It is this. Chainsaw breath shredding throat, the night taking on weight, acquiring amorphous form, lifting moonlight in its quavering fingers, offering yellow-white puddles of light to the gods of yesterday.
It is the sound of the wind, the way it revs like an engine, then screams, a dying woman or a dying car, and who can tell the difference?
It is knowing that if the sacrifice was not enough, then you were not enough, because you gave everything. It is becoming a planet unto yourself, shrouded in the choking atmosphere of your own not-enough ness. There is no sky here. The horizon boils.
It is having held memories in your hands so tightly, making your fists into stones. No, no, I won’t let them go, and yet they slip away anyway, sand snakes slithering through the hourglass, grain by grain, until there is nothing left but dust on your palms, and you can barely recall why it’s beautiful.
But if you let go, lift your hands into the shuddering night, let the wind take the dust, the crumbs of the past, and leave you really, truly empty, what then? Is there life after this one, or do you hunch in the black, weaving shreds of moonlight into blankets, making a shawl of the stars, lying and saying, “I am warm now.”
This place is vast and it is empty and I am afraid to write because the nothingness will flood through my fingers, wash the dust from my palms, tell me what I already know.
In the Bible, manna from heaven turned to worms overnight. Yesterday’s light, yesterday’s love letter from heaven, becomes poison in your palms, and you stare at the rot, loving it, because once upon a time, it fed you.
It is not the valley of the shadow of death that I fear. It is the valley of the shadow of nothing.
Courage comes, not with fanfare or drums, but with a whisper.
So I have to share something kick ass that happened to me recently. It all started last year when I was living in France. (You know it’s going to be a long, boring story when it begins “It all started last year when I was living in France,” but bear with me. It’s kinda cool.) So there I was in this medieval French village, surrounded by ancient stone walls and ivy, guzzling whisky with one of my French musician friends.
As we guzzled, my friend showed me a video of this band he said was one of the biggest up-and-coming bands in the world and one of his favorites ever. The band was Vintage Trouble, and I was gobsmacked.
You all know I’m a huge rock-n-roll enthusiast, ex-groupie, so loving music isn’t rare for me, but this was really one of the most powerful responses I’ve ever had to music. My heart of course will always belong first to my beloved Roger Clyne, whom I followed for almost two decades, but I LOVED these guys. All four of them seemed to be performing with their blood and bones, not just their instruments, which is usually the thing that makes me love a band (and is also really rare).
I obsessively watched videos of their live performances for days and promised myself I’d see them in concert when I got home. I listened to them enough that when I hear their music, it instantly takes me back to France, because they were the soundtrack for that time in my life, which happened to be one of the top ten best times of my life ever. But I discovered them at the beginning of my months in France, and by the end of it, life (and lots of wine) had happened. Also, I had to teach at an MFA retreat the second I got back to the U.S., and I had to edit my soon-to-be-released novel, The Long Ride Home, and my career gobbled up my play time, and I forgot to look up my new favorite band so I could see them live.
Fast forward to now. Friday, my beautiful friend, mind-blowing National Book Award finalist Beth Kephart (READ HER STUFF–IT WILL BOGGLE YOUR PRETTY LITTLE BRAINS IN THE BEST WAY POSSIBLE), referred a friend who was looking for a good freelance novel editor. The friend turned out to be Debra, an awesome Penguin Random House editor, who wasn’t looking for an editor for herself, but for a musician friend. She didn’t give me the name of the friend right away, but we emailed a ton, and I totally dug her. She was super cool and someone I wanted to hang out with more. After a few days, I kinda figured the musician who needed an editor had found someone else, but I was happy, because Debra was delightful, and I felt like I’d gotten an amazing new friend out of the deal, so yay!
But then, Sunday, her friend wrote me. He had researched me and my writing and said I had heart and guts and poesy flair (which made me think he was so cool, cause I’d way rather people notice my heart and guts than anything else, and no one has ever described me as having “poesy flair” before—I’m totally putting it in the special skills section of my resume).
His book, which sounds freaking incredible, is about everything I’m passionate about—resurrection and salvation, Egyptian, Greek, and Christian myth, the Mother Goddess. I was super, super excited as I read his synopsis. My heart was pounding, the way hearts tend to do when synchronicity is at work. At the end of his email, he attached a video of the band he’s in, saying, “I’m the guy whipping up the shamanistic fury on the drums.” (He had me at “shamanistic fury.”) I clicked on it, expecting it to be a small, local band from Boise or something.
Well, the video was of the band that I had been obsessed with in France, Vintage Trouble, appearing on the David Letterman show. I was astounded. He was the drummer for that band. The whole thing felt as kismet-y as it gets. I wrote him a letter, telling him I said, “Holy canole, Batman,” when I saw what band he was in, but what I really said was, “Holy shit!” (I can admit that now, as I’ve spoken to him extensively, and I’m reasonably sure he has no problem with swearing.)
