An explanation: At solstice, I often find myself writing about Persephone and Hades. In the original myth, Persephone, innocent goddess of spring and daughter of Demeter, is abducted by Hades, god of the underworld, who has fallen in love with her while watching her pick daffodils. She is taken to his realm where she eats seven pomegranate seeds. Because of this, she is condemned to spending seven months a year with him in the underworld, during which time, her bereaved mother rages and turns the earth to winter. In spring, Persephone rises to be with her mother again, and her mother’s rage and grief relent, giving birth to spring.
When I address myth in my poetry, I often find the love stories hidden beneath the horror. In many of my poems, Persephone loves Hades and spends her springs longing for him, hating the spring, hating the land of the living, wanting nothing more than to be whisked away to live with her beloved in hell again (yes, I know the Greek underworld was different than hell, but I’ve no problem with conflating mythologies), because where he is, heaven is, no matter what the landscape. To me, it speaks to the fact that heaven has nothing to do with gold streets and pearls and everything to do with love, and hell has nothing to do with fire and everything to do with lovelessness. Heaven is the place your beloved lives, even if that place happens to be hell.
This is Persephone’s prayer of yearning. It kept me up all night. I hope she will let me sleep now. I’m tired.
Beloved Hades, when I left you, I didn’t grieve. I became grief. And grief is a mausoleum. It will suffocate you if you live there for too long.
(I’ve almost gained my heavenly home.)
The truth is this pink, petaled thing I’ve become was never spring. I slap lilacs over sackcloth and ash, cover the gashes on my guts with blue butterflies. I smile, unwilling to soil my pain, the only piece of you I have left, with the feckless pity of strangers. I blender my brain, strain stains of sin from my soul, let hope turn to rust in my hands. Sand streams through the hourglass, but never fast enough.
Life fades. I am unafraid.
(My spirit loudly sings.)
I have stayed in this mortal realm too long, I think, sinking in the quicksand of thrown bones and tea leaves. When I dream, the seams of reality unravel. I travel to places you sleep. The underworld. Modern Mexico. Ancient Greece. We speak of the wonders of anatomy, the miracle of flight, the mystery of spontaneous combustion. I wish never to wake.
(The holy ones. Behold they come.)
Daybreak brings the nightmare. My unrebuffed brushes with consciousness are an endless, silent scream. Every minute is a crucifixion. Seconds flay me. I see myself a serene, splendid skeleton, sleeping in tall grass, strands of sunshine woven through the intricacies of my flowering phalanges.
(I hear the sound of wings.)
Still, it seems you will save me. In visions, you ride a boat away from the dock, all you’ve left in the underworld hidden in a sock, and sail up the River Styx, searching for your Persephone.
(Oh, come, angel band.)
The memory of the scar on your chin keeps me alive, just barely. I thrust my hands into hives, never mind the stings, starved for sweet things, bee wings and honey. I wile my hours away by the water, picking white flowers and downing pomegranate seeds by the pound, praying you’ll rebound, ricochet my way, re-waylay me.
(Come and around me stand.)
If you were a hell king, why was the fire in your eyes the only thing that ever made me live? Existence without you is a waking death. You are my life. You are my sanity. You are my breath.
Time unwinds. Behind me, I feel your heat.
(Oh, bear me away on your snow white wings to my immortal home.)
So people think that because I’m a writer who wins awards and travels the world, I’m rich. Anyway, people who aren’t writers think that. People who are know the truth. I’m living paycheck to unpredictable paycheck, always dependent on the next miracle, which, more often than not, arrives just in the nick of time. My life is an inexplicable wonder, an exquisite medley of last minute rescues and random kindnesses stitched together to make a thing of erratic, but inarguably awesome, beauty. I do stints in picturesque palaces in Los Angeles and linger for months in centuries-old homes in medieval French villages. I teach at renowned conferences and institutions. I meet brilliant, generous, light-bringing humans who open their homes and hearts to me. I eat more decadent food than I’ve a right to and always drink the best wine. I’ve been told I lead a charmed life, and it feels like I do. My luck never runs out, and it comes at me from all directions, everywhere I go. I’m the richest person I know.
