Anyone who knows me or has read my work is probably aware that I am fairly obsessed with myth, especially the myths of Hades/Persephone, Osiris/Isis, Jesus/Mary Magdalene. All of these myths are resurrection myths. To me, all of these stories echo the same truth—love is stronger than death.
As a girl, I was both fascinated and repelled by Egyptian culture. Their fixation on death seemed dark and macabre, and yet, I was still drawn to the mysterious beauty I sensed just below the surface. I didn’t really begin to study it until, as an adult, I started dreaming the stories. (Weird, I know. Ask me about my dreams sometime. They’re nuts.) The Isis/Osiris myth is complex and sometimes confusing. I’ve read myriad versions, tried to find the details that are consistent, and in many ways, made it my own. Here is my simplistic summary of an incredibly nuanced tale.
In the Isis/Osiris story, Egypt is a dark place where cruelty and cannibalism reign. The benevolent, beautiful Osiris wanders the realm, healing it with his sacred music and teaching the people the way of peace. He and his wife Isis rule over Egypt with grace and love. But Osiris is tricked by his jealous, loveless brother Set into climbing into a golden coffin. Set says that if Osiris fits in the coffin, he can keep it, so in a manner of speaking, Osiris is killed by his own greed. As soon as he climbs in, Set closes the coffin, and Osiris suffocates inside. Set makes himself the ruler of Egypt and quickly transforms it into hell.
Set dismembers Osiris, and his devoted wife Isis wanders the world, wailing and gathering his parts. When she has them all, she reanimates them long enough to make love with Osiris. She hovers over him, a hawk-woman, and conceives Horus, a hawk-child, who is considered the reincarnation of Osiris. But Horus (Osiris 2.0) has been purified. He carries his mother’s love and courage in his DNA. He has passed through the gates of death into life again. He is not driven by mortal greed, and when he comes of age, he defeats Set, banishes him to the desert, and brings Egypt into the light.
To me, the most beautiful part of this story is the fact that Isis’s love is the bridge between life and death, corruption and purity. Love is the thing that turns greedy Osiris into pure Horus, a force capable of saving the world. Love is the gateway.
I write from Isis’s perspective often.
FROM ISIS TO OSIRIS, AS HE SCREAMED IN HIS SARCOPHAGUS
My king, the coffin they forged for you was soundproof,
but still, I heard you crying as you died.
In my dreams, I see the sacred letters I wrote to you
whipped by hell’s winds, heaven’s words sent skittering
into the hands of monsters who read them and roar,
their triple chins rippling.
They rip my love born pages ragged
with their festering, yellow teeth.
I see you entombed, the walls of your prison
closing in, crushing you.
I watch your flesh fall away, weep at the way your bones
grow brittle near to breaking.
I see the needles and the powders.
I see you try. I see you die.
Their lie has grown large.
It has become the Godzilla that swallowed Tokyo.
My love, alone in my crude boat, I ride winds blown by God.
I sail on torrents of my mother’s breath
to safe nest after safe nest.
Every place my mother has made for me is a wonder,
The month before Beauty of the Broken was released, I had drinks with a friend who’d met me years before, when I weighed about 30 pounds less than I do now. I was a size 8 then. Now, I’m a size 12. We were discussing my impending book tour, and he said, “Don’t you want to lose weight? Don’t you want to present your best body to the world?”
I’m sure he meant well, but the question rocked me. First of all, after spending years wrestling an eating disorder into submission, I was finally pretty a-ok with the way my body as it was, so hearing I definitively needed to lose weight was upsetting. Secondly, it made me nervous about standing in front of bunches of people talking about my books, because I wondered if they’d be thinking about the size of my thighs instead of listening to what I had to say.
