I come from the desert, where cloudy days are few and far between. Because they have always been a scarcity in my life, they feel like the ultimate luxury to me. I love them. I love rain. I love storms. I love having to wear fuzzy sweaters because it’s cold. I love being able to curl up in a cozy chair with my computer all day and respond to my students’ work, feeling locked in because, hey, it’s cold out, and the sky says stay inside. It’s like that often here at the Rosemont College Campus, where I am living and serving as writer-in-residence for the fall semester. I am mesmerized by the beauty of it, by the silvery sky and the blazing leaves and the nights that come earlier than anything I’ve seen in my life. (It’s starts getting dark before five here. What???)
This is the first time I’ve ever spent the entire fall season in a place that has fall. It’s been wondrous. I was lying in my bed last night, staring up at the latticework of light created on my ceiling by moonlight streaming through my lace curtains, thinking that the life I am living her on this campus is as close to the life of my dreams as I have ever gotten. Most days, I wake up late, drink coffee, eat my bagel, work for a few hours, work out, go meet with students or teach classes about the art I love (depending on the day of the week), come back to my gorgeous little suite, write/work, read for a while, lie in my bed praying and feeling lucky, fall asleep at like four in the morning, rinse and repeat. My boss, Carla Spataro, is one of the most generous, brilliant, delightful human beings I’ve ever known, and I get to spend all kinds of time with her.
My colleagues and students are incredible. Just often enough, I get to participate in social events–readings and panels and dinners. I get to meet and spend time with amazing writers. I get to share my work at readings regularly, which is so exciting. When I’m hungry, the cafeteria is a few hundred feet away. I never have to cook. As if all that weren’t enough, housekeepers take care of my suite once a week.
Often, I walk over to the stone Mary that stands guard in the steeple of the chapel, next to the castle in which I have the luxury of staying. I look up, take in the beauty of the night sky, say thank you. Last night, I went out at midnight. Soaked in starlight, she was breathtaking. I thought about how I could have settled for all the things people told me I was supposed to want. But I didn’t. I thought about how happy I was that I followed my heart even when it cost me. Because it brought me here.
And as sad as I’ll be to leave when the time comes, the wonders don’t cease when I leave here. Next, I go stay in a house by the ocean for a week. While I’m there, I’ll finish the draft of the novel I’m working on and teach a class for amazing writers in Manteo, North Carolina. Then I go home to New Mexico to spend the holidays with my precious family. After that, I get to go teach at an amazing conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, one of the most beloved cities in the world to me, where I’ll stay until I leave for my residency at a lovely, castle-esque manor in La Rochelle, France. I am already scheduled to speak at three French high schools, where they are studying my book, Beauty of the Broken.While I’m there, they are going to do a translation duel of my work, meaning a bunch of French translators will be competing to translate my work. (Fastest? Best? I’m not sure.) I can’t believe I get to say all this. I can’t believe this is really my life. I can’t believe people all over the world are studying my work, that work that sat in my desk drawer for a decade, being read by no one.
The beauty of it overwhelms me sometimes. Every time I walk back from the cafeteria, see this astonishing house I get to call home for a few months, I have to remind myself that this is really my life. I don’t know how I got so lucky. I don’t know that I deserve it. Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.
Stone Mary, this one goes out to you. To me, you are a symbol of the gorgeous spirit that has guided me, that has gently taught me who I really am, has strengthened me to become the thing I was born to be, is helping me to understand the difference between love and lust, beauty and glitz, art and kitsch, truth and lies, wealth and greed, need and want, kindness and insincerity.
Sometimes, I get weird letters from people who don’t know me anymore, who never really knew me, saying I’ve changed, as if it’s a bad thing, as if success has gone to my head. These people always want to offer their kind services to “fix” me. Fix me how? It makes me angry. Of course I’ve changed. And if I did need fixing, I would go to the people who really know me, who have stood by me through the darkness and the light, for advice and help.
I’m successful because I changed, because I let the still small voice whispering in my heart, telling me to live my truth, turn me into something better than the thing I was pretending to be. Maybe I’m not as much fun at a party as I used to be. Maybe I’m more solitary and contemplative. Maybe I’m more about work and less about rock-n-roll. Maybe I don’t let people who don’t love me touch my body, because I love myself too much to let me be used ever again. Maybe I don’t have that many close friends because friendship has become a sacred thing to me, and I don’t give it away easily. But this is me. This is who I always was. So much of what I did before was just trying to be something I wasn’t to make everyone else like me.
