AWOL ICON: A LOVE SONG WITHOUT MUSIC

imageI vowed if I went, I’d be loving you from the other side of the world, and I airplaned away, wearing only fresh wounds and your worn out boots.

I marinated in swimming holes until brackish water raisined my fingers. I plunged under, past pirate ships and sunken plunder, kicked to the core of the earth, kissed jellyfish, liking the the electric lick of their transparent tongues on my lips. I filched skeletons from coral beds, red in the light of distant underwater volcanoes. Even in the black heart of the ocean, oysters purpled and blued. The pearls in them shone like halos of Christ. And your ghost, a confused Jesus, walked under the water instead of on it. I couldn’t read the book of his face, couldn’t tell if he thought I was a honeyed twist of Magdalene’s hair, or the hammer that drove in his nails.

I’d kiss your feet if you’d let me. I’d walk across the ocean. I’d Lazarus my love for you to life, because it was never dead anyway, not even sleeping. I suffocate it between my palms at night, pinch its nostrils, leave it for dead. The next day, it’s exploding my head again, emerging from its grave, its shroud a cloud that settles over my eyes until all I see is white. Thunder breaks something, and it’s not just the sky.

I said if I left, when I died, I’d wait on the other side for you. Death doesn’t scare me now. I dream river bottoms, soggy with longing and won’t-flinch vows. I dream your eyes. I dream red flowers shuddering cold in the fist of winter. I dream you didn’t mean the things you said. I dream you wish my love for you un-dead. I dreams knives. I dream fire. I dream my toes trembling on a circus wire. I dream myself falling, and I don’t care much. My skin doesn’t pink. My heart doesn’t wing. My mouth won’t scream.

I used to know the taste of crimson. I used to sweat the smell of light. I could have divided every molecule by a million miracles, laid them out of the table two-by-two, amoebas entering the ark of a strip of bark, or making a raft of a dollop of grass in a glassy puddle. Now I measure my life like this: _________ days until I die.

Last night, dream me wondered why you were watching. “I’m loving you from the other side of the world,” you said. I took your blessed head in my hands, pulled the thorns from your graying hair, wound dandelions between your toes, anointed your skin with with holy water, made your kneecaps into altars to Mary.

We are growing old. I see my wrinkles in the mirror of your face. There is a place just to the left of my to ribcage where I dug a hole and I buried every word you ever whispered. I have memorized the whorls of your fingertips. My lips have traced and tasted every bump of your tongue. Still, your name to me sounds like yellow. Still, I keep the faith. Still, I testify: the only amazing grace I ever knew was sewn like lace around the edges of your teeth.

There was never an inch of your secret sins that weren’t mine times ten. There was never a scrap of your sacred skin I didn’t know how to love.

“Scare Away the Dark”: Of Apocalyptic Dreams, Beth Kephart, and Giraffe-esque Muses Named She

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The Muses and Masks of Beth Kephart, including a giraffe named “She.”

Last week, I dreamed the end of the world again. It came the way it always comes in my dreams. Rising water no one can escape even if she scales Everest. A liquid infused with horror, black and clotted, and the only thing to do is set up your lawn chair, hold the hands of your loved ones, and wait for it to swallow you. Always, my father, who passed years ago, is waiting for me at the place where I go with my children to die. Always, he tells me death is easy–it took 12 seconds for him–but I might throw up a little. Always, I ask him, “Daddy, is there a hell?” And I wake with the realization that hell is that water, that rising tide of hatred and horror that is consuming the world while we walk around in trances, staring at screens, forgetting to be alive.

As my dreams indicate, I’m scared. Every time another bomb goes off, I’m scared. Every time another school gets shot up, I’m scared. I’m scared at the prospect of a petty, angry man who can’t stop obsessing over someone making fun of his hand size being given the power to press the button on weapons of mass destruction. I’m scared every time a black boy or man gets mown down in cold blood, and white men take to the Internet to vilify the victims, even if the victims are 12-year-old boys. “Well, he did get sent to detention for rough housing that one time, you know.” I’m scared when police officers, just trying to do their jobs and make the world safer, public servants who have nothing to do with those indefensible murders, are mown down in the streets. I’m scared that we are willing to rape the only planet we have so that we can save our leftover fast food in Tupperware for a few days before we throw it away.

