Tag Archives: detour


“My brother’s the artist,” I said to Denise, an old family friend.

“There can only be one?” she asked.

Labels. They’re gonna getcha.

The Smart One. The Pretty One. The Dancer. The Singer. The Mathematician. The Physician. The Engineer. The Performer. The Professor. The Good Girl. The Good Worker (Reliable, Dependable, Trustworthy). The Starving Artist. The Flaky Musician. The Writer. The Liar. The Cheater. The Storyteller. The Rich One. The Poor One. The Owner. The Renter.

Pick one. Then discard. Why can’t we all be all of them? And none of them?

Two days ago, I was reading Through the Dark Forest by Carolyn Conger. In it, she related a story about 50-year-old Gerald, a dying man she was working with, using what she calls Voice Dialogue dreamwork. The basic idea is that we each have many selves, and some of our selves get more attention than others. She spoke with five-year-old Gerald, and he responded as his younger vulnerable self. “What do you want Gerald to know about you,” she asked. “I want him to remember me,” he replied. “I want to be happy, to play more.”

I suddenly flashed on my five-year-old self. My mother was pregnant and bedridden. If she got out of bed, she’d die. So every day in kindergarten, I painted her a picture.

Painting was a major source of happiness for me then. I was swept away, into color and form and texture. I was free to experiment and play. I did not worry about my very sick mother, or miss my dead brother or my absent father. When I played with paint, I was completely absorbed. Completely free. Anxiety didn’t return until I was on my way home, wondering whether my mother would be there or not, alive or not.

Paint, I realized as I put the book down. I need paint. I need art supplies.

The next day, Labor Day here in the USA, I drove to the nearest big box hardware store. I needed options. LOTS of options.

Why a hardware store instead of an art supply store?

    1. I knew where it was and how to get there, only 11.5 miles away.
    2. I didn’t know where there was an art supply store and I didn’t want to spend time looking or asking around.
    3. Price, which leads to …
    4. Low pressure / fool the inner critic. I’m a writer. I buy cheap notebooks to write in (yes, long-hand), so that my writing doesn’t have to be precious or worthy or good. This frees me up to write whatever the hell I want, all the time.

What a happy hour I spent in that big-ass store! Grins galore.

I found small bottles of acrylics in many delicious colors; wood, cut to my specifications (big!); red rosin paper and pale green masking paper; brushes of various sizes and shapes, and round yellow “pouncers” made of sponge; masking tape; and brown “eco”  tarp (big sheets of recycled paper).

Just writing about it slows and deepens my breathing.

Back in the car with my booty, I sat and laughed. Already an excellent return on my 60 bucks, and I hadn’t even used them!

Yesterday, I cleaned off two shelves and rearranged my closet to include an area for art supplies. Happy again!

And today, well, first I turned off the phone. Then I set up an art studio in one corner of my apartment. Laid down the tarp, set up my paints, opened the packages of brushes, filled an old cinnamon jar with water, used an old shea butter lid as a palette.

And played.

Stars Fall by Elizabeth Shé, circa 2009
Stars Fall by Elizabeth Shé, circa 2009

feeding horses

When I was eleven, my mother’s parents took us to Ireland. Us = me, my brother, and my mother. My grandmother was the Irish in our family, née Rosemary Magonigle.

We were there a month: two weeks with the grandparents, two weeks just the three of us. Those last two weeks may be the best weeks of my life.

After her parents returned to the States, my scared-of-horses mother rented a horse-drawn caravan. I didn’t question this at the time. In the midst of my horse-mad phase, I drew them, read about them, learned their anatomy, and talked about them. The only thing I couldn’t do was ride them: no access.

Darkie was big and tall and, yes, dark in color, with a white star on her forehead. She was assigned to lug our gypsy wagon through the Irish countryside.

Despite her fear, my mother took the reins and refused to let me take a turn. A physical therapist and anatomy teacher, she knew all too well the strength and potential of Darkie’s musculo-skeletal system.

But horses are sensitive creatures. My anxious mother made Darkie nervous, and less than thrilled to take orders from an Irish-American.

“Ach,” said various countryfolk at one time or another during our sojourn to the first campground, “let the child drive!”

“Yeah, mom,” I chimed in, “let me drive.”

No joy. Yet.

As soon as we reached the Philbin’s seaside farm, supposedly the first leg of our journey, we dropped anchor and turned Darkie loose in a field with other caravan horses.

We stayed for two weeks.

I immediately took over horse-care duties, filling my pockets with food. Imagine my delight when they followed me around!

In the back of our small wooden caravan, on the outside, was a trunk of sorts that held Darkie’s food pellets — a two week’s supply. She ate all of it the first night.

Not horse-people, no we weren’t. But I learned. The Philbins taught me; and John, another local, helped me ride.