As I’ve spent the last three years being homeless by choice, traveling the world, trying to find myself, Stone Mary, and what she represents, has taught me how to know, sit with, and love, the real, perhaps boring, me. And I’m so glad I’ve changed, because my life is magic for it. And I have peace, real peace. And I have joy, real joy. And I am so grateful to the powers that be for giving me this magical, incredible, unbelievably beautiful life. If I spend every breath I have left saying thank you, it will never be enough.
Corpses howl in the streets, clacking corroded teeth, and I should be scared, but I’m not. I weave them marigold crowns, lie down among the headstones, call them to me to talk. We know secrets, we dead things. The only difference between me and them is I still have my skin.
Three drinks in because the only time I feel alive is when I’m high enough to hallucinate you.
They say I’m living the dream. What they don’t know is this was never my dream. My dream was me curled into the question mark of your body like an answer.
There is no rage left. Not at you. Just my insides rattling around like shattered glass. Just the sucking sound my rib cage makes 24/7, reminding me it’s empty.
Today, I ran until my lungs almost exploded, and when my heart was clobbering my chest, I fell in the grass, and looked up. Heaven was broken, slit into strips of gray and white. The air trembled. Night was coming, and the sky knew it. I slept and dreamed I was Lazarus, wrapping those clouds around me like bandages. You were Jesus outside the tomb, saying, “Come forth!” And I came, your blessed name on my lips.
You are Jesus, so build me a ladder to heaven.
You are Jesus, so build me a stairway to your face.
I will climb it, crawl into the amazing grace of your mouth, and sleep there, warm on the mattress of your tongue, my head propped on the pillows of your teeth.
Tell yourself you are beautiful and brilliant and strong. Whisper these words to yourself in the night. Offer yourself the gift of compassion, of forgiveness, of kindness. Do not conspire with those who have misunderstood your magnificence, have sought to put out your light. Never repeat their lies while staring into your own eyes in the mirror. By loving yourself fully and completely as you are, you give your soul permission to love others fully and completely as they are. Do not mistake cruelty for humility. If you would never be cruel enough to tell a child he was stupid or weak or fat or ugly, do not be cruel enough to say these words to the child living inside you. When you degrade yourself, you degrade the Creator, insulting the wisdom, the perfection of the Is. Self-loathing is not humility. It is blasphemy.
I fell in love with a squirrel one day when he skittered across my path.
At first, it was a passing crush. I thought, “What a cute squirrel.” But then I noticed, really saw, the intricate white hairs fringing the brown fluff of his tail, and I was utterly besotted, overcome by the wonder of him. I saw the red leaves fallen beneath his feet, and I thought, “Lucky leaves, getting to touch the miracle of those tiny toes.” And then I noticed the exquisite network of veins running through the leaves, and I thought, “Lucky squirrel, getting to touch the miracle of those leaves.” I fell in love with them too, and the whole world exploded into a web of wonder. For ten perfect seconds, I forgot who I was.
That was the day I found out what purple smells like, and that spinach tastes like what cows must long for when they dream of grass. I learned that the separation between trees and sky is invisible, and that bugs who walk on water do know they are replicating Jesus, but they try not to get too cocky about it. I discovered that the world is chocked full of yellow, and if you smile at people fast, before they have time to think, they drop their masks for a moment and smile back. I noticed that my own mask has holes in it. I realized there are peekholes in everything, passages to another world. Everything is a wardrobe leading to Narnia. Everything is a train headed to Hogwarts.
Only no one looks because after all, we have bills that must be paid.
I’ve been thinking long and hard about something. There is lots of talk in lots of circles about how to be a successful artist, you have to put yourself out there on social media in really fancy ways, using algorithms and heart monitors and crinkly little slinky things that measure the exact precipitation in the air, the number of teenage boys who have secretly been in love with one of the Beatles, and the amount of toe jam sequestered between the average centipede’s toes, and crunch these numbers to ascertain the precise moment in the day when you should post a video of yourself knitting to reach out to your followers. If you do it just right, you can have 40,000 followers in a week, and if you do it really, really right, you can ascend and become a guru (with or without a long white beard–facial hair is optional.) Fuck. That. Noise. Good God. Life is demanding enough without making social media and blogging into a full time job. I can’t. I just can’t. I know some people who have fun with this sort of thing, and are really good at it. I admire the heck out of them for it. But no, no, no, that ain’t me babe. The only time I ever went viral is when I got mono in high school after I kissed that weird kid on the sketchy roller coaster. I post things because I think it’s fun, and I want to connect with people, and sometimes, I just want to share a nice photo of my soup. Is that so wrong? To want to show people your lentils? There are serial killers in this world. There are street mimes. There is a Donald Trump, for God’s sake. Do we really need to get so up in arms about tasteful photographs of warm, hearty, healthy winter foods? Do we really need to criminalize posting cat photos at midnight when no one is watching, so you probably won’t even get three likes? I’m terrible at this game. I just want to write things, post videos of kittens attacking bemused, patient crocodiles, and eat my lentils, not necessarily in that order.
