A year ago, having given up my home and traveled full time for six years, looking for truth, peace, wholeness, and God (the real thing, not the trite bullshit so much of humanity uses to excuse their worst behaviors and stave off facing themselves), I finally found what I’d been looking for. While withdrawing cold turkey from a prescription for Xanax, I went eight days without sleeping or eating, throwing up everything I tried to ingest. At the end of day eight, in the throes of dehyrdration and what felt like death, I had a psychotic break. When I was released from the hospital the next day, I had another. (I am grateful to say I fully and miraculously recovered within a few weeks. I can play-act “normal” as well as anyone. And please don’t try to tell me that you aren’t playacting when you perform the stultifying dance Western humans call “normal.” I won’t believe you. I’ve never met a normal person in my life, thank God.)
I had been scheduled to begin teaching creative writing full time in an MFA program. Instead, I left my burgeoning career, and everything I thought I was and knew, in ashes, and retreated to the New Mexican mountain upon which I was raised to give birth to a new me. I have spent an entire year in almost complete solitude, settling into the Tawni that emerged from the grave, trying to write a literal description of what happened to me, trying to explain why it was the best, most liberating, beautiful, transformative gift I have ever been given. Five-hundred pages (give or take) of failed attempts leave me humbled. I understand now that the experience was the ineffable gold at the end of the rainbow I had been chasing, the unspeakable “finding” at the end of all the seeking I had been doing. (If you want to find truth, buckle your seatbelt. It ain’t gonna be anything you think you already know. I’m relearning everything, and here is a secret: Everything is love.)
The experience, and its impact on me, defy literal translation. I’ve resorted to poetry to try to describe it. It still doesn’t translate. I think I should take up interpretive dance. Maybe that will do the trick.
I’m not sure I’ll ever sell my work again. Maybe it’s too weird.
Here is another secret: I don’t give a shit.
WHAT THE ANGELS SAID WHEN I WAS DEAD
Mostly, they said my name, though it didn’t sound like a word dropping from their tongues. It sounded like a stone that had been polished blue-pearlescent in the River of Life, like a song that had been written before there were stars, like a breath of love whispering from the very mouth of God. Mostly, they laughed, as if the whole of existence was a giddy dance, the kind children make up on playgrounds while jumping rope and swiveling hips.
Cinderella dressed in yella went upstairs to kiss her fella.
And I did. His lips were like fire. The heat of him burned through my skin and into my marrow. Staring straight and unflinching into the eyes of love, I gathered my courage and threw the bones. They landed at the shit-stained gate to the straight and narrow path.
(FYI, the Pearly Gates are covered in graffiti. The Road to Zion runs through the center of a silver hub cab in a Georgia ghetto. I was baptized in torrential rain in Bristol, Tennessee. Jesus showed up, dressed as a fat cowboy. Cherubs disguised as geese waddled streets-of-gold-painted-to-look-like-brick. Pre-death, the wind handed me three orange poppies, and I pressed them to my breast, the first true treasure I had ever touched.)
The angels taught me to see and never once said I couldn’t tell their secrets. They only spoke them in a language incapable of translation to any mortal tongue. When I try, it sounds like nonsense, the mutterings of a madwoman. I am relegated to the language of silence. I can only speak truth with my eyes. I embrace aloneness because I am never alone. There is no such thing in all the universe as solitary. There is only the illusion of separation, the razor-wire fence cosmic Nazis have run through the center of your mind and dubbed the parameters of sanity. Every molecule is alive and longs to whisper its story. Every breeze throws its arms around lost daughters of God perpetually.
At twilight, I pour pitchers of holy water down the turquoise throats of holy flowers. I speak my truth to sacred thistles, who listen, purpling, when I say, “If I told you that to get to heaven, I had to walk through crazy, what would you do?” They toss white rose petals on my shoe, whispering, “Us too! Us too!”
Half of me was trapped in hell, tormented in a crooked cage, nailed to a cross on the other side of the black line stone-blind humankind has scrawled through the middle of the stage of reality. I was a dismembered mind until I waded crown deep into madness and lowered my basket, gathered my other hand, my other foot, my other eye, my other ear, the other half of my tongue. I could never be truly holy, I could never be truly whole, until I found half of me drowning in a living river mortals dubbed Madness. (But the angels called it Truth.)
My dismembered mind flew back together, formed a constellation. Who knew I was a star?
I understand this now, though I can’t say it in a way that means what it means. Every shred of my skin is holy. My veins run red with the blood of Christ. My very kneecaps are New Testaments. The bumps on my elbows shine like shrines. I am not afraid. There is no such thing as losing. And I can never win a prize that wasn’t already mine. As Hugh Glass said in that movie, “I ain’t afraid of death. I already done it.” And I ain’t. And I have.
Every morning as the sacred sun rises over a divine world dizzy with longing to be noticed, the ants bite one another’s backs and lay asphalt over Nirvana’s rainbowed glory, painting paradise black. Their metal mandibles ravage the surface of heaven, chewing through yellow miracles and spitting them out as mud.
There will be a storm today. The sky will cry, and I will drink rain, mourning humanity’s insanity, knowing mundanity has a long history of thrashing about in chains forged of fear, mistaking the raspberry taste of freedom for crazy, mistaking the electric kiss of love for death.
When John, Paul, George and Ringo said the bird would fly into a black night, they meant it.
My third set of teeth has grown in gold.
On obsidion wings, I rise.
I spend a great deal of time in meditation because I love it. When it is warm out, I sit under the stars for hours, listening to what they have to say. Often, I wake up in the early mornings while it is still dark and sink into the bliss of meditation. I know meditation is supposed to be quiet, and sometimes it is, but sometimes, thoughts come to me, and whether this makes me a bad meditator or not, I am a writer in my heart of hearts, so I stop to write them down. These came this morning at first light. (I am always writing the words for me, as they seem to be coming from a higher place, the smartest place inside me, and I figure I should hear what that chick has to say. Some days, I think maybe the words I have scribbled will have value for others too. If they don’t, or if I sound preachy, I apologize. I’m preaching to myself, not you. I’m thinking of collecting these scribblings into a book because I have lots of them, but who knows? Right now, they are just me talking to me.)
