I am reposting this article, which was originally published on Burlesque Press. I’m off to New Orleans to spend Halloween weekend with Jennifer and am way too giddy to write a blog today. Since Jennifer’s book, The Ambassador’s Wife, is now being made into a movie starring Anne Hathaway, I sorta think my comment about it being turned into a film starring Angelina Jolie wearing hot pants was psychic or something. Except I bet Anne Hathaway is going to act the hell out of Miranda’s character, and I doubt very seriously she will wear hot pants. I’ve added new photos for those who read this before and want to see something new.
In late December, just before 2014 breathed its last stuttered gasps into the voodoo-infused New Orleans night, I met an angel. Or I though she was an angel. Maybe it was the wine talking, but when I first saw her, she stood under a strand of white lights in a bookstore courtyard, her eyelids painted with glitter and flashing in the moonlight. Her almost waist length hair sprang from her head in gorgeous gray ringlets that seemed to be so many lovely tentacles, grasping at the world around her, straining for human connection. She was surrounded by mesmerized admirers, lapping up her every word. If the attention made her feel uncomfortable, she didn’t show it. She smiled in a way few people over the age of five ever do, like she meant it, like she wasn’t hiding anything, like she didn’t know how to wear a mask, though she proved at the New Year’s Eve Ball a few days later that she knew how to make a masquerade look good.
A few times in my life—I can count them on one hand—I’ve known a person the moment I saw her, as if her name was scribbled under my DNA, sequestered in some secret place science has yet to reach. That was how it was with Jennifer. I knew instantly I was going to love her always. We were both writers attending the Hands On Literary Festival & Masquerade Ball. I was launching my poetry book, Siren Song. It was my second book of 2014. I was already dizzy with new adventures and book tours and wine. (Did I mention wine was involved in my 2014? Because it most definitely was.) Jennifer was slated to read from her upcoming novel, The Ambassador’s Wife, at a panel the day after we met. I walked to her instantly, like I knew her, because somehow I did. We drank pinot noir and spoke under the stars, and by the time we were done pouring out our life’s stories, I had declared I was keeping her for the rest of my life. I meant it. She was the kind of fascinating that comes along once every ten years, an actress turned journalist turned ambassador’s wife turned award-winning memoirist turned novelist.
During the first half hour of conversation, she told me what it was like to fall in love with the British Ambassador to Yemen. Then she told me how it felt to be kidnapped by terrorists. Then she spoke frankly about the woes of needing to pee while in a convoy of armored cars. She told all of these stories nonchalantly, smiling serenely, the way a less interesting person might talk about having encountered a nice golden retriever during a morning walk.
We went for food after the bookstore closed. I promised before we parted I would come hear her read in the morning. I was nervous. If you’re an artist of any kind, you know that there is nothing worse than meeting a fellow artist whom you love only to find out that you hate her art. I wanted Jennifer’s writing to be good. I needed it to be good. I’m a terrible liar. If her art was bad, the truth would somehow slip out some night over cocktails, and then what? My new glittery muse would think me a judgmental asshole, and I just couldn’t have that.
Fastforward. I am sitting in the front row at Jennifer’s reading. She is even more lovely in the daylight than she was at night. She’s reading a section from her book, which it turns out is about an ambassador’s wife who gets kidnapped by terrorists. I know this has happened to her in real life because she told me the story the night before, though she spent only a day in captivity, while her book’s protagonist Miranda is a hostage for months. Listening to Jennifer read, I forget how much I want the book to be good because it is good. So good I want to cry. So I good that for a moment, I forget about anything but Jennifer’s lovely prose and the terrifyingly human story it spins. In the story, Miranda, who has a child back at home, is attempting to breastfeed an almost-dead infant that has been rescued from the bombed out rubble of a nearby building. I’m on the edge of my seat, hungry for more. Will the baby survive? Hell, will the ambassador’s wife survive?
I’m sorry to tell you that the effervescent Jennifer is a tease. She draws me in and then stops, closing the book at the most critical moment imaginable and beaming, the way she does when delivering news about terrorists and bombings and unbearable cliff hangers. I feel as if I’ve been slapped.
“Read more,” I want to demand, but it doesn’t seem proper. Instead, I approach her after the audience has dwindled and order her to give me an advance reader copy of her book because I must know what happens. A month later, we meet up in New York City at a charming cafe with two other lovely writer friends. We share wine. We talk. I set a cloth napkin on fire. (No, I’m not kidding.) Jennifer finds my propensity for accidental pyromania charming. She gives me a copy of her book as a reward, and off I go.
I read the first sentence on the train. “As she curls herself around the wasted body of a stranger’s child, cupping the tiny head in her hand, the remembered glow of a painting emerges unbidden from the gloom of Miranda’s mind.”
Holy shit. If you are a word addict like me, if you crave lovely language the way rats jones for scraps, you know what I felt when I read those words. Dizzy. Giddy. I stopped to text her. Oh. My. God. I’ve read one sentence. I already know your writing is exquisite.
She texted back: You’re drunk.
She had a point. I was.
I tried again the next day, when the harsh light of morning combined with a hellacious hangover combined with the shame of realizing I had set a napkin on fire in a public place was wont to suck the joy out of everything. I read the words again. I texted Jennifer. I’m sober now. Your words are still amazing.
