48 essays by Elizabeth Shé

Archive for the ‘Love’ Category

Essay #38: signify

In Love on November 28, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Step into a world where you matter.

What does it look like? Who populates it? What’s it like to be cared for? cared about?

Imagine: you are heard … acknowledged … visible.

Do you have to fight for space? for food? for approval? for love? religion?

Do you have to gird your loins and strap on a battle-axe just to go to the grocery store?
Do you have to lie or cheat or steal to protect yourself or your family?

Several years ago I worked for a state agency as a communications specialist. One of my assigned projects rubbed me the wrong way: enumerating the benefits of giving to charity. I’m not against charitable giving, mind you. I’m against the State marketing it or guilting you into it.

Despite this, I wrote and edited and printed and webbed. At the end of the project, the manager (who reminded me of a favorite auntie) came to my cubicle and handed me a key chain. Dangling from it was a small silver star, an inch or so in diameter, etched with the words: you make the difference.

Not you make a difference, but you make the difference. You make the difference, you, sitting right here in this forgotten office, in a building outside of time, in the southwest portion of a western state. WE SEE YOU. You make the difference.

I know the key chain was probably made in bulk in Taiwan or China. I know that everyone on the project got one. How far did it have to travel to remind me that I am here. I take up space. I matter.

During an episode of Glee, Kurt’s father looks him straight in the eye and says, “You matter, Kurt. You matter to me.”

When you live in a world where you matter, you speak up when someone treads on you. You voice your opinions, feelings, desires. You ask for help until you get it. You say no when you want to, and yes when it feels right. You take care of yourself. Your matter matters.

Imagine that.

Essay #37: thanks

In Love on November 21, 2011 at 3:35 pm

My friend Anger came to call and I finally let her in.

Turns out Shame had been shrouding her like a dense fog, blurring her edges, slurring her words. She was almost invisible.

Acknowledge my feelings, said Anger, loud and clear now that Shame has evaporated.
When I am ashamed to be angry, I cannot hear her message, and cannot act on the information.

In The Dance of Anger, Harriet Goldhor Lerner writes, “Anger is neither legitimate nor illegitimate, meaningful nor pointless. Anger simply is. To ask, ‘Is my anger legitimate?’ is similar to asking, ‘Do I have a right to be thirsty? After all, I just had a glass of water 15 minutes ago. Surely my thirst is not legitimate. And besides, what’s the point of getting thirsty when I can’t get anything to drink now, anyway?”

Don’t kill the messenger, listen to her. Anger tells me it is not okay to disregard my feelings. It is not okay to attack me, hurt me, belittle me, ignore me, suppress me, hush me, or tell me I’m making much ado about nothing.

Anger has my back. If I don’t allow her in, I cannot defend myself. Lerner writes that “the pain of our anger preserves the very integrity of our self.” She compares it to the pain of touching a hot stove: it protects your body from further damage.

Pull the veil of Shame aside, and shine a light into the murk. Stop believing the propaganda instead of the evidence.

She shouldn’t ignore my feelings, I thought yesterday, when faced with proof of the exact opposite. She shouldn’t behave as though nothing is wrong.

Hello?! Why should she treat me any better than I treat myself?

Once again, charity begins at home. Know thyself, said the Greeks. Why have a panoply of emotions if we don’t need them? Drop the mask of Shame and look:
You really are love(d), Anger and all.

Thanks for Listening.

Essay #36: patagonia

In Love on November 14, 2011 at 6:11 pm

My father is going to Patagonia tomorrow, to build a bridge. Just like old times.

When I was a kid, he worked for the federal Bureau of Public Roads, building bridges and roads in the mountains. I remember riding shotgun in a yellow-orange government truck, somewhere in California or Oregon or Washington. I remember evergreens against a blue sky on winding roads, the fragrance of hot pine pitch, jumping in cold swimming holes, the Bookmobile stopping by the trailer, playing Crazy Eights. Summertime.

A friend just called. He’s 42, and having a hard time believing he deserves to be on the planet. He was molested by his best friend’s father when he was a kid. “Maybe it wasn’t such a big deal,” he said. “Worse things happened later.”

“It was a big deal,” I tell him. Maybe that’s why worse things happened later.

Our reactions to each other carry weight. One of the reasons I was able to express my distress to the too-intimate hugger last week was because my father believed me. He didn’t try to talk me out of my feelings. He told me to trust myself. Take care of myself.