WHAT THE DAWN TOLD ME
People leave and die. The most important relationship you will ever have is with you, because you are the only person who is guaranteed to be with you for the rest of your life. Don’t give the keys to your self-esteem to anyone else. You have always wanted to feel loved. Your feelings arise from inside of you, not outside. Let knowledge of your own belovedness rise within your consciousness without permission from others. Talk to yourself kindly, even if no one else ever has or does. You are the one whose voice matters to you the most. You are the DJ in your own head. Don’t give airtime to voices that hate you.
Be suspicious of social groupings that are stratified (and that means almost all social groupings). If the group has been divided, explicitly or implicitly, into an in-crowd and lesser members, and if everyone is grasping to be part of the in-crowd, the whole shebang is bound to be bullshit, whether it’s a church or a workplace community or a badminton team. Be especially suspicious if you are in the in-crowd. There is nothing so capricious and cruel as an in-crowd. People who need to be in the in-crowd will do whatever they have to do to stay there, and when it comes time to throw you under the bus, they will. Today’s sycophants are tomorrow’s slanderers.
Don’t buy into the buzz of the moments you are popular, because popularity is cheap and can turn to hatred in a heartbeat. If you realize the popularity isn’t real, you will realize the hatred isn’t real when the wind changes.
Be alone without letting socially constructed imperatives for coupling or community force you to define yourself as lonely. You are never truly lonely. The magnificent dance of life swirls all around you, and you are part of it, whether you see it or not. But you are happier when you choose to see it. You can feel more love all alone on a windless night staring up at the moon, allowing yourself to be exactly what you are, knowing you are part of the intricate, infinite, exquisite dance of creation, than you feel in a room packed full of people who are pretending to be something they aren’t, grasping for love that is already inside them.
Cherish love. Don’t throw it around like it’s cheap, because it’s not. This world teaches us all to fake everything, so much of what human beings do is playacting. We say we are happy when we are heartbroken. We say we are fine when we are angry. We say we love when we hate. Someday, when we have all burned away our bullshit and come to know our true selves, the love we give will be as honest and unpretentious as the love given to us by golden retrievers and kittens and toddlers. But until we are done lying, pure love (between humans) is hard to come by for everyone, even the ones you view as impeccably beautiful and talented and brilliant and lucky. Those people get more than their fair share of sycophants, who are their own kind of poison, but they don’t get real love any more than anyone else.
Love is the best, most expensive treasure the universe has to offer. Don’t try to pin a love label on relationships that aren’t founded in purity. So many of the relationships we establish in this world have to do with things like convenience and desperation and emptiness. If you like, have the fun drinks with casual friends, but don’t bet the proverbial farm on those friendships. When casual connections fail you, don’t blame it on yourself, or on the other halves of those relationships. Those relationships were never going to last, and it has nothing to do with anyone’s innate worth. It has to do with the rare beauty of love. Sometimes, fake relationships exist to teach you to cherish the real ones. Sometimes, fake relationships exist to teach you that you can stand alone, that you could always stand alone.
Most of what people do in this world has everything to do with them and nothing to do with you. Their responses to you are based on their own psychological makeup, history, needs, desires, and fears. Own and deal with your own baggage (this will take a lifetime), but don’t pick up theirs just because they try to project it on you. Remember these words: “I know who I am.” Every time someone lies about you, repeat them.
Don’t bother to counteract lies that are told about you unless your soul screams that you must, for the sake of truth. If you do speak out, know that even when you speak truth, people believe what they want to believe, and it has nothing to do with you. If you decide to know who you are without needing other people to confirm your identity, you don’t need to explain yourself to them when they get you wrong.
Walk away from cruelty, dishonesty, sycophancy, game playing. Trust that lies are fragile things. No matter how many people repeat a lie, or how often, it is made of the stuff of spider webs. It is tattered and rattling in the wind, waiting to be ripped away by the hurricane of truth.
The universe has a way of stripping away layers of bullshit over time, revealing what was always there. By the time it does, you don’t usually care much if the truth is revealed or not, because you have moved on, which means you have spent the years you could have spent in agony–being angry, weeping, defending yourself–living and loving your one precious life.
The only true currency you own is the seconds of your precious life. That currency is limited and quickly spent. Do you really want to spend it on the people who hate you? Give it all, every moment, to the ones you truly love, the things you truly love, including yourself.
No matter what anyone says or does, always keep yourself on the list of things you love. Self-loathing is overrated.
When you choose to believe you are loved, you win, no matter who does or doesn’t notice.
I wrote this last night as I stared up at the stars, feeling as if I was one of them.
God is silent?
The infinite is always speaking. The moon is talking.
The rocks are talking. The flowers are talking. The homeless man
in the gutter is talking. We don’t hear the ethereal
because we believe in the myth of mundanity.
There is no such thing as a mundane moment. There is nothing
that was not carved from the very flesh of Krishna. We have swallowed
our own mediocre lies whole, traded our eyes for a thousand voices
screaming what they think we should see, telling us who we should be.
Our rudimentary language marches forward
in a relentless straight line, repeating
a loveless, pointless lie about why we are here:
You are born. You work. You die.
God’s language flurries and dances, a song shouted, spiraling
and dizzy, ecstatic, from the mouth of all that is, everything at once
hammering out an intricate code our caged, conscious minds
are too small to even begin to comprehend.
To learn to hear one syllable of truth, you must assume
that everything you think you know is a lie.
The beginner’s mind knows only what is.
It treasures the gray smooth stone as gold. You must erase
the imagined safety of the linear and embrace chaos. You must rise
into the stars knowing that you are one of them, understanding
that though you have forgotten the message of the holy book scribbled
on your bones, the music of Saturn’s spinning is your native tongue.
You must come to see that a religion capable of bringing you
to your knees simmers in the whorls of your fingerprints.
Summer wind is a sacrament. Thunderstorms are baptism.
The piss drenched alley is sacred soil.
