essays by Shé

Archive for 2022|Yearly archive page

Dancing Aunties

In Love on July 12, 2022 at 10:35 am

Peach, green, blue: aunt, aunt, niece. They sit around the dining room table heads down and focused: crossword, sudoku, school-work. I gaze at them from the kitchen, quiet — they are flowers. I revel in their presence until one of them looks up. “Hey!” their smiles feed me. A song comes on the niece’s laptop, and suddenly I am dancing. “Turn it up.” I hold a hand out to one auntie, then the other. “I can’t dance,” tries the younger, but I am deaf to her pleas and move the chairs away.

The older auntie has moves! She is a cool cat; hips and shoulders swaying, she partner dances with her sister. The niece is laughing, flinging her arms and bopping to the beat. We sing, do the bump, vogue, Fosse. Grief and joy bubble up and out, flung wide by angled arms.

Peach, green, blue shirts whirl around the floor. I’m a black-eyed Susan, both niece and auntie, replete.

The nieces on the way to pick blackberries, July 2022, photo by Aunt Joan
The nieces on the way to pick blackberries, July 2022, photo by Aunt Joan

Struggling with Wait

In Love on July 5, 2022 at 6:33 am

I have been heavier. I have been lighter. It rarely has anything to do with calories. Mostly it has to do with happiness.

When I set my needs and wants aside – for work, family, friends – I suffer. Self-loathing sets in, the mind attacks the body: you’re fat. You’re over-weight. But in fact I’m over-wait: waiting for permission to exist, to write, to paint, to dance, to surf, to swim, to live how I please. I am distracted by others’ needs and wants, thinking they are somehow my business.

I’ve heard, and intellectually understand, that there is no right way to Be. But ‘monkey see, monkey do’ has a strong pull. I follow ‘rules’ for housing, working, playing, loving with no consideration to the quiet inner voice that murmurs, ocean ocean ocean or dance your ass off or write your truth or look at the stars or leave this moldy house/relationship/job.

I believed I should be available: phone on and answered; responsive to the knock at the door; ready at work. I set aside my need for solitude and happiness, and made myself sick — over and over and over again. I was over-weight and over-wait.

Nowadays the phone is only on three days a week. I cruise the internet for research, then turn off the computer. After a lifetime of waiting – for parents, bosses, lovers — the only thing I want to wait for these days is clarity. I give myself permission to be happy: to play in the ocean, speak my truth, blow bubbles, float with gardenias while remembering my mom; to paint, write, look at the stars, take up space. Be Me.

I am shedding wait.

Love Translated Too, choreographed by Shé
Love Translated Too, choreographed by Shé, circa 2010

Ashes to Ashes

In Love on June 27, 2022 at 11:26 am

Signing the paperwork was hard. Fortunately, the funeral director kept getting it wrong. She also lied to my brother and niece, blaming me for the delay. Then more miscommunication ensued, this time about Mom’s titanium hips. Not miscommunication, lack of communication, despite multiple emails. Are they mechanical devices or not? Not. Check the other box.

When I asked two neighbors to witness my signature on the cremation documents, I couldn’t get the words out, and started crying. It’s one thing for Mom to continue to say, I’m not dead, it’s another to read legalese about pulverizing her bones.

On Monday I was antsy. Will they really send them? I called, but got the answering machine. That was the day her body went through the crematorium.

USPS has a million problems, but they sure haul ass with dead people. Have you ever tracked your mother? Yeah. For some reason I was surprised that this was emotionally difficult, too.

She landed in Honolulu Thursday night. Friday morning she was at the Kilauea post office down the street. It was all I could do to keep from running over there and demanding the package, right now! But I waited. All day. The tracking message didn’t change. I walked to the mailbox in the burning sun, twice.

Late afternoon, I gave up. One of my flip-flops is broken, so I tape it, then bike to the local shops looking for replacements. No joy. Read a free surf magazine. Try to bike to Kane’s, but Queenie won’t go down the hill. Don’t I need exercise? The ocean? I turn around, not even stopping for the soursop tree.