And I didn’t put the book down again until I had almost reached the end of the book. I didn’t put it down because I couldn’t. The only thing almost as wonderful as Jennifer, it turned out, was her writing. She whisked me away to a fictional Middle Eastern country called Mazrooq. She brought her world to life in a way that only a woman who lived in the Middle East for years and made a name for herself by publishing a travel memoir could. I saw the colors in the marketplace, heard the morning prayers, tasted the pomegranates, sweet breads, and wines. I understood the political climate, the danger a free spirited, bisexual artist named Miranda faced in a country where deviations from sexual norms were punishable by death and painting sentient beings was an affront to Allah.
Miranda is an unforgettable character who risks everything to teach brave Mazrooqi women how to paint in secret. She understands longing, understands that these women must paint, that an artist’s calling is carved into her bones. But when she falls in love with Finn, a brilliant, charming, generous ambassador, she becomes something quite other than the free-spirited, wild thing she was before she met her husband. She becomes an ambassador’s wife. The book’s title is almost ironic because while Miranda loves her husband deeply, the last thing she wants is for her identity to be absorbed into his. Luckily for her, it can’t be. Her spirit is too strong. Even while wining and dining dignitaries, she maintains her unadulterated sense of self, her joyful passion for living, and her love for painting. She gives birth to her daughter, Cressie, the second great love of her life. Just when it seems like she has acquired everything she could ever dream of, her perfect world is shattered. She is brutally captured by terrorists during a walk through the countryside.
In less adept hands, this story could have become something meaningless and slick, one of those insubstantial action-adventures that gets made into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Angelina Jolie in hot pants. But Jennifer’s story is anything but slick. It is at times gritty, at times delicate. It unfolds gracefully and slowly enough to allow readers to relish the colors of each character that leaps onto the page. Rather than telling her tale chronologically, she jumps back and forth through time so one never has the opportunity to forget that the starving Miranda in her filthy cell is a mother and a wife, a woman of abiding substance, a woman with a rich history. She is much more than a victim of terrorism, and much more than an ambassador’s wife.
I love Jennifer Steil. She’s charming. She’s glittery. She adores me more after I set napkins on fire. But even if I didn’t, I tell you, I would be utterly enchanted and mesmerized by the gorgeous work of art that is The Ambassador’s Wife.
If you read my contributions to this press, then you already know I’m a groupie. I’m getting a Jennifer Steil T-shirt made up as we speak. When she comes to the U.S. to tour after her novel’s release on July 28, I am going to stalk her, front row center, at all of her readings. I’m going to buy her glitter for her eyelids. I’m going to set things on fire to amuse her. I’m going to be Jennifer’s Steil’s biggest fan and then some.
Addendum: I was going to say I’m going to be her bitch, but that seemed too sassy. Then I remembered I’m writing this for Burlesque Press. I can be as sassy as I please. So I’ll say it. Ladies and gentlemen (imagine me clinking my fork against a wine glass): I’m going to be Jennifer Steil’s bitch.
P.S. Here are photos from Jennifer’s book tour.
P.S.S. I felt remiss because I always, always end my blogs with songs, and I didn’t this time. I was thinking, “What song seems right to post about Jennifer?” And then, as if by magic, my Pandora started playing “You Wreck Me Baby.” Perfect. This one goes out to the lovely Jennifer.
This summer, I served as a visiting writer/manuscript consultant at Rosemont College’s MFA retreat. I have visited many schools and universities throughout the world, and I have to say, Rosemont is my favorite school I’ve ever been to, partially because I get to sleep in a haunted mansion while I’m there, but also because I love its faculty and students. The program director, Carla Spataro, is passionate and innovative, and she and her cohorts have created a thing of literary beauty on that little Catholic campus in Philadelphia.
While I was there, Carla conducted a series of film interviews for the college’s Writers and Readers series, each of them an hour long. (If you haven’t seen mine, it’s because I chose to wear a tight, red shirt to my interview and looked like a sausage. I don’t like to share interviews where I resemble processed meats, as I am a vain, vain creature. Also, the camera person did not shoot the footage from above. He instead shot it head on, which made me look fat. Yes, I know they taught him special filming stuff in film school, and yes, the footage is lovely, if you aren’t worried about me looking chubby. But I don’t care about lighting and angles and all that. I care about not looking fat. If I ever get rich and famous, I will be fine with the paparazzi following me around to my dentist appointments and proctology exams, as long as they shoot me from above. I always try to tell my friends, “Jesus loves us best when we take our pictures from up.” No one listens. But I digress.)
During that interview, and almost every interview I have conducted since Beauty of the Broken and Siren Song came out, I was asked about my writing process. It’s always a tough question for me to answer because the truth is, I don’t really have a writing process. I’m not a process kind of girl. I hate doing things the same way two days in a row. If I get stuck in the same town for more than a week, I will start to go stir crazy. If you tell me I have to show up the same place every single day, and do the same damn stuff, I will start to fantasize about offing myself.