I’m so scared that yesterday, I thought something I’d never dared think before. Maybe humankind is a blight on the earth’s sacred face. Maybe we deserve what’s coming for us, the man-made apocalypse we all seem so hell-bent on manifesting in the names of gods who stand at the edges of our solar system weeping for the planet destined to die at the hands of highly-evolved apes, who in their all-encompassing need to be right used their expanded brain size to manufacture weapons capable of destroying their planet, thinking, “Who cares as long as my enemies, those Christians or Muslims or atheists or Jews or Republicans or Democrats or blacks or whites or men or women go out screaming?” God bless America. Allah Akbar. Down with the pigs. God is dead. All lives matter, mother fuckers.

Yesterday, after I thought my dark thought, the one about maybe we deserve to die, I went to the home of Beth Kephart, a brilliant writer I met while teaching at Rosemont College’s MFA Retreat in June. As soon as I heard her read there, I knew I’d stumbled on rare treasure. Her prose was like nothing I’d ever heard before. Intricate. Adventurous. Mesmerizing. Breathtaking. I told her so in so many words, and so began a friendship I hope will last a long, long time.

When I arrived at her home, I felt instantly swallowed by something “other,” something subtle and artistic and loving and beautiful, the exact opposite of hell. She fed me gorgeous cheeses and fruits and lemonade and showed me around her home and heart. As she spoke of writing and truth and integrity and beauty, I felt something. Hope. It went like this: sure, there are dictators and liars and cheats in the world. But there are Beth Kepharts too. Writing away, smiling softly, gently and unobtrusively weaving their squares of heaven and sewing them into the quilt of humanity. And as long as there are Beths, there is hope.

Beth isn’t much interested in fame and fortune, as incredibly gifted, prolific, and lauded as she is. She’s interested in art. She’s interested in authenticity. She’s interested in humanity. She showed me her shelves and shelves of books. Books she had written. Books she had read. Books she uses to teach. As she spoke, I looked at the carefully chosen pieces of art hanging on her walls, masks and glass figurines and an elegant wooden giraffe named “She” that Beth called her muse. Every object looked as if it was born to sit in exactly the place that Beth had placed it, as if when she found it, it had been waiting expectantly for her care and attention, as if that giraffe knew on some level that as soon as Beth saw it, it would become more than a hunk of wood. It would become a muse. That giraffe knew Beth would love it to life. Such is the redemptive power of an artist who loves.

In the presence of Beth’s dedication and artistry, I felt like a mere dabbler, but it didn’t make me feel small. It reminded me why I do what I do. I write because I want to save the world. I teach because I want to save the world. Something in my soul has become obsessed with the prospect of saving this place before it’s too late. The best hope I have seen for our planet is in the hearts of loving artists, whose hands have the power to cradle minds and change them, say, “Hey, this is what it’s like to be me, not so different from you, can we put down the stones we picked up to slay one another in the Stone Age, can we topple the thrones, can we take a minute to see past the you vs. me, because in the big scheme of things, you are me, trapped as we are together on this speck spinning in space, 196,940,400 square miles of real estate, that’s all we’ve got, and we have to find some way to share it peacefully.”

Or else. Or else hell. Or else the hatred swallows us, and we all drown.

One of my amazing creative writing students showed me this video last week when I was teaching a pre-college workshop at Lehigh University. Most of the time, the videos I share on this blog are supplementary, you know, just in case you’re into music. But this one isn’t. It’s life changing. Please watch it. As Beth reminded me, as my student reminded me, as this video reminded me, there is hope. And it lives in us.

“If we all light up, we can scare away the dark.”

INTRODUCING MY THIRD LITERARY LOVE CHILD, THE LONG RIDE HOME!

The Long Ride Home coverI won’t lie.  Yesterday sucked.  It was one of those days where you feel like life whips out a bat and bashes you repeatedly in the face for no apparent reason.  You’re standing there screaming, “Stop!  Wait! What did I dooooooo????”  And life shows no mercy.  The sucker just keeps having at you, man.  To top it all off, I lost my new, very expensive glasses and was stumbling around half blind, thinking blurry thorn bushes were cats and trying to pet them.