Speaking of my letter, in true Tawni “I don’t know how to restrain my emotions” fashion, I wrote him a gushy Tawni-esque email about kismet and how I loved the ideas in his book and have a history of obsessing over his band. I giddily pushed send, and then went, “Um, crap. That was really unprofessional. Tawni needs to tame her inner-Tawni. There goes that client.” But he wrote me back even more delighted with me and my gushiness.
I have to say, more good things happen in my life and career when I am honest and real than they ever do when I’m trying to be “professional.” There is a lesson in there somewhere. I talked about that very thing to my beautiful friend, brilliant author and profound thinker, Maureen Wanket, yesterday. (READ HER STUFF TOO. IT’S GORGEOUS! IF I PUT IT IN ALL CAPS, YOU HAVE TO DO IT. IT’S THE LAW OF THE UNIVERSE.) We decided together that the cult of cool is bullshit, and those who wear their hearts and truths on their sleeves are the real cool kids.
And then yesterday, Richard and I decided to have a phone chat to nail down the particulars of our contract. I will be honest. I have never been so nervous about talking to a potential client. Rock stars wow me, particularly uber-talented rock stars whose music I adore. I thought I would be tripping all over my tongue. But I forgot he was a rock star within 30 seconds. We talked for hours, and I think we talked about everything but the particulars of our contract—God and mythology and art and writing and music. He was an actor in New Mexico during the time that I was an actor in New Mexico, which was wild. (He was in film and television though, and I was in theater, so we never crossed paths.) He was in Nice, France just days after I left last year. He told me he’d picked me to edit his book because of my energy and the way I wear my heart on my sleeve, and also because of a blog I’d recently posted about Egyptian mythology, which I almost deleted because I thought no one ever read my mythology blogs. (I can’t believe someone though I was cool because of one of the least cool things about me–my nerdy obsession with Egyptian myth. I’m so glad I didn’t delete it.)
We ended our conversation with him saying that no matter what happened with the book, he felt like he’d just found a friend for life. So did I. I told him I’d been nervous about talking to a rock star, and he was about as gracious as a man can be. He said, “Are you kidding me? You’re the rock star. You’re the guru. I’m the novice. I’m here to learn from you.” In a world full of mansplaining (seven out of ten men I talk to don’t even mention my work, and one of the three that does tells me what’s wrong with it or that I was “lucky” to get published), I couldn’t believe that one of the most accomplished men I’d ever spoken to said those words to me. (I said he had me at “shamanistic fury.” I lied. I think he had me at, “I’m here to learn from you.”)
So yeah, as I promised Richard, I WILL be following through on my vow to go see Vintage Trouble live now. I’ve given up being a groupie for eternal Lent (I like being a writer more, and the pay for being a groupie is crap), but I’m definitely down for attending a rock show or ten. Because how can I possibly understand Richard’s novel without understanding his music? (We talked about me seeing them in France in July, and I’m trying to come up with a justification for writing the trip off as a business expense. Work with me here.)
Richard told me he cared more about his writing than any of his other art forms, and considering how successful he’s been with both acting and music, that has to mean something. I’m so excited to dig into his manuscript. And maybe soon, you will be buying a mythology-based, best-selling novel by kick-ass Vintage Trouble drummer, Richard Danielson. I would not be surprised in the least if it happened.
I have long been fascinated by the Egyptian myths. They exist today in very truncated form, and my understanding of them is certainly tainted, at best, by modern constructs and philosophies, religious and otherwise (as well as by the haphazard nature of my study—I’m pretty sure I could study this stuff for the rest of my life and only understand in a flawed, inaccurate way a tiny percentage of what the mythology had to teach). The central myth of the Egyptian religion was that of Isis and Osiris. Osiris was a resurrected divinity who was killed by a greedy divinity and reanimated by Isis’s love and went on to become king of the afterlife. It was a death and resurrection myth, as would one might expect from a religion that completely focused on the resurrection of the dead.
According to the Egyptian religion, souls were tested and weighed after death to see if they had anything in them that was immortal. (The entire Book of the Dead was a sort of cheat sheet for the test, letting Egyptians know what they would face in the underworld, and what to do and say at each juncture of the test.) I have been unable to ascertain precisely what the tests were, but I know that there were twelve of them, and each phase of the test involved being allowed to enter a great hall. Two deities and a serpent stood at the gates to the hall. If souls failed to recognize and name the deities and serpent when they met them, they failed that phase of the test. If they got the names right, they were allowed to pass into that great hall, and undergo whatever horrific tests the hall had to offer, so they could pass onto the next phase of the test, meet more deities, name them, be tested, and on and on until they finally came to the Great Hall of Osiris for final judgement.
If they passed all phases of the excruciatingly difficult test, they were allowed to pass into the Egyptian version of paradise, ruled over by the glorious, beneficent Osiris. If they didn’t, they were fed to the soul swallower and completely destroyed. (Other instances of the soul having to pass through a fire to become immortal survive in the Egyptian mythology.)