As luck would have it, my interview was conducted the day after the amazing fiction writer and memoirist, Curtis Smith, was interviewed. Curt had a beautiful answer to the process question, as he was disciplined process incarnate. Every day, he woke up at 5:12 and ran for 46.9 minutes, after which he sat down to write for 3.26 hours, requiring of himself that he produce at least 11.4 pages of prose a day. (I’m exaggerating, but Curt was truly the epitome of process.) After he described his process, he read from his latest book Communion, and the writing was so masterful, tender, and thought-provoking, I decided I was a hack who needed to implement a process immediately.
The next morning, I set my alarm for 5:12. When it went off the first time, I hit snooze. When it went off the second time, I threw it. Eventually I rolled out of bed to hold my student consultations and give my interview. I unfortunately wore a red shirt. (Wear black, people. Black is where it’s at.)
When asked the process question, I talked about dancing at concerts and then driving several hundred miles to let the inspiration I’d absorbed gestate, then stopping at rest stops to sit at picnic tables and write whatever the hell came out. I talked about scribbling chapters in airports and writing poems in porta-potties at music festivals. In short, I don’t think I said one word that helped the audience understand how to implement my process even a little.
I felt mildly bummed about that, but the interview wasn’t a total wash. I was asked what my favorite word in the world was, and instead of saying something smart, I said something true, which was “Roger,” (referring to Roger Clyne) which turned into a very funny, weird, TMI section of the interview.
During the rest of the retreat, the students spent a good deal of time looking up pictures of Roger and swooning, so I felt my interview wasn’t completely wasted. One night when we were all sitting around drinking during a thunder storm, they started to chant “Roger” like a mantra and decided to start a campaign to get the Rosemont sign replaced with a picture of Roger walking on water. I’m not sure how the campaign is going. I guess I’ll find out when I go back next summer. Miraculously, they invited me back, even though one of the students was overheard saying, “I just want to talk to Tawni about penises again.” I am nothing if not a consummate professional.
Anyway, this morning, I was responding to another interview, and I bumped into the dreaded process question again. I thought, I have got to come up with a way to answer this question that is:
doesn’t mention penises.
The truth is, I write a hell of a lot, even though I don’t have a process. I may write more than anyone I know. I don’t force myself to do it. I do it for the same reason I eat cookies and pick my nose. I like it. It feels good at the time. I don’t have a work ethic. I have a play ethic. I believe my body and my heart are smart. I believe they can tell me exactly what I need when I need it, if I will only listen. So if my heart says, “I don’t want to write today. I want to hike,” I let it. And because I’m so nice to my heart, it responds by thinking writing is fun, something we never have to do, and it asks if we can do it pretty often. Almost every day. Sometimes, for long periods of time, all day, every day.
Perhaps, this is a form of self-delusion. I know me. I’m rebellious to the core. My heartbeat pounds out the notes to “We’re Not Gonna Take It” 24/7. (I’m right. I’m free. I’ll fight. You’ll see. Mo fos.) I hate being told what to do. If you want me not to do something, try ordering me to do it. I will do everything but the thing you just told me to do. I don’t like being owned either. Try to own me, and I will run so fast the hounds can’t catch me. (That’s a line from a song my daddy used to listen to. And yes, I can end my sentences with prepositions now. Merriam Webster Dictionary said so on Facebook yesterday. I guess I let Merriam Webster tell me what to do.) But if you make me think something is my idea? Well, then. Aren’t I just full of brilliant ideas? Let’s do it! So I have worked very hard to trick myself into thinking that writing every day is something I want to do. (Maybe I shouldn’t let myself read this blog. What if I figure out my own tricks and stop responding?)
When I travel, every time I see a dandelion, I blow it and make a wish. Each little seed that flies off into forever carries my wish with it, maybe to someone or something who can help me. Each seed is a chance for my wish to come true.
I think of the things I write as dandelion seeds. Some people want to dig neat rows and then carefully sow their wheat seeds, which is perfect for them. I admire the hell out of people like Curt who create and flourish in a climate of disciplined structure. But it’s not me. It will never be me. I’m not sure I’ll ever have a good answer to the process question, but still, I’m content with my own random, whimsical way of being. I’m content with producing a seed of something that is nothing more than a pretty weed, and then blowing it into the wind. Because the truth is, I love having a writing career, but I didn’t really need one. What I really needed was a life. My writing is just a strand in the rich tapestry of my miraculous, temporary existence on this inexplicable blue ball whirling through space. I don’t want my art to turn into a chore. I want it to stay part of the magic. Because I’m going to die someday. My seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, years are precious. And in a few years, two or two hundred, no one will give a shit about the stuff I wrote. The only thing that really matters is this precious gift called life. I want to make it count by living it in a way that is joyful and true to my being.
So if I write a poem today, that was a few seeds. If I write a line, that was one. If I write a chapter, well damn if I didn’t write a whole dandelion worth of seeds. I submit my work the same way. A poem here. An essay there. I figure even though I don’t have a work ethic, I am producing things, albeit haphazardly. I’ve got all these seeds blowing around. Sure, some of them will die. But some of them are bound to come up at some point. Seeds grow. That’s what they were born to do.