Check the mailbox again on the way up the driveway. A neighbor on the porch next door waves. “You got a package.” He picks up a small Priority Mail Express box. Bright orange stickers adorn every side: CREMATED REMAINS. I burst into tears. “That’s my mom!”

I can’t stop crying, but can finally take the box. My neighbor hugs me, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” He is sweaty and smells of tobacco, with many tattoos. “I’m sorry,” he says again and again while I sob and lean on him. Such kindness.

I can’t stop crying, but eventually I can leave. Open my gate, set her down by the door, wheel in Queenie, lock the gate, kneel on the stoop, and cry in earnest. No more waiting.

Mary Patricia Magonigle Kathleen VanTine, 1960
Mary Patricia Kathleen Magonigle VanTine, 1960


In Love on June 21, 2022 at 1:22 pm

“Paint the ocean,” said my dad, but I didn’t dare. His huge 3D map of northern California covered a wall of his house, sans sea, and I was afraid to screw it up. I was fifteen.

Back in kindergarten, though, I painted a picture for my mother every day, so she would be alive when I got home. She was pregnant and bedridden, and the story was that she would die if she got up. (She often got up.) My favorite painting from that era was thick lines of alternating orange and brown hues, creating a square tunnel effect. A family friend was impressed, “Perspective!”

Eventually Mom gave birth to a healthy baby boy, whom I called Didi. Painting pictures faded, and Didi became the artist. Later I painted my face and body, then became an actor-dancer, proficient in character make-up and costumes. Then a writer, painting with words.

One day my young artist friend Maureen left her body suddenly and for good. Shocked, I signed up for art class, as a way to grieve. One of my pieces featured actual seaweed and stylized ocean folk. During a summer job, I painted scenery for a teen-written performance piece, and helped another friend with a mural.

Then a girlfriend got the idea to make a fish ladder out of a wooden utility ladder. (We lived in salmon country.) She created a school of beaten copper fish and asked me to paint water on the ladder, from sea to stream. I put it off, thinking, again, that I didn’t want to screw it up, but she persisted.

It was gorgeous.

I’ve always loved color and texture and shape and design. I created letterpress books bound with ribbons, elaborate guerrilla poetry pieces and flotillas, and painted sea creatures on furniture. I whitewashed the walls of my Hicks Lake shack in broad swooshes, and, in Flagler Beach, added cinnamon-colored sand to pigment, experimenting on big canvases. A Hawaiian friend gave me a tube of gold Liquitex for my birthday, and I had a field day.

The extreme joy of painting is anchored in the fact that I don’t have to be good at it. I can just do it for me. Just for fun.

Elizabethan Ocean Woman by Shé, acrylic on canvas, 2022

Ya Gotta Tell ’em

In Love on June 14, 2022 at 10:48 am

Pakala. Lying on my board on a small day, waiting for set waves. A stand-up paddle boarder startles me, swiftly passing on my immediate left. He’s gone before I can say anything, and I bob in his wake.

Another SUPer quickly paddles after him, yelling in Pidgin, “No do that! Respect da surfers! Whatchu problem, eh?” My champion!

The guy apologizes to her and me, chastened. My heroine glides over and says adamantly, “Ya gotta tell ’em.” She is right, and I thank her.

My brother has a habit of spewing ugly words. Because he is younger, I’ve tolerated this behavior for decades, making excuses for him, letting it slide. This has served me not at all, and it probably doesn’t serve him either. Yesterday I turned on the phone, and yep, another rant from the sibling.

Visceral response: full body flush, shaking, shallow breathing. My neck felt as if something was pressing on it. Yeah: my words. Got to respond!

Called and roared, “Don’t you ever talk to me that way again, or we are done! Do you hear me?”

Hung up, because it wasn’t a dialog. While I was at it, I yelled at a neighbor for idling his pickup under my windows — again!

