On the day after Trump was elected, I wrote my first Hagseed poem, “Miss U.S.A.,” trying to wrap my head around a populace that would elect such an embarrassment to the highest position in the land. The poem was published in Rock & Sling’s election issue. I found the character of Hagseed to be a great vehicle through which to channel my political angst, so I wrote a second poem featuring her, satirizing the American obsession with fame, called “Hagseed Takes Manhattan.” This was published in Quail Bell. Now I have at least a dozen of these poems, which I am collecting into a book called, The Hagseed Miracles: Turning Wine to Water and Other Acts of Uninspired Mediocrity: AKA, A Dangerous Woman Says Her Piece. I find writing these poems satirizing all of the worst aspects of American culture and politics to be very therapeutic, better than ranting on Facebook anyway.
Yesterday, all the trees in New Mexico sprouted cotton candy, or so it seemed to me. I blinked, and winter was gone, and everything was pink, and petals blew across the ground everywhere I turned. High on spring, I felt inspired to write a zillionth poem about Persephone, but also like maybe I shouldn’t spend the day being productive when nature was clearly indicating I should try my hand at being useless. Never one to spit in the face of mother nature, I collected my 26-year-old daughter Desi for a day of torpescence.
We talked about our options. Working out was first on the list, because you burn at least 20 calories just by talking about going to the gym, but both of us had the good sense to invent knee injuries before we rode that train of thought too far, after which we considered hiking, but that too was ruled out by imaginary ailments. Hamstrung as we were, our only choice was to wile time away at Barnes and Noble, drinking coffee and reading books.
When we arrived, I picked up a prominently displayed complete David Foster Wallace collection, because I know I don’t even count as a real writer, never having read Infinite Jest. I’m always being shamed by this deficiency at cocktail parties, so I decided to rectify the situation. Sitting there drinking my expensive latte, I tried, but I couldn’t focus. Frankly, as I read about 18-year-old white male Hal and his observations of the various white male deans making his life difficult, I kinda wanted to chuck the book. Hard. Like knock over a potted plastic plant or a painting of Hemingway with it.
I was surprised at the ferocity of my reaction, so I analyzed it. It turned out I was really tired of reading about white males and their angst-ridden (but seemingly utterly banal) youths, no matter how good their writing was, technically speaking. How many white male writers did I have to read during my education, so I could see how the pros did it and learn to be like them when I grew up? How many hours of my life will I never get back because I wasted them marinating in the all-holy, angst-ridden white male coming-of-age experience? I hate to break this to y’all, but in my humble opinion, most of the canonized white male pros were boring as fuck.
Sitting there in that Barnes and Nobles, with hours of Hal’s trouble with the deans looming ahead of me, I wished I hadn’t invented a knee injury. I would have much preferred weeping gently and cursing god on an elliptical to reading this shit. (I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I feel I’m committing blasphemy. I know David Foster Wallace is good. Maybe I should have tried him when I was drinking whiskey instead of coffee. Maybe that would have made it all more palatable. My reaction wasn’t really about him, and to be fair, I only read like five pages. My reaction was more about having had it up to here with reading the same story over and over, at the expense of other stories I really want to read.)
Dearest James Joyce, I’m sorry Stephen Dedalus had such a rough go of it, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t care that much, and I would be happy to leave little downtrodden Stephen to his own devices, were it up to me. In fact, in my weakest moments, I wanted to knife Stephen Dedalus in the skull just so I wouldn’t have to read his internal monologue anymore. And John Updike makes me want to upchuck every time. It’s like clockwork. Would I have kept reading any of these dudes if I didn’t have to regurgitate the info on an exam to prove I had potential to be a pro someday, and later, regurgitate it at cocktail parties so I could prove I belonged in the professional writer club? In most cases, probably not, kids. (Walt Whitman, you know I’m not talking about you here. I love you, man.)
