essays by Shé

Posts Tagged ‘truth’


In Love on November 1, 2022 at 10:27 am

They are holding hands, leaning back and spinning. Their twirling (or maybe their laughter?) generates light. Around and round, faster and faster, gazing at each other, eyes on the prize: mother and son. There is only Love.

It was time: five months after she left her body. She began the process on Johnny’s birthday, May 28, the day the doctor called.

I pack her ashes in the red knapsack, similar to one I had as a kid. I also pack Coe Coe’s ashes, who mothered my mother and grandmothered me.

It’s sprinkering at the trailhead (baby-brother-speak for sprinkling). The path is muddy; I slip, but don’t fall. Turn right at Mango Trail, her favorite fruit. Another quarter mile to the big banyan tree.

“Are you a witch?” a perceptive little Maui girl asked her once. Mom was up in the canopy.

“I’m a Tree Witch!” she responded. And she was — spending hours on, under, or near various trees throughout my life.

Coe Coe first, to lead the way. I unscrew the cap of the filigreed blue bottle her granddaughter gave me on our last visit. A breeze blows the ashes over Hanalei Valley, where the river sparkles down to the sea. Next, Mom, all around the gloriously wide trunk. A fold of it makes a protected alcove facing the misty mountains and ocean. I place yellow ginger blossoms in the sweet spot.

After tossing two fuchsia orchids over the bluff, I raise my arms to the cloudy sky and thank her for birthing me.

Thank you for this day. Thank you for this life. Thank you for this body. I am loving you.

Mary Pat and Johnny, 1964

Mary Pat and Johnny, 1964

Memory Problems

In Love on August 9, 2022 at 11:10 am

My father seems to have memory problems. He forgets that his only daughter loves him and means him no harm. And so he writes venomous missives.

The first time this happened, I’d just published “Free Love Ain’t” in a national anthology of essays by folks who’d survived so-called counterculture parents. Back then I read and responded to his poison pen letters and bizarre accusations for months. Finally realizing his contempt was bottomless, and his words were killing me, I returned them to sender. He then sent a registered letter, which a friend of mine read. More of the same, she said, so I burned it.

Hiking through the mountains recently, I noticed that the intensity of his current wrath is similar to that back in 2000. Then a funny thing happened: it dawned on me that it has nothing to do with me. Not one thing. It was a huge relief. I’d heard this theory, of course, and understood it intellectually, but here, on this mountain, on this island in the middle of the Pacific, I comprehended it viscerally. And smiled. I’ve done nothing wrong. I do not deserve his disrespect. I never did.

I’ve heard him talk to himself. His self-loathing rivals my mother’s. I imagine that his thinking is much worse than anything he’s ever said or written to me.

I know I’ve inherited their bad behavior. I, too, have said and done terrible things to those I love. These days I talk to Rage instead of stabbing anyone with it; talk to Grief instead of drowning in alcohol; talk to Terror instead of sprinting down the road. They’ve been highly educational. Best of all? They dissipate after bit, and I am lighter. The tide of Happiness comes in, with waves of Compassion.

I wish him well, I always have. And I wish me well, too.

Shé with Dad and Mom, 1963
Shé with Dad and Mom, 1963

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

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

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 #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 #6: the happiness code

In Love on April 11, 2011 at 3:57 pm

I’ve been editing a website for a non-profit.
Uploading text has been simple enough, but suddenly I was unable to change photos.

I followed directions, to the letter. The new photo appeared in the draft, but when I updated and uploaded the page — no photo.

I tried again and again. Maybe I didn’t click all the buttons, check all the boxes.
The photo wouldn’t change.
It should’ve changed (I did everything right!), but it didn’t.

Eventually, frustrated, I stopped and sat and thought.

Computers do exactly what they’re told. They follow programming, to the letter.
Since it wouldn’t do what I asked, it must be doing what someone else asked.
Something I didn’t know about.

Sure enough, I dug around and found other programming in effect, overriding my commands to change the picture. Unbeknownst to me, someone had added header code. I neutralized the code by de-selecting it. Now I can add and change photos 15 times a day.

I didn’t create the underlying code, but it affected me, nonetheless.

Which lead me to think about my ‘happiness code.’

Over the years various people tried to convince me that I deserve to be happy. I rarely believed them. Despite different therapies and methods — affirmation, visualization, cognitive this, meditative that — the picture wouldn’t change.

Perhaps my ‘happiness code’ got deleted, or changed into ‘unhappiness code.’

One day, after her name popped up in too many places to ignore, I checked out Byron Katie’s book, Loving What Is. She advocates investigation. Her method in brief: write down the thought or belief, then question it — is it true? Let the answer arise.

Turns out I’ve been believing lies:
You shouldn’t be happy – your brother is dead.
You shouldn’t be happy – your mother may die.
You shouldn’t be happy – your father left.
You shouldn’t be happy – you are bad.

Installed and coded in five-year-old flesh.
Along with millions of other conflicting beliefs.

I don’t deserve to be happy – is that even true? What’s the reality?
Deserving has nothing to do with happiness. I can think of many people (warmongers, anyone?) who do not deserve to be happy. Yet there they are, blithely blissful, regardless of what I believe.

And if the tables were turned, and I was dead and Johnny alive, I wouldn’t want him to believe some stupid ass concept like You don’t deserve to be happy. That’s crazy! I’d want him to be as happy and healthy as possible, every single day of his life.


If it’s not true for him, it’s probably not true for me.

I didn’t create the code, but I am learning to change the picture.

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