Those that didn’t pass the test were greedly, loveless, hateful, lowbrow beings, entirely attached to the mortal world and driven by mortal longings. They were incapable of introspection and unable to recognize sacred things when they met them. Instead, they saw sacred forms only as tools to manipulate and use for temporal gain.
I wonder if this myth isn’t more accurate than some of our modern religious forms, which seem to point to immortality/salvation being achieved by meaningless rituals, without addressing in any way the true “cancers” that plague human souls. Cheap salvation doesn’t seem to me like it does much except make people arrogant. (I signed up with the right religion, so now I’m better than you. My entire life is still a lie, but the pretty varnish is all I really needed to be “saved.”)
To me, salvation is a much more complex, hard-won thing. If you live in perpetual torment, that is what you need to be saved from, and salvation is when that perpetual torment is healed and gives way to true peace. Heaven and hell are states the human soul exists in, whether in this world or another. You don’t change the state of your soul by slapping religious Band-Aids on it. At least, that’s never worked for me.
I resonate with the idea of the fire burning away things that kill us and leaving us truly whole, “saved” as it were. Because for me, that is truly the process I have gone through. Any authentic, long-lasting peace and healing I have found has been inspired and aided by God, yes, but involved an incredible amount of introspection, courage, humility, pain, and work on my part. I wonder if these Egyptian metaphors can be viewed as metaphors not only for the process one goes through after death, but the process one goes through during life.
I was pondering these myths while I hiked this morning, and when I came home, this poem came out. In it, I take the persona of Isis addressing souls who have failed to recognize her, and to revere the sacred power and profound meaning of immortal magic, attempting to use it for mortal, personal gain. I address the fire each of us must fall into/walk through to achieve lasting peace.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THOSE SNAKES YOU STOLE
You took them because their scales glittered
like jewels in the sun.
They were beautiful to behold, and when they hissed,
they kissed your mouth softly,
the most attentive of suitors.
You knew they would bring lovers to your bed.
You saw that when they coiled around my arms
they became wings
made me sing and fly,
and you said, “I want to touch the sky.”
Why wouldn’t you,
brown, bland, bloated things?
Why wouldn’t you want a shot at fame?
So you came in the night
and took them.
They writhed and screamed.
I cried then died.
(They were my heart.)
You kissed their lips.
My snakes bit.
You got what you were after
a trailer trash kingdom
a battalion of bloated lovers
wings to soar above the other mediocre things
hear them call you King for a Day.
What I didn’t say (or tried, but you bound me, gagged me, beat me, left me for dead):
THE FINE PRINT
Those snakes of mine
were resurrection reptiles.
The magic they bequeath is unbreakable,
It sparkles, it sings, it flings the bitten one
into the abyss of death,
and if there is anything in him worth saving
it resurrects a god.
It is the fire of Isis, and it burns.
While your bloated selves gloated,
the mortal me turned to ash.
The divine one fought back,
scrapped her way out of hell
Having done their work
my snakes leave you and return to me,
their fully realized mother.
We three will fly for eternity.
And now it’s time for my true magic to take its course.
Flames flicker to life.
licking at the corners of your mediocre minds
urging you to find something inside to save you.
I will not pray for you.
I will only say,
“May the Mother’s will be done.”
If there is one shred of you that is worthy
of rising into the sun
may it soar.
I would be surprised if you possess a fleck of immortality,
but that judgement is not up to me.
My feathered snakes and I sing and fly.
My Mother’s flames dance behind your startled eyes
A few months ago, I got new glasses—bifocals—which were difficult to adjust to. (I can use a preposition at the end of a sentence now. Merriam Webster says so. ) They made me feel old, which was depressing, and sometimes, if I looked out of the wrong lenses, the ground below me would disappear, or become suddenly small, and I would fall down a flight of stairs. It was fun. During this painful period of bifocal adjustment, my daughter and I took a road trip from Phoenix to Albuquerque. A near-tragedy ensued, an event that will forever go down in our family’s lore as “Mom’s Night Blindness Incident.”
We drove Desi’s newly acquired 2016 charcoal gray Charger, which was her pride and joy. She spit-shined that thing on a regular basis. The fact that she was allowing me to drive it all meant that she loved me very, very much. But bless my soul, she was letting me drive. I had been for about six hours.
The sun was going down, falling over the New Mexico mountains the way it does in a lovely splash of orange and purple and pink. We were listening to a song Desi had introduced me to, which I called the “Are You Ready Mother Fuckers Song,” but was really called “One for the Money”. (My children ensure at least 10% of my musical tastes remain hip.) We were also eating yummy things designed to make us fat. (We have to nurture our curves—do you think they just happen by accident?) Desi was listening to me whine about being tired, because that’s what I do on road trips. In fact, there are several sentences I repeat so often that my children have threatened to make a “Mom jar,” which is like a swear jar, only I put a dollar in it every time I utter one of my mom sentences that drive them nuts. I don’t know why I repeat these sentences over and over. I don’t even think about it when I say them. They are like linguistic tics, fun ways to make conversation. They are:
I’m so tired (uttered in the whiny voice of a toddler in need of a nap).
