Monthly Archives: March 2016

Four months in a Jetta

I don’t live in a car. Isn’t that great?

Two and a half years ago I did. Live in a car. A 1999 VW Jetta, to be precise. If you know anything about cars – and why would you? they’re stinky, dangerous polluters – you know that Jettas are small. Four doors, yes, but definitely not an SUV. Not something you imagine you could spend the night in, let alone four months.

But I did. Live in my car for four months. Perhaps you’ll feel better if I call it camping.

Back in June of 2013, I noticed I was having trouble breathing. This wasn’t usual for me, a highly active dancer, skater, hiker, biker, jump-in-the-glacier-water woman. As a kid, I was a champion underwater-breath-holder. But now I was wheezing. More and more often. I began having nightmares about dying in my sleep. So I went to a doctor, who prescribed an inhaler. We talked about the black mold in my house.

“Do you own it?” she asked, meaning the house.
“No,” I said.
“Move.”

I moved out of my bedroom, where – I thought – the worst of the mold was. Slept in the living room. Awoke feeling better. So happy! I decided to clean the dust bunnies so it would be more habitable. Make it nice.

Turns out mold lives in dust. I was stirring up my own little poison cocktail. The next day I could barely draw breath. Was dizzy, faint, all those old-fashioned words that don’t sound very scary when you read them, but are quite terrifying when you live them.

I researched toxic mold: the worst side effect was death. O-kay. The Department of Health warned against attempting to clean it. Recommended haz-mat-suited professionals. I had been bleaching it off the walls of this abode for years. Come to find out, bleach doesn’t kill mold. And the bleach itself ain’t no picnic either, for your lungs.

By this time I was afraid to go in the house, so I tried sleeping in the backyard, in a tent that turned out not to be clean enough. Meanwhile, the synthetic adrenaline inhaler made my heart race to such an extent that I thought I’d die of a heart attack instead of asphyxiation.

A neighbor called around and found another neighbor with a spare room. Problem solved! Except by this time my body was so adrenaline addled that the intense smell of her cleaning compounds triggered an asthma attack. EMTs were called. Another neighbor – a chemically sensitive one – offered shelter. The EMTs walked me over to her house.

Which turned out to have a mold problem, too. In the middle of the night, I escaped to her garden, nose to the nasturtium and raspberries. Don’t panic don’t panic don’t panic.

The next day I walked down to my PO box, deposited the paycheck I found inside, and walked back up the hill to my car. This all took quite some time and effort. Hours for a trip that usually took 60 minutes.

One thought sustained me: I have to get to the ocean; I refuse to die here.

I am a long-time waterbaby. Legend has it that the first time I saw the ocean, I ran straight in. For me, home is where the ocean is. I wanted to be home. I needed it, like I needed oxygen. Which I wasn’t getting enough of either.

The ocean was 75 miles away, but I had a full tank of gas. And, evidently, no time to lose.

My neighbor gave me food for the journey, fruit from her garden, and let me keep the clothes she’d lent me. With my driver’s license, money, and credit cards in a clean brown paper sack, pink Crocs on my feet, shaking with the effects of the inhaler and lack of sleep, I drove down the street, turned left on Plum, and got on the freeway headed west.
Toward the ocean. Toward home.

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brothers

I have two brothers: one living, one dead.
The living one was born 47 years ago today. He, too, is a prime number.

The day he was born was one of the happiest of my life. I was six-years-old. My father drove us to the hospital to pick up my mother. Much to my dismay, she was in a wheelchair, pushed down the hall by an ugly nurse.

The French have an expression – jolie laide, or pretty-ugly, which exactly describes this nurse. Her features were plain, but she smiled at me with such great kindness and joy as she pushed my mother toward us.

But perhaps I am mis-remembering. Perhaps my mother was jolie laide, wrung out but radiant.

As I ran toward her, I saw the swaddled baby in her arms. My brother! Que milagro.

I had adored my brother John, who died when I was four. I pined for parallel play, snail races, car chases on the painted cardboard track (with the gas station pump that fit perfectly into the little round hole on the side of the cars).

I was John’s interpreter, talking and explaining for him before he decided to speak for himself. One of his first words, or maybe just my favorite, was my name. I can still hear him exclaim – Susie!

In my world, brothers were excellent companions. The best. I had good memories. And scary ones, too: of hospitals, and doctors, and nurses who wouldn’t let me see him. Incarcerated in a crib on an upper floor. Up. Away.

I remember standing outside the hospital, looking up and waiting for someone to bring him to the window. Waiting waiting waiting. So far away.

But so radiant to see me! Perhaps that’s when I learned to project, a useful tool for a performer. Up, up, up to John.