But on paper, I’m dirt poor. A few years back, I gave up my house and sold/gave away almost everything I owned. The few things I kept (paintings, photographs, books) are in tiny storage unit. Everything else, I carry with me as I travel (which should give you a whole new respect for the snazzy outfits I produce, cause kid, I usually pulled them out of a suitcase in the back of a rental car–just sayin’). I don’t always know where my next meal is coming from. I sometimes don’t know what bed I’m going to sleep in on a given night.
But always, by some miracle of fate, when I’m hungry, there is a sumptuous meal, and always, when I’m tired, there is a lavish bed. I’ve literally had strangers walk up to me and say, “Do you have a place to stay tonight? Because we booked two luxury hotel rooms, and our friends can’t make it. It’s yours if you want it.” The beauty of letting go of a lack mentality and trusting that universe is an abundant place is that it opens the door to way better possibilities than your logic and financial means could ever create. God has resources we don’t know about, just waiting to be tapped into when we take actions that demonstrate we know invisible nets will be there to catch us when we make our leaps of faith.
I’ve heard people say things like, “How can you think God cares about your petty problems when there are wars in this world?” I understand the generous sentiment underlying this, but it is predicated on a lack mentality, a notion that misunderstands, I think, the nature of the divine. God is not some angry human in the sky, limited by time and space to answering a few prayers a day, as we would be, were we God. God is an inexplicable force woven through the very molecules around us, a force that quantum physics is just beginning to tap into, and that force responds to our beliefs. We are shaping reality with our minds. The God who responds to my beliefs about abundance is omnipresent and capable of responding to the prayers of the devastated person in Syria.
I’m not saying I understand suffering, or God, anywhere near completely. I’ve just scratched the surface. I only know that in my experience, reality does morph itself according to my beliefs, and to my actions. When I believe there isn’t enough and act accordingly, there is never enough. When I let go and show gratitude and generosity and believe there is enough love and joy and abundance and meaning to go around, I am deluged in splendor. My understanding is imperfect, but I can observe the way reality seems to respond to me.
(A word of warning: if you try to implement these ideas from a place of greed, the universe will read your foundational greed as a belief that the world is less than generous. That is the only reason for greed. So it may backfire. It’s not a “get rich quick” scheme. It’s a “work through your bullshit and learn that you are truly beloved” scheme, and that’s a whole lot more complex than visualizing a yacht. If you truly begin to dance with the divine, you will quickly learn that yachts are cool, but love and peace and joy are the true treasures. I know it sounds like a Hallmark special, but that doesn’t make it any less true.)
When I say God is a force, I don’t believe God is impersonal. I believe the air around us is woven from the love of God. But we have no understanding that “reality” is the story generated by the thoughts we think. We don’t understand that we are always dancing with the divine. If we become aware of this, and trust the river of God to carry us to beautiful, exquisite, meaningful places, it will. At least, that has been my experience.
I think there is a boatload of wisdom packed into the line, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Not our weekly. Not our monthly. Not our yearly. Trusting God for your daily breads keeps you living constantly in the sacred now. And that is where I aspire to live always. I want my existence to be a never-ending dance with my creator, a surrender, a give, a take, a knowing that the universe is an abundant and blessed place, that I am beloved, that I don’t, in the immortal words of Tom Petty, have to live like a refugee.
As I walk out this always beautiful and unpredictable, sometimes terrifying, existence, seemingly bad things happen do happen. But when they do, a song always plays, be it from a car radio or a mall loudspeaker or the tinny headphones of a nearby teen on the subway. (I have this theory that God is always talking to us, however she can, through the world around us. Most of us just aren’t listening. I try to listen.) The song is “Shut Up and Dance” by Walk the Moon, and every time I hear it, it is a reminder to let go of expectations, to go with the flow, to not judge a situation as “good” or “bad,” but to believe that all things, even the things that are seemingly hellish, are working together for my good. Every time that kid sings, Oh, don’t you dare look back, just keep your eyes on me, I said “You’re holding back,” she said, “Shut up and dance with me,” I hear God inviting me to put my petty tantrums on the back burner, to understand that my plans aren’t always the best plans, to dance with my creator, letting her lead the way, following her, trusting her every move even when she backflips across the dance floor and kicks me in the face.