It takes a lot to get me to this point. I write notes. I calmly explain the situation. I listen. But tolerating disrespect is over. I’m not having it anymore.

Pele by Shé, acrylic on canvas 2022
Pele by Shé, acrylic on canvas, 2022

Mary Patricia Kathleen

In Love on June 6, 2022 at 11:47 am

“I love you, gorgeous girl!” says Mom. I am between sleeping and waking, delighted to hear her voice. She sounds like she did in her thirties: vibrant, happy, raring to go. Her energy warms my heart, causing an hours-long smile. Unbeknownst to me, her body is in the New Orleans VA hospital: COVID, pneumonia, collapsed lung. She’s on a ventilator, and slated for dialysis.

“I’m not dying,” she says when I finally receive the messages from brother, doctor, father. She repeats this all week as I cycle through the stages of grief, reminding me that the body dies, but the spirit cannot. I take long walks, commune with the mountains, get my ass in the ocean often. “Stay where you are and write.”

I finally connect with my brother Friday afternoon. He yells and cries, “Where have you been? Don’t you want to be a part of this?” After awhile he is able to hear me. I am a part of this. We’re all a part of this. And the woman told me to stay here.

I haven’t always obeyed her in the past — ha! But the mountains chime in, Stay. I walk to the sea after we hang up. Should I go? Should I stay? The Clash song has never been more relevant. Clarity arrives on the hike back up: mountains don’t lie.

I email my father, “Not going to NOLA at this time.” Then notice a voicemail. “She was just waiting for us to talk,” says Jim with a laugh-sob. “The doctor called. She’s left her canoe.”

Her labels and names: Daughter, Niece, Friend, Dancer, Pianist, Lieutenant, Wife, Lover, Mother, Aunt, Irish Catholic, Pagan, Fighter, Pacifist, Pat, Mary Pat, M-Pat, Mom, Mary PK Turn, Bitch, Witch, Liar, Storyteller, Physical Therapist, Divorcée, Kinesiologist, Student, Healer, Teacher, Guru, Smoker, Alcoholic, World Traveler, Tree Whisperer, Pizza Slut, Grandy, long-time Jazz Fest Supporter and Second-line Follower, Catalyst — all gone.

She’s just as chatty now as when she was embodied. We had a fight about which path to take to the snorkel spot on Saturday. A dead tree limb whacked my cheekbone, drawing blood. Bushes scratched my ankles. But I stayed on my path, not hers. We are both hardheaded, even without a head.

Today she is gleeful, untethered, opinionated, apologetic. Am I delusional? Am I just talking to myself? Doubtful. She is still one of the few people who can make me laugh until I pee my pants.

This morning I hike down to a saline pool on the edge of the island and float. Tiny pale fish gently nibble my body: armpits, legs, face, eyelashes, arms. We lived in Klamath when I was five, after Johnny left his body. I’d sit on the dock over the river and let the fish tickle my toes. Today, as then, it makes me giggle. I am food.

Mary Patricia Kathleen Magonigle VanTine Braunlich — I am loving you.

Mary Patricia Kathleen Magonigle VanTine, Butler PA USA
Mary Patricia Kathleen Magonigle VanTine, Butler PA USA, circa 1945

Turtle Patrol

In Love on May 30, 2022 at 3:11 pm

Don’t do it, I think and grab their ankles, just long enough to get their attention. We surface, and I spit out my snorkel. “You need to stay fifteen feet away from sea turtles.” One of the girls seems to listen, but the other quickly sinks below. Fortunately, the young honu (green sea turtle) is gone. Neither girl says a word to me, and I watch them swim away, still furious. What right do you have to chase a wild creature in its own habitat? We are visitors here – show some respect!

Anger doesn’t drain away until I sit on a log onshore and meditate. Why does this bother me so much? The girls were happy to see a turtle. Could I have handled it differently? No. Turtles are my children. I will not have them harassed.