Does anyone here love their mother? Raise your hand if you do (uttered in the peppy voice of a cheerleader on crack).
Now that I type them out like that, I can see why my kids want to shank me every time I say them. Incidentally, Desi is a graphic novelist, and she says someday, she is going to make a comic based on me called, The Real Tawni Waters, Not As Cool As She Looks On Paper. It’s touching that my children want to pay homage to me in their art. But anyway, Desi and I were driving, and she was telling me about her life, and I was interjecting into the conversation with those two sentences, or variations thereof, fairly regularly.
Just as twilight gave way to darkness, we pulled over in a small town to get gas. I can’t explain what happened next. The road in front of me disappeared. I mean, I saw the street in front of me, and then, everything went black. Panicking, I veered sharply, and were it not for Desi screaming as if she were being attacked by rabid wolverines, I probably would have plowed into a steady stream of oncoming traffic on the opposite side of the street. However, Desi did scream, “MOM, GO RIGHT GO RIGHT! WHAT’S GOING ON? WHY ARE YOU BARRELING HEADLONG INTO ONCOMING TRAFFIC! OH, DEAR JESUS, SAVE US!?”
I screamed back, “I CAN’T SEE ANYTHING! I HAVE NIGHT BLINDNESS!”
Hearing of my sudden onset illness, Desi turned into her usual nurturing self. “WHAT THE LIVING FUCK, MOM? YOU DON’T GET NIGHT BLINDNESS INSTANTLY! YOU’RE INSANE, AND YOU’RE GOING TO KILL US! PULL THE FUCK OVER! I’M DRIVING!”
Calmed by her understanding and compassion, I regained my sight and pulled over into a motel parking lot. She leapt out of the car, ran around to my side, and yanked open my door. I was pretty sure she was going to drag me out by my collar and pistol whip me. “GET THE FUCK OUT! YOU’RE NOT DRIVING MY CAR EVER AGAIN!”
Which was soothing. I climbed out of the car, begging forgiveness. “I’m so sorry, Desi! I have night blindness!”
“Get the fuck in the car!” Desi screamed.
So I did, whimpering, “But I have night blindness.”
When we were back on the road, me slumped in the passenger seat, mourning my newly acquired disease (I’m a hypochondriac, so I spend a lot of time mourning newly acquired diseases), Desi in the driver’s seat, still trembling with rage, we had an enlightening conversation about the incident.
Desi: What THE FUCK happened back there?
Me: I don’t know! I just got night blindness! I couldn’t see anything!
Desi: You DON’T get night blindness instantly!
Me: Well, I did! I’m looking it up on Web MD when we get to Grandma’s.
Desi: I blocked Web MD on all the computers you have access to because you kept diagnosing yourself with cancer.
Me: Well, unblock it! I have night blindness! I swear, I couldn’t see anything!
Desi: Ok, fine, Mom. You couldn’t see anything. Why was your solution to veer off the road you had just been following? Did you think the laws of physics had upended themselves and the road had just disappeared? Wouldn’t the smart thing be to stay on the road, even if you couldn’t see it? AAAAAA!! I have night blindness! I have the perfect solution! I’ll catapult myself into a stream of oncoming traffic and die in a fiery crash!
Me: I couldn’t think clearly! I had night blindness!
Eventually, Desi forgave me for almost obliterating her new car. Our road trip fell back into its familiar, comfortable patterns, me screaming “ARE YOU READY MOTHER FUCKERS, ARE YOU READY LET’S GO” with the radio and intermittently whimpering, “I’m so tired,” every minute or two.
Desi: Mom, If you’re so tired, why don’t you sleep?
Me: I can’t sleep. If I sleep now, I won’t sleep tonight.
Desi: You won’t sleep tonight anyway. You’ve had insomnia since 1986.
Me: . . .
Me: I’m so tired.
Desi: If I get you a snack, will you shut up about how tired you are?
Desi knows that if you want me to shut up, or do anything, really, you should offer me food. As I mentioned, these curves didn’t happen by accident. I am a carbohydrate enthusiast and will respond to an offer of cookies with the fervor of a starving alley cat being offered tuna. If you buy me baked goods, you should probably stand back while putting them in my hand. I might bite you. Just drop those suckers on the floor in front of me and run. Desi stopped at a gas station and brought me a snack.
Me: What is this?
Desi: It’s your favorite. Nutter Butters.
Me: Oh, ok. I couldn’t read the label. I have night blindness.
Desi: MOM, YOU DON’T HAVE NIGHT BLINDNESS!