My friend told his mother what happened, the next day. “What did she do?” I asked.

“Not much,” he said. “Not much.” Her (non)reaction made him doubt his own.

To make things even more like a Greek tragedy, the childhood best friend with the lecherous father killed himself a few weeks ago. My friend recalled a recent conversation with him about how they protected their mothers from their true feelings. “How do you do it?” my friend asked. “I lie,” said the childhood best friend. “I say everything is fine.”

After I was molested as a teenager, I didn’t tell a soul. I thought it was just me, an isolated case.

Total bullshit.

The longer I’m on this planet, the more often I hear my thoughts come out of somebody else’s mouth. “I’m a loser. I’m unlovable. I’m not good enough.”

What if we’re all picking up random broadcasts from Radio K-FKD? What if it ain’t true? None of it?

Change the channel. Build a bridge. Tell the truth.
We’re listening.

Essay #35: bat qol

In Love on November 7, 2011 at 5:05 pm

“If it bothered Avery, it can’t continue.” –letter from a mother to Dear Abby about her daughter and possible sexual abuse, published 10/21/2011

Another mask smashed to the ground yesterday, taking a bottle of holy water with it.

I made it a few years ago, after Emmett died – a white wolf-dog face with an iridescent heart on the forehead. The damage? One ear sheared off, the better to hear you with, my dear.

Last week I told a so-called friend that I was uncomfortable with her too-intimate hugs. Distressed for months, I kept rationalizing: perhaps it was cultural differences, or an occupational hazard – we’re both dancers. But no other friend slides her hands down my sides as a way of saying hello.

“I think you should trust your intuition,” said a neighbor. “Do you feel like this with everyone who hugs you?”

“No,” I said.

“Well then,” she said.


I tend to doubt myself, to see other perspectives instead of my own. To see the ‘good’.

“Focus on the positive!” said another so-called friend, during a troubled relationship a decade ago.

“That’s why I’ve stayed so long!” I replied. Stayed and ignored the ‘negative’, ignored my intuition, ignored the small voice inside, the bat qol.

Hebrew for daughter of a voice or daughter of the voice of god, bat qol is “she who speaks in whispers and half-seen images.” (Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice; jewishencyclopedia.com)

Thanks to the broken mask, I now have another ear to hear with. And this one I can stick in my pocket for emergency listening.

My father called to see how I was holding up. “You should be proud of yourself,” he said. “I know how difficult that was for you.”

“I should’ve done it earlier,” I said, “though I guess it’s an improvement over the past.”

“I don’t think you should do that,” he said. “I don’t think you should go there. This was a very big deal.”

He’s right.

I am no longer pretending nothing’s wrong. A lie of omission is still a lie, especially if I omit myself.

With these three ears, I am listening to love, trying to hear the truth.

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?

Essay #29: restore

In Love on September 26, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Restore: to bring back to or put back into a former or original state: renew; return
~Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary

When I was a kid, I sang with brio, mimicked Flip Wilson, beat on the drums, banged on the piano, dressed up in costume, and put on plays and puppet shows. At one point I specialized in performing – complete with melodramatic arm gestures – Oh! Darling by the Beatles, making my mother laugh until she cried.

Years later, I find myself a victim of nerve-wracking stage-fright. Once the show commences, I’m fine, but beforehand, it’s difficult to breathe. At a recent performance, my friend Deirdre tried to reassure me. “No one wants you to fail,” she said.
I want to believe this.

While working on another website last week, I discovered that the designer had deleted a couple of paragraphs I had written. Please restore the text, I requested. Please change it back.

The word restore caught me, as did the extreme irritation, so I meditated. A few minutes later I realized that I’ve tried to delete parts of me that supposedly don’t fit. Who needs another actor in the world? Another writer? Who am I to choreograph and direct?

During a recent interview, drummer John Marshall quoted his wife, saying, “You have to be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”


In Marianne Williamson’s famous poem (quoted by Nelson Mandela in his inaugural speech), she writes, “our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

Despite dreams of Kathleen Battle-type opera costumes, fabulous headdresses, and exotic makeup, my thinking convinced me – for years! – to wear hand-me-downs and cast-offs. Despite earlier success as a performer and writer, I insisted on devaluing my talent and minimizing my skill.

Fear again. Fear of being visible.

Who does this serve?
Not me.
And certainly not you, because then you miss out on my excellent Flip Wilson/Sammy Davis Jr. imitation:
“Here come de judge, here come de judge, here come de judge.”