My new novel, The Long Ride Home, which will be released by Sourcebooks in Summer 2017, is about a wounded teenage girl named Harley who is driving across the U.S. on her motorcycle, ostensibly to reach the Atlantic Ocean and spread the ashes of her mother, whom she accidentally killed when she started a house fire. Along the way, she finds out she’s pregnant, so the story becomes way less about spreading ashes and much more about how she comes to terms with her tragic past and decides what she will become in the future.
While the book is by no means autobiographical (my own mother is kicking it in the next room as I write this, and if I tried to ride a Harely without some dude or dudette steering it in front of me, I’d likely die), it very much dealt with issues I was grappling with while I wrote the book. My own past, like most of our pasts, has been littered with miracles and wonders, but also with tragedy, loss, and abuse. The past few years, and especially the last year during which I was writing The Long Ride Home, have been about wandering the country trying to come to terms with the darkness I have known and trying figure out who I want to be next. A long time ago, I realized it’s important who you become. It matters who you choose to be. I just had a hard time figuring out who I really was. It took years. Decades in fact. But I think this year, I finally got it.
In the book, Harley goes to a jewelry shop to meet a curandera her mother knew while she was alive, in hopes of finding out if her mom really loved her. The wise woman asks her, “Do you want the ugly truth or a pretty lie?” I wrote this question because it’s a question I’ve been asking myself again and again of late. So much of the darkness that came into my life came to me because I chose pretty lies over ugly truths, even though the ugly truths were staring me in the face if I cared to unblind myself and look.
I have been going through a process of unblinding. I used to be really good at lying to myself. I’d tell myself people who clearly didn’t care if I lived or died loved me deep down. I’d tell myself that nasty scenes full of broken people who wanted nothing more than to tear one another apart were families. I’d tell myself that my choices didn’t matter, that all roads led to the same place. I’d tell myself I’d forgiven people I still hated. I’d tell myself I was happy when I was dying inside. And on and on and on.
But now, having gone through a ragged, agonizing process of unblinding, I know that love and family are sacred words, and sacred things are deep and rare and real. People who love you show you. You don’t have to wonder. You don’t have to make excuses for them. You don’t have to suck up abuse and call it love. Love makes its presence known in the actions of the lover.
I know that not all groupings of human beings are families. A letter from the CEO of Tollhouse Crackers, for instance, saying “Welcome to the Tollhouse Family” is nothing but an airbrushed lie, a slick marketing package taking the sacred and making it profane. A family, I have learned, is a precious rarity composed of people who will die for one another, protect one another, sacrifice for one another, function as a unit for the benefit of all. I will not call all groups of people in my life family. I do have family members who are not biologically related to me, but ours is a bond of love that goes just as deep as blood. They are people for whom I would take a bullet. They are people who would take a bullet for me.
And I found out that all roads don’t lead to the same place. Some choices—brave choices, true choices, loving choices—lead to really pretty places. Some choices lead to hell on earth. Usually, the hard choices are the good choices. Usually, the road less traveled, the one covered with rocks and prickly pear cactuses and angry bandits in the bushes screaming obscenities at you, is the road that leads to heaven on earth, that leads to true and lasting peace, that leads to a life well-lived, not wasted. There is a meme going around on Facebook that says, “The fact that there’s a stairway to heaven and highway to hell says something about anticipated traffic numbers.” I think it’s funny, but I also think it’s true, in its way. I don’t believe in a God that throws us into fire when we die, but I do believe we have the power to throw ourselves into fire while we still live.
So many people choose the pretty lies over the ugly truths, and in so doing, condemn themselves to agonizing, miserable hells on earth. For years, I was one of those people. I don’t want to be her anymore. I won’t lie and say I forgive when I hate. I don’t want to be what Jesus called a whitewashed tomb, beautiful on the outside but inside full of reek and rot and dead men’s bones. If I’m rotten inside, I’ll tell you about it. How are we going to clear out the the corpses if we pretend they aren’t there? If I’m miserable, I’m not going to lie and say I’m happy. Let’s talk about what fucking sucks inside me. Let’s do some hard work and fix it.
This morning, on the very last day of 2015, I woke up early to talk to Momma, which is what I often call God, because to me, God is both male and female, and most of the time, the female part resonates with me more (maybe because I have a vagina and stuff). I said a lot of things to my mother this morning, but this is the one that stuck out. This is the one that made a rush of wonder prickle over my skin. I said, “Momma, I’m done lying. I want the ugly truth, not the pretty lies, because ugly truths save your life, but pretty lies kill you.” As I said this, I felt all of the energy I had put out into the wrong places, all of the love and light I had given to pretty lies, rush back into me. I felt my own strength, my own power, my own dignity. I felt my sacred Mother pulsing through my veins.
My loves, while pretty lies may be easier to swallow in the short term, in the long term they rip you to shreds. There is a deep and profound beauty in seeing true. This year, I refuse to be willfully blind. I refuse to look at shit and call it gold. I refuse to pretend abuse is love, victimization and manipulation are relationships. Painting ugly truths with pretty words doesn’t make them any more beautiful. Calling a snake a dove doesn’t make it any more gentle. It just makes it more likely to kill you.
P.S. Because I always add a song to my blog, this is the one that popped into my head. Cheesy eighties tripe or not, it’s an honest prayer.