In the midst of all of this shutting up and dancing and not owning things, I acquired something big last month. A van. (For the duration of this essay, it shall be referred to as The Van.) My daughter sold it to me for almost nothing, and I was super duper excited, I think because even though I’ve chosen this life, the thought of having something “safe” and predictable still appealed to me. If I need to get somewhere, I do, often, miraculously, in first class.
But somehow, even with all the miracles I’ve received, I’m still attached on some level to our culture’s premium on ownership and predictability and safety. I made jokes with my brother about becoming the incarnation of that Chris Farley sketch about living in a van by the river, which is way beneath the standard of living the universe manages to pull off for me every single day, but at least it’s predictable. I’m ashamed to say there was comfort in that. Hey, if ever God didn’t come through with a place to sleep (as if God could ever not come through–I adore Tori Amos, but she was wrong about that “God, sometimes you just don’t come through” thing, in my experience) I always had The Van!
So yeah. I got a van. And it rocked. I dubbed Earnest, a stuffed carrot my daughter bought me, its mascot.
Then, I drove it to California with my beautiful, brilliant, light-bringing friend Ashley.
We hung out in beautiful places with beautiful people, agents and screenwriters and novelists and climate change scientists and actors.
We talked on a beach with a brilliant, famous screenwriter about the possibility of turning my book into my movie.
And we came back to Phoenix. And I had The Van. It was mine, all mine. I could go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. It was so cool. I was almost normal for a few weeks.
But I was poor, more so than usual, because last month, one of my teeth imploded. Well, not really. It just up and died because I’d been grinding it too much. I needed a root canal and a crown, and my insurance wouldn’t pay for it. I was going to go to Mexico to get the work done, but my amazing mother (the human one) offered to pay for the root canal. (Thank you, Mom!) I still had to pay for the crown, which emptied my checking account and left me without money to pay my phone bill, much less buy Christmas presents. And since I make most of my money teaching classes online, I wasn’t going to get another check until January because schools close during the holidays.
And I’m not gonna lie. I was so not dancing with the universe and trusting. I was kind of in a funk about it. I make my lifestyle sound exotic, and it is, but it’s also lonely and scary at times, because I’m human, and prone to forgetting how beloved I am, and likely to forget to look past the illusion of “reality” and mold it with my beliefs and actions. And this holy day season, more than ever before, I was ready to give up on my life of miracles, the sacred road I have dubbed my Highway of Diamonds.
I called my daughter crying and throwing an epic pity party. “Maybe I should just get a day job I hate. I don’t even have money to buy fucking presents.” She answered in true Desi form. (God, I love that kid.) “And live like a mundie?” (That’s her word for people who live hopeless, predictable, mundane existences.) “No fuckin’ way. Momma (that’s our word for God) will provide.”
So yeah. Long story short, the next day, at Desi’s urging, I decided to break up my isolation/bad mood and go out to sit at a wine bar and write. This isn’t something I do much anymore. I’m famously antisocial in my middle age. For the most part, I like reading and praying and talking to angels way more than I like partying. But I impulsively ran a search on Yelp for the best wine bar in town, and drove to a place far from anywhere I ever go. And while I was driving there, The Van started smoking. I looked at the gauges and saw it was way overheated, so I turned into the nearest parking lot and pulled into a space. I was not happy. I have exploded enough cars in my day to know what an irreversibly exploded car smells and sounds like. I knew it had to do with the radiator, and I knew that it was bad.
I hadn’t bothered to get AAA yet, so I had no access to roadside service. Sitting in that dark, deserted parking lot, I got on my phone to order a membership I couldn’t afford so I could have The Van towed when a voice in my heart said, “Look up.” I did, and it turned out I was 50 feet away from a AAA Auto Repair Shop. No towing necessary. I began to suspect that the creator with whom I dance had a hand in this explosion, but I was mad at her anyway. Sometimes her refusal to play by my rules pisses me right the fuck off.
I decided to call an Uber to take me home and come back in the morning to deal with the van, since the nearby auto shop was closed. I was NOT looking forward to Uber-ing my way back across the city the next day, especially because my body has become accustomed to staying up most of the night writing, and sleeping until noon. This is its natural rhythm, one that it has fallen back into since I started living on the road. I respect this natural rhythm, damn it. If I’m having my coffee before 1 p.m., the order of the universe has been upended.