You must feel the echo of your own heartbeat in the quiet thrumming
of a bounding grasshopper’s knobby knees. You must lick the ground
and taste your own reckless pounding blood. You are not at your core
a tame creature, nor are you broken. Only your shell is cracked
so when you are ready you can break through to the true treasure.
Your yolk glistens golden, ready to be revealed, in all of its divine
wholeness. That terrifying never ending dissatisfied roiling
at the edges of your sacred skull is you trying to get out.
The seer’s secret was this:
He bit into cactus fruit
knowing he was kissing
the mouth of god.
I was supposed to be teaching at a program at Lehigh, starting tomorrow. When I agreed to take the job, I knew I was going to be utterly exhausted from teaching at the Rosemont Retreat, and that another two week marathon might wreck me, but I desperately needed the money, so I said yes.
But fate mixed things up for me. Some former acquaintances had a huge emergency and needed me to watch their rather glorious house and even more glorious dogs for a few weeks. I didn’t tell them how much I was going to get paid at Lehigh. They are giving me exactly the amount I was going to receive.
I felt horrible for bailing on a work commitment and helped the program find a great replacement for me, someone I think will do an amazing job and will love the work. And now, I’m spending two weeks alone with two of the best dogs ever born, writing, languishing in a glorious garden watching sunsets, generally being amazed. Last night, I went out to swallow the sunset, and these flowers called to me. I went to them and held them in my hand and looked at them for hours, as the sun fell, reminding me of the rainbowed tunnel of light the dead are said to see, and then, the fireflies danced, turning the whole world to heaven.
I wrote this as I sat there with those flowers. I don’t even know if it’s any good, but my heart burned with love and light as I wrote it. I hope some flicker of that translated to the page.
WHAT THE FLOWERS TOLD ME
If you want to know truth, you must dispense with human speech. You have to learn the language of the flowers.
This is what the sages mean when they say, “Life is sacred.”
You must understand that every minute of every day, you are living your destiny.
Heaven lives inside of you, and if you don’t enter it now, while alive, you never will.
Dead is too late to enter heaven. Dead is try-earth-again time. Earth is purgatory.
Life is a timed test with one question: let us know if you’re ready to be alive this time around.
Hell lives in the mundane story you tell yourself about who you are and why you are here.
Non-miracles don’t exist.
The chains holding you in hell are self-forged. Their links are made of fear.
The door to heaven hides at the yellow core in the starry face of every flower you see.
It shimmies between molecules in the here and now.
Constellations you can touch shimmer in noonday sun pretending to be beebalm.
You don’t need a rocket for a lunar landing.
The moon is the orange you ate for lunch and didn’t bother to taste.
The sweet citrusy by and by never existed.
There is only this.
There is only today.
Somewhere out there is right here.
Find the door to heaven three inches in front of your face. Walk through it.
Let wonder, as invisible and powerful as windy storms that give birth to thunder, carry your feet.
Let your mind wing you away from your imagined misery because it can if you let it.
The real story doesn’t live in the narrative, the plotline, the tale of joy or woe.
The real story is smaller than that.
It lives in the images, the snapshots,
the squirrel knees
the way angels whisper through leaves of forever-tall trees, begging you to notice.
The real story has no words, but everything has meaning.
There is only one story.
The story is always eventually named “Love.”
The secret lies in the logic beneath the logic.
Reality doesn’t live in objects.
It lives in the energy underneath, dancing like Van Gogh’s stars.
Humanity is a human construction. The smelly, sacred animals we are hide just beneath the skin.
The answer to the big question is, “Everything.”
Love is the key that unlocks the pearly gates, and the pearls are made of snowflakes.
The wisest sage I ever knew once told me: “Don’t worry,
if you go to hell, you’ll get out someday. Forever is a long time.”
He was right. I went to hell, and I got out someday
by tunneling through the center of three star-shaped flowers
who named themselves Ganesh.
“We are trinity,” they said. “Father, mother, and child,” and I believed them.
Spoiler alert: You were always going to make it heaven.
Walk through your fear of lovelessness.
Love waits just on the other side.
I am learning that the truth the dead know is always being shouted
from the eves of every rooftop in Taipei,
the entrance to every anthill in Pittsburg.
Maybe even the ghosts are angels. Maybe the spirits jump out of closets
to shock us into letting go of what we think we know.
Krishna’s secret is this: he could spend forever pondering
the mystery of red roses on white brick walls. He knows that rocks are god.
I asked the master to take me to the fairy world
He said, “You’re already in it.”
Vagrants are holy men. They have finally gone un-blind.
They have finally learned what matters.
A thousand counterfeits, and only one real love, but it is everywhere.
A precise equation, cosmic math:
The difference between heaven and hell =
the difference between love and lovelessness.
Fireflies dance in time to heaven’s drum.
Oh, come angel band, come and around me land.
Make a lantern of the grassy night.
To enter god, you must realize your oneness with divinity.
To experience your true existence at the heart of God,
you must understand the unity that you already have.
I asked the master what my real name was.
He said: You are the dandelion seed that rode your wishes
to the kingdom that has already come.
I’m lying in bed in the castle at Rosemont College, in the room I’ve come to call the princess room, because I lived here for a while when I was writer in residence, and I was alone in the castle a lot, and it was easier to think of myself as a princess in a castle than as a screwed up writer living alone in a big historic house that may or not be haunted, and also because the room in question is beautiful and covered in pink flowers and lace, and well, it’s in a freaking castle.
Also, every time I come to Rosemont, I feel like a princess, because its program director, Carla Spataro, and its faculty and its students treat me with more kindness and generosity and genuine love than I’ve experienced just about anywhere.
The Rosemont Writer’s Retreat ended yesterday, though I’ve managed to book myself a student consultation the day after the retreat, because a student needed to talk to me about her manuscript, and I was out of official slots, and I’m super lousy at saying no when my students need me. (I’m ok being that kind of lousy. My students are precious to me.) I’m slightly hungover, which is rare for me these days, but I was up with the sun anyway, because my body decided long ago that sleep is for sissies. I feel lucky to be here, lucky in a way that is hard to express without poetry and pigeons (the kind with rainbows hidden beneath their feathers) and maybe a Mariachi band. In about a month, I’ll start teaching in Rosemont’s MFA program officially, though I’ve been a thesis adviser and on and off face-to-face faculty for about five years.