Me: I’m looking it up at Grandma’s.
For the rest of the trip, I tested my vision. We’d see a sign, and I’d say,
Me: Desi, can you read that?
Desi: Uh, yeah. It says “stop.”
Me: (wailing) I knew it! I can’t see a thing! It’s a big blur! I have night blindness.
Desi: Or, alternative theory, you need to put on your glasses.
I think Desi may have been right. (Don’t tell her I said so.) I think my night blindness may have been a temporary malady related to my bifocal adjustment. But silver linings: We didn’t die in a fiery crash, and my kids have a new way to mock me, which involves running around after me in public places saying, “Night blindness! Night blindness!”in really cruel, high pitched voices. (Our family is very loving. We show love in many ways. We say, “I love you.” We are there for one another when the proverbial shit hits the fan. We cuddle. We give little gifts that say “I’m thinking of you.” And we mock one another mercilessly.)
A few weeks ago, I had the delight of doing a radio interview/performance with Ken Wolverton for his Techno Sadhu Road Show. I dropped the F-bomb like ten times and almost got the radio station’s license revoked. I wasn’t trying to cause trouble. I’d known Ken for decades, having met him when I was in my 20s and written a feature about his art for a newspaper I worked for. I was well-aware he had lots of problems with real bombs that blow people up but few problems with word bombs that, at worst, make some people uncomfortable. (That’s why I’m his friend. I like people who are more offended by nuclear bombs than F-bombs.)
His radio show was a hippie show in a hippie town, and I guess I wasn’t familiar enough with FCC regulations to understand they don’t make exceptions to their rules for hippie radio hosts in hippie towns. So there I was, blithely reading from my soon-to-be released novel, The Long Ride Home (which is veritably littered with F-bombs), when Ken started writhing miserably, making all kinds of fairly difficult to read hand gestures, and eventually, gesticulating wildly, as if he was being overrun by fire ants and dying before me in silent but very real agony.
I stared at him, the sheer horror of the knowledge that something was very, very wrong washing over me. But instinct kicked in. Before I was a writer of any note, I was an actor, and in moments like this, I fell back on my stage training, which was pretty much as natural to me as breathing. At this point in my life, the phrase “Never break character,” is engraved on my stem cells. I can handle just about anything the stage throws at me without letting the audience know something is wrong.
Like that time I was playing a baton twirling lunatic, with some pretty complex baton twirling blocking (at least for me—I’m notoriously clumsy) in Talking With, and the stage crew left a giant bench right in the middle of my stage. The bench was part of the monologue before mine, but I was supposed to have a clear stage so I could do all sorts of baton twirler stuff. I walked out on the stage in front of a crowd full of theatre goers, trying not to let on that looking at that bench was sending me into an active panic attack. Lightheadedness. Heart palpitations. Nausea. The whole bit. I could do none—NONE—of the blocking I had rehearsed for months. I had to improvise, come up with a whole new routine, on the spot. All while trying to bring emotional authenticity to my performance. I pulled it off, I think. I worked around the bench, delivering pieces of my monologue standing on top of it, as if it was meant to be there. I don’t know that I was good, per se, but I’m pretty sure the audience never knew I was madly reworking my blocking.
Or the time I was in the middle of one of my most important monologues as Meg in Places in the Heart, and an actor knocked on the door about ten minutes too early for his scene. I said, in my character’s Southern drawl, “Not right now! We’re having a conversation!” to the mistimed knocker and continued with my monologue undeterred. He came back a few minutes later on his scheduled entrance line, and the show went on.
Of course, there were other times that my, “Never break character,” rule didn’t go as well. Like when I was playing Doris in Same Time Next Year, and part of my blocking in a fight scene involved lobbing a decidedly hefty wooden hairbrush across the biggest stage I had ever worked on, at my costar Vern. During rehearsals, the director said, “Be careful not to hit him.” I laughed and said, “You have no idea how bad I am at sports. I couldn’t hit him if my life depended on it.” Most nights, I was right. I threw that hairbrush with fury, and it landed with a plop about two feet in front of me and fifty feet from Vern. But one night, I was really, really into the scene, and I lobbed the hairbrush with all the rage in my soul, and it flew all the way across that stage, which was roughly the size of South America, and slammed right into the side of poor Vern’s head, almost knocking him out. He visibly reeled. I stared in horror, something akin to the horror in which I stared at Ken that day in the studio, trying to keep it together, trying to stay in character. And then Vern freaking blew it for me. Rubbing his head, still swaying, he said, “Your aim’s gotten better.” The audience erupted into laughter. We were all in on the joke now, so I broke character and laughed my ass off. We rolled with it. The rest of our fight scene was played out with me being in a sort of gleeful frenzy. I guess I pulled off a new brand of crazy rage during that scene. Or more likely, I just sucked.
