48 essays by Elizabeth Shé

Archive for October, 2011|Monthly archive page

Essay #34: security

In Love on October 31, 2011 at 5:32 pm

I never thought it was necessary – security. I thought it was a mirage, an impossibility. Amused and bemused when others thought it possible with locks and alarms and stocks and bonds.

I was wrong.

Here are some definitions, courtesy of msWord:

  • the state or feeling of being safe and protected
  • freedom from worries of loss
  • the assurance that something of value will not be taken away

Before I was five, I lost everything: my brother died, my father moved away, my mother turned into someone I didn’t recognize. We lived in a new city, I went to a new school. I never knew, when I came home from kindergarten, whether my mother would be alive. Enduring a difficult pregnancy, she was supposed to stay in bed. The doctor said she might die if she didn’t.

My routine, then: go to school, paint a picture; go home, check on Mom, show her the magic painting. I believed I could paint her back to health. I believed I could paint her back to happy. (She remembers pictures of happy mothers, but the one I remember was lines of color, disappearing into a square-shaped infinity. Her friend thought I was a genius, painting perspective at age five, but maybe I just liked color and shape.)

Constant fear of death is exhausting for a five-year-old. And a ten-year-old, a thirty-year-old. 44 years of fear. Corrosive.

I did not build good structures for my tomatoes this year. They grew bigger and faster than I anticipated. I kept adding on strips of wood, trying to support them. They produced gorgeous fruit anyway, but it could’ve been easier. Maybe the tomatoes didn’t care.

I do, though. I am tired of swinging free in the breeze, battered by storms and scared of crashing trees. How can I flourish if I don’t feel safe? supported? secure?

My new rain boots came in the mail today. Sturdy, waterproof, red. Good for slippery trails and muddy puddles. Protection for high-arched, hard-working, dancing feet.

Happy Hallowe’en. Be safe.

Essay #33: perspective

In Love on October 24, 2011 at 5:44 pm

“What your father sees and hears is not what you see and hear.” –Terry Pratchett, Mort

And vice versa. Consider the physical perspective: Dad is taller, so his eye-level is higher. We see different berries on the bush. Wheelchair-user Nancy Mairs wrote Waist-High in the World, which explores this very thing.

Experience also molds perspective, which molds further experience. My island friend hated to drive in L.A. She’d end up in the valley instead of Beverly Hills because she didn’t understand the freeway system. “In Hawai’i, every road leads to the ocean,” she said. “You can’t get lost.”

When I expect you to see what I see, or hear what I hear, I am often surprised. Even relying on a common language could be a mistake. If I think your first language is not English, as mine is, I don’t expect you to understand me immediately. I communicate more carefully and patiently. But if I think we share a language, I expect you to understand me instantly.

“What part of Please pass the salt don’t you understand?”

I think I’m being clear and direct, but there are many reasons you might not get me. Maybe there’s no salt to pass. Or maybe salt is bad for you, and thus, you think, for me. Maybe the radio is on or your hearing aid is off or someone you adore just walked into the room. Maybe I spoke too quickly or softly.

It’s amazing we understand each other at all. And complex ideas – how do we get those across? Is my blue the same hue as yours? Do hot and cold feel the same to our different bodies?

Yet another reason to keep speaking up and out. What has kept me from doing so before is believing that my perspective is not important. But who decides value or worth?

Martha Graham told choreographer Agnes de Mille, “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.”

Who am I to disagree with Martha Graham? My job is to communicate the view from here. You cannot see it through my eyes, but I can try to describe it to you.

Essay #32: masks

In Love on October 17, 2011 at 5:42 pm

Last October, I drove to Arcata, where my brother was living, to rendezvous with my father. I hadn’t seen him in 11 years.

While I was gone, someone burgled my loft. They dumped out a duffel bag and filled it with art supplies, jewelry findings, and a wooden sewing box containing a rose-gold bracelet my grandmother gave me.

Last week, almost a year later, I realized they had also taken my masks: two outrageously feathered and sequined mardi gras masks from my mother – one blue, one red; another, made by a fiber artist friend, with intricate paper flowers; and a black, beaded store-bought mask with opalescent feathers dripping down.

To recap? I went to see my father and lost all my masks.
It’s hard to get more metaphorical than this.

“Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth,” says Elizabeth Gilbert’s friend, quoted in the book Eat Pray Love.

After Emmett died, I found it easier to tell the truth. I had nothing to lose.
Don’t get me wrong, I still get anxious, depending on the topic and the person I’m talking to, but I just got so damn tired of holding up a mask.

I dropped the ill-fitting perfect-daughter mask, the perfect-worker mask, the everything’s-fine mask, and the mask with no mouth that doesn’t allow me to say No.