Last night, I drank whiskey on the porch of Gracemere, a beautiful, historic house in which all of the major retreat events take place. I was surrounded by fellow faculty and students, otherwise known as friends, and fireflies flitted about being miraculous (I will never get over the miracle of fireflies), and the love in the air was palpable. Rosemont is called that (I think) because it’s sort of on the top of a hill, and as cheesy as it sounds, to me it feels epically beautiful in a Holy Mount Zion kind of way. It has been one of my shelters in the storm of the past five years, during which I’ve lived on the road and sorted my proverbial shit out.
There is a stone Mary set into the cathedral that stands just outside the castle, and she features heavily in the memoir I’m writing about my years on the road, which I’ve titled Butterfly Song. She’s been one of my best friends since the first time I came here. When I lived on campus for a semester, I was often alone in the castle at night, and I would go outside and sit under a luminescent moon, which I imagined was a jellyfish floating in an ocean of sky. I would whisper my secrets to Mary, and she would hear me, and heal me.
I’ve taught and spoken in many places all over America, and in Europe and Mexico too, and Rosemont has something I haven’t found anywhere else. Rosemont feels like home, or at least like part of my home, though I’m starting to figure out my heart’s home is a jigsaw puzzle, and little pieces of it are scattered all over the world.
Last night, elated by the joy of sharing art and heart with so many like-minded souls for a week (and also maybe a little extra elated by lots of whiskey and some exquisite wine Charles Holdefer carted over from Belgium), I chased a frog through underbrush with New Zealand writer Jillian Sullivan and Philadelphia essayist and poet Kristina Moriconi.
I’m not going to play at false humility here. I think I captured the essence of the frog beautifully, in spite of my inebriated condition. “You’re chasing it away!” Kristina kept saying as I tripped after the plucky little amphibian with my phone, trying to get his photo. Kristina didn’t get my process, didn’t understand what it takes to eke this kind of genius from a photographic experience.
But I’m a pro at chasing animals through vegetation and capturing photos that would blow the mind of even the most intrepid National Geographic photographer. I hate to brag, but I think the proof of my words is in the proverbial pudding (below).
I call this Intimate Portrait of an Amphibian (Captured While Good and Shnockered), but you can frame it in whatever words move you. Its impact is, I know, sweeping and deeply personal. It’s hard to argue that I didn’t capture everything that really mattered about that frog. It’s not just like looking at his face(ish) through the window of a speeding car as he’s riding in the other direction on a fast train in a torrential rain. It’s like looking into his very soul.
I think I’m qualified to say that photography isn’t just about the photographer. It’s not a monologue. It’s a conversation with the viewer. It’s me saying, “When I looked at this terrified, fleeing frog while I was super drunk, this is what I saw, but now, I’m giving the reins to you. The experience isn’t mine anymore, it’s yours, beloved photography aficionado. Make of it what you will.” As I said, this sort of photographic genius isn’t new to me, which is probably why I’m so good at just putting my art out into the world and letting it be, you know, without trying to impose my own meaning on it, without trying to control the viewer’s relationship with my work.
Why, just last week, I was in my mother’s home in the New Mexico mountains, writing on my computer, drinking coffee. I looked up to see a mountain lion staring at me through the window. Most people would be like, “Eek, a lion, I’d better stay indoors,” but being deeply committed to the art of photography (and kinda dumb), I jumped up to grab her photo. She ran, and I leapt outside and chased her through the woods. Thanks to my idiocy and dedication, I was able to capture this stunning evidence of her existence. (No stupid writers were eaten during the making of this photographic masterpiece.)
It’s safe to say I captured everything she was–her beauty, her majesty, her fierceness, her strength. I’m quite sure that any day now, Rosemont is going to call me to let me know they’ve decided I should probably be teaching nature photography instead of writing because, well, look at this shit. You don’t see photos like this every day. You just don’t.
Anyway, my new life has begun. I’ve been living on the road for five years now, homeless for all intents and purposes, though when my son was in a horrible accident and my mother got cancer and my brother and daughter went through divorces, and my brother also died twice from a heart attack (and was revived, thank God), I started spending more and more time on my New Mexico mountain with my family.
I lived on the road to heal. I knew when the healing was done, the universe would show me the place I was to put down some roots, and it has. I’m here in Philadelphia for a year. The beautiful Kristina and her wonderful husband Steve have given me a gorgeous apartment to live in, and I already have some personal décor to place in it, thanks to the generosity of my students. This beautiful succulent was bought for me by the gorgeous Kourtney Gush, who writes incredible poems about aliens and outer space and magic. It kinda looks like an alien, and I love that, because every time I look at it, it will remind me of her amazeballs writing.
And this breathtaking wall hanging was made by the brilliant Sam Talucci, who writes and sews and paints and plays the guitar. He gave it to me on the porch last night, ostensibly as a thank you for my teaching, but I think he really was moved to generosity by the profound beauty of my frog photography.
Anyway, I’m happy. I’m in a place that feels like one of my homes (though can we get my family shipped here, because I miss the hell out of them), and I probably should get my butt up and moving because it’s never cool to show up to a student consultation naked. People don’t put up with that kind of shit from anyone, not even intrepid world class photographers like myself. I guess I just wanted to take some time before I showered and brushed my teeth to say that this week was one of the best of my life.
Oh, and because I’m all over the map (I blame the frogs, the fireflies, and the whiskey), I should add that a few nights ago, one of my best friends, Beth Kephart, read a piece about the miracle of Bruce Springsteen (I will never get over the miracle of Bruce Springsteen) at her reading, and I cried my heart out, because she captured, really captured the essence of not only Bruce, but of the magic of music, and of life, in a way that punched me in the face (in the best way possible—a loving, ain’t-life-grand kind of punch). Afterward, she’d told me she’d chosen to read that piece because she knew how much I loved Bruce, which made the whole experience even more beautiful. And that’s just kinda how it is around here. I get doused in love everywhere I turn.