When I can’t sleep, because I have to teach a four hour class today, and why would I sleep when I could stay up worrying all night that I might not sleep, I finally give up and write silly love poems. I imagine this will be included in So Speak the Stars, a collection of love poems I’m working on, a tribute to the great love of my life. I have quite a caboodle of them now. They all say the same thing. I became a writer because of this person. I mean I always wrote, but I started getting good at it by trying to say I love you in a way that captured what was actually in my heart. I still haven’t come close, but I’ve sold some books now, so that’s cool.
I wrote this one in response to the weird phenomenon that has been happening (phenomenon is too big a word for this, but whatever) where strangers send me love letters. I think I may have been hacked by the “send people you don’t know love letters” hackers. Maybe they’d ask me for my bank account number if I responded. I don’t know. But anyway, one of them persisted for weeks and finally crowned his flurry of unanswered love letters with a marriage proposal, after which I blocked him. Last night, I wanted to write something because I couldn’t sleep, and my little brain said, “Why don’t you write that dude who asked you to marry him a letter?” So I did.
I’ve been having a revelation lately. I’ve had just about everything a human being can ever have. And nothing, nothing has ever made my life feel like pure magic except for love. Love is where it’s at. Love is the only true treasure. Really, it’s the only thing I want. And I hope that everything I do, say, and think somehow plays into the magic of love.
Last night, I had the joy of sitting next to Karen Joy Fowler at dinner. We talked about how publication doesn’t change your life in any real way, about how you are just the same old you on the other side. I thought I felt that way because I wasn’t a big writer, but Karen is, and she feels that way too. You would think that publishing books and having events that make you the star of the show would make you happy, but it doesn’t, not unless you do it from a place of love. If I go to an event worried about how many people will show up, and if I’ll do a good job, and how many books I’ll sell, it’s about as fun as cleaning toilets used to be when I was a maid. But if I go, and I think, “I don’t care how many people show up. If one person shows up, I’m going to do everything I can to give him or her the love in my heart,” the event is pure magic.
But I digress. This one goes out to the one I love.
I’ve had chronic urinary tract infections since I can remember, meaning I am perpetually in a state of bladder induced agony. If you have never had an acute bladder infection, and you want to understand how it feels, light your genitals on fire. When I was young, I had this weird, chauvinistic doctor who, when I showed up in his office with yet another urinary tract infection, told me in no uncertain terms that if I kept it up (as if I were rebelliously choosing to live in interminable fiery genital hell), I might end up with a scarred bladder, which would lead to incontinence problems when I was older.
Well, I kept it up. And I’m older. I don’t have incontinence problems, per se, except I have to pee every 20 minutes, and the second my brain announces, “Hey, we are heading toward a toilet,” my poor little, scarred, disoriented bladder thinks it’s time to let go. I can’t blame her. She’s been through a lot. She has bladder PTSD.
I’ve learned to combat this disorder by talking to my bladder gently. You know, like people do. As I’m walking toward a bathroom, especially if I’m in a public place, I keep a little inner monologue going, designed to trick my bladder into believing we are nowhere near a toilet. I think, “Man, I wish there were a toilet in this store. Too bad there isn’t. I think the closest toilet is like an hour away. We’re just walking to the freezer to grab an ice cream cone.” I walk quickly while I’m talking to my bladder, but I don’t run, because if I run, she knows there is something for me to be running toward (namely, a nearby toilet), and she lets go. File all of this under FML.