I longed to go back to the time when I read things that I wanted to read, because I was blissing out on the way they made me think, and the way they resonated with my experience, and the way they expanded my horizons. So I said to myself, “Tawni,” (I call me Tawni), “do you really want to spend your Persephone-ish Sunday afternoon choking down something you don’t want to read just so you can sound smart at cocktail parties full of people who probably wanted to knife Stephen Dedalus in the forehead too?” My answer to myself was, “Fuck, nah.” So then, I took David Foster Wallace back to his altar, where I gently released him and said a prayer to the writer gods, asking their forgiveness. Walking away, I saw this book called, the witch doesn’t burn in this one, by Amanda Lovelace. I loved the title, so I picked it up and turned it over. The back cover said, “burn whoever tries to burn you.” I was so in.
I took it back to my table, introduced Amanda to my latte, and also to myself. Within minutes, I was besotted by her voice and her rage and her truth, and I knew I had to buy it even though I was broke, and my phone bill was overdue. The poem that got me was titled, “prophecy I” and ended with the lines, “i may not survive the match-boys, but my bitch-fire will survive them all.” I loved it because this woman was telling MY story, not trying to convince me to believe some white guy describing a headmasters’ elbows was groundbreaking. The raw honesty of the work reminded me of Carmen Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, which is by far my favorite thing I’ve read this year. (I devoured Her Body and Other Parties once, and then went back and read it again so I could learn to write like a pro when I grew up. I really wanted to be like this pro.)
So then, my spring day leapt into technicolor, as we old folks say. Desi and I spent hours reading these poems aloud to one another, feeling completely validated and enlivened by the truth in them. We were positively giddy. Desi decided she was going to get “bitch fire” tattooed on her wrist. I told her I’d join her. And I’ll just say it. We bonded. I think I even got some cool mom points. Probably irrevocable points. I bet at my funeral, my daughter will say, “My mom was so cool. We got ‘bitch fire’ tattoos together.” And the whole audience (or whatever you call the people at funerals) will sigh with admiration, and also thinly veiled, gut wrenching sorrow, because a light has gone out in the world, and who else ever would have been cool enough, at the ripe old age of 46, to get a “bitch fire” tattoo with her daughter?
Knowing me as she does, Desi saw my eyes mist over, figured I was imagining the emotional impact of the “bitch fire” tattoos at my funeral, and guessed I would momentarily be highly susceptible to buying her gifts. She gently suggested I buy her a journal, the cover of which read, “Though she may be little, she is fierce.” Dabbing at the corners of my eyes, I said yes, amending my imaginary funeral to include a softly sobbing Desi producing the journal and saying, “She bought this for me that day. I kept it with me all the time after that, and in it, I wrote my first novel, which eventually earned me fame and fortune. I owe it all to my bitch fire momma.” It was a pretty enough scenario, and the journal was only $10. Paying the phone bill is overrated anyway.
So all high on cherry blossoms, witch poetry, caffeine, and bonding, we took our choices to the register. Desi, being as fierce as the journal cover suggested, verbally eviscerated a guy she caught staring at my ass while we waited in line. (I didn’t even know he was there. I have a highly developed sense of obliviousness. I think it’s a survival skill.) Thanks to mister “your mom’s ass is my eye candy,” we were a little lest jovial by the time we got to the cashier, but still pretty bubbly, when the cashier looked at our choices and said, in a rather snotty tone, “Oh, if you’re into this teenage angst stuff, we have more over there.”
I was pretty sure my daughter was going to punch her, but the offending cashier got off with a few glares and a sarcastic comment or two, after which my daughter and I walked to the car, speaking in loud voices about the sexism inherent in the publishing industry, and in the world at large, really, and wondering why no one thought David Foster Wallace was writing teenage angst literature when he was writing about an angst-ridden-18-year-old male, but this woman who was writing about full grown women being burned at the stake and raped, in a context that suggested she might be pissed off about eons of oppression, was immediately dismissed as “teenage angst stuff.”