Anyway, I had to do my best to stay in character at those times, think on my feet, so I tried to do that as I read my novel, and Ken writhed in front of me, performing a modern dance number, looking very, very concerned. I thought maybe the place was on fire. I thought maybe Ken was having a heart attack. But I kept reading. We were on the air after all. I couldn’t break character. But Ken’s gesticulations just got crazier, so finally, I stopped at the end of a paragraph, trying to pretend it was all I had planned to read.
“Do you have more to read?” Ken asked. “I’m sorry I stopped you. You just can’t say those words on the air.” Do you know what I said back. (This is really smooth. You can see my actor training paying off in the next phrase.)
“Oh! I can’t say fuck on the air?” Because if I hadn’t gotten the radio station’s license revoked already, I needed to clinch it fast. Ken looked like he might throw up.
I continued reading after that. I don’t think I swore again. Though I can’t be sure.
To be honest, I’m not really aware of my swearing. I just think “fuck” is a word that people use sometimes. I don’t understand being offended by four letters that make up a word that rhymes with “duck,” a word that basically, if taken literally, indicates the sex act, which most of us, if not all, have in engaged in from time to time. I don’t understand being offended by four letters when the world is falling apart, when babies are being blown to smithereens in Syria and gay people are being herded into concentration camps to be beaten and murdered in Chetznia and a homicidal yam has taken over Washington and seems intent on blowing up our planet in an act of petty, pubescent, ego-fueled rage. Honestly, I feel like many of the people who are horribly offended by the word “fuck” have a misplaced set of priorities. (I’m not saying all people who choose not to use the word “fuck” have a misplaced set of priorities. People have good reasons for not using it too. I’m all for being able to say–or not say–whatever you want. I’m just saying if someone is more offended by that word than he or she is world hunger, he or she may need to reassess a few things.)
Also, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the common human being uses the word “fuck” pretty often. And as a writer, I want to speak to my human brothers and sisters in the language they use, the language that resonates with them. I always say that the only way you can make a true human connection is by reaching across, not down. If I am reaching down to my brothers and sisters, I’ve already lost the battle. Because whether I use the word “fuck” or not, I am not better than anyone. I am still racked with all the insecurities and rage and love and desire and beauty and brokenness that make all of us human. I’m not interested in faking it.
Did you know that the word “fuck” used to be an Irish term for sowing seed, as in farming, that in the beginning, it didn’t have any negative connotation, or any association with the sex act? At least that’s what my linguistics professor told me, way back when I was an undergraduate. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s always stayed with me. Fucking originally had nothing to do with sex.
But even if it’s not true, even if fucking always had to do with sex, why is it that we are so terrified of sex? I have a great deal of reverence for sex. I think it’s beautiful and yes, even sacred. I used to be pretty free and easy about it. Now, I won’t have sex with anyone, because throwing my sex around loosely cost me little pieces of my soul, the same way throwing my friendship around loosely, giving it to people who didn’t really value me, cost me pieces of my soul. I’m saving my body for someone that loves me, reveres me, protects me. I’m careful about giving it away now because it’s precious, and I love me. But that’s sort of the opposite of what people seem to think about sex. That it’s somehow dirty, in and of itself. That we should never talk about it, or think about it. That we should be ashamed because many of us (not all—I do understand and respect that there are beautiful asexual beings on our planet) are biologically predisposed to wanting it.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. A few months ago, I received a letter from a fan who told me she loved my work, but I was ruining the beauty of it by using the word “fuck,” turning people away from work that would otherwise be accessible to them. I didn’t write her back. Maybe I should have. But I get tired of moralistic judgments from people who don’t know me, who don’t understand who I am, who have no idea why I do the things I do. Yes, I studied and thought about words enough to pull of selling books to major publishers. (For reference, the odds of getting drafted into the NFL are higher.) But it never occurred to me to think about the ramifications of using the word “fuck” in my writing. Because I’m just a dumb bimbo who catapulted to the place she is without one deep thought in her pretty little head. Thank you for schooling me.
I felt the same when a man met me at a reading of Beauty of the Broken, bought my book, friended me on Facebook, proceeded to write me constantly, as if we were very close (he seemed to have me conflated with the protagonist of Beauty of the Broken), and post on my wall obsessively, and then wrote me in fury a few months later saying he couldn’t believe the way I sexualized myself on Facebook after all I’d been through (this man had no idea what I had or had not been through) and the way my “posse” played along with it. He was going to punish me by unfriending me. (On, no! Not that! Say it ain’t so.) Unfriend away, dude. I don’t want to be your friend. My sex is NONE of your business. (I blocked him.)
I’m not ashamed of being a sexual being. I refuse to play along with a culture that has defined women by their sexuality, that says that women fall into two categories–virgin or whores. What if my sex is my own? What if I can express the fact that I’m a sexual being—wear sexy clothes, own my sexuality—without it discounting me as person? What if I don’t give a flying FUCK what society has to say about my sexuality? What if I’ve decided to own my vagina, and my sexual urges, and my breasts, and all of it, as an act of love for myself? I’m fully aware that this will make people discount me, categorize me, demonize me. I. Don’t. Care. My sex was part of my birthright the day I was born on this planet. It’s not yours. It’s not society’s. It’s not men’s. It’s MINE.