A few years ago, when I was submitting novels to agents, I submitted my work to this awesome guy I met while teaching at a writer’s conference in Mexico. His name was Andy Ross. I met him by a donkey we have since named Kismet, and I kinda just knew he was “the one” in the agent sense of the word. Nothing had come of the other seeds I’d blown to other agents out there, but sure enough, when I blew a few seed’s Andy’s way, one took root, and a book called Beauty of the Broken happened. All it takes is one seed to make a miracle happen. (My miracle: http://www.amazon.com/Beauty-Broken-Tawni-Waters/dp/1481407112)
So at the end of the day, if I can say, “I planted a seed today,” even if it was just one, I’m content. Hell, even if it was just none, I’m content. Life is more than selling things and winning awards. Actually, those things aren’t life. Those things are things that happen because of what you did while you were living. I don’t want my life to be a race. I want it to be a joy. When I die, I want to see all my dandelion seeds whirling in the air around my head, whispering about the days I blew them into the wind. That one will remember sitting in the coffee shop with me in Nebraska, and those ones will say things about the way the ocean looked while I wrote them.
And at the end of the day, whether my seeds take root or get lost somewhere in the stratosphere, at least I was there in the moments that gave birth to them. At least I lived.
P.S. In the interest of inspiring you to fight for your right to party (I may be mixing my musical metaphors here), I give you “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” the EXTENDED version. As I mentioned, my little sparkly, rebellious heart pounds in time to this song. Don’t take it, kids. Fight the powers that be. Stick it to the man.
P.S.S. My daddy listened to this song all the time when I was kid. It’s where I got the “ran so fast the hounds couldn’t catch ’em” line. It’s called “The Battle of New Orleans.” I got my MFA at the University of New Orleans. Coincidence? I think not. Ok, maybe it’s a coincidence. Yeah, it’s totally a coincidence.
P.S.S.S. Merriam Webster giving me permission to end my sentences with prepositions.
This morning, I woke up to an email from the amazing author, Maureen O’Leary, asking me if I would consider blurbing her soon-to-be-released novel, The Ghost Daughter. If you don’t know what blurbing is, I’ll tell you. (I didn’t know what it was either until Simon and Schuster asked me if I had any ideas for people who might want to blurb the cover of my novel, Beauty of the Broken, and I wondered if they wanted people to burp on it.) Blurbs are those endorsements you see on the fronts of novels. Example: “The best novel ever. I’d gouge my eyes out with a spork before I’d forego reading it a second time.”—Earnest Hemingway.
Blurbs are supposed to be written by highly-regarded authors and are intended to help sell the books on which they appear. This was my first time being asked to blurb anything, and I was ecstatic because it meant that I was generally looked upon as a well-respected author whose sanction had the potential to sell books. I wrote Maureen back instantly and enthusiastically, and Maureen seemed not only delighted that would blurb her book, but stunned that I’d be excited about it.
That’s when it occurred to me that we are both very likely laboring under severe cases of Imposter’s Syndrome. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a mental malady from which successful people often suffer. No matter how much they accomplish, they secretly feel like frauds, like they got where they are by luck or chance or trickery. They live in terror that someday, everyone will discover that they aren’t nearly as brilliant as they look, that they’ve been faking it all along. I told Maureen I thought I had Imposter’s Syndrome, and she said, “If you have Imposter’s Syndrome, we are all lost.” I guess that means we are all lost, because I definitely, definitely have Imposter’s Syndrome.
I met Maureen about six months ago at a gala event called Authors on the Move hosted by the Sacramento Library Association. Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket of A Series of Unfortunate Events fame) was the keynote speaker. It was a formal, all-day-long affair that took place at the Hyatt Regency, and guests paid $200 a head to share portions of their dining experience with authors. I was one of the authors people paid a bunch of money to talk to. So was Maureen. Maureen and I loved one another instantly. I was impressed by her brilliance and kindness and general shininess and knew instantly she was one of my tribe.
(Maureen’s beautiful books:)
She felt the same way about me.
We and other authors rotated tables three times during the course of the day, sharing time, mouthwatering victuals, and copious quantities of champagne (if you were me and scared out of your mind) with eager readers. Every time I sat down at a new table, I wanted to apologize to the people gathered there. “I’m sorry you paid so much money to talk to a successful author, and then you got me instead,” I wanted to say. But to my shock, they all seemed to think I was wicked awesome. They drank in details of my life, asked questions about my books, wanted to know what my tattoos meant. I could not get over thinking they were just being nice. But $200 is a lot of money to pay just to be nice to someone you don’t know.
I’ve had the same sensation at every event that featured me since my books came out at the end of last year. Even when (especially when) I won the International Literary Association Award for Young Adult Literature and was ushered by a man in a tux to sit at a table with Meg Cabott, author of Princess Diaries and keynote speaker at my award luncheon, I was waiting for Ashton Kutcher to jump out from under the table and scream, “YOU GOT PUNKED!” Really, me? I won this? You’ve got to be kidding. If only they knew what a loser I was.
Yesterday, I spoke to another dear friend, Daniel Wallace, who also apparently suffers from Imposter’s Syndrome. Unbeknownst to him, Daniel is one of the people who induces my Imposter’s Syndrome, mostly because he’s so damned smart, accomplished, and eloquent. He’s just finishing his PhD in creative writing, and I’m fairly certain he has read (and contemplated at length) every book written in the English language. If you have drinks with him, you will very likely feel like an idiot in seconds. It’s not that he’s showing off. He’s one of the most genuine, least pretentious human beings I’ve ever known. He truly believes that everyone in the world is as well-read as he is. “Remember on page 133 of Ulysses, James Joyce said that thing about ________________?” he will ask excitedly, the way some people would say, “Did you see the latest episode of The Walking Dead?” You will have to admit that you read 15 pages of Ulysses in college and then gave up because it bored the hell out of you.