Without one, I can breathe easier and see better.
And – holy cow! – people can see me, which hasn’t been as bad as I anticipated. Has actually been healing.

What a relief that someone came and took them away. And to find out I don’t need them after all.

Essay #31: Elizabeth Kuehnoel

In Love on October 10, 2011 at 5:10 pm

“I want to speak to god,” said the dark-haired woman, backstage after the show. I was dressed in crimson, with red gladiolus blossoms and white orchids in my hair. I had just sprinkled the audience with rose petals and performed “Can You Surf?” – a poem about god and love I’d adapted for a trio. One of my lines? “God is speaking to you now!”

“Okay,” I said.

“I’m Elizabeth Kuehnoel’s granddaughter,” she said.
I looked at her, astonished, and burst out crying.

Elizabeth Kuehnoel (pronounced keeno) lived to 105. I never met her in person. She was two hundred miles away, so I interviewed her by phone. She kick-started a column I wrote called Centenarians Speak Out: 100 words of wisdom by 100-year-olds.

Her granddaughter saw my name in the paper and came to the show. She brought a picture of Mrs. Kuehnoel, also dressed in red. “She kept your letters,” she said, “and talked about you. She was proud to know you. You made a difference in her life.”

This floored me. I made a difference to her? She made a difference to me! Her intelligence, humor, and energy crackled over the phone. She was more alive than people half her age. Back in 2006 she said, “Anybody can, if they have a grain of sense, keep living. But are they alive?”

We kept in touch after the interview, and I quoted her in other publications. She was a lively conversationalist, with interests ranging from Theodore Roosevelt to Shakespeare to Star Trek: the Next Generation. She made me laugh every time we talked. “Don’t ever lose your sense of humor,” she said. “There’s always a funny side. If you can see it, you’ve got it made.”

Mrs. Kuehnoel never stopped teaching, even after she officially retired. Her classes varied from geology to psychology to critical reading. “You have to have many interests,” she said. “I try to keep them on the educational, entertaining, delightful plane.”

She called me a few years before she died. To my everlasting shame, I did not return her call immediately. Even though the sound of her voice made me happy, I could not bring myself to do it. I had quit my job and Emmett was fatally ill. I had nothing good to report, and so reported nothing. I called once, months later, but no one answered.

“People don’t get old through years,” she told me, “they get old through loneliness.” By this reckoning, I was ancient. I hadn’t yet written the following poem:

Land of Ahas
You’re not supposed to do it alone.
Dorothy needed the Scarecrow, Tinman, Cowardly Lion, Toto,
the Wizard, and a few witches to help her find her way home.

I placed the photo of Mrs. Kuehnoel on my desk, next to a vase of flowers and a candle. She looks directly at the camera, clear-eyed and curly-haired. Smiling.

Essay #30: down days

In Love on October 3, 2011 at 7:19 pm

Have you seen the George Clooney film, Up in the Air? His character travels year-round, home only 43 days out of 365. His family and co-worker give him grief because he doesn’t want to get married and/or have children. They tell him he’s too isolated, he must be lonely. But he isn’t lonely until he starts believing them. He’s happy in airports and hotel rooms, everything clean and nice and in its place. He knows how to navigate this life. Perhaps he’s merely a Buddhist businessman, all about detachment. Who are we to judge?

I discovered that I need a certain amount of solitude to feel happy and creative. So twice a week, barring guilt, I turn off the computer, hide the phone, and take a down day. No other humans, just me: reading, writing, and sometimes ‘rithmetic (I like to balance my checkbook, it’s calming). I post a sign on the door: please… do not disturb.

It’s possible I need a lot of solitude because I’m an introvert – people wear me out (as opposed to an extravert, who’s energized by people). When I allow myself enough down time, my brain works better, faster, and more efficiently. I don’t get sick as often.

This summer was the most social I’ve been in a long time. I performed in eight different venues. I auditioned for various theater companies. My dad and stepmom visited. I flew to California for a funeral. I worked on projects for four different clients.

During this whirlwind of activity, I did not take as many down days as I needed. I fell over the edge a few times, after wobbling on the precipice of overstimulation. I got weepy and cranky and tired. I forgot that the word No is my friend.

Winding down from adrenaline overload can be tricky. Sometimes I get stuck in high gear, moving faster and faster. When I finally put up the sign and lock the doors, it takes a few days to exhale.

Solitude is necessary, not only for my mental and physical health, but also to process events. Check out the changes: no longer estranged from my father; posting essays, instead of filing them in a drawer; performing and choreographing after a 14-year hiatus; speaking the truth to friends and family.

I have a wonderful life. And if I need copious amounts of down time, so be it. With enough solitude, I am happy, calm, and kind. I can deal with whatever comes down the pike. Melodrama takes a back seat, then gets off at the next exit. Do you want to pick her up?