So now, I’m writing this, and I’m deciding that I am never, ever going to read a book, especially a book by a white male writer, again, if it doesn’t grab me and speak to my heart and my experience. And at parties, if someone asks, “Have you read Infinite Jest?” I will answer, “No, it bored the fuck out of me, but have you read Her Body and Other Parties?”
I don’t necessarily see things like losing houses, moving, getting divorced, and changing careers as failures. I don’t see periods of loss and tumult as aberrations of what should be. Life is like a river. It moves and changes. We ride it. Sometimes, if we are moving, we get dashed against the stones.
When did we decide that sameness is valuable, in and of itself? When did we decide that making all our crucial decisions out of fear of “what if?” was wise? The worst “what if?” WILL happen to you. You will die. Everything you do between now and then is a gift. When did we start to believe that these lives of ours would last forever, that we would be able to keep our stashes of stuff? Our very breath is borrowed. Our skin belongs to the clay. Do we really think we can keep our Rolls-Royces?
Sometimes–many times–change is an act of great courage, a statement that life is too precious and valuable a gift to be lived in misery. People say marriage is sacred. I don’t think it is, in and of itself. I think love is sacred. A loveless marriage can be a very unholy thing. A decision to leave a loveless marriage can be a gesture of reverence for the gift of life. Likewise, people say staying at one job for years and years indicates commitment. Certainly it does. But a commitment to what? Sometimes, it indicates a commitment to one’s passion. This is a beautiful thing. But if it is just a commitment to stability, to the notion that dollars are more important than precious hours of which our lives are made, I have no admiration for it. I have more admiration for the homeless man sleeping under the bridge, who sees, really sees, the sky. Green paper will never be more valuable than the fabric of our sacred lives.
I say if something is killing you, walk away from it. Leave it in love, but leave it. Revere your life enough to live it with passion, joy, and love. There is no nobility in staying for the sake of staying. There is only nobility in staying for the sake of love.
File this posting under “notes scribbled by a jetlagged insomniac.” My brother is coming over for breakfast this morning. I stayed up all night worrying I wouldn’t wake up to see him. Not like he wouldn’t have come and woken me, but you know, any excuse to stay awake obsessing all night. Also, while insomniacking, I wrote a little about the kids who walked out on Thursday, a little about living true, a little about shit, a little about candy. I think I’ll call this little jewel:
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SHIT AND CANDY
I strive to respect all people, to open my heart and mind as much as possible to myriad ways of being, to live and let live. But the people I admire, the people who fascinate me, the people who make me want to be like them when I grow up, are the ones dancing precariously and courageously on the edges of life, living bizarrely and shamelessly and authentically in their own bodies, being unapologetically the truest version of self they can muster.
I’m not captivated by people who fall neatly into categories, who fit in, who don’t rumple feathers. I’m enthralled by people who fall between the cracks, who are misfits, who challenge the status quo by their very existence.
Cool kids bore me. Fitting in in suburbia will never appeal to me. Give me the kid with green hair slumped in the corner of the cafeteria dodging spit wads. Give me the madman in the tree house living off the grid and composing shit poetry. Give me the crazy lady on the street corner marching for justice. Give me the freaks. They are the ones who are moving evolution forward. They are the ones who make progress possible. They are the ones with courage enough to risk their lives to make their lives count for something.
I don’t understand exchanging truth for comfort. I don’t understand exchanging authenticity for popularity. I don’t understand settling for a life you didn’t want because somebody else said so, not when you’re going to die, not when this is your one and only truly blessed sacred existence, and the clock is ticking, and every moment you spend pretending is a moment you might as well already be dead.
But I guess if you say you have to get real and compromise and settle for shit you never wanted, you’re right. And I guess if you say you make your own reality and you never have to settle and you’re going to fight for what you love or die trying, you’re right. And I know I’m 46, and I was supposed to stop talking like this when I was 26, but I never did, because the fire in my heart that was supposed to go out got bigger instead.