I’d been snorkeling farther out, gently following (not chasing) a school of pale yellow pert-nosed fish with dark vertical stripes. They surrounded me as I floated. I was blissed out, and heading in. Then I saw the honu, rising for air. And heard the excited yell, “Turtle!”

When they chased it, I chased them.

Years ago in Florida, I donated to the local Turtle Patrol. In return, my aunt and I “adopted” nests. I sang to my eggs, visited daily, and cleared away obstacles between them and the sea. At night, I checked for predators (crabs, ants, raccoons). Despite all this, many did not live. The loggerhead nest had been relocated under a bright streetlight and they got disoriented when they crawled up out of the sand. They could not find the ocean.

But when the remaining eggs were excavated a few days later, more than 80 babies emerged and began their determined march to the sea. My heart was so full and proud. “Go go go! May you be free and wild and happy!” Sometimes I gently put a foot down to keep one from going in the wrong direction. “No, no, sweetheart. Thataway.”

Perhaps I was putting my foot down with the turtle-chasing girls last week. I probably startled them, and I guess I wanted to. I sat on that log a long time, but never saw them again. Was I going to explain in a gentler tone? Talk about turtle social distance?

At the same beach a few months ago, a larger turtle had crawled onshore. A guy my age was worried about it. I took a look and reassured him. “That’s normal, she’s resting. But you need to stay fifteen feet away.”

“Because?” he asked.

“The law,” I said, and walked away. Hawaiian law (and Florida law, as well as the federal Endangered Species Act) protects sea turtles. So what am I, turtle patrol?


Loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings head for sea, Flagler Beach FL USA 2019
Loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings heading for sea, Flagler Beach FL USA 2019

Bowing Man

In Love on May 24, 2022 at 11:57 am

Even in paradise there is road work. Lately, during weekdays, only one lane of the highway is open between Kilauea and Stepford. I rarely get stuck early in the morning, but sometimes catch it later, after snorkeling. Traffic stops completely. Then I shut off the 4Runner’s engine and write. Many others leave their engines on, a pet peeve of mine.

One day, after our long line had started rolling again, down the hill toward Kalihiwai River, which leads to Maureen’s, a winter surf break, I notice the flagger. His sign is now turned to SLOW, and folks eagerly pass him. But unlike any other flagger I’ve ever seen, he is bowing.

Yes, bowing, to each and every vehicle as it passes. He sports a Mona Lisa smile, and, what’s this? his right hand makes a shaka sign: thumb and pinky extended, middle three fingers folded in. When he bows, he brings the thumb of the shaka to his forehead, so the pinky points at us. Each and every time. Each and every car. Including mine.

My slight do-I-really-have-to-be-in-traffic funk evaporates. He changed the tone of my day.

He is not always there. He is not always bowing. I threw a shaka at him the other day and got a subtle one back, sans bow, but with the ML smile. One day I waved wildly and he bowed and shaka’d me, but no one else. I am special!

Buddha is a flagger. Jesus puts the cones down. Kwan Yin is in the cherry picker. Mohammed trims the trees. La Virgen feeds the chipper. Pele is the foreman.

Slow down, they say. Look at the orange-red African tulips so high in the branches! And why rush over the river? Imagine paddling toward the mountains! Imagine floating down to Sea!

Revel. That’s your word of the day. I painted it on cardboard and hung it on my fence. Sometimes the wind blows it over. So I flip it rightside, and remember: God is everywhere, God is everything, God is everyone. Namaste.

Revel, ink and acrylic on canvas, 2021

Words of Love

In Love on May 17, 2022 at 1:17 pm

“I’m not dead,” said John. I’m sitting on his grave in Queen of Heaven Cemetery. The headstone dates read: May 28, 1964 – September 30, 1967. Today is September 30, 2019. I’ve been here before, but I’ve never heard him quite so clearly.

I believe him. And it is a huge relief. I have spent decades missing my Irish twin. No need.

Is this wishful thinking? I ponder. There was the time I was suicidally depressed, lying on an old futon in Venice. Suddenly, he was there, physically holding me. My body felt his body. My body knew his body. We spooned. The comfort was indescribable.