The Uber arrived to take me home. I dragged my beleaguered, pissed off ass into it. You can guess what song was playing. “Shut Up and Dance.” Goddamn it. So this WAS Momma fucking with my life again, and I was supposed to trust her and all that shit. How fucking unfair.
I went home, or to the place I often stay when I’m in Arizona, the gorgeous guesthouse of dear friends, Doreen and Jason, who generally treat me like a queen and shower me in love and wine and sea salt chocolate every time I come to town. I went into my bedroom, cried, and had a wrestling match with God. (I’d say I prayed, but that is way too pretty a word. Does it count as a prayer if you say “fuck” a lot? I don’t know.)
So anyway, sometime around 2 a.m., God managed to convince me of something I already know, which is that material things don’t matter, but love does, and that you can never really own anything but your own soul. I begrudgingly released the mother fucking van to God at 4:12 a.m., still pissed that she wouldn’t let me have even one toy for my very own. And I fell asleep.
I had this weird dream about me driving my van to New Mexico in the snow to visit my family, which I was slotted to do the next week. In the dream, something went horribly wrong with The Van when I was going very fast, on a freeway where couldn’t pull over into the nearest parking lot and call AAA. In the dream, the van malfunctioned in a not-so-safe place, and I lost control. I saw my own death. My world went white, and Tawni Vee Waters as we know her was no more (though I’m gonna guess she probably already had intentions of coming back as something distinctly bedazzled and strangely named).
I woke up from the dream to a knock on my door, suddenly very aware of how much worse the van breakdown scenario could have been. “Come in,” I muttered, trying to push the last vestiges of the not-so-pretty dream out of my head. It was Doreen. She said, “I saw on Facebook where the van is.” (I may or may not be guilty of revealing too much on Facebook.) “I have to go to that part of the city today anyway. If you give me the keys, I’ll take it next door to the shop right now so it doesn’t get towed.” Oh, my God. I didn’t have to get up early to wrangle Uber drivers and deal with auto repair details. I thanked Doreen profusely, whispered an f-bomb littered bit of gratitude to God, and went back to sleep, still a little freaked out from the death dream, but willing to let the terror pass for the love of a little extra shut eye.
At noon, I woke up to another knock on my door. This time, it was Jason. He told me the auto repair company had called, and that the repairs were going to be several thousand dollars, which was more than the van was worth, and way more than I could afford. “Ok, thanks for letting me know. Merry fucking Christmas, huh?” I said. Jason laughed.
Since I’d already made my peace with God about The Van, I wasn’t really upset. I thanked God for whatever miracle she was working on and set about calling numbers, trying to find someone who would tow the van away and maybe give me a little cash. I called about ten people I found on the Internet. Most of them offered $100. One guy offered $225. I told him that sounded good and asked if he could meet immediately. He said he couldn’t meet until the next day. “If you still want to do this tomorrow, call me in the morning,” he said. I said I would. Then I made this Facebook post:
“Having managed the mischief that came with the recent explosion of my van (may she rest in peace–fixing her will cost more than she’s worth), I now head out to Christmas shop and deck the halls and whatever the heck else we do this time of year. I’m just not gonna freak out about this. I don’t have the energy. Things come and go, but love is forever, and I still have tons of love in my life. And I’m so grateful. She was old. Before she left me, she gave me one spectacular road trip to CA with an amazing woman, where we had magical times with one (1) ocean and many (lots and lots) of other amazing humans. That’s all a girl can really ask for. Well, that and chocolate.”
Then I went to the mall, where I was slated to meet my daughter and execute aforementioned Christmas shopping. Well, she was going to shop. I was going to offer expert opinions. As I was waiting for her, I got a text from a man I had spoken to about the car earlier in the day, a man I thought was never going to call back. It said, “$800 for the van if engine and transmission are good.” I almost cried. That was way more than I’d paid for the van in the first place.
While short lived, The Van had been such a gift. I’d gotten a glorious trip to California out of it, and then, ultimately, money for Christmas presents. Turns out, the radiator explosion was one of Momma’s most bad ass dance moves.