If I’m alone, or with family, and I have to pee really badly, I talk to my bladder out loud. Which is weird and probably slightly psychotic. My kids don’t bat an eye if they see me rushing toward the bathroom saying, “There is no toilet for miles. Too bad we don’t own a toilet. I’m just casually walking to get a book from my bedroom.” Sometimes, they shout encouragement. “There isn’t a toilet anywhere in the state!” my beloved daughter Desi will cheer, glancing up from the canvas she’s painting, sounding very much like a soccer mom trying giving a pep talk to a particularly inept 6-year-old. “Yeah, we haven’t seen a toilet in years!” my lovely son Tim will agree without every looking away from his video game.
Believe it or not, it works. In addition to having PTSD, my bladder is inordinately gullible. But when I get to the bathroom, I have to drop my pants really fast, because the second I see the toilet, my bladder is onto my tricks, and she lets go. I’ve been this way for years, so I’m really good at tricking my bladder, and also really good at getting my pants down quickly when the jig is up.
I’ve only ever wet my pants once, and that was during a road trip. Desi and I were driving across an endless New Mexico desert, and I’d had one of those trough sized sodas they sell at truck stops. I had to pee really, really badly. We drove for like an hour, but there was no bathroom anywhere. Just cactus and sand as far as the eye could see.
At first, conversing with my bladder out loud worked, but then, it stopped working, even when Desi tried to help. My bladder didn’t care if Desi said we were in a desert, and there really wasn’t a toilet for miles. My bladder was going to let go.
“Pull over!” I screamed. Knowing how wily and unpredictable my bladder can be, and not wanting to mar the seats of her brand new charcoal gray Charger, Desi slammed on the breaks and screeched to a halt on the shoulder. I hopped out of the car, dropped my pants, squatted, and started to pee by the road in broad daylight, hoping against hope no other cars would come along. Because God is sadistic, when I was halfway through the peeing session, a cop drove over the hill.
I pictured myself on the stand in some courtroom, trying to combat my public indecency charge. I pictured trying to explain it to my employers, my readers, my friends. I ordered my bladder to stop peeing and whipped up my pants, only my bladder thought there was no reason to stop peeing, as I had proven conclusively to her that there was a toilet in the vicinity. So she kept going, and while the cop drove by, I stood there peeing my pants, saying, “I’m peeing, Desi! I can’t stop peeing!” Desi just pointed and laughed.
But that was years ago. Ok, maybe a year. Anyway, since then, I’ve been accident free. (I feel like I need one of those little boards they have in factories that says, “This facility has been accident free for 376 days.”)
Which brings me to tonight. I’d had a long day, so I decided to have a little me time. I grabbed a glass of pinot and filled the tub with water and bubbles. I stepped in and was preparing to sit when my bladder saw the toilet that was two feet away and announced that she had to pee NOW. (She can go from zero to Niagra Falls in three seconds flat.) I know better than to disbelieve her when she says she has to go, so I jumped out of the tub and lunged for the toilet. But my feet were wet. And the tile was slick. My feet made that weird little “whoop whoop whoop” motion cartoon character feet make after they slip on a banana peel, and then, I fell in slow motion, dumping my wine all over myself as I went. “There is no toilet for miles!” I yelled as I plunged toward the tile. “I was just getting out of the tub to get some bath salts!”
But my poor traumatized bladder had already seen the toilet, and no way in hell was she going to put the brakes on just because I was tumbling ass over tea kettle. So she let go. I wrote all this to announce that I just had the distinction of being the first woman in history to fall on her face, spill her wine, scream “There is no toilet for miles!” and pee herself simultaneously, all while completely sober.
After I’d mopped up the wine and urine, I texted my son and said, “I went to get in the tub, realized I had to pee, started to get out, slipped, spilled my wine, and fell on my face while peeing myself. Classy.” His reply? “Des says go to bed.” No shock. No, “Wait. What? How did this happen?” Just another day in the life of Freaky Bladder Mom. Go to bed. That’s all my sweet children could muster.
I questioned the prudence of sharing my story with the world at large, but it was funny, and I am almost always willing to humiliate myself for a laugh. My bladder isn’t the only one with issues.
This facility has been accident free for 0 days. And counting.
I know I’ve been inordinately quiet lately. There are socially respectable reasons for that. I’m launching a new novel in three weeks. (Count them-three!) My third literary love child, The Long Ride Home, will be welcomed into the world first at Albuquerque’s Bookworks on September 8, and then at Phoenix’s Changing Hands on September 9. The Long Ride Home is already getting great reviews. Kirkus loved it, and so did School Library Journal. Brandon Hartman of Second Time Books wrote this gorgeous review. So I have hopes for this baby of mine.