For how long? Infinity. Long enough for me to remember that I am loved. As are you. As are we all.

Yesterday was my father’s eighty-fifth birthday. We Skyped, at my instigation. I wanted to see his face. Surprise: he is aging. He is slower. So am I.

After we disconnected (is that possible?), I sat on the edge of my bed and listened to Sorrow and Fear. Then I distracted myself with work. Then I took a nap. And then, fortunately, my neighbors irritated me. Hello Anger. I was able to get righteously pissed-off at their unapologetic thoughtlessness, cigarette smoke, and noisy boy ways. Finally I hopped on my bike and pedaled to Kilauea Point. Shearwaters nest there, burrowed into the red dirt cliff. That worked for awhile, then herds of humans arrived to glory in the sight as well. Ocean ocean ocean. Our original home.

Up a hill, nice and sweaty, I take a road I’ve been curious about. Why not? It leads to a cemetery, with Italian and Japanese names. One Omar Kalif. The view of the mountains is incredible, west of me, west of the sea. I lie on the poky grass and watch the sky. Mynah birds discuss various edibles.

The mountains say, all is death, nothing is death. As I look at their sheer majestic mass, I remember: oh yeah, nothing dies, everything dies. Clarity. Terry Pratchett’s Nac Mac Feegle, a race of small fightin’ folk, believe that this is heaven. They can’t die because they’re already dead. Nothing to fear.

Since hearing my brother’s voice so clearly that day, I’ve taken to talking to him. I know he has my back, and my best interests at heart. And while I’m at it I talk to Maureen and Mimi and Pappap and Nana and Grandpa and Coe Coe, Wild Bill Magonigle, and even a rotten uncle. Why should I be deprived of their excellent advice?

Johnny and Shé, 1966

Going to Be Happy

In Love on May 10, 2022 at 2:34 pm

“Fore!” yelled a woman some distance away. I looked from the albatross resting on the green, toward the sound. “This is a golf course!” she shouted, gloved hands raised, a club in one.

I know it’s a golf course, you privileged rich human, but strong old feelings quickly rain down on me: fear, shame, anger. I walk away slowly, defensively. I’ve never understood the lure of golf, a ridiculous game. Doesn’t she know that an albatross baby lives near a palm over there? That its parents soar like gods when they bring her food? That they dance and hoot and duck and strut in an albatross dance that we’d do well to imitate?

But she’s right: I’d forgotten that folks whack small dense balls at great speed across this grassy knoll overlooking the Pacific. It can be dangerous. Not everyone cares about birds. The birds themselves are no fools; they nest near trees.

And golf — I may have to change my judgmental mind. I recently read a Jamie Sumner novel whose protagonist is a girl with cerebral palsy. Miniature golf is something she does well, roundly beating her un-wheelchaired friends.

Later, I realize it’s about belonging. Where do I? And the wretched embarrassment — get out of here! But like a bounce, it occurs to me: what if her anger is to my benefit? Do I really want to be struck by a ball? The golfer did me a favor. And perhaps my mother did me a favor when she said, “There’s no room for you,” when I was 17 and we’d been evicted again. She was talking about the new place. Through all the drama and violence, I stayed by her side. I was loyal. Available. Family. Imagine my shock when she was not.

Options. I forget they exist when I’m hunkered down surviving. I don’t have to walk across golf courses, now that I’m reminded of the perils. And I never have to live with my mother again, or take care of her. My days as Susie Savior are over. I can float in the ocean and watch the black and white polka-dotted eel watching me from the seabed. I can follow the pale yellow school of fish, dappling like coins in the sunlight. I no longer have to wait to live my life, to discover that — oh! I love surfing! oh! I love snorkeling!

Yes, I am scared of the ocean, yet I go in every single day. Because I want to. Because I need to. Because I belong.

Muse Shé and painter Brian Mark in front of his piece, Going to Be Happy, 1991
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