I walked to the castle barefoot after her reading, watching fireflies flash, feeling utterly loved, utterly whole, utterly—well, if I keep saying utterly, I’ll start thinking about cows, and then I’ll have to go find some poor bovine to chase through vegetation so I can capture her essence with my photographic prowess. So I’ll shut up with the utterly stuff.
But I guess what I’m saying is I’m a really great photographer, and I feel very fucking loved.
Today was one of the holiest days I’ve had in a long while, and I’m not sure why, except right now, I am keenly aware of the fact that I am transitioning from a phase of my life that began five years ago, when I started to live on the road, intending to find myself—save myself—come hell or high water. When I began to travel full time, I was desperate. I was in a place where I knew, really knew, that if I didn’t get my shit together, I was going to die. I was drinking way too much, eating all the wrong things, punishing my body in any way I could muster, and giving myself away a piece at a time to anyone who asked for a chunk of me, whether they deserved it or not. I was believing lies about myself, ugly lies that had wrapped themselves like a noose around my neck and were starting to strangle me. Living on the road was sort of chosen, sort of forced on me, as my means of healing. And it worked. And now, my travels are about to end. In about two weeks, I leave to live in Philadelphia for a year. The acuity of knowing something is ending always makes it more precious. I’m trying to write a complete memoir about the experience of finding myself while living on the road, and 60,000 words can’t really do it justice, so I’m not sure how I intend to encapsulate it in a blog post. I guess I won’t even try.
What I will say is that what intended to be a year on the road turned into five, because I was determined to learn to live life as an act of trust, and I decided to walk through the doors that opened for me, and not force an end to my travels until it came naturally. I knew when the time to end my travels came, I would be emotionally, spiritually, and physically healed, and I would also be miraculously led to the place I was supposed to settle, at least for a time. These five years have been one of the greatest, most guided, most excruciating, beautiful gifts I have ever been given. I lost everything that didn’t matter (but everything I lost felt like it mattered at the time) and found everything that ever did. I traveled all of America and much of the world. I looked me in the face and looked me in the face and cried and screamed and wrote and sang and prayed, and the other night, as I was meditating, I gave myself a gift, maybe the greatest gift I have ever been given.
It started when imagined how I feel about the people I love most—my children, my brother, my mother, my nieces and nephews, the great love of my life, my best friends–and how it hurts me so much when they can’t see how beautiful they are, when they believe the lies people tell about them, when they punish themselves for being what they are when what they are is miracles. And I imagined I had a magic wand, and I could give them any gift in the world. The gift that I would give them is the ability to see the beauty I see in them, to know the power that resides in their bones, the brilliance that lives in their minds, the awesome gift that they are to me and to the world. And then, I imagined how I would feel if someone gave me that gift. If someone said to me, “You are beautiful,” and I just decided to believe them without question. And then, I imagined giving myself that gift. I imagined letting myself believe I was beautiful and magical and miraculous and brilliant, that my sins were forgivable, and my future was wide open in front of me, and anything, anything was possible. And I said to me, “Tawni, I love you.” And something washed over me. Love? I don’t know. It felt blue (I see feelings as colors), and even though I’ve tried saying that to myself a billion times for the past five years, this time was different. I believed myself. I was beautiful. I realized that this was what I was looking for all those years, the ability to live in my own skin without loathing the sight of myself. And there it was.
A few months ago, a series of wonderful things I choose to call miracles (others might call them coincidences, but I long ago stopped believing in that) led me to a beautiful year-long job teaching in Rosemont College’s MFA program, which has been one of the places I’ve fallen most deeply in love with during my sojourns. It also led me to the most generous, beautiful friends in the world who are giving me an incredible apartment to live in for a year. Yes, giving me. I asked to pay. They said no. I’m not sure how to even express the gratitude I feel to them. (I’m not sure they’d want to be named here, but if you know me, you know who they are.) They are such gifts to me. They have helped me to believe again in the goodness of humanity, which—I’ll be honest–I was questioning for a while. The road also led me to Carla Spataro, the head of Rosemont’s MFA program, who became one of my best friends and believed in me completely and generously during some of the most difficult years of my life. She has taken me into the literary family she creates with so much tenderness, dedication and love, and I don’t know how to express the gratitude I feel for that gift either. I have found so many new friends in Philadelphia in the last five years, and I can barely wait to spend more time with them.
And yet. The place the road ultimately brought me was home. Spiritually, emotionally, and physically, I came home. I found the me that was buried under years of life and abuse (by self and others), and I also found my way back to the beautiful mountain upon which I was raised, and the beautiful family that lives here. After my father’s death, I sort of collapsed into my own cocoon of pain, and my family and I drifted apart, but the second worst day of my life (the first being my father’s death) happened while I was living on the road, and there was only one place I could think to run. To the arms of my beautiful family. It turned out we were all in transition. And we fell in love again. Became closer than we had ever been, which is saying something, because when I was a child, we were the most tightly knit family I’ve ever seen. Now, we are tighter. I’ve spent more and more time on my mountain as I’ve become healthier and healthier, because the healthier you become, the more you want to be around the people who really love you, and these people REALLY love me. As in, they would jump in front of a bullet for me. I’ve spent more and more time at the church my daddy founded and my beloved brother now pastors, and I’ve realized that church is the core of who I am. I’ve spent tons of time with my children too, who are the best thing that ever happened to me and moved back to New Mexico during my sojourns. And now I’m leaving all that. And even though I’m excited about my new life, leaving home breaks my heart.
This morning, I woke up to the sound of a second voice in my mother’s kitchen, a neighbor who attends the church my brother pastors. I’ve known her peripherally and really liked her, but I’ve never gotten to know her well. In an uncharacteristic act of social nicety (I’ve kinda turned into a recluse during my travels), I decided to go sit at the table with her and my mother and have coffee with them, and she said something to me that changed me. She said, “You glow so brightly. When you walk into a room, it physically lights up. You can physically see God in you.” I was stunned and moved, and I laughed and told her that a woman at Rosemont had called me the Madonna, and I’d been just as shocked, because all anyone had ever called me for most of my adult life was a whore.