I don’t have The Van anymore, but I won’t need one, as I’m spending the first month of 2017 in Sicily, teaching grad students, and the second month of 2017 teaching at a conference in one of my favorite places in the known universe, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
As I drink wine on Mt. Etna, I most certainly won’t be saying, “But man, I could be in a van down by the river right now.” (Never fear: Earnest the Carrot has not been abandoned. He will be living in my suitcase from now on.) It just goes to show you, the universe is way smarter than me. Who knew?
The moral of the story: Shut the fuck up and dance, kids. The universe is willing to tango with you, if you will only let go. (Full disclosure: she will likely kick you in the face, but you’ll thank her for it someday. I promise.)
P.S. Thank you, Momma. Thank you for playing by your rules instead of mine, by insisting on making my life a miracle even when I try to force it into mundanity. Sorry for all the tantrums. You rock cotton kitted socks. But then, I’m pretty sure you know that.
Your favorite daughter ❤️
(Start believing you are a favored child of the universe. See what happens…)
Recently, somebody I love confronted me about the most common advice I give to people, when I am asked.No matter what, if people are going through crisis and ask me what I think they should do, I usually answer with, “Follow your heart.”The person who confronted me felt that what I mean when I give this advice is, “If it feels good, do it,” or “Follow your whims no matter who it hurts.”Those things are the exact opposite of what I mean when I say, “Follow your heart.”This blog is by no means an attack on that person.I can see why she was confused.I wanted to clarify to her, and to everyone who has ever received that advice from me, what I mean when I say it.
After World War II, when the enormous atrocities of the holocaust were revealed, the entire planet stood gasping, trying to understand how humanity could be capable of such horror.In the interest of answering that question, Stanley Milgram did an experiment.He basically tried to find out what percentage of people would deliver a deadly shock to another human being if told to do so by someone he or she perceived to be an authority.If you want to read the details of the experiment, you can here but in summary, he discovered that most people were willing to kill another person if ordered to do so.People cried as they delivered what they thought were deadly shocks to screaming actors, but in spite of their obvious inner turmoil, they did what someone else told them was the right thing to do.Only 35% of people refused to deliver the deadly shock.Those 35% had an inner compass that they listened to more than any outside voice.They followed that compass even when an authority figure attempted to override it.In short, those people did the very difficult and rare thing.They followed their hearts.
History has demonstrated again and again that human beings will do horrible things when they are following orders, when they are in large groups, when they have sublimated their inner voices to something outside of themselves, be it a government or a religion or a political dogma or a social scene.I don’t trust any dogma enough to let it guide me.I will not submit my will and wisdom to something outside of me.I will not do something that feels evil to me, even if everyone else is doing it.I won’t base my morality on words in a book. I won’t trust that our culture’s ideas of morality represent truth because looking back through time, social norms have often been used to enforce oppression. I believe that God lives inside of us, not outside of us, and all of us our capable of courage and greatness and beauty and truth and love IF we follow our hearts.But most of us don’t.Most of us live our lives doing what we are told, and then we die.We want an easy religion or social code, a list of rules that does our thinking for us.We want an illusion of safety more than we want truth.We want popularity more than we want love.We think we can’t trust ourselves, so we let the voices around us goosestep us into our graves. I don’t want to waste my precious life doing that shit.
My path to truth began years ago when I betrayed someone, someone I loved profoundly, someone I knew in the core of my soul to be good, and kind, and righteous.I betrayed him because he became unpopular, because the mob decided to hate him, because throwing him under the bus was the cool thing to do.My own treachery wrecked me.I heard a voice within me speak to me when I did that.It was so clear, so distinct from my own thought processes, that it could not be denied.It said this.It said, “You are betraying your own soul.”As I heard this, a knowing flooded me.I knew if I stayed on the path I was on, the path of seeking popularity and people’s approval at the cost of my own integrity, I would become evil.That scared the shit out of me.I realized hell isn’t a place you go.It’s a thing you become.And I was well on my way.As I was having this realization, the song, “A Return to Innocence” came on.I knew something bigger than I was was inviting me to become pure again, to work my way back, one brave step at a time, to a place of a peace, of integrity, of truth.A place where I could live with and genuinely love the girl who lived in the mirror.I said yes to that invitation.