Speaking of sex, if you haven’t noticed, I dress in a way that acknowledges my sexuality. Many people who love me deeply and honestly have expressed concern over this. I love those people back. I know their concern for me comes from a good place, and I thank them for loving me. On the other hand, many people who hate me deeply and honestly have used the way I dress as an excuse to vilify me, call me a slut and all that shamolee. You know how it goes.
But the truth is, I’ve put as much thought into the way I dress as I have into using the F-bomb in my work. I LOVE being a sexual being. I LOVE being a woman. I think the female form is gorgeous, and I feel lucky to be in possession of one so I can dress it up in all kinds of sparkles and spandex and lace. I’m not going to wear mumus because I live in a horribly fucked up culture that has decided that a sexual woman is a dumb woman. Guess what. I’m a sexual woman. I’m also really fucking smart. Guess what. I’m a sexual woman. I’m also really proud of who I am, and no, just because I own my sexuality doesn’t mean I’ll give it to anyone who asks for it. (But even if I would, is that anyone’s business but my own?) As a matter of fact, I won’t. As a matter of fact, as I said, I’m pretty fucking careful about who I sleep with these days. As in, I sleep with no one. Because, as I said, I love me, and I’m waiting for someone who loves me as much as I do. But I’m not throwing my sexuality under the bus so our fucked up culture, which has decided that female sexuality = evil, thinks I’m a good person.
If you think I’m evil because I say fuck, and because I show off my cleavage (I happen to have awesome cleavage), I don’t want to know you anyway. If you are so shallow and caught up in our culture’s bullshit that you can’t think past appearances, you aren’t really the kind of person that I’m interested in befriending.
I remember a director of a play I was in once said to me, “When I met you, I thought you were some Marilyn Monroe knock off bimbo, but then, I started talking to you, and you were smart, and you knew literature, and I said, ‘Wow, she’s pretty fucking amazing.’” Yes. That is, at least in part, why I am what I am. I like to challenge people’s preconceived notions of femininity and the stifling categories into which it falls. Because maybe next time that director sees a woman who looks like me, who owns her sexuality in spite of a culture that is determined to call her a whore if she does so, he will withhold judgement. He will talk to the woman and find out how fucking amazing she is instead of categorizing her based on the way she presents sexually.
Whew. Ok. Glad I got that off my chest. In spite of my behavior, Ken invited me back, this time to cohost the show, on the condition that I would “restrain my rebellious tongue frothing with unmentionables.” I love that description of me. I told him I was going to put it on my resume. I do have a rebellious tongue. This world needs rebellious tongues. It needs people who will say “fuck you” to the powers that be. Because frankly, as is, the powers that be are making sure we all die without living. And as of late, it seems to me they are working very hard to simply make sure we all die.
I will be cohosting the Techno Sadhu Road Show this month (dates and times forthcoming). I will do everything in my power to avoid using that list of unmentionable words that I realized after the radio interview hung very prominently over Ken’s head. I don’t know how I missed the sign. After my reading, Ken said he was pretty sure I had checked every word off the list. I had. But this time, I will refrain from saying “fuck” out of respect for Ken and his show, not because I agree with the FCC.
Turns out, I am a rebellious woman frothing with unmentionables. I want to embody the parts of self that we’ve decided are dirty. Because they aren’t really dirty. I want to mention the things we are afraid to mention. Let’s talk about it, for fuck’s sake. Let’s talk.
P.S. Here is the radio show in question, which Ken titled The Tawni Waters Special. I’m special. My mommy says so, and so does Ken. So there.
I’m sitting in a bar down the street from some of the people that scare me most in the world. I came her on purpose, in order to be scared, in order to face my fear, in order to face the notion I still seem to have that other people’s opinions of a me can dictate my behavior and perception of self-worth.
In the interest of avoiding lawsuits, I won’t go into why these people scare me. I will only say that a few years ago, ugly, small souls got really petty and told some pretty horrific lies about me, including, but not limited to, saying that I was a child killer. Really. Like, I understand being jealous of another woman and calling her a whore, or fat, or ugly. But child killer seems excessive. Is there anything in this world worse than that? It’s so exaggerated, it’s ridiculous.
Still, these lies were disseminated widely in the community that used to be an important part of my existence, perhaps the core of it. When the rumors started, I was more eviscerated than I have been by anything, except my father’s death. It was all ugly enough that I spoke to a lawyer about a defamation lawsuit. I was told I had a case and encouraged to pursue the matter. But I couldn’t go after the people spreading the lies without also hurting the people in the community that I loved, so I just walked away, feeling like a gigantic piece of shit, embarrassed that anyone could ever believe those horrible things about me, thinking there was something revoltingly wrong with me.