Daniel writes an incredible blog called The Incompetent Writer, drawing on his enormous background and education to give truly sage writing advice. He has over 4,000 followers. Since he spends countless unpaid hours on the blog, he decided that he wanted to set up an account where people could, if they wanted, donate $1 a month to him to support his work. He was so nervous. He thought everyone would hate him for asking for $1, that they would think he was a joke unworthy of their 100 pennies. If he’s a joke, he’s the smartest joke I’ve ever known. Give him a freaking dollar people, the kid needs to eat. Man cannot live on Cormac McCarthy novels alone.
I wonder if everyone has Imposter’s Syndrome. While I have been lucky enough to know many talented people who have achieved various levels of artistic success in their lives, the person I have known most intimately who has achieved mind-boggling, international success is the author, Jennifer Steil. Her first book, The Woman who Fell from the Sky, has been published in a bazillion languages and received all kinds of awards. The protagonist of Jennifer’s latest book, The Ambassador’s Wife (Jennifer is a real-life ambassador’s wife), is going to be played in a movie by Anne Hathaway, who read the book and fell instantly in love with it. And yet, I have received tortured emails from Jennifer—the most brilliant, successful woman I have ever known—questioning the quality of her masterful work.
I’m not sure what to say about all of this. I’d like to say something about eradicating Imposter’s Syndrome and believing in ourselves and our accomplishments. But today, that’s not what I’m feeling when I think about this. I’m thinking that this proves that underneath all of our various educations, accomplishments, accolades, and social statuses, we are all pretty much just little scared boys and girls, trying to make our way in a daunting, unpredictable world full of people we perceive to have it together way more than we do. Maybe nobody really has it together. Maybe this messy, sordid, screwed up thing called life is better because it can’t be managed and controlled and predicted. Maybe these beautiful disasters we call human beings are more exquisite for their frailty. You know, I have to say, I loved Maureen and Daniel and Jennifer most when they were expressing their vulnerabilities and weaknesses. There is something genuinely breathtaking about seeing someone’s broken, true self, rather than the shellacked shell he or she feels obligated to present to the world.
As I write this, I remember words spoken to me years ago by one of the people I love most in the world. He said, “Tawni, someday, you’re going to find out I’m just a big, fucking fraud, and you’re going to be so relieved you didn’t end up with me.” But he was wrong, because the more of his ugly, broken parts I saw, the more I loved him. I’ve never been anything but crushed that I didn’t end up with him. I would have been honored to spend a lifetime seeing and kissing every dark corner in his soul.
Maybe, my loves, we all have Imposter’s Syndrome because we are all imposters. Maybe Maureen was right. Maybe we all really are lost. And maybe that’s ok, because the real, broken, uncertain things hiding at our cores are way more beautiful than our facades are, any day of the week. Maybe we should stop trying to trick one another. Maybe we should just be what we are and let the chips fall where they may. Maybe we should treat life like one big AA meeting.
“Hi, I’m Tawni Waters, and I’m wearing the same sweatpants I wore yesterday. I just ate half a bowl of cake batter. I drink too much, eat too much, and fall in love with all the wrong people. I have cellulite.”
The end. Or maybe the beginning. I don’t know.
P.S. For today’s song, I give you “Secrets” by Mary Lambert, because she’s gorgeous.
When I was in my thirties, I regularly set myself on fire while trying to start fires in our family’s wood stove. We lived in a sprawling ranch house in the New Mexico mountains, and although we had modern gas heating, we used the wood stove most days because it was cheaper. The time I remember best was in the fall. The air hung somewhere between summer and winter, just chilly enough for a sweater. I had been instant messaging with a friend when I noticed the temperature was dropping. My kids were playing video games in their bedrooms, which were in the back of the house, and therefore, colder than the other rooms. I didn’t want them to freeze back there.
Long story short, the damn fire wouldn’t start, and since my friend was waiting, I took the coward’s way out. I sprayed lighter fluid on the logs. Apparently, my application was excessive, because when I lit the match, a ball of flame erupted from the stove and engulfed my head just long enough to burn my bangs into prickly wisps. Then, almost instantly, it evaporated, or went out, or whatever it is that balls of flame feeding on fumes and hair do. I wasn’t hurt, but I was terrified. I screamed, stopped, dropped, and rolled, believing my head was still on fire. My 13-year-old daughter Desi, used to the freak accidents that plague my existence, strolled into the living room, her face wrinkled with the mildest brand of concern.
“What happened?” she asked calmly.
“I SET MY HEAD ON FIRE!” I screamed, still rolling around on the carpet like a madwoman.
At that moment, my 9-year-old son Tim joined her.
“What happened?” he echoed, sounding bored.
“Mom set her head on fire again,” Desi said.
“Oh,” said Tim.