I wasn’t always a curvy girl. When I was growing up, I was skinny. Boys teased me by calling me Scrawny Tawni. But when puberty hit, all that changed. I am not a naturally thin woman. I can get skinny if I really try (i.e. go on dangerous diets, throw up, work out three hours a day), but if I eat healthy foods and work out normally, my body tends to be about a size 12. I’ve always though that was a curse. For many years, my curvy shape was the bane of my existence. I saw myself as inherently flawed. I was 100% sure that every time I walked into a room, people were secretly disgusted by my hideous, flabby, decidedly un-supermodel self.
Speaking of modeling, I dabbled in modeling (and, I’m embarrassed to say, pageantry) in my teens and 20s. I was told I had a great face, but if I wanted to really make a go of a career, I was going to have to lose about 20 pounds. At that time, I had barfed my way into weighing about 40 pounds less than I do now.
So a Tawni that weighed 60 pounds less than the current Tawni would have been an acceptable underwear model. A Tawni that weighed 60 pounds less than the current Tawni was pretty enough to be seen in a bikini. If I embrace that version of what I should be, I am presently carrying around an extra half of a person, or a medium-sized German shepherd, everywhere I go. Every time I put on lingerie, there is an extra half a person sticking out beneath the lace. Every time I slip into a bikini, that German shepherd bites me.
When my dad died, the service was standing room only, and as person after person tearfully told me how my father had changed their lives, I realized I wanted to do something more with my life than be pretty. So I gave up on the idea of modeling. But I still felt pressured by the “cult of skinny” I’d absorbed in my short stint with pageantry/modeling. Truth be told, I’d absorbed the tenets of the cult long before that, when I was a little girl being bludgeoned by image after image of starving women presented as the ideal (and only) standard of beauty. But after my attempt to model, I felt even more pressured.
Pressured is an understatement. It’s sort of like saying victims of the Spanish Inquisition felt pressured by the iron maiden. Those ideas tortured me, played starring roles in my self-loathing, drove me to dream of cutting off pieces of my body so that it would be smaller and more acceptable, drove me to throwing up every time I ate, drove me to taking dangerous pills in hopes of making myself skinnier, drove me to running for hours, drove me to wanting to die.
I don’t remember when I stopped hating my body. It was a process. I released hating it gradually, as I learned to love all parts of me. I made a concerted effort to unbrainwash myself. I quit buying fashion magazines. I sought out images of gorgeous women who looked like me. I started to be nice to myself, to tell myself I was beautiful instead of ugly, no matter what size I was. When I worked out, I’d think things like, “I’m giving you this gift because I love you” instead of “You’re so ugly, you deserve to die, lose some fucking weight.” And all of that worked. I really did start to see a beautiful woman when I looked in the mirror.
So even though my friend’s question rocked me, I didn’t lose weight before my novel came out. And then I went on book tour. When you go on book tour, people take pictures of you. Much of the time, you are standing on a stage, and the audience members are seated below you, which means you look larger than life in the pictures. As I traveled the U.S., pictures of me showed up all over the internet, looking bigger than I thought I was. I’d like to say it didn’t bother me, but it did. A lot. One day, I spoke in front of 2,000 high school students. Before I read from Beauty of the Broken, I talked about my journey from would be self-murderer to staunch self-embracer. A newspaper ran a story about me, complete with photos taken from below. Ironically, after giving a day’s worth of stirring speeches about self-acceptance, I was aghast at the chubby woman I saw in the photos. I was mortified. (Here is the article in question, along with the accompanying photos.)
But after I spoke at that school, I received hundreds of letters from students who told me my talk had changed their lives. A large percentage of those letters were from young women. I’d spoken to some of them after the event, and many of them were my size, or bigger. And part of the reason they hated themselves is they thought they were too fat to be loved.
Today, I saw the cover of Sports Illustrated’s 2016 Swimsuit Issue. For the first time in history, it featured a model who is traditionally considered “plus size.” (What the hell is with that phrase, by the way? Plus indicates addition. What is a plus-sized woman adding to herself? Another half a person? A German shepherd? At one point does a person go from being just a person to being a person plus some of something else?) Cover model Ashley Graham is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. She’s also a size 16.