In desperation, I called my poor friend Polyxeni, whose job description of late seems to be “scraping Tawni off the floor.”  She talked me down from “hysterical” to “semi-hysterical” before we hung up. Then I had a “you’d better do something, I’m fucking dying here” conversation with God as I was falling asleep (my best prayers seem to be the most irreverent, I suppose because they are honest) and fell asleep sobbing, feeling hopeless and cranky and generally gobsmacked.

I had a “bad day” hangover when I woke up this morning.  My head hurt, and my eyes were puffy, and I didn’t want to get up, but I had to because I had to teach. I was sulky and unenthusiastic as I got ready for my day, but as I was walking across campus (I’m teaching at Lehigh University this month) toward breakfast, one of my students saw me.  She was carrying my first book, Beauty of the Broken, and she yelled across the street, “I love this so much!  It’s amazing!  I can’t stop reading it!”  Which perked me up a little.  Then I had French toast and coffee, and things got even better.  (As a side note, if you aren’t the kind of person who masks her pain with butter, syrup, and copious quantities of caffeine, I’m not sure I want to know you.)  And then, I started teaching, and my students are kinda kick ass, so I felt a bit better again.

After I worked through some exercises with my class, I gave them a writing assignment and checked my email because I’d be damned if I was going to do anything work-related at just that moment.  (Sorry, work.  I was grumpy.)  I had a letter from my editor at Sourcebooks.  It said all kinds of nice things, telling me how the design team at Sourcebooks was in love with my new novel, and that she thought it was really commercially viable, and she was going to be sending editorial notes later this week.

But this—this, boys and girls—was the kicker.  She sent me the cover design for my new novel, The Long Ride Home, which will be released in Summer 2017.  I made a little involuntary squealy noise and almost burst into tears because I loved it so much.  My class was somewhat startled by my sudden outpouring of strange noises, so I let them in on the secret, and they loved the cover as much as I do.

Here it is, kids.  My third-born literary love child.  I am so not sad anymore.  I sat in my chair all day, staring at my book cover, thinking what I would have given five years ago to be sitting in front of a classroom at Lehigh University besotted with the cover of my third book.  Why was I such a brat yesterday?  I am living the life of my dreams!

And P.S. I just called the pub where I ate lunch yesterday.  The have my glasses.  Score!

 

 

 

 

 

HAMLET’S QUESTION

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We answer it with “not to be,” losing our lives in screens, pixilated dreams set on never-ending cycles of “being is not enough,” but outside our darkened windows, purple flowers pulse in rocky pockets of hillsides, insisting on being in spite of our blindness, not needing to be seen in order generate pseudo-self-esteem, esteeming what is to be more than enough.

As if your one sacred life could ever be outdone by the photoshopped, calculated sheen of a perfume ad.  As if there was ever a meme that captured even a fraction of the awe you feel when you look at the face of the moon reflected to you, shattered and splintered, in a moaning mirror of sea.  As if the echoes of ancient stars, finally reaching our eyes after eons of travel through the watery, warped web of space-time, could ever be eclipsed by the fleeting, bleached smile of an already decaying celebrity.

Truth crashes all around you, in the molecules of air springing toward sun as you exhale, in the pebble that clattered down stone steps when you kicked it, in the water that lapped over your skin while you bathed.

You closed your eyes, went under, opened your perfect mouth, drank it down, let it boil in your sacred, starving belly.

You are hungry.  Step away from the dead dream screen.  Life waits for you. Swallow it whole.

WHY

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Me and my favorite word in the world.

The video below is wobbly, and the sound is bad, but it’s beautiful. It’s video taken the night a thunder storm knocked out the power in venue where Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers were scheduled to play, so they played in the parking lot. They are the band I followed for almost 20 years. I stopped counting the shows I saw a long time ago, but it was certainly more than a thousand.  In a recent interview, when I was asked what my favorite word was, I said, “Roger.”  Of course, the next question was, “Why?”