Having ascertained that I wasn’t still on fire, even if I thought I was, they left me rolling and screaming on the living room rug and wandered off to continue their video games. Since they didn’t behave like children watching their mother die in an inferno, it occurred to me that I might not still be on fire. I stopped rolling and patted my head. No flames. I was good. Ok. Whew.
After making sure I wasn’t injured, I went back to my instant message. “Sorry I was gone so long,” I wrote. “I set my head on fire.”
“Again????” my friend replied.
I’m not sure that anecdote was the best way to start this blog because I actually wanted to write about what a kick ass fire starter I am, and now, you won’t believe me. But those incidents happened when I was still married and had a very competent husband I could call on to start fires. I didn’t really have to know how to do it. All that changed after my divorce, when I made a string of some of the worst decisions of my life. (There is a reason they tell you not to make big decisions after divorces or deaths. You are insane. Or at least I was.)
My first genius decision was to sell the gorgeous ranch house I had gotten in the divorce and to move myself and my children into a little weird house (it had a spiral staircase and a hot tub in the living room) in the middle of the wilderness.
Bad freaking call. Did I mention its only source of heat was a tiny wood stove? Did I also mention that I forgot to get the well tested and found out only after I’d moved in that there was no viable water source? Did I also mention that in winter, blizzards were pretty much a daily occurrence, and the roads were crap even on a good day? Did I also mention that I gave a con-artist contractor $15,000 to do work on the dilapidated house, and he never came back again? (I was already busy suing for the dry well, so I really didn’t have the gumption to take on another law suit, what with the dealing with the divorce aftermath and all.) We spent most of the four years we lived there snowed in, shivering under blankets, dumping buckets of hot tub water into the toilets to flush them, praying the storm would let up so the water delivery truck could get in.
To make matters worse, my marriage had ended partly due to my ex-husband’s liaison with a much younger woman (though I, of course, played my part too—my ex is a wonderful human, but we were both young and caught up in our solitary miseries), so I cleverly decided to prove my sexual viability by dating a 26-year-old man whose main selling points were his glossy blond hair and his biceps. Of course, I didn’t know I was trying to prove my sexual viability at the time. I tried to convince myself I was in love. But it was hard. Stuart (we’ll call this guy Stuart, though that was not his name) mostly liked to sit on the couch staring at the wall. He refused to get a job, or do anything, really, though sometimes, when he was feeling spunky, he’d fight with my son over video games. Once, while I was chopping vegetables, he came to me to tattle. “Tim won’t share his game with me.”
“Stuart” I said, setting my knife down (as opposed to driving it though his skull, which may or may not have occurred to me) “you need to be the adult.”
“Why do I always have to be the adult?” he screamed.
Moral of the story: stay away from boys with mommy issues. Other moral of the story: he was no good for starting fires.
My kids say they forgive me for those years. I’m big on asking for forgiveness when I need to, and then doing everything in my power to heal the wounds I’ve left behind by my cruelty or recklessness or whatever my sin was (and believe me, my sins are many). My amazing kids respond beautifully to this and always offer clemency, even when I don’t deserve it. I’m not so sure I would forgive me. Not for the weird house. Not for the cold. Not for the water deprivation. And certainly not for Stuart. But they say those years built character. I think they are just trying to make me feel better, but whether or not those years I not-so-fondly refer to as “our wilderness years” built character, they did teach me to build a fire. It was either learn to build fires or die. So now, I’m really good at it.
Which brings me to now. I’m in the New Mexico mountains again, just in time for winter. I don’t officially live here, but I’m hanging out for a while, because I’ve been living on the road promoting my books and seeing the world, and now, I’m tired. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I don’t want to do anything but write and read and do yoga and start fires. I start fires every day. I never have to use lighter fluid because I know now what it takes to make a really good fire.
And this is what it takes. You need plenty of newspaper and three different sizes of wood—very small bits of wood, sticks, and logs. But telling you that is like giving you a recipe without directions. If you just throw those things in the stove, the fire won’t start. You must place them carefully. You must make sure to wad up the paper, but not too tightly, so air can flow through the empty spaces and get to the little bits of wood you’ve sprinkled on top of the paper. Then, you must make a latticework of the sticks on top of the little bits of wood, leaving plenty of empty spaces between the sticks. And then, you must balance a log on top of all that. I say balance, because you need to place the log so there is plenty of empty space under it. No matter how good your raw materials are, if you don’t leave those empty spaces, your fire won’t start. You are going to have to resort to lighter fluid, and then, if you are like me, your head will go up in flames, and who wants that?
Did you notice what the main component of starting a good fire is? Empty space. I am girl who by nature does not like empty spaces, which is why it took me so long to learn to start a fire without lighter fluid, and is why I set my head on fire so many times. I wanted to wad the paper up good and tight and then put piles and piles of wood on top. The more the merrier, right? It took a lot of trial and error for me to learn that empty space has value.
I say all that to say this. I’m learning that lesson in other areas of my life right now. I’m a girl who wants her life to be full and intense. Sitting still is hard for me. I like to get things done. I like to travel. I like to kiss. I like to dance. I like to make the most of my here and now while I’ve got it. When I was in my twenties, I promised myself while swimming in a Mexican ocean that I was going to do everything beautiful there was to do on planet earth, and then, I set out to try to keep that promise to myself. Damn if I haven’t come close to doing it.