But then, I realized something. That “Tawni is a whore” shit was always a lie. That whore thing was a label slapped on me by the first man who raped me, and driven home again and again by other abusers, but it was always a lie. The point of this wandering was to strip away the lies and find the true me, and the true me is not a whore. The true me shines when she walks into a room. And I told her that I was different person now than I’d been five years ago, and then I realized how true that was. I am not the same Tawni I was five years ago, not even close. And then, I told her all about my travels, visions and dreams I’d not shared with anyone, experiences I keep very close to my heart, and she loved me more at the end of it all. To speak your truth and have it be believed is one of the greatest gifts you can be given. I wondered, after I spoke to her if her presence was a reflection of the gift I’d given myself the night before, my choice to believe I was beautiful.
After she left, I was about to shower, and my mom called me into the kitchen. Just outside the door, a cat was killing a snake on the porch, and while I’m not much for death and dismemberment, it felt like a sign, like the end of the lies I had believed about myself. I was the only one who could kill the snake, the lie, that was wrapped like a noose around my neck. I was the only one who could look at me and decide I was beautiful. I was the only one who could believe the people who said I was the Madonna, not the people who said I was the whore. We are always, always the only true arbiters of our identities. We are always, always the only true arbiters of our destinies.
I’ve just returned from my evening run, after which I laid on the rock I have made into an altar. It is very close to the rock my father used to pray on, and I lay on it all night sometimes, staring at the stars, meditating, praying. Much of my last book, So Speak the Stars, was written on that rock. Today, I laid there listening to music, watching the clouds, and Alanis Morriset’s “Thank You” came on, and I cried. Thank you terror. Thank you disillusionment. No, I mean it. Thank you. And P.S. Thank you, rock. Who knew a simple gray stone covered in moss could become a magic carpet that carried a girl back to her heart’s truest home?
And now, in two weeks, I’m leaving it. I knew I would be given a place to settle down when the healing was complete, and it now waits for me in Philadelphia. But truth be told, I’m not leaving my rock. I carry this rock in my heart. Always. I carry this mountain in my heart. Always. I carry the daddy who told me a billion times that I was beautiful before he died, and the mother who reminded me of my beauty when I almost died myself. I carry the big brother who shows me every day what courage is, and the children who are the greatest gifts I have ever been given. I carry my father’s church in my bones. I am my father’s church. I don’t think he’d be offended to hear me say that. I think he would say my brother and I are the greatest work of his life. If I do light up a room when I walk into it, it is my father’s church, my mountain, my beloved ones, and yes, my God, whom I rediscovered in a whole new way during my travels, shining from my bones.
I am grateful. I am grieving. I am hopeful. I am whole.
I’m about to roast my mother, so let me preface this by saying my mom is one of my favorite people in the world. In my past few years of living on the road, I’ve stayed with her more and more often, partly because I’m old and wandering constantly hurts my back, partly because when I’m “out there” speaking or teaching or reading or doing whatever I do for my career, I’m “on” and surrounded by people all the time, and it’s nice to come to my isolated mountain and be a total hermit, and partly because I adore the heck out of my family.
My mom and I have fun together. We go on long hikes and watch Netflix and eat, but only good food, because she’s a health nut. If you haven’t noticed, she has the body of the supermodel. “Hey, Tawn! Let’s watch Netflix and eat salad!” is her idea of a wild night.
(My idea of a wild night is three bottles of wine, a shot of tequila, a vat of ice cream, and maybe some acrobats. If you haven’t noticed, I don’t have the body of a supermodel.)
Sometimes, she’ll mix it up and throw in some popcorn (no butter).
We are about as different as different could be. She is very organized, and she worries a lot. My room usually looks like a thrift store threw up in it.
I’m always like, “Eh, the house is on fire? It will work out. Pass me that ice cream, will you?” She also likes to throw things away. You know how some people do retail therapy? Well, she does whatever the opposite of that is. She gets rid of stuff to make herself feel better. It’s like a snake shedding its skin or something, only her skin is probably stuff she really needs and will miss someday. So I guess it’s not like a snake shedding its skin. It’s like a human shedding its skin. (Hey, molting human. You know that skin isn’t going to grow back, right? There’s only blood and guts under there, no more skin. Ok, just checking.)
I never know what the target of her obsession is going to be. A few months ago, I came home from God knows where—some other continent—as I live on the road and wander all of the time. I’d bought myself several packages of instant pudding before I left, and when I came home, I was exhausted and super excited to plop myself in front of the T.V. and eat pudding with whipped cream. (You miss crappy American food when you are in other places.) I asked her where my boxes of pudding were. She said, “Oh, I threw them away.”
I was like, “Why? Why would you throw boxes of pudding away?”
She shrugged. “They’d been there a month.”
“Mom, it’s powdered instant pudding mix. It doesn’t go bad.”
“Well, I figured no one was going to eat them, and they were cluttering up the pantry.”
“Mom, I was in Bangladesh. I couldn’t eat them. And they took up about an inch of space in the pantry. They were insignificant enough to be dwarfed by the average postage stamp.”
Sometimes, I’ll come home, and all the canned food will be gone because Mom decided to haul it all down to the local Salvation Army. She will often walk up to me with some perfectly useful item in her hand and say, “We don’t need this saucepan, do we?”
“I don’t know, Mom. Maybe not today. But you never know. Maybe someday you will want to make some sauce.” (She tosses pan into a bag and hustles out the door to take it to Goodwill, a pleased little smile on her face, as if she is accomplishing something very important.)
Sometimes, her need to get rid of things applies to whole pieces of furniture. Not furniture that no one is using, mind you. You might walk through the door one day and find out the couch is gone. About a month ago, she told me she was going to get a new bed for her guest room (where I sleep). The old bed was great, but she insisted it was time for a new one. It’s weird for her to want to bring home something new just for the heck of it, so I should have known something diabolical was going down. But I blindly trusted and stayed at her house while she went to do her volunteer work at the hospital so big, brawny men from a local charity could come and drag my bed away. I’ve been sleeping on a mattress on the floor for a month now. I am starting to suspect there was never any new bed coming. She just wanted to get rid of some REALLY big. She probably stays up at night with that pleased little smile on her face, congratulating herself because she got rid of something super substantial. Meanwhile, my back descends into the eleventh circle of Dante’s hell. (Yes, I know there were only nine. This one is new and very, very cruel.)