People often ask me why I love Roger so much, and I can never explain it.  I don’t really want to.  If I could cut open my soul and show you the part of me he woke up, you’d understand.  He, and this music, saved me.  I found him when I was 28, a small, scared, clinically depressed girl on the verge of suicide.  Magic happened to me when I found him, magic that only happens once in a lifetime.  Maybe sometimes never in a lifetime.  I got lucky, baby, when I found him.

For decades, I followed him around, letting his music wash over me and make me something new.  I saw the world.  I wrote my heart while sitting at rest stops and in airports and in dive bars waiting for him to take the stage (and finally sold some of my writings).

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I was on my way to a Roger show when I got a call from  my agent saying I had sold my first novel, Beauty of the Broken. I happened to be right by a sign that pointed me to a shrine to the Virgin Mary, so I stopped to say thank you.  This is me saying thank you that day.

I saw heaven.  And yes, I saw hell too, and I kinda feel like after all these years, I know the difference.  And he still falls solidly on the heaven side of my soul map, even after all I’ve seen.  He is still the brightest thing I’ve ever known.

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Me at a Roger show.  People made fun of me all the time for the way I lost myself at his shows.  I didn’t give a shit.  Sometimes, when you are saving your soul, you gotta do what you gotta do, never mind the rotten tomatoes being catapulted your way.  (In other news, I’m about as white as white can be.  This is the only dance move I know.  Ok, I can also do the funky chicken.  But only after a few glasses of wine.) 

And people get all mad when I say that he saved me, and they say, “No, YOU saved you.”  No, not really.  You have no idea.  You mean well.  You don’t want me to give my power away like that.  I am a strong woman, but it took something outside of me to save me. I was too far gone.  Sure, it’s brave to stand alone, but I think it’s even braver to admit your weakness, and ask for help, and I did that, and then, I found him.  It took heaven shot straight into my veins, via the medium of this man’s music, to bring an almost-dead girl back to life.  Sometimes, things that are bigger than us, outside of ourselves, save us.  That’s what makes the world so beautiful.  We are not islands.  We are not alone.  Sometimes people touch us and heal us.  Sometimes people sing us back to life.

And true magic, the kind that can break you open and make you what you were born to be, can find you when you walk into a church. But sometimes, your church comes to you, dressed up as something mundane, and the only way you recognize it is it burns your heart like nothing ever has before or will again.  If you are smart, you follow it, and you melt into it, like a worm melting into a cocoon, and finally, years later, you emerge, the goo have you having coalesced into something impossible, a flighted thing, a miraculous creature with wings.

He was my cocoon.  And my wings.  That’s why.  And I would still take a mother fucking bullet for him any day of the week.  And if you have something ugly to say about him, just don’t say it to me.

“Had I not know the darkness, I could not love the light.  Were it not for gravity, there would be no flight. Had I not lost the path, I would never find my way.  Equal parts my heart I gave to bloom and to decay.  With a rattle and a grind, I find I’m back at my favorite part.  Well, I may not be your kind if your kind is faint of heart.  When the world is sick and tired, and it’s begging you to fall apart, we may be hanging by a thread, but now we’re state of the art.”–Roger Clyne, “State of the Art”

For Creative Writing Students: What Your Teacher Wishes You Knew

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Me and some of the wonderful graduate students at Rosemont College

First of all, you are some of the best things about our lives.  We love teaching you our precious craft. We love listening as you expound on the virtues (or follies) of the Hemingway, Joyce, Walker, Atwood you’ve just read.  We love watching your work evolve during the time that you are with us.  We love hanging out with you and hearing about your life.  We love learning from you.

Second of all, when we tell you we admire your work, we think you have talent, we want you to keep writing, we mean it.  Part of the reason we do this teaching creative writing thing, despite the fact that the money is normally shit, is it’s amazing to hold in our hands the work of someone whose voice is strong, whose language is lovely and lively, who has a story to tell.  It’s like holding a crystal ball.  We see your future as a world-changer unfold, and those of us who are sentimental like I am can barely blink back the tears.  We are so lucky to be a part of your journey.

Third of all, we feel wretched when you ask us to read extra work for you, and we have to say no.  We hate disappointing you. We hate having to reassure you that it’s not you, it’s us.  If we had the time, we’d read every word you wrote, scribble sheaves of notes in the margins of every page.