But this year was a big one. I launched two books and then spent an entire year living on the road, promoting the books and seeing what there was to see. I began the year with a raucous wedding in New Orleans and then took it from there. Most of the places I visited, I spoke, taught, or both. Also, I adventured. I hiked hills by the sea in Los Angeles and tripped through the streets of New York, drunk on champagne. I slept in a haunted mansion in Philadelphia. I kissed a sloth in Nashville.
I walked by rivers in Minnesota and saw God in the stars while sleeping in a rest stop in Iowa. I attended more parties in a year than most people do in a lifetime. I saw a zillion concerts. I fell in love so many times, with mountains and museums and ants and dogs and people (and sloths), and I ate every kind of food a human being can eat. Because I am blessed beyond measure with people who love me, everywhere I went, I was treated like a queen, wined and dined and doted on. While I was doing this, I finished a novel, scrawling chapters whenever I could. A paragraph in a subway. Six pages on a beach. Twenty pages in an airport while my flight was delayed and delayed and delayed. And then, I sent that sucker off to my agent. And then I crashed. Hard. And ran home to Mommy.
And I’ve been mad at myself for that. Every day I wake up, wondering what is wrong with me, why I can’t get out there and go some more, why I am not dancing and kissing and fine dining like always. I got especially concerned when last night, my family members suggested I might be becoming agoraphobic. Was I? Was this it for me? Was this the end of spunky, shiny, drink-every-drop-out-of-life Tawni?
The answer came to me today while I was starting a fire, carefully arranging the paper and wood around the crucial empty spaces. Without empty spaces, there can be no fire.
Right now, I need the empty space. This empty space, this moment where I am hiding in the mountains, doing a whole lot of nothing, waiting for my agent to write me and tell me what is happening with my novel, is just as essential to me living a full life as all of the other things I do. The other things are the paper and wood, but without this, without these quiet, lonely moments of nothing, my fire will go out and never start again.
Let the empty space be. Honor its existence. When the time comes, God will whip out a match and set everything, all the things you’ve done, on fire, and then, She will blow softly. A fire will start. But if there are no empty spaces, it will die quickly. And then, She will bust out the lighter fluid.
And I don’t even want to know what happens when God sets her head on fire.
P.S. I always end my blogs with songs. I’ve been on a Sons of Bill kick. I had big plans to go follow them around Europe in October, but then I crashed, so now, I’m enjoying their CDs in solitude. This song always helps me let go and just let things be what they are. I agree with the Thomas James talks about in the video. It’s their best song. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you “Roll On Jordan,” a song that has saved my soul on more than one occasion.
P.S.S. Wait a goshdarn minute. How the hell did I write a blog about fire, include a Sons of Bill song, and not have the song be “Santa Ana Winds”? Mea culpa. Consider my sin of omission rectified.
If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard from me, it’s because I’ve joined a convent. Ok, not really. Not totally really. But kinda really.
Rewind: I was raised on a mostly uninhabited mountain in New Mexico by preachers. We didn’t have a television. We didn’t listen to anything but Christian, hippie, and old country music. (Mom, I gotta be honest. I’m still not clear on why Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash got a pass, but I’m glad they did.) Visions and miracles were status quo. We had very few toys because my parents wanted to encourage creativity. It worked. My brother’s and my favorite game was booger factory. This involved pine sap and us pretending we were booger fairies that produced boogers and put them in children’s noses at night, kinda like the tooth fairy, only we left snot instead of money. (Fun fact: you can get pine sap out of your hair with nail polish remover.) Sometimes, we walked to a nearby abandoned hippie commune and “borrowed” books from the deserted library. Once, when my dad wanted us to have a rollicking good day, he dug a very deep hole and filled it with water so that we could swim naked in mud all day. Like piggies.
We raised all our own food. I can’t stomach even the campiest television violence—my children cover my eyes during certain portions of Family Guy— but I’d probably be stone faced if you shot a turkey through the head in front of me. I saw lots of that sort of thing. Interesting tidbit: turkeys keep running around like they are alive even after you shoot them. I never shot them myself, but I watched. This all sounds cruel, unless you consider the fact that those turkeys had ten acres of New Mexico paradise in which to gobble about, right up until the moments of their untimely demises. It’s way less cruel than what happens to the animals that go into making the meat you buy in grocery stores.
Anyway, let’s fast forward again, from the good ol’ 1970s to a few months ago. I was in Knoxville reliving my childhood over whiskey with my dear friends (and editors of my poetry book, Siren Song), Daniel and Jeni Wallace. I think Daniel has been mildly concerned about my mental health since the first day he met me in New Orleans, when he asked me in his clipped British accent (with no hint of irony), “How do you survive out here?” I said, “Jesus takes care of me,” and he said, “Jesus must be saying, ‘Oh, thank God, Jeni’s got her. I get a day off.’” But after hearing about my childhood, his concern seemed to expand beyond the parameters indicated by the word “mild.”
“Tawni,” he said, setting his whiskey on the table to cover my hand gently with his own. “You always talk about your childhood like it was some kind of heaven on earth. Are you sure it wasn’t some form of purgatory?” (Daniel’s British purgatory isn’t like the American purgatory. It has lots more syllables or something, and sounds way funnier in a sentence.)