And when I see those freaky kids walking out of their schools because they are young and dumb enough to still believe they can change the world, I cry for joy, and I pray to God that for the rest of their lives, at least five of them keep saying “fuck you” to anyone who tells them they’re wrong about that. And that they keep knowing walking up isn’t the same as walking out, and sometimes, most times, people use pretty words to say ugly things, to tell you to sit down and shut up and eat your goddamn plate of shit, and say thank you, because if they said it like that, no one would do it, but when they tell you the plate of shit is candy, well then, who doesn’t like candy?
Know the difference between shit and candy. That is the secret to life. Even when the whole wide world is screaming that shit is candy, trust your nose, trust your eyes, trust your gut. If it looks like shit, if it smells like shit, if you know in your heart you want something more, then call the shit shit, and make a stand, walk out, walk away, and let the chips fall where they may.
I can tell you from experience that there is no retributive cruelty, no alienation, no social excommunication that is so powerful that it can wash away the quiet peace that comes from knowing you have spoken and lived your truth at any cost. And I can tell you from experience that there is no accolade, no social acceptance, no wealth, no ease, no luxury that can wash away the soul shredding horror of knowing you are living a lie.
A few months ago, I was teaching at a writer’s conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Three white writer friends and I (also white, visually speaking—my father was half Mexican, but you’d never know by looking at me) went to a posh rooftop restaurant. The place was mostly empty, but the staff refused to seat us for over a half an hour. Finally, my friend went to inquire about the wait, and the waitress told her off. She said, “Get out. We don’t want your kind. There are already too many of you here.” Stunned, we left.
But I wasn’t outraged, or even hurt, really. My father looked Mexican, so something in me felt I’d finally experienced a kind of blind hatred he’d probably experienced more often than he ever told me. I finally knew what it was to be my father’s daughter. And a fraction of what it probably felt like to be a minority in America, where this sort of thing happens to them every day. Also, since I had visited that restaurant multiple times in years past, the most recent being the year before, with absolutely no virulence directed my way, I was intellectually interested in what the incident said about the way in which other countries view America in the wake of the Trump presidency.
After leaving Mexico, I went to France to tour high schools that had been studying my books in their English classes. I had the time of my life in one of the most glorious places on earth. But while the organization that hosted me, and the teachers, and the students, were nothing short of gracious, I did sometimes notice heightened chilliness directed at me in public. (The last time I visited France was 2016.) Multiple people said snide things about America—her role in creating the crisis in the Middle East, Trump, our insane obsession with guns–daring me to disagree, clearly assuming I would be offended by their words. All I said in any of these instances was, “I agree with you.”
Because I do. Right now, I am disgusted with my country on so many levels. And yet, when a woman laughed, “You’re so American,” after, out of habit, I went to hug her instead of kissing her cheeks (the customary greeting in France), I felt no shame. My only answer was, “Yes, I was born and raised in America. Therefore, I am American.” I am embarrassed by my country’s president, by her willingness to let her children be slaughtered in the interest of placating a powerful (and rich) group of lobbyists, by her misogyny and her racism and her homophobia and her history of cruelty and her ignorance.
But I am not ashamed of the other things that make me American. I don’t think I’m dumb just because I’m American. I happen to be very smart. I don’t think my accent is ugly. God help my thighs, I don’t even hate her food. I have a long-standing love/hate relationship with Pringles and M&Ms. I think her music kicks ass, even the poppy stuff. Truth be told, the first thing I did in the airport in Paris, just before my flight home, was buy a bunch of junk food and listen to Bon Jovi (I know, but I love him) on full blast. I missed my home. And I’m sorry. I don’t think all Hollywood films are Neanderthal and ridiculous. Some are brilliant. I refuse to be ashamed of the things about America that are simply part of her rich and varied culture, and I refuse to be ashamed because I was born here.