As I stared at her, someone who looked like me, gazing out at me from that cover that is, in many people’s minds, the epitome of the American beauty standard, tears welled. It was like I was finally being granted permission by society at large just to be. Not to be Tawni that would be pretty if she lost weight, but to be Tawni who is pretty just as she is. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t have the power to fully grant myself that permission without seeing that image. But I didn’t. I was 98% there, but Ashley Graham gave me that final 2%.
And finally, finally, I had an answer to my friend’s question.
No, I do not want to lose weight. This is my best body. This is the body I was given by my Creator, and it is a perfectly lovable, breathtaking body, a body that looks like the bodies of many of my beautiful sisters in this world. My sisters do not need to see another skinny woman standing on a stage. Our culture has more than enough of those. Our idea of beauty is skewed dramatically in that direction. And skinny girls are pretty. But I am also pretty. And so are my sisters who are my size, and bigger. I want them to look at me and think, “Well, if she looks like that, and she loves herself, maybe I can look like me and love me too.”
By refusing to lose weight, I grant myself, and those that look like me, permission to be. By refusing to lose weight, maybe, just maybe, one of those girls who sits in my audience will decide she’d rather live her life than obsess about her size. Maybe one of those girls will decide not to throw up that day because Tawni said she was beautiful just like she was. If my body is going to be presented to any part of my world, I’m going to make a real present of it, and I’m going to bury a little something extra in the package, like that candy bar your grandma sticks under the sweater she gives you at Christmas. Along with my curvy body, I give you the possibility that whether you are 100 pounds or 200 pounds or 500 pounds, you are breathtaking exactly as you are.
Give that gift back to me now. Be what you are, and love it. We could tag team each other forever with this “I am beautiful just like I am” thing. If we all presented the body we have now as our best body, imagine what a pretty world that would be.
It came to me yesterday as I drove from Los Angeles to Albuquerque, from one of my heart’s homes to another. I voice dictated it while watching my beloved desert landscape glide by outside my windows. I know poems aren’t as popular as prose, so I don’t expect a bunch of hits for this one, but my Magdalene poems are precious to me. They feel like they come to me from a higher place, and when I write them, strange coincidences surrounding the history of Mary Magdalene always appear in my world. (The glorious painting, The Lamentations of Mary Magdalene on the Body of Christ, was completed by Arnold Böcklin in 1868.)
today I heard your tombstone crack.
The sound of your resurrection
shook the pillars of the sky.
Stars shook loose like gemstones
from the velvet cloak of night.
Death trembled and died.
You have been uncrucified.
And now my king,
I have gone to prepare a place for you. Come to me there,
of winding stairs, cobbled streets, and holy waterfalls.
I remember you best that day when you gave the most precious pieces of yourself to that first unworthy boy. Or he took them. I still haven’t hammered out a cohesive timeline of how it happened, exactly. I don’t think it really matters. I know he was drunk, and his eyes were red. So were you. I know that you were crying. I know that “Stairway to Heaven” was playing. There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold. I know that I couldn’t listen to it for years because when I heard it, instantly I would become you, watching him walk out of the room throwing “Don’t get dressed” over his shoulder, as if you were a slave, a bag of flesh, a whore.
You got dressed anyway. I’m proud of you for that. Even then, you had a strength about you. Your bones were made of iron. You just didn’t know it yet. You wiped your face, pulled on your white blouse and stonewashed jeans. Because you had been crying, your eyes were that vivid blue, the way they get after they storm. You were beautiful. But you didn’t know that either.
I remember you best that day because it changed everything for us. It took us decades to fight our way out of the hell we crawled into when we accepted that dumb boy’s version of what we were. We lived in that bedroom for a long, long time. It became our prison cell. Again and again, we looked up to find his red eyes staring down at us. We hated him for years. Sometimes, we still do. I wish I could say we’ve gotten all zen, but we aren’t quite there yet. Some days we still want to kick his ass.