My five-year-old brother followed Mr. Philbin around the farm, tending to cows, chickens, and other barnyard animals. When I wasn’t following the horses around, I roamed the country and seaside.

All of us were outdoors most of the day. As it was May, this was a very long time — the sun set at 11 o’clock. And the crystalline nights! That was the first time I saw the Milky Way.

On my dead brother’s birthday, we found a small pool in a dip in the hills, filled with sea-life: anemones, little fish, dulse. Big enough to swim in, so I did, holding my breath from one end to the other, eyes open in the salty water, drinking in the otherworldly strangeness.

Heaven. Paradise. Nirvana.

Why I ever thought I needed to live in a city, I don’t know. To this day, the smell of peat fires puts me instantly back in Ireland.

Finally, decades later, I’m in the seaside country again: no human habitation visible from my western window, and horses for neighbors. I live on a ranch, of sorts, an equine boarding facility.

Two days ago, I asked if I could help feed the horses.

“Yes!” said Barbara.

So I followed her around, toting hay, alfalfa, and food pellets; checking water levels and quality. Getting comfortable again in my eleven-year-old heart.
Darkie and me in Ireland; John holds the halter.

Saturday Morning Porridge

Retrieve the pot with leftover Bhutan red rice, cooked in beef broth.

  • walnuts
  • raisins
  • chopped dried apricots
  • a Ceylon cinnamon stick
  • water, soymilk

Simmer so flavors meld, 15 minutes or so.
Stir occasionally, between chores.
Turn off heat, let cool.
Wash your hands.
Eat, and be amazed.

“I’ll race you down,” said the cyclist turning into my lane at the top of the 10th Street hill.

“No, thanks,” I said, “I’ve got eggs and flowers to think of.” I was on my way home from the farmers market, pink lisianthus wrapped in newspaper hanging out of the bike basket. I adjusted my seagrass hat more firmly on my head for the downhill glide.

“For Mother?” he asked, keeping up with me.

“Not even slightly,” I said.

“What are the eggs for then?” he asked. Now he was behind me, on my left.

“Breakfast,” I replied. I’d never seen this guy before; what did he care what I did with my eggs?

He passed me at a stop sign. “Have a good rest of your day!”

“You do the same,” I said, relieved as he pedaled away, cutting off a truck making a U-turn.

Mother’s Day, Mothers’ Day. I’d forgotten, though I’d seen a chalk board sign in front of a restaurant advertising Sunday Brunch. This Sunday. Mother’s Day.

My biological mother and I are estranged. Again. I don’t know why, this time, though it may have to do — if it has to do with anything — with a fight we had 15 years ago. She reminded me of it in the middle of another, more recent, fight.

“You called me a slut!” she cried.

“That’s because you are!” I replied. Just flew out of my mouth, bypassing my brain completely.

In 2001, my essay, “Free Love Ain’t,” was published in an anthology, Wild Child: Girlhoods in the Counterculture. In it, I related the goings-on in our house during 1970’s Santa Monica. Sex, drugs, etc.

The fallout from publication was estrangement with my father, who was barely mentioned. My mother neglected to read the galleys until after the book had been on Oprah. We discussed it once: she refuted how an event had occurred. I replied that yes, I was young, and that was how I remembered it – Mick Jagger, nuns, bye bye blackbird.

“Okay,” she said, and that was it. We never talked about it again. Estrangements came and went. My niece’s mother reconciled us once and convinced me to visit. Twice. 1200 miles by car.

My mother asked me to help her move to New Orleans. I agreed, put all my clients on hold, sublet my tiny house, and prepared for a long cross-country journey.

Imagine my rage when I found out that my ex-battering-boyfriend, the one she had made a point of telling me she’d slept with first, was trucking her things to her new home in the Tremé.

That was when I called her a slut. That was the fight she was referring to, years later.

Do I regret it? the second time? I don’t know. It was a revelation. I guess her behavior — and I know she was a grieving divorcée, mourning her dead son — affected me more deeply than I thought. Affects me.

When I am not angry at her (it comes and goes), I regret hurting her.
I don’t regret learning the truth about my feelings.

Fact: my mother belongs to a krewe called The Pizza Sluts.

Saturday Afternoon Soup
2 cups black beans, soaked overnight and rinsed
7 chopped carrots
3 cubed gold potatoes
1 turmeric root, skinned, broken into 3

Put ingredients in small stock pot, cover with water.

  • healthy dash of garlic powder
  • ground pepper
  • dried, ground sage
  • heaping tablespoon of fennel seeds
  • leftover beef broth

Bring to boil, then simmer an hour or three.
Stir occasionally, while washing socks.

  • a good squirt of lemon juice
  • a big white onion, chopped

Have a good cry.
Simmer another 15 minutes or so.
Serve while onions are still crisp.


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.

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.


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.

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