

In response to what I thought was a benign comment, I was slimed by a nasty look from a co-op worker a few months ago. It was a doozy; folks nearby even commented on it: “whoa!”

How do you deal with situations like this? I’m usually too stunned to respond in the moment, which pisses me off later. And what are my options? I could only come up with two: either deflect her crap back at her, or take it in. I didn’t like either one.

Later that same afternoon, Dancer Karen came over. Through movement, she helped me discover a third way.

Imagine, here comes the attack:
Don’t take it in; don’t throw it back.

Catch it in one hand,
pass it behind your body to the other hand,
and thump it on the ground.
Stand up, and flick your fingers skyward.

I did this movement phrase over and over again: catch, pass around, palm to ground, stand and flick. I imagined the planet taking the venom and transforming it, toxins turned to sparkling dust: harmless.

After 10 minutes or so of this continuous motion, fear and anger turned to laughter. It was amazing. I felt free and clean and clear and strong.

I wrote down the phrase and vowed to remember it always. Right.

Since then–when I think of it–I have tried it on other cantankerous cranks. I do it in my head, or very small–just my hands–at a table. It works every time. A subtle shift of energy occurs and I am able to shake off the slime. I can respond from a position of strength and peace.

In a third way.

Essay #11: support

In Love on May 16, 2011 at 4:09 pm

“You are not a waste,” said the director’s assistant, while leading me to the restroom to compose myself. I had just mangled “Singing in the Rain” during an audition, finally putting us out of our collective misery by stopping the accompanist, and apologizing for wasting their time.

Why I was auditioning for musical theatre, I do not know. I don’t even like most of it, and I certainly don’t care for the typical sound actors make while singing show tunes. Too, well, showy. Not authentic.

Well, my voice was certainly authentic yesterday. I opened with “Amazing Grace” and found myself wailing and weeping the words, “I once was lost, but now I’m found.” Talk about saving “a wretch like me”! The good news is that the worst that could happen has happened. It’s done. I sang off-key. Sue me.

Earlier that day, I participated in contact improv exercises with a local dance collective. Standing back to back, Roel slowly leaned forward as I leaned backward, until I could no longer touch the ground. My weight was completely supported on his back, my arms overhead. Even though I’d seen him do this safely and gently with other dancers – it’s quite beautiful – I was afraid I’d fall.

“Put me down,” I said, and started crying. The visceral, kinesthetic sense of physical support was overwhelming. It had been years since I let anyone hold me for any length of time.

I prefer to live alone. I need copious amounts of solitude for mental (and physical) health. But suddenly I find myself weighing the cost/benefit ratio of having a partner. I am tired — bone tired — of doing everything by myself: wrestling with fears, solving problems, working toward goals, having fun.

Look at all the couples (yes, spring has sprung). But does it have to be all or nothing? Could I have a part-time partner? A part-time family? I’d have my down days, my writing days, and then maybe once or twice a week – bingo! – I’d have family and friends. (And then they’d go back in the closet, right?)

Maybe I just have to be truthful with the friends and family I do have. Dude, I need space. I’ll talk to you in two days. Hasta la vista.

Maybe I just (!) have to set (and maintain! Christ, what part of no don’t you understand?) boundaries. (Not disparaging the past, oh no. Just making a comment.)

Meanwhile, I may feel alone, but on a planet with trillions of creatures, that’s not actually the case. Why, I can hear someone hammering right now. And sawing. And throttling a Harley Davidson. Ray the Cat just poked his head in the door.

Maybe I’ll go outside and sing. In the rain.

Essay #10: mothering

In Love on May 9, 2011 at 3:53 pm

I woke up yesterday feeling like I finally got it, the whole mother thing. If I need mothering, I can do it myself. After all, who better than me to know what I want? Expectations of my mother dropped away – freedom!

Today I feel like I did before: angry at her, and sad we’re not talking. Damn revelations.

“No shame, no blame, everything is beautiful,” said Meg before leading an improv exercise. An excellent motto. Perhaps I’ll paint it on my car.

I did not call my mother on Mothers Day. I am trying to do what I actually want to do, instead of what I should do. Today I am suffering guilt and anxiety. I don’t want to hurt her, but I am tired of hurting me.

Taking care of myself is trickier than I thought.

Early on, I learned not to have any needs that couldn’t be met by my mother. I learned not to want.

But I am human. I want and need — despite my best efforts — shelter, love, support.
And when she couldn’t or wouldn’t help me, I thought I wasn’t worth helping.

Wrong splenation. It only meant that she — one woman — couldn’t help me, not that I shouldn’t be helped. Where’s the damn village when you need it?

The fact is, I love my mother. It’s just taken me a long time to catch on to the fact that I don’t need her, nor does she need me. She can mother herself. I can mother myself. She is no longer my source of nourishment. Nor am I hers.

But I keep fishing in the same tired stream. And just over the hill behind me is the ocean.

Part of me wants to stay by the stream, even though I’m hungry. A misguided sense of loyalty, love, and hope keeps me sitting here, even though I can hear the ocean roar. Occasionally, I hike over the hill, jump in the sea, remember who I am, and who I can be. But I always return to the stream.

And maybe that’s okay for a time.
I’ll just leave my fishing pole behind.

Essay #9 #9 #9: heart palpitations

In Love on May 2, 2011 at 4:22 pm

Last week, after performing for several hours at Olympia’s ArtsWalk, my heart got stuck in overdrive. It was bumping and racing and thrumming in my throat. I drove home, showered, and got into bed. For hours I lay and meditated and listened to my wildly beating pulse. I wondered whether to call 911. I didn’t. I am doctor- and hospital-averse. Rather than add more fear to the mix, I tried to calm down as best I could.

I finally fell asleep, and when I awoke, around three-thirty in the morning, my heartbeat was calmer, slower, and rhythmical. It’s been that way ever since.

The fall-out, though, was big: I was beyond exhausted, and my lungs decided to get into the act by cleaning house. (I could spackle the bathroom with what I’ve been hocking up.) Day 10 after the event and I’m still weak. So I decided to visit an acupuncturist.

The last time I had acupuncture was with Emmett. (Gotta love Olympia — where else would you find someone proficient at treating canines and humans, together?) She attended to Emmett first, then he lay under the table while she treated me. Picture it: a big-ass Wolf dog and a curly-haired Caucasian letting a slight, tobacco-addicted doctor of Chinese medicine poke us with sharp objects.

Good grief.

Literally. I wept during today’s treatment: for Emmett, for my family, for myself. I let it all out. Every sadness that I thought I should be “over.” Grief just poured out of me. And it was a relief to let it go, to stop telling myself what I should feel when.

Last year, before visiting my mother in New Orleans, I gave myself permission to say anything, to anyone, anytime, anywhere. I am adding to this basic permission, to wit: I am allowed to feel anything, anytime, anywhere — without apologizing to anyone.

I now have – finally! – permission to be my complete human self, the full catastrophe (to paraphrase Zorba the Greek).

Nothing is missing: I am perfectly flawed.

And that’s exactly as it should be.