I have good news though. He’s ugly now. I saw his picture on the internet, an invention you can’t possibly begin to understand. Just know that someday, almost all of the men that abuse you will end up ugly, and you will see their pictures, and you will gloat. You are like that sometimes. You try not to wish bad on those that hate you, but look, honey, you’re only human. I love you anyway, even the ugly parts of you.
People write these letters because they want to warn their younger selves about things, but I’m not going to tell you not to walk into that boy’s bedroom. It was dark, and it ripped you up the middle. It paved the way for worse and worse versions of him to careen into your life and break you again and again. But the part of you that believed you deserved to be abused had to learn to fight, and I don’t think it would have if you hadn’t walked into that room. Life is school. One of your most important classes was “Learning to Love You.” He was your first (but not your worst) teacher.
I have bad news and good news. The bad news is I’m way fatter now. The good news I don’t care. I don’t throw up anymore. I never, ever think of hurting my precious body. I never let anyone else hurt me either. Hurt us. You still live inside me, and you’ve finally stopped crying on that bed. You left the dumb boy’s bedroom eventually. You danced down the street, singing, watching the butterflies wing. You sing every day now. You know how pretty you are.
Speaking of pretty, like I said, you are. Speaking of fat, you’re not. You’re curvy though, and it’s beautiful. That whole skinny = pretty (happy) thing is bullshit. (P.S. You pick up a mean fucking swearing habit. Sorry.) You’ll get really skinny for a while, and it won’t make you happy. You’ll hate yourself more when you are a size 7 than ever before. That’s as skinny as you get. You never make it to 120 pounds even though you tape the number on your fridge, even though you run miles and miles, even though you throw up. You are a failure as an anorexic (thank God). Your love for ice cream runs too deep. It’s one of the best things about you, your ability to drink life down, swallow it whole. You have no gift for self-deprivation. Bulimia can only take you so far into slow suicide.
Speaking of suicide, shut up about that shit. Really. I hate to go off on you, but honey, the fact that you can even imagine hurting the precious creature you are pisses me right off, the way it would piss me off if you kicked a dog or ran over a baby. You would never do those things, I know. You need to understand you are just as worthy of love as dogs and babies are. You need to find out that self-loathing isn’t humility. It’s blasphemy.
But I’m jumping ahead. You will find out. You do. I’m going to fast forward to right now, my love. You sell books, baby! You do it. It takes years and years, but you make it happen, because you are powerful like that, and when you want something, you never quit, no matter how hard it is. You leave that boy’s bedroom, and you travel the world. You see everything there is to see. You do everything there is to do. You’re amazing someday. You’re amazing now. You’re just a little blind. But like the blind men in the Jesus stories, you find sight.
Speaking of Jesus, follow that rock band. Love that Jesus-y man. It will be the best thing that ever happened to you. It will make you the woman you were born to be. Do it as long as it’s good, and when it stops being good, when it starts to be something that makes you less instead of more, walk away. Get good at walking. Leave when things are bad. There is no nobility in staying and suffering. Life is too short for that shit.
Because baby, it’s flying by. I’m 44. Our lucky number. I still see numbers as colors, and four is still yellow. This year has been a great big burst of sun. We just sold our third book. We’re going to live in France for a while. Our skin is starting to be wrinkly, but I think it’s pretty. Our bones are wearing out, maybe because we’ve walked away so often. Maybe because of all the running. Maybe because you drive a truck through the wall of a McDonald’s play place when your brakes go out. Maybe because all of the above. But our bones hurt every night, and it is clear to me that our earth suit is starting to die. Slowly.
And I said I wouldn’t tell you to change anything, but maybe just change this. Spend those moments you wish you were dead living. Because death will come for you, my love. It’s coming for me now. Maybe I will get 44 more miraculous years, but someday, I will die. My body is no longer allowing me an illusion of immortality.
Right now, I’m in a little paradise overlooking an ocean in California, and the waves are singing our name. I take time to see them for real, taste the salt air, because I know someday my eyes will close for the last time. Someday, Tawni will never see waves again, so I hold on to them, but not too tightly, because I am not afraid of death. I am not afraid of losing. Even the worst losses come bearing gifts.