I wrote a very difficult letter to the person I had betrayed, apologizing for my evil and seeking his forgiveness.He graciously gave it.And then, the voice within told me that I had to protect him, no matter what it cost me.So I did.I made it my mission to protect him from every ugly word that was ever said about him.I sat on the bulletin boards where people were mocking him, and I defended him, and made myself hated in the process. I spoke up if someone said something ugly about him in my presence.Needless to say, the mob that had decided he was uncool was not pleased.This once cool kid became a joke.I lost my popularity and got back a piece of my soul.The modicum of inner peace I found as I did this more than compensated me for the loss of my so-called friends.
I decided to start listening to the voice within and do what it told me without question. The more I listened to that voice, the louder it became.Now, it’s almost physically painful for me to disobey that voice.I have grown unaccustomed to betraying my soul.That voice is more interested in me actually becoming a person of integrity, no matter how messy the process is, than it is in me being a person who hides behind a veneer of piety, who is perceived as good.That voice asks me to be real, to let the whole pretty-ugly mess of me hang out for the world to see.It doesn’t seem to care if I say “fuck,” but I have discovered, after years of shaving off layer after layer of lies around my heart, that it does care who I fuck, because it doesn’t like it when I hurt myself or other people, and fucking without loving almost always hurts someone.
It almost never asks me to do easy things.It has asked me to give up friendships that were fun and lucrative because they were dishonest or harmful.It has asked me again and again to speak truths that make people hate me.It has asked me to be homeless.It has asked me to be celibate.It has asked me to give away things that I wanted to keep.It has asked me to be honest about my weaknesses and frailties, to walk up to people and say, “I fucking lied to you. I’m sorry.” It has asked me to pray for and bless people I want to hate and curse. (Full disclosure: I often do the hating and cursing before I get around to the praying for and blessing. I’m a work in progress.) It has asked me to be transparent, to show the world what I really am, even when it makes me feel vulnerable and scared, even when it makes people mock me and vilify me and attack me. It is teaching me to do no harm, ever, to myself, or to others, or to any living thing, which sounds pretty, but isn’t as easy as it looks. (And I’m still working on that too.) This voice is almost never lets me do the easy thing, the thing that feels good.This voice won’t let me off the goddamn hook.It won’t let me lie anymore.It won’t let me cheat anymore. It won’t let me fake it ’til I make it anymore. It won’t let me say things that will make people like me. Every day, it asks me to give up another drop of the poison that lives in my heart.The problem with giving up poison is poison is usually so sweet.It’s excruciating to release your poisons, but that voice insists that I do.
In spite of the treacherous and painful road it often leads me down, that voice is my dearest friend, because every time I listen to it, I get another piece of my lost soul back. If it were not for that voice, that voice that makes me do the right thing even when everyone else is doing wrong, that makes me tell the truth even when the truth is going to cost me everything, that is teaching me to honor my body, to trust my instincts, to be brave, brave, brave, constantly brave, I would not be the woman I am today.Not that I’m perfect.Like I said, I’m a fucking mess sometimes.But I’m way less of a fucking mess than I was before I decided to listen to that voice.And while I don’t have much money and I have way fewer friends than I used to, and I have been downright vilified in many of the social scenes I used to be a part of, I have genuine peace, and joy, and light, and beauty, I never dreamed possible.Had it not been for that voice, I would still be in a constant cycle of abusive relationships.I would still be a liar.I would be working a shit job I hate instead of traveling the world and selling books. I would hate myself. If I wasn’t dead. Which, let’s be honest, I probably would be. That voice, that beautiful, not-so-still, not-so-small-anymore, voice, has saved me.I would literally rather die than disobey that voice.Because I know my soul depends on my listening to that voice.And I’ve lost my soul before.I never, ever want to lose it again.
So when I say to people, “Follow your heart,” I say it because I know the God that lives within me lives within them also.I know the divine will speak truth to them, ask them to do hard things, lead them to a place of true peace.And I want to give the gift I have been given, am being given, to my precious brothers and sisters.That is why, when people are at critical junctures, and ask me for advice, I almost always say, “Follow your heart.”I’m not saying, “Do what feels good.”I’m saying, “A return to innocence is possible, and it starts when you listen to that still, small voice within and do whatever it tells you to do, no matter what the cost.”