One year, I was writer in residence at Rosemont College for the fall semester, so I lived on the campus in Philadelphia.
As Christmas drew near, I started buying presents for my family members and having them shipped to my mom’s house, where I was going to spend the holidays. Well, Mom claims that she thought that because some of the packages had Chinese writing on them, they were evidence of people from another country trying to scam her. (I’m still not sure how the scam would work. Hey, anonymous American woman, I’m sending you lots of brand new, free shit with Chinese writing on the package. AND THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO TO PROTECT YOURSELF!!!! HAHAHAHA!!!) I came home three days before Christmas to find that Mom had donated ALL OF MY CHRISTMAS PRESENTS TO GOODWILL. My kids got socks for Christmas that year.
My brother is the same way. Recently, he got divorced. Some people cope with that sort of thing by descending into alcoholism or buying fancy sports cars. Bryan coped by getting rid of everything he owned. I pet sit for him often, and every time I showed up to take care of his animals, something else was missing from the house. He got rid of the couch. Then the lazy boy. Then the coffee table. Finally, one night, I went over, and there was one lawn chair in his living room, poised across from the flat screen television on the wall. That was it. All the furniture in the room was gone. I’m not sure why he kept the lawn chair, except maybe, since he is older than I am, his back can’t handle sitting on the floor to watch television. I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. Once all the furniture was gone, he started getting rid of most of his clothing. I told him that the only thing left for him to do was start throwing out one of the shoes from each pair of shoes he owned, because who needs two flip flops anyway?
And people wonder why I hoard things. It’s a coping mechanism. If I have three sauce pans, maybe Mom will find one and donate it to charity, and maybe Bryan will find the other and burn it, but damn it, I’ll still have a saucepan.
I am coming back to life after a gorgeous weekend recovering from my book launch for my second poetry collection, So Speak the Stars, at Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Philadelphia. Yesterday, Kristina Moriconi, who is a brilliant essayist and memoirist, and also a beloved friend, took me out for chai teas at a cozy little coffee shop and read the first chapters of my memoir, which I’ve been scared to share (though I did read it on the radio a few weeks ago, but that felt sort of insulated, because you can’t see the people who might be listening). The work, about the five years I’ve spend living on the road, re-finding me, is very personal, and also, I’m nervous about its artistry, because I’ve never written a memoir. Kristina got super excited when she read it and said the most beautiful things about the work. She even offered to send it to an editor friend of hers when it’s done, and that gave me so much faith in the writing. I guess my next book is going to be a memoir called Butterfly F*cking: A Memoir(ish), y’all. It’s official.
Afterward, we went to her favorite record store. Kristina and I have bonded over all kinds of things, but one of them is our shared love of music. Since I arrived in Philadelphia, we’ve spent many hours huddled in her studio, sharing secrets, listening to Bruce Springsteen on vinyl tell us that it’s a town full of losers, and he’s pulling out of here to win. (So are we, damn it.) I told Kristina that I want to get a record player when I settle down, so when we were at the record store, she bought me a record my daddy played constantly, Linda Rondstat’s Greatest Hits (why, oh why, did I not listen more carefully to “Silver Threads and Golden Needles”?) to inaugurate my new life off the road, as the new me.
After the record store, we went to Big Blue Marble Bookstore, because Tawni, always the master of organization and detail, had forgotten to get the money she made on her books at the launch. Sawyer Lovett manages the store and is one of the smartest, grooviest cats I’ve ever known. (He’s also a brilliant writer. I’ve had the honor of reading a section of his novel, and it’s mind blowing.) Sawyer gave me cookies (does he know me or what?) and this Where the Wild Things Are pin.
To understand why I think this is so wonderful, you must know that when I was little, my beloved daddy, who was an incredibly gifted artist before he was a preacher, painted a life-scale mural of The Wild Things dancing on my bedroom wall. While this may have contributed to some of my adult neuroses (you try waking up to a roomful of giant monsters dancing around you when you’re two), it’s also made Where the Wild Things Are my favorite book in the world.
If you don’t know the story, Max gets a little saucy with his mommy, and she sends him to bed without any supper, and his bedroom turns into a secret world, and he sails off for a year to the land where the wild things are. Max screams, “Let the wild rumpus start!” And they all dance under the moon and howl and go crazy and have tons of fun, but after a time, Max gets lonely and wants to be where someone loves him best of all. So he steps into his boat, and the wild things howl, “No, no, please don’t go, we’ll eat you up, we love you so,” but Max leaves anyway, and sails back through a year “and into the night of his very own bedroom, where he finds his supper waiting for him.” And it’s still hot.
Ok, I just realized, as I was recapping that story, I don’t really need to write a memoir. The story of my life is called Where the Wild Things Are. Anyway, if my history is encapsulated in that children’s book, this past year, and especially this weekend, felt like the coming home part. Because I was launching a book that was my true heart in “fuck-it-I’m-writing-what-want-to-write-form,” mostly compiled while I was hiding in the woods for months, meditating and talking to the stars.
Because my beautiful daughter, Desiree Wade, illustrated these poems, that are such a profound piece of my heart.
Because the bookstore was filled with beautiful friends I’ve made during my travels, who see and love me for who I really am. Because Kristina bought me two cakes for the launch, one of which was a carrot cake, and my momma always made me carrot cake on my birthdays when I was a kid.
Because one of the writers and humans I admire most in the world, Beth Kephart, introduced me with some of the most moving words I’ve ever heard about myself.
Because another of the writers and humans I admire most, Grant Clauser, interviewed me, asking insightful questions that dug right to the heart of my writing.
Because afterward, some of my dearest friends went out to celebrate with me.