Because of losses, I have learned to let go. I have learned that glory and beauty are never wrapped up in any particular moment, any situation. Stasis is early death. Living things change. Trust the river of life to carry you where you need to be, from glory to glory, as Daddy’s Bible said. Trust magic to weave itself effortlessly into the fabric of every moment you live. Don’t hold on tight. To men. To marriages. To houses. To your children. When the time comes, let your children go make their own mistakes, learn their lessons, just like you learned yours.
You have two kids. They are beautiful. The first is a perfect girl with blond curls, just like you already dreamed. (Your dreams are, in fact, psychic. Trust them.) You name her Desiree just like you said you would. The second is a boy. You name him Tim, after your dad. To remember him.
Because precious girl, he dies. A few years from now, on a sunny day, you will be getting ready to go to the zoo with him, and your phone will ring. When you answer, your mom will say, “Honey, your dad had a heart attack.” And you will throw the phone. You will race to him, thinking he’s still alive, but he won’t be. He’ll be dead and blue on a gurney when you get there, and you will never forget the feel of his motionless chest against your cheek as you weep. You will always see the cuts on his hands that will never heal. I want to tell you the pain goes away, but it doesn’t. Some wounds hurt for life. This one does. It’s been 23 years since that day, and I still cry when I write about it.
We go to his grave in that dried out desert cemetery often, even though he told us not to, even though he said he wouldn’t be there. He is, maybe because he’s always there when we need him, even after he’s dead. He comes to us, flies overhead screeching, a hawk. Every time we want him, a hawk appears. Every time we need comfort, he comes to us in our dreams. And even though his death is the worst thing that ever happens to us, it comes bearing gifts. From this we learn that love is stronger than death. From this, we learn that death is an end that gives way to another beginning. The third book you publish is about his death, or at least what you felt when he died, though you give your pain to an imaginary character. Your third book is about the impermanence of death and the endlessness of life.
The way I see it, after we die, there will be another you, another 17-year-old Tawni, though that will not be your name. And while I can’t change what you did in this life, maybe I can forward this to you in the next one. Next life, remember the lessons you learned. Don’t give yourself away for free. You are precious. You are beautiful. You are perfect. Only those who are willing to love, honor, and respect you deserve a piece of you. We have “beloved” tattooed on our wrist now, in the place you used to want to carve the word “whore,” because we know what a miracle we are. Hold onto this lesson. Next life, maybe I will ask God to make sure that a birthmark resembling the tattoo appears on your wrist so you never forget, even though you have passed through the gateway of death and birth again.
And next life, when you wake up in the middle of the night crying because you think your daddy is going to die, give him the poem you write to say thank you instead of shoving it into a drawer. This life, you will read it at his funeral, and he will hear, but still, it won’t be the same. Next life, trust yourself. You know things.
Next life, love yourself, baby. Next life, never settle for anything less than pure, blissful, glorious love. Next life, don’t give your heart to monsters. Next life, carry this, the weight and truth of my love for you, in your bones. Maybe you already do. Maybe last life, I wrote you this letter too, and maybe you got it that day in that bedroom, and maybe that was the iron in your bones that gave you the strength to get up and get dressed.
Your daddy was right about many things, baby, the biggest one being love is the most powerful thing there is.
And after all of this, all of the advice and the remonstrations and the affirmations, I find I only have one thing to say. Beautiful girl with milky white skin (skip the tanning, for God’s sake) and glorious, rich, resplendent curves, queen-in-the-making with a mind sharper than knives and a heart made of rainbows, never forget this, no matter what happens.
The other night, I was talking to my daughter Desi, who is one of my best friends and arguably knows me better than anyone in the world. I mentioned that a man who has been pursuing me had called, and since she knew I’d been avoiding him (as I am prone to doing when men pursue me), she asked if I’d talked to him. I told her I’d let it go to voicemail.
She said, “Mom, why don’t you just tell him the truth?”
