Emily Violet Frisch: on Shyness, Learning Through Nature, and Looking for Love in the Wrong Places
On family: I grew up in a Chinese American Jewish Household where my mother (who is Chinese) was starting her own business that provided a major income for us, and my father (an American Jew) was a school teacher. He took care of me. I was blessed with having both these rich cultures to feed off of and learn from. Sometimes I felt like a bridge between east and the west.
On her career: This is an important question. I feel like this is a major concern I’ve been having. What the fuck do I do...the truth is, I just want to be a bountiful woman. I want to be kind of a star traveler. Moving to places I feel called to. And I want to make art in tune with the seasons, art that is a home for how I feel, how the world is feeling, how we can heal the pain and aggression. And I want to give others a place to be free. To let go of their fears and feel comforted and supported. To draw or paint, dance, make music, make fire, learn the depths of how creative movement and nature can be medicine. So, I feel like art therapy or some form of art as a healing is a potential path for me.
On working in nature: I mentor kids at a primitive skills school. I am learning about nature as well as about human development and social skills. With time I’m becoming better at identifying trees and plants, by their appearance, texture, seeds, fruit. And a deeply important value is how to receive from nature in gratitude. A primitive skill is walking with awareness, like a fox, and practicing walking with respect for all the life that dwells under and around our path, including the subtle energies that may be invisible. It’s a very rewarding job because the kids are so joyous and free in the woods. Even after a long day of school, we venture to our campsite and they are happy because of the fresh air and company of bittersweet vines to hang on as they talk. In the fall, cattails and milkweed were all the buzz. In the setting sun, we would walk along the grassy paths and they would run into the bushes collecting armfuls of the dry seeds and milkweed pods releasing them into the wind, silky seeds dancing in the light. I’m learning how to make and sustain a fire. It is a task that holds deep symbolism. Lighting one’s fire and tending it. Requires focus, practice, trees, love. Compared with a lot of the kids, I am still a novice at fire making… but that’s part of the joy. We are all learning our skills, finding their significance. And we learn when we are ready, sometimes that moment arrives when we feel afraid.
On social skills and shyness: During a training to become an instructor I had to teach the kids a game, which seemed simple enough. But in the sun, in the presence of my fellow instructors, the explanations felt stuck in me, I could not speak. I remember feeling like I was watching myself stand there, instead of actually being there. And the more I let myself watch from above, the more I hoped some guide would lift me out of that fearful spot and tell me, “You don’t have to talk to all these people.” And that shyness seems so silly because nothing is bad, everything is laughter and jokes. Except in my mind. There, I was struggling. Unable to work myself out, especially with people watching, unable to tell them what I was feeling, it all had to be resolved. How do you let yourself know that everything is going to be ok? So I explained the rules of the game and they began to play. I began to hate my stupid fear. We were a bunch of adults practicing our explanation skills. After the game, the people shared their advice, their thoughts, and feelings about how I had been. They offered helpful tips, they had been listening to me. That was an encounter with truth, and practice is the only solution. I won’t learn how to explain something from talking to myself in private. Sometimes I forget how to breathe and walk with respect for myself. I find my shoulders sinking, back aching, and my mind boggled by a million questions about how to be.
On becoming a woman: I remember trying to show my world to another person (who desired me), but still keep my insecurities hidden from him. I thought that if I could let myself be desired, that would fulfill me. When I was younger, I really looked forward to when I could start dating. It seemed like a fantasy - the world of crushes and the knowing that one day I would be in love. I started caring a lot about my appearance when I was about 12 years old, doing my makeup, and showing some skin, that’s when I first started being noticed by guys. So I started believing that I was something desirable. It is obvious that this is a skewed and false perception. My image may have attracted people, but that was not to be confused with who I was, Emily, inside the changing body. I think during this time, amidst trying to fit in in school and also stand out, I lost sight of my inner strength and became preoccupied with how I appeared to be to others. This weakened my self-esteem and continued through my high school years. During this time of my body changing, I was caught between letting go of my childhood self and accepting my femininity. I never spoke to my mom about periods or boys always preferring to find books or Seventeen Magazine articles on all the changes. Now that I look back on it all, the loss in my confidence did not come from the outside but from within. I stopped loving my imagination and felt like my image would save me.