When I stepped off the plane in America, I was so happy to be back. Whatever flaws my country may have, I love her with a love that becomes more intense every time I leave her shores. There are so, so many beautiful things about this place I was born. I’m not saying she’s the greatest place on earth. She’s not. I don’t need her to be to love her. I’m not saying she’s quantitatively better than anywhere else. It’s not about a pissing contest with other countries. It’s about love. And we all know the heart is a wild and unpredictable force whose decisions to love often defy logic (thank God, or none of us would ever love, or be loved by, anyone or anything). I have driven through every state except Alaska, and my country’s natural beauty is nothing short of mind bending. Her cities are dazzling. Her countryside is breathtaking. Her people are wondrous.
So many of the Americans I know and love are brilliant, kind, deep thinkers with a profound interest in impacting their country, and their world, in a positive way. I am a writer, so in the course of the activities surrounding my career, I regularly meet and become intimately acquainted with many great American artists who are making incredible strides, creatively, intellectually, and politically. My children are American. My parents are American. My brother and his beautiful children are American. The love of my life is American. My dearest friends are American. To say I hate America is to sell so much of what (and who) I love down the river.
For me, some of that beauty was demonstrated today, when elementary, high school, and college students across America walked out of their classes to protest our government’s refusal to commit to gun control. Granted, I am jetlagged and weepy, having just completed a 30-hour trek home from France, but seeing some of the photos of these protests made me cry. This is what is right about America. We can do these things. We do do these things. Not all of us are uneducated yahoos whose only knowledge of politics is a slogan on a (frankly ugly) red hat. Not all of us value our right to an arsenal over the lives of our children. Not all of us view people from other countries as dangerous. Not all of us fear the proverbial other. Not all of us want to keep those who aren’t like us down.
Also, while it’s easy to imagine other countries as utopias free from the struggles we grapple with on a daily basis, other cultures aren’t perfect either. When I was in France, I was exposed to an incident of sexism like nothing I have ever seen in the U.S. (I’m not ready to write about it yet.) I spoke to a lesbian woman who told me that if her work found out she was gay, she feared she would lose her job. Does this make France bad? God, no. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. It just means that there is work to be done everywhere. In other news, I spoke on a panel with a Turkish poet who was living in exile in France, who received death threats every day for speaking out against his government, who feared that he would be imprisoned (or worse) if he were sent home. Does this mean Turkey is evil? No. I’ve been there too. Turkey is beautiful. But like America, she is broken in many ways.
As backward as America is on some issues (gun control, for instance), we are making progress on other key issues. And we aren’t all ready to lay down and let this blundering thug of a president destroy us. Trump can bluster on, but he is only one man. There are millions of us tirelessly working to make America great– not again, because if I look at her history of racism and sexism and brutality on so many fronts, I can’t really in good conscience say she’s ever been anywhere near great.
She’s fucked up. But like everything I’ve ever loved, I love her spite of her glaring flaws. I love her enough that I want her to be something better. And I love her enough to stay here, to speak out, to be a voice and a force for change, so that someday, we can really say she’s great. You’ll probably never catch me wearing a weird red baseball cap emblazoned with clunky white lettering, but you might find me wearing a tastefully tailored T-shirt, maybe boasting an eye-popping design created by my brilliant daughter, who is an astoundingly gifted graphic novelist and burgeoning fashion designer. It would say, “Make America great for the first time ever.”
I have been an awful blogger of late. I have been busy, busy, busy, teaching at the San Miguel Writer’s Conference (and loving all she has to offer), and then coming to La Rochelle, France to visit some of the high schools that have been studying my work in their English classes.
What follows is a bit written for my Facebook, after the final life altering day of engagements in France.
This INCREDIBLE film of my visit to Lycee Valin in La Rochelle, France yesterday left me in tears. It was created by Isabelle Menon, the head teacher there and (I’m quite sure) a dear friend of mine for the rest of my life (along with K’rine, Catherine, and Valerie, who made me feel so very welcome and loved). I have to be honest. I don’t wear much makeup anymore, or do my hair. I thought yesterday morning about putting on a little extra makeup, maybe running a comb through my hair a second time, and then, I thought, “Nah, it’s not like I’m going to be filmed or anything.” Ha! Boy, was I wrong. But it doesn’t matter, because this film captures the magic and the love that were in the room yesterday as I spoke to these beautiful human beings. And that makes it more gorgeous than any lipstick ever could. Thank you, Isa. From my the core of my sparkly little bones.