Perplexed, I asked, “What’s the truth?”
“You’re a theosexual,” she answered.
“Theosexual?” I asked.
“It means you’re only sexually attracted to Jesus,” she answered.
I laughed hard, partly because she’s so damn witty, but also because it’s the best, most honest answer I’ve found to the “Why are you still single?” question I so often hear.
Desi is right. I am theosexual. My spirituality is the center of my life. Not in a traditionally religious way. I’m decidedly bored (and sometimes even repulsed) by most traditional religion. But my interaction with the sublime realm, and the transformation it has brought about in my person, has left me fairly incapable of authentically engaging in anything that resembles the power struggles I’ve referred to as romantic relationships in the past.
I thought I was crazy for feeling this way until I spoke to my friend and boss, Elizabeth Ayres. She apparently has taken a spiritual path very similar to mine and has been theosexual for years. (She loved the term.) I don’t think she’ll take issue with me saying this here since her spiritual history is detailed in her memoir, Home After Exile: A Spiritual Memoir, which I have never read but am going to read posthaste now that I know it exists. I felt better after I talked to her, more normal for feeling like unless a sexual relationship is inherently endued with the sacred, I’m just not interested.
I haven’t always been this way. I think I always wanted to be this way, but I was scared that was weird, so I ran the other direction instead, only to find through a lot of agonizing trial and error that most of what our society offers up in the form of romantic relationships has no appeal for me. It’s not because I don’t like sex. I do. I love it, actually. I love it enough to want it to mean something.
I don’t want to hook up with someone because he has the right plumbing, a job, and is available for Friday night dates. I don’t want to slap some random man into the imaginary boyfriend-shaped box that society is telling me looms next to me. There is no boyfriend-shaped box. I’m whole, right here, right now. Just me.
I don’t want to expose the most vulnerable, beautiful parts of me to someone who doesn’t appreciate and love me on a profound level. If you want to play around, I get it. I’m not judging you. I’ve done my fair share of that in the past. But it’s not what I want anymore. Not here. Not now. I won’t be anyone’s playdate. My precious bodyheartmindsoul is not anyone’s toy.
I don’t want to give my power away to someone who isn’t on the same spiritual and intellectual wavelength as I am. In the past, my romantic relationships have been largely destructive. They have managed to again and again take my pure, authentic, beautiful, passionate, free experience of life and turn into a mundane, boring, controlled hell. I’m not risking that again. Life is too good. If I ever engage in a romantic relationship again, it’s going to be with someone who will take the sacred ride with me, not bring it to a screeching halt. Those kinds of men are few and far between. If mine turns up, we’ll ride, baby. But until then, I’m a-ok riding out this life thing alone.
Alone. I use that word loosely. I am rarely alone unless I choose to be. My life is rich with people who love me, support me, and engage with me on a deeply intimate level. But I don’t have a romantic partner. Does that make me alone? I don’t know. I feel way less lonely now than I ever did when I was trapped in houses with various men who didn’t see me, didn’t know me, didn’t want me to be anything but a bobble.
Speaking of being a bobble, I’m done being men’s dirty little secret. I’ve done that before too, and I’m not proud of it. I’ve allowed men to have secret romantic relationships with me in private, for various reasons, and then pretend I didn’t matter in public. Fuck that noise. If you want me, shout my name from the rooftops. If not, you don’t deserve me. I’m too good to be anyone’s dirty little secret. I’m not going to give you the best parts of me in private so you can take them and give them away to the people you are willing to acknowledge in public. I’m precious. I’m a queen. I won’t settle for anything less than a king. Kings are brave. Kings tell the truth. Kings love authentically with all they are.
Maybe all this means I’m more ready for a relationship than I ever have been. Or maybe it means I will never be in a relationship again. I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t care. I just know that the way I am living now makes me feel more whole, and more true, and more at peace, and more joyful than I ever have.
Desi pegged me. I’m theosexual. And proud.
P.S. My song for the day. It is my romantic history summed up in music video form.