And because I was brave enough to sing my songs, songs I’ve written through the years but always kept hidden.
Rewind: When I was a little girl, I decided I was going to be an actress, a singer, and a writer when I grew up. I did the acting and the writing, but not the singing, because people always mocked my voice and told me it was ugly. So I pursued my love for music by becoming a groupie instead of a musician. But I couldn’t stop writing songs and ferreting them away in the back of my psyche, my dirty little secret songs.
I sang them first at a reading I did last week in Madrid, New Mexico because it’s an artist colony made mostly of paint and glitter and sparkly rocks, and sparkly things make me brave, but singing it at a book launch in the big city felt like it required a whole new level of courage. Singing those songs in conjunction with releasing a book about the deepest love I’ve ever known felt like letting my soul out of the box. I was terrified, and I said I was. I think my exact words were, “I’m scared shitless, so I’m going to close my eyes.” And then I opened my little mouth, and I did something I thought I would never do. I sang my songs at a book launch. When I was done, so many people said pretty things, and now, I really don’t think my voice is ugly, and no offense, but fuck all y’all who said it was.
When I go home to New Mexico in April, I’m supposed to meet with some of the musicians who were at my reading in Madrid. They heard my songs and asked me to sing one of them again while they played, and now, they want to get together again and set them to music, so maybe, someday when I grow up, I will be a singer after all. (The word “band” was tossed around, but I’m not sure I’m ready to use such grandiose language.)
Last night, Kristina and I sat curled up by her fire, drinking Manhattans, watching a fox look for food in the woods outside her house. “Why is the fox looking for food outside her house?” you ask. Because apparently, Kristina was leaving him whole rotisserie chickens in her yard. When I get reincarnated, I either want it to be as one of Kristina’s dogs or the fox that lives in the woods outside her house. What follows is an actual conversation Kristina and I had.
Kristina: Oh, my god. The fox is looking for food. I wish I had a rotisserie chicken.
Me: You could give him eggs.
Kristina: But they’re raw. Do foxes like raw eggs?
Me: No, they hard boil them in their caves.
(You can see why I love Kristina.) Anyway, sitting with my dear friend, watching the world turn white, I looked down at my little Wild Things pin and thought, “Well, damn. I’ve found my supper waiting for me. And it’s still hot.”
P.S. I used to always end my blogs with a P.S. and a song. I’m doing that again today because this song has been in my head, on repeat, for days. It feels true. Morning has broken.
Religion is like those fairly grotesque paintings of elephants created by Europeans in the middle ages who had never actually seen exotic animals from other continents, but had read descriptions of elephants written by travelers, wanderers who had actually seen them. I imagine the travelers–those ones who had first hand knowledge of the animals– wrote their descriptions in an attempt to share the wonder, grasping to put the astonishing, the impossible, the ephemeral into words. But words are never big enough to hold truth. (If you don’t believe me, fall desperately in love, and then try to write a poem about it. The poetic result will be laughable, compared to the ocean of inexpressible love that crashes inside you.)
When the ones who had never seen exotic animals read the words of the travelers, they tried to paint what they imagined as they read, and in so doing, they continued the travelers’ attempts to calcify the ephemeral. Instead, they gave birth to comical monstrosity. A big gray thing with a long long trumpeting nose? Well then, it must look like this. (Drum roll, please…)
I give you an elephant!
And those who have actually seen a living, breathing elephant laugh and laugh. The difference between reading about and seeing is the difference between watching the weather channel and being swallowed alive by a hurricane. Reality should never be represented and cemented by those who have not seen.
When _____ spoke to Moses from the burning bush, Moses asked his name. _____ said, “I am what I am.” Meaning don’t try to define me. Don’t try to name me. Don’t try to chop me up into bite sized pieces your mortal mind can understand. The second you slap a label on me, you have reduced me to something smaller than I am because words are too small to hold me. I am what I am. And you are what you are. And it is enough.
In some places, it is considered blasphemy to say the name of ______. That is because those who have caught a glimpse of the elephant know that ______ does not have a name mortal language can grasp, and the second you give ______ a name, you have blasphemed, imagined yourself as A God bigger than _______, egotistically declaring yourself as one who has made the infinite finite, the unknowable known, the unseen seen.
And ______ looks at your comically monstrous so-called elephant and laughs and laughs.
The second you were born, you were named, and your infinity was blasphemed, and the _______ within you laughed and laughed. And they called you a whore, and the _______ within you laughed and laughed. And they called you a saint, and the _______ within you laughed and laughed. And you cried at your imaginary losses, and the _______ within you laughed and laughed. And you died, and you were still there, and the _______ within you laughed and laughed.
The sky is there to remind you of all you do not know, all that you, in your present form, can never know. The stars go on into a forever your mortal mind can never grasp. So stop trying to hold them. Let infinity swallow you whole. Then you will be whole. Then you will be a drop of water in a crashing ocean of all, moving mindlessly in time with the great dance. Then you will know______ for a split second, for the length of time you can stand to behold without grasping at knowing. Then you will catch a glimpse of the elephant.
Let ______ pass. Don’t try to paint a picture. Gasp at the elephant’s infinite beauty, and let the gasp be enough.
Or if you pick up your paintbrush and create a monstrosity, look at your folly and laugh and laugh. It is a great joke. Don’t make too much of it. You can always burn it in the fire. Or hang it on the wall so others can laugh with you. But I beg you, don’t frame it. Don’t ask your neighbors to bow before it. Don’t put guns to people’s heads and force them to the declare your laughable monstrosity the epitome of elephant-ry.
It is scary knowing you were wrong. But fear is funny, just a strange drawing of the infinite elephant, a clumsy attempt at making sense of ______, a way of interpreting reality that got is all wrong. Laugh at it.
___ is what ____ is.
You are what you are.
And we continue to draw our comically monstrous, one-dimensional, so-called elephants. And the infinitely-dimensional wonder of creation that lies just beneath our feeble labels, our cartoon blasphemies, our garish lies, laughs and laughs.
And the sky goes on forever.
And the ocean keeps on crashing.
And ____ keeps on being ______.
______ is always laughing