Jeni, being Jeni, saw my childhood as a marketing opportunity. After crossing and uncrossing her legs in her slow, seductive, Jeni-esque fashion, she calmly poured more whiskey into my glass. “You need to write the booger fairy story as a picture book. You’ll be rich.” (This was an order, not a suggestion. I may take her advice.)
One more fast forward, and I swear to Jesus I will stop whipping you back and forth through time (though it’s kinda cool I’m doing this right before the day that Marty McFly went into the future. For the record, I don’t give a shit about my hover board or flying car. All I want is a diet pill that works without killing you, and maybe something that fixes hearing damage caused by standing in front of the speakers at over a thousand rock shows. Oh, and a new liver.)
That desire for a new liver, combined with other factors, drove me back to my New Mexico mountain a few weeks ago. I had been living on the road for a year, marketing my books and having adventures. But a girl can only take so much adventuring, it turns out. My body and mind were collapsing. The impending demise of my mortal coil occurred to me in Washington when I was lying in a rented bed (AirBnb), utterly exhausted but unable to sleep, staring at another unfamiliar ceiling, having just completed a week long rock-n-roll sojourn. That still small voice I trust implicitly whispered, “If you don’t slow down, you will die.” I knew it was true. My liver hurt. My back hurt. My head hurt. My feet hurt. My heart hurt. I looked like a chubby almost corpse. I was horribly depressed and anxious. So that night, I decided I was going home to my mountain heaven (purgatory?) to get well.
My mountain home is remarkably unchanged. I walk miles every day, and only once have I seen another person while walking. The flowers are still the color of the sun. The air still smells sweet and pure. (It’s a kind of cool that has nothing to do with temperature. Your lungs instinctively know there is no smog involved.) Some of the roads still resemble dried up river beds. The mornings are a brand of quiet I have never experienced anywhere else in the world—absolute silence, not a sound. The stars are close and profuse. They go on forever. And my mommy is still here, cooking juevos rancheros for me, worrying over me, giving me pep talks. (“Get up and do something, lazy bones.” Did I mention Mom isn’t really a “touchy feely” kind of girl?)
My brother is here too. He talks philosophy and theology with me (he’s the smartest person I’ve ever known) and lets me cuddle his puppies and goats, but he won’t play booger factory with me, which pisses me off. Oh, and did I mention I can still build a fire in a wood stove like a boss? You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.
In addition to cuddling my brother’s dogs (Harriet Pugman bit me on the boob yesterday) and building fires, I am also doing yoga, drinking gallons of water a day, walking, walking, walking, eating copious quantities of fruits and vegetables, meditating something fierce, sleeping a ton, and praying, praying, praying. I’m not drinking alcohol or eating any junk food. I feel better than I have in years. Yesterday, I weighed myself, and I’ve lost ten pounds. My skin looks younger. I only cried once yesterday, which is saying something, considering that for the month before I decided to return to my convent, I pretty much cried all day every day. So I’m getting better. Way better. And cuter.
The other part of my healing regimen is solitude. I’m not talking to anyone except my family. I feel guilty about this some days, but it seems to me like a matter of absolute necessity. I have to be alone for a while, focused on fixing what’s broken and tired in me. For an entire year, I had almost no time alone, and it was starting to make me feel scattered and lost, like I was leaving little pieces of me all over the world, on podiums and in bookstores and in bars, until there was nothing left of me for me. I’m trying to gather me to myself again before I go out into the big, bad world to love up on it.
So I wrote this blog as an answer to the question, “Where’s Tawni?” (which I have been asked in more than one email and text message). It’s kinda like “Where’s Waldo?” only if there were a picture book, I would be really easy to find even without a striped shirt and glasses because most of the time, there’s no one here but me. And Harriet Pugman. Who bit my boob. I think I was traumatized. It keeps coming up.
Someday, I’ll come down from my mountain. I pinky swear. Ok, I don’t pinky swear. But I think I probably will. Maybe. Anyway, until then, I leave you with this song. My brother played it for me the other day. He isn’t all philosophy and theology. Some days, he can be downright backwoods. All my friends are still in love with him though, even though he’s married and, quite frankly, old. Which also pisses me off. When we were kids, girls would make friends with me just so they could be invited to my house and sit on his bedroom floor making goo-goo eyes at him. Some things never change. (I’m kidding, girls. If you’ve recently told me you have a crush on my brother, I’m not really mad at you. He’s kinda awesome.) Anyway, I think he played this song to distract me from trying to lure him into playing booger factory.
Here’s a little flava (I’m trying to sound like a rap star—pronounce that “flave-ah”) of what’s going on in Tawni’s world. (You will have to click on the Youtube link in the middle of the fuzzy screen if you really want to see it, because apparently, Youtube has disabled the playback, which I find to be rather rude.)
P.S. If you want to buy that poetry book I mentioned, you can do it here. Not that I’m pushing you or anything. But I’m holding some turkeys hostage up here. And if you don’t buy the book, they’re goners. (Kidding. We don’t raise our own meat anymore. Actually, we don’t eat much meat around these parts. Still, buy the book.)