On looking for love in the wrong places: By the end of high school, I was deeply in love. There, I felt safe and warm. But there were fissures in my self-knowledge. Letting go of this love was very hard. I would watch an illusion of my love blow away across the water of the East River and my reaction would be to reach out, retrieve it, take it back. Again and again, my mind and heart found solace in reliving the past. I felt like I could not let go and was afraid of the unknown and potential in the new. For a while, I toppled through a period of hookups, a level of interaction that forces one to be pretty quick in feeling, shallow in touch. I thought that seeking love in others could make me learn, experience, and make mistakes - and therefore grow. This came out of depressive states. Around this time I also left school because I could not get my work in on time. One positive result that came from all the searching was an understanding that I need space. I was starting to see myself and my ability to make decisions. I envisioned my drawings and paintings on big sheets of paper and canvas tied to branches of trees in an orchard, billowing in the wind. I realized that I was seeking space, nature, a pond of reflection.
On leaving college and looking for purpose: When I left school my family’s response was shame and panic. They let me stay at home but it was very tense there, so I left and found a place to stay in the city. I was occupied with how to a) make it in the art world and meet the right people b) find an antidote to loneliness c) be happy. It was a strange time because I was feeling very free but also exhausted. I realized that I did not feel strong anytime while I was under the influence of any mind-altering substance. I would feel physically weak and hand over control to other people. I became used to being an object of desire. Silent, still, compliant, mysterious. During the day I would wander the city. Walking provided grounding and happiness was found in small beautiful moments. Then one day I felt like, wait, fuck the art world...I started lifting myself out of this state of needing others to discover me. I remember giving up, going to Oyster Bay Beach and drawing a tree growing out of the sand, getting a train, getting a bus to the Catskill mountains to my grandmother’s beautiful country house and sleeping there. No longer having the energy to run around.
On traditional silence: I witnessed my mother work long hours to create her company from scratch. She was an immigrant from China and she taught herself how to thrive in business and communicate confidently in English. Today she is an inspiration to me, my sister, and many others who she has supported with her determined spirit and hard work. As a child, I loved to watch her get ready for work every morning. It was a beautiful, elegant process. She would also help me and do two braids in my hair. I remember the pulling of those tight braids, those loving tugs. She was also tough on my sister and me and to be polite, especially in public. My sister, who is very outspoken, was constantly being told to be quiet in Chinese. Everything my sister did had to be toned down according to my mom. I know my mom did not mean to do us any harm, she wanted the best for us, for us to be raised well educated and well-mannered girls, but according to those goals we had to fit in and be a certain way: quiet and well behaved, something my sister was not. Luckily for me, I was naturally inclined to be shy, a quality I hadn't tackled until I realized I did not need to be shy. I could be reserved, and observe the world, but did not need to approach speaking with the fear associated with shyness. I should be free to express myself as loudly as I please.
On traditional femininity: Traditional femininity is a blended image of how a woman should behave. In my experience these codes of behavior have been broken up, meaning some women of my family have ascribed and some have not. But I think it’s the shoulds, the should nots and the power dynamics that are a key to defining traditional femininity. When one is told they should be a certain way and their power is funneled into a socially acceptable mold, they lose a lot of their creative and healing potential. She is told to be quiet, polite, charming. In another life, she is told to take care of everyone before herself. In another life, she is told who she should love. In some ways, I do ascribe to traditional femininity because I cook a lot and tend to the home. I care too much about behaving politely and more times than not remain silent rather than saying something. More and more I’m trying to let go of these behaviors that are totally inauthentic.
On the perfect woman: She is a star traveler, a warrior, she goes where she needs to go. She knows herself and respects herself. This woman is strong because she has lived many lifetimes and experienced generations of existing, of motherhood, sisterhood, being a daughter and growing up nurturing flowers and dolls, stones and tigers. She protects her tribe and shares her bounty with another star traveler.
On speaking with men: Men are more practiced in speaking about themselves. I have found that usually in conversation with men they end up telling me a story about themselves and I have to listen to out of politeness. And when I would react loudly or passionately about a topic, men would be surprised and try to get me to be calm again. It's bullshit.
On objectification: I've felt objectified when people talk about my looks as though I’m not there. Often I want to say something but have no words that are both polite and authentic. It’s a strange place to be in. When I used to hook up with people I would feel away from my body. There were many situations where I would ignore my mind and wear clothes that left me feeling uncomfortable. I did not realize how this affected my mental state and my emotions. I did not realize how being cold influences everything. Now, there is no way I would sacrifice my comfort for appearing a certain way unless this appearance was a reflection of the true inner self.
On advice for herself at 16: Emily, let yourself be curious and explore the world. Manifest your ideal present through your brilliant creativity and compassion. Believe in who you are, and when it’s time to leap, there is that light and love of yourself that you can use as a guide. If you ever get tired, look to the paintings in clouds and wisdom in the trees, the comfort of nurturing home to restore you.