I sat in the back seat of our Plymouth Valiant and held my fresh-born baby brother, James. But I didn’t call him that. He was Didi to me. And to the tune of “Hello, Dolly!” I sang to him while Dad drove us home. “Hello, Didi. Well, hello, Didi! It’s so nice to have you back where you belong.”

I can still feel the weight of his snuggly warm body in my oh-so-careful arms. See his gorgeous old man face, his true blue eyes. Love incarnate.

But it wasn’t love at first sight, oh no. I had been loving him for months, listening to his heartbeat with my ear pressed against my mother’s belly, feeling him kick and laughing! laughing with glee.

Our family was too small, then. Just me and my mother in an apartment on Hill Street. Two too small. John and Dad were both gone, strange facts I couldn’t quite grasp. Dad alive but living elsewhere. Why?

So Didi’s birth was anticipated like Christmas. This, I thought, would set everything right.

But it didn’t. John was still dead, Dad still lived elsewhere. And my mother foundered and struggled for homeostasis. Today she would probably be diagnosed with clinical depression.

But it also did (set things right). Didi and I had a very different relationship than the one I had with John. But, of course, how could we not? I was six years older, the big sister, the caretaker, the little mother.

I painted his toenails red.
I dragged him around on his skateboard or in the wagon.
I bossed him and cleaned him and patched him when he fell. Put on puppet shows. Watched him surf. Cheered him on.

But I loved all that, caring for Didi. I loved him.
So imagine my dismay, these many years later, to find that we are estranged. Another fact I can’t quite grasp. How did it happen? Why?

I don’t know.
But I’m still glad he was born.

Swagger

I just rescued a snail from a watery grave. I was rinsing dandelion greens in preparation for a tisane. The sink had a few inches of cold water in it to help soak off the dirt.

First I saw the shell: a delicate, cream colored spiral. I thought, good, no pesticides. Then, on the silver metal bottom of the sink, I saw the snail’s body, the same color as mine. I thought, oh, no, too bad. Then, hmmm, good protein; wonder if the farm really is organic. (Yes, now that I’m back in the big city, I actually buy dandelions.)

I finished rinsing the greens, put them in a pot with water, and drained the sink. When I pulled out the strainer-stopper, I looked more closely at the snail. Horns out. Hmmm.
Waited.

Yep, moving … slowly … shell-less. I took a leaf that had been headed for compost, and tipped the snail out of the strainer onto it. Then out into the big world for both of us. I set the leaf with the snail under some volunteer lamb’s ear in a neighbor’s yard — the neighbor who does not use Round-up like my landlord; the neighbor who pretty much ignores his yard and lets plants live or die as they please.

How long will it take to grow a new shell? Can she survive without one?
I lost my home, too, and it is taking a while to recover my equilibrium.

On my office wall is a collage-type greeting card with fragments of: a picture of a road winding through greenery and around a hill; a map; a dictionary page with the words wandering, vagabond, gypsy, nomadic, migrant; and ‘The American Woman’ postage stamp. The so-called greeting (message) is this: There were times she lost her way. But she never lost her grit and swagger. Oh yeah, and there’s also a picture of a big-ass DETOUR sign at the bottom of the card. My life.

I lost my swagger for a decade or so, though not consecutive. It faded away in dribs and drabs; was beaten out of me by lovers, family members, and my own stupid beliefs.

But swagger’s like a weed – it keeps coming back.
My hips sway as I stride down the street, head up, arms swinging, I’m singing,

Gettin’ my swagger back
I’m gettin’ my swagger back
Can’t stop me for long
Can’t top me for long
I’m gettin’ my swagger ba-ack
gettin’ my swagger
gettin’ my swagger
Gettin’ my swagger ba-a-ack!

swaggering ranuncula

March 7: Prime!

I was born on a prime number, and I am a prime number (on many levels!) today.

Fifty-three. I cannot be divided by anything other than ONE and MYSELF.

I am wholly my own: one, fifty-three.

After years of struggle, I can only be myself.

HALLELUJAH!

Welcome to Prime.

 

A Poem After Rehearsal for a Show I Will Not Do

I don’t want to be “better”

I just want to BE

  • big
  • glorious
  • powerful
  • ugly
  • gorgeous
  • dramatic (melo- if I must!)
  • sad
  • hysterical

MYSELF: Susan Elizabeth Shé

ENOUGH

(and counting)

 

a song I wrote after the same rehearsal...

Ad Nauseum

Improve improve improve

Improve Yourself!

(what size are you?)

 

Improve improve improve

Improve Yourself!

(what shape are you?)

 

Improve improve improve

Improve Yourself!

(what age are you?)

 

Improve improve improve

Improve Yourself!

(what race are you?)

 

Improve improve improve

Recuse yourself — we’re done!