As if all that weren’t enough, the day after my second book launch, I fly off to Philadelphia to be the writer-in-residence at my beloved Rosemont College for the fall semester. I’ll be teaching two classes for the Rosemont Writer’s Studio while I’m there, as well as doing various readings, signings, panels, and appearances. I can’t tell you how stoked I am about all the good things that are happening in my life. In addition to being kick ass, all these opportunities are keeping me very busy.
But if I said that was why you haven’t heard from me, I’d be lying. My life has been weird and wonderful and excruciating all at once lately. I’ll just cut to the chase and tell you about the excruciating part. In June, I was teaching at Rosemont’s summer writer’s retreat when I found out my beloved mother has stage three breast cancer. I felt like someone punched me in the stomach when I heard. Not that I didn’t know it was coming. I’d seen the worst lump, and clearly, something was wrong. Mom had gone in for her biopsy results the day I left. So I’d tried to emotionally prepare myself for the worst. As is usually the case with these things, my emotional preparation did nothing to stave off the ugly, black, curdled grossness that came to live in my belly when I got the news.
Currently, I’m spending tons of time with my momma and my big brother on our family’s land in the New Mexico mountains. We hike a lot and talk a lot and look at the stars a lot. You’ve never seen stars until you’ve seen stars from the vantage point of an isolated New Mexico mountain. They are so close you can touch them.
We spent some time at a spa in Colorado, dipping in hot springs and getting massaged and eating things that were bad for us. I have this amazing feeling of being closer to my family than ever before, which is saying something, because we are a really tight knit clan.
A few nights ago, right after the 24th anniversary of my precious father’s death (I got a tattoo to memorialize it—this year, I am exactly the same age he was when he died), a storm knocked the power out, and I dreamed magic dreams.
In one of them, my brother and I were sleeping on the floor in my mom’s room in sleeping bags we used to own. (When we were kids, one of us slept on the other’s floor every night. We couldn’t bear to be apart. The scene at the beginning of Beauty of the Broken where Iggy and Mara are holding hands, watching the moon, is me and my big brother all the way. But I digress.)
In my dream, my dad was sitting on mom’s bed, watching over all of us. He said beautiful things to me in that dream. I woke up full of hope to a night that was the blackest black I’ve ever seen. There were no lights for miles, and storm clouds shrouded the stars. In that silent darkness, I felt strangely happy, more content, more myself, more at peace, than I have ever been before. I touched something at the core of me that is unmoved by the darkness. I like that piece of me. She’s come out to play often lately. She came into her own just this year, barely in time to see me through all of this madness.
But even my zen-ny core can’t always save me from feeling the mess. I am also scared and sad and sometimes a little bit desperate. I feel raw and unready to speak to anyone outside of my family at great length. When I sit down to write, nothing comes. I want to say so much, but I think I want to say it with paint or interpretive dance or underwater basket weaving. Something that doesn’t require me to name my feelings, and make them poignant, or funny, or captivating. I lie awake until four every night praying. I can talk to God, but she doesn’t ask me to be pithy. I run every evening. (I’ve lost 16 pounds in a month, partly due to the running, partly due to the fact that my mom and I are doing a plant-based “cancer be gone” diet together.) While I run, I cry because the sunsets are pretty. And because I’m out of the house, and alone, and I don’t want to cry at home in front of my mom, because she already feels shitty enough, and she doesn’t need to be worrying about me. I see deer every time I run. I’ve decided to believe every single one of them is a sign of hope.
So that’s why I’m being quiet. For the first time in my life, I don’t know what to say. I want the people I love to stop hurting. That’s all I know. I guess it’s not all I know. I know I will be off to the East Coast in less than a month. I know I will return from my residency in time for Christmas, and to help my mom during and after her surgeries. And after that, I’m off to teach in Mexico. And then France (I think). And then, my mom and I will maybe travel together, if she’s well. She wants to cash in her life insurance policy and travel with it. I want her to do it. This is how I live right now. Halfway in this magical mountain space with my family, halfway in an imagined future full of cathedrals and ruins and sunsets over mosques.
That’s all I got. See. Wasn’t that boring? This is why I’m not writing right now. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to turn all that is happening, all that I’m feeling, into a cohesive narrative. Always, my heart is full to bursting. I just can never figure out quite what it’s full of.
Outside my window, crickets are singing in tongues. Wind strong-arms cedars. The stars hang heavy and close, like they want to sneak in through the glass and lick me. I’d probably let them if they asked nicely.