Another thought. I was scared when I came to France. The students here had been studying my books, and were excited to meet me. I was also slotted to sit in for a translation joust of my work and speak on a panel with two very successful poets, which left me in knots. I wasn’t sure what to share in the speaking engagements. I am intimidated by Europeans because they are way more educated than most Americans, definitely more than I am. They speak multiple languages fluently and know everything about everything (or at least it seems so to me), and I’m always afraid I look like a stupid American to them, with my one fluent language and my smattering of French and Spanish words and my weird caches of esoteric knowledge with huge gaping holes in obvious places.
But on the way here, I remembered something Judyth Hill said to me last month as we were walking together to the airport shuttle that was going to take both of us to teach at the San Miguel Writer’s Conference. She said, “We think have to be so perfect when we speak, we think we have to do something special, when all people really want from us is us. We just need to go there and be what we are.” This is how I usually plan for speaking engagements in the U.S., but I was somewhat worried it wouldn’t work in France. Still, there was no way I was going to pull off learning three languages during a ten hour flight, nor was I going to come up with a snazzy juggling routine, so when Judyth’s words came back to me, I decided to open my heart to these beautiful people who were waiting to meet me, to tell them the truth about myself.
I put together a slide show of my childhood on my New Mexico mountain, my beautiful hippie-preacher parents, my wonderful brother. I told them about my daddy’s death and my travels and my triumphs and my heartbreaks and my years following a rock band. I told them what inspired me and what scared me and who loved me and who hated me. I told them about all the people that mocked me, how hard it was to keep believing in my dreams when, after 20 years of trying, no one thought they could come true.
I couldn’t believe the responses I got. I was overwhelmed with love and grace and beauty everywhere I went. In some of the schools, the hallways were decorated with gorgeous portraits the students had painted of me and translations of my biography into French.
Videos of me performing excerpts from my novels were being broadcast on television. The breathtaking song, “Not Alright By Me” which was graciously gifted to me for my website by the incredible members of Vintage Trouble (thank you for making that happen, my dear friend, brilliant drummer and extraordinary writer, Richard Danielson, and also for the exquisite bottle of wine you had delivered to me at the outset of my journey!) was blaring through the hallways. (There were many new Vintage Trouble fans recruited during this trip!)
When I spoke of my daddy’s death, I always looked out into the audience to see eyes filled with tears. These people were with me. Afterward, the students always hugged me and told me their life stories and hopes and dreams. The teachers opened their hearts and homes to me. I met and was welcomed into the home of Olivier Lebleu, a beautiful, brilliant translator who asked for permission to translate my books into French. (My answer was a great, big American, “Hell, yeah!”) His wonderful boyfriend, Ian, who happens to be a Scottish chef, made me one of the best meals I have ever eaten.
Aymen Hacen and Nazim Richard Dikbas, the two mind-blowing poets who spoke on a panel with me both were WAY smarter than I was, but didn’t seem to care. They were so loving. Both brought me gifts and made me feel utterly welcomed.
And now, I have to leave a place that has etched a great big valley for itself in my dumb American heart. I will never forget my time here with these precious people. People don’t really want to see how smart we are. They don’t want to see how talented we are. They want us to open our hearts. They want us to see THEM. They want us to be real and true, even if what we are is really, truly dumb Americans. I can’t tell you how many times I threw open my arms and said, “Let me give you a big American hug.” And never once did anyone do anything but fall into my arms.
P.S. And lest anyone think I’m all hearts and rainbows, yesterday, one of the people in the audience asked me what I would say to the people who mocked me and tortured me as I was following my dreams. I told them I would love to say I’d be classy, but I’d probably just be petty and play this song for them. I tried and failed to describe it. (I wasn’t about to sing it.) If you’re reading along, audience members, this is the song.