The problem is, we don’t have the time.  Some of us are full time, tenure track professors, buckling under the weight of teaching classes and holding office hours and attending academic meetings and reading, reading, reading our students’ work, while still trying to find time to write.  Some of us are adjunct professors, juggling numerous classes at various universities, getting paid almost nothing, trying to cobble together a living that allows us to keep doing what we love.

Either way, we have to plan and execute our classes, which takes tons of time, and we must read stories, essays, and poems written by all of our students.  We must ponder them and edit them and attempt to give constructive feedback on them. (As a rule, I read every story/essay I receive at least twice, often three times, so I’m coming from a thoughtful place instead of just spouting bullshit when I give my students feedback.  Most of the teachers I know do the same.)

One semester, I had over 100 students.  Even if each of my students turned in one story that semester, I would have had my hands full.  But of course each of them turned in way more than one story. I literally spent every waking moment I wasn’t teaching responding to my students’ work.  If I wanted to focus on my own writing at all (which was really the point of studying writing all these years), I’d have to carve time out of what should have been my sleeping hours.  And if I wanted to read for pleasure, trying to keep abreast of what was happening in the industry I’ve devoted my life to?  Well, sayonara, sleep.  You can see where I’m going with this.

Last week, I taught at an amazing five-day-long MFA retreat at Rosemont College in Philadelphia.  My job was to read 20-page manuscript excerpts, edit them, and hold hour-long consultation sessions with each of the 13 students who had turned in a manuscript.  I love this job.  I’ve done it for two years now, and both times, it’s been the highlight of my year. Rosemont College has an amazing, innovative MFA program, headed up by the brilliant Carla Spataro, and its students never fail to produce work that blows my mind.  I am consistently inspired by the manuscripts I receive and often have to work hard to come up with constructive criticism for the students.  Their writing is just that fresh, that good.

As part of my job, I also was required (and delighted) to give a film interview/reading, attend other faculty film interviews, faculty and student readings, and various dinners.   Additionally, I had the joy of meeting with an MFA student for whom I am serving as thesis advisor.  And I had to keep up with the online classes I’m teaching for another school (which I usually did when I should have been sleeping). In other news, I had to find time to work with the various private students/clients I’ve taken on from various places.  Oh, and did I mention a local charity auctioned off a dinner with me (which I was, by the way, thrilled to donate)?  So while I loved every minute of my work, I was very, very busy.

During a consultation, a beautiful, talented MFA student heard the praise I gave her and asked, understandably, if I’d like to read the entire 150 pages she had written so I could get a better idea of the project.  Why wouldn’t she ask?  I loved her work so much.  Why wouldn’t I want to read more?

And I did want to read more.  So badly.  But I had to say no, explaining that while I would love to, I had no time to read extra work.  Her face fell.  She was embarrassed that she’d asked in the first place.  I could tell she thought that I was making excuses, that I didn’t really like her work as much as I said I did.  Of course, she wasn’t the only student to ask me to read her completed manuscript.  Had I said “yes” to her, I would have, in all fairness, had to say “yes” to all of them.  And then, I would have been a dirty, rotten liar, making impossible promises, because no way in hell would I have been able to read hundreds of extra pages, no matter how much sleep I decided to forgo.

When I was a creative writing student, I harbored vats of black, oozing self-doubt.  When my teachers said they loved my work but never asked to read more than the measly 20 pages I’d turned in, I thought it meant they didn’t really like it as much as they claimed.  But I now know that they did.  They too were drowning in oceans of never-ending reading and editing and teaching and consulting, trying to cobble together a living centered around the art they loved.

I bet they wished I knew what I now wish my own students knew.  I do love you.  I do love your work.  If I could save time in a bottle…ok, I’m veering off the the tracks into sappy 70s pop territory here.  But keep writing.  Keep honing that gorgeous voice of yours.  Keep showing up to class and getting/giving feedback.  And someday, your work will be devoured by all sorts of people.  Someday, we, your teachers, will be asking you to sign a first edition of that book you started in our class.  Someday, we’ll be able to say we knew you when.

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Me and my dear friend, author Jennifer Steil, who also taught at the Rosemont Retreat, sampling the  apple pie moonshine a student brought to one of the evening readings #jobperks