No matter how much success I achieved, no matter how much love with which I was showered by beautiful, brilliant human beings, I couldn’t shake the feeling of worthlessness that came with the way the people in that community had treated me. I lived in fear of being seen by any of them. If they were in a given state, I would fly to the other side of the country in order to avoid any chance of encountering them. True story. It embarrasses me, but I’m committed to telling the truth about who I am—the good, the bad, and the ugly. All of this is definitely part of the ugly, but here it is.
And then, I had to come to Los Angeles for business (cross your fingers for me) at the same time as the people from this community would be in town. And I was here all week, a few miles from them, hiding out in my room, terrified when I left that one of them would see me, think I was there to kill hypothetical children, call me a stalker. My self-esteem had been so shattered, I felt like I had no right to be in the same city with these people who had designated themselves the arbiters of my reputation and self-image.
The truth is, that community was always fucked up. It talked a good game about peace and love, but like most human power systems, the whole point of it was to make sure the powerful people stayed in power, and the weak people kissed their asses so they too could be powerful, and the people who wouldn’t play along with the arbitrary rules of that particular world got ousted. If you got abused or humiliated or treated horribly, it was your job to keep your mouth shut. So I did. No matter how bad it got, I let myself be abused.
I have a long history of playing the victim. I’m not proud of this. I’ve been in more abusive relationships, romantic and platonic, than I care to admit. Over the past five years, I’ve made a point of burrowing into self and facing my inner victim, and also the people who have used and abused me. It’s been ugly and hard, but the rewards have been amazing. I’m publishing books with mainstream publishers. I’m traveling the world. I’m speaking at major conferences and teaching at major universities. I never get abused anymore. I never get used anymore. And I am constantly surrounded by people who love me. Most importantly, I love me. Or I’m learning to. I love myself way more than I did when I decided it was my duty to stay with a man who was threatening to cut my head off, which is a whole other story. That man and his abuse were my rock bottom. They were they reason I decided to pull my proverbial shit together before I ended up dead.
The week before I came here, I filed a restraining order against that man, who had recently tried to come back into my life. I’ve spent some time here talking to some people who have the potential to do very good things for my career. But this morning, I woke up decimated, unwilling to get out of bed. I felt humiliated and, yes, suicidal, because I was in the same zip code with these people who had lied about me, and how could they think those things about me, and what was wrong with me? I did something I used to do when I was young and perpetually suicidal, which was hold up my wrist and look at it, imagining carving the word “whore” into my arm.
But about ten years ago, I got a tattoo in the spot where I wanted to carve “whore.” It says, “Beloved.” And if ever I had those impulses again, I was supposed to look at it and remember how precious I was. It was like an indelible note from the sanest version of me to the craziest version of me. It worked. As I looked at that tattoo, a song came on the radio. “Sweet Child of Mine.” Which sounds like it means nothing, but every time I’ve felt completely alone in this world, that song has come on, be it in a bar, or a bathroom, or an airport, and I’ve felt my deceased father walking beside me, reminding me what he saw in me when he looked at me. The combination of those two things—the “Beloved” tattoo and the song—made something snap in me.
I recognized an old pattern. I grew up believing anger was bad, so if people hurt me, and I got angry, rather than acknowledge and face my anger at them, I turned it in on myself. Self-loathing was acceptable. Other-loathing was not. As I sat there, listening to my dead daddy sing to me in the voice of Axle Rose, staring at a tattoo a saner, stronger version of me had put on her wrist, I realized I wasn’t angry at myself. I was angry at the people who had lied about me. I didn’t deserve to be punished, and fuck if I was going to punish myself for something I didn’t do. They deserved to have to face what they had done. They deserved to have to look at me and have to see the human being they used to call “friend” instead of the monster they had made of me. And fuck what they deserved. This wasn’t about what they deserved. It was mostly about what I deserved. What I was willing to accept. Was I still a victim who let bullies tell her she was worthless? Or was I a human being, a daughter of God born with certain unalienable rights? I decided I was a beloved daughter of God with rights. One of them was to be in the same zip code with people who had decided I was worthless.
So I showered, and when I got out, I found an email from the editor of The Rathalla Review, which is featuring me and my work in their current issue. The editor wrote to say the issue was out. An interview with me, boasting a picture of me being held by my precious daddy, had come out that day, along with five of my poems. There it was. The real me, the precious little girl that was and is very loved by a very, very good man. A woman who is sharing her heart and writing with the world, living in print and in cyberspace for the whole world to see. Fuck the people who had tried to make me small so they could make themselves bigger. I knew who I was.
I didn’t know where I was going when I got in my car. I just knew I wasn’t hiding anymore. And it turns out, I came to a bar two doors down from where the people who scare me are meeting. And now, here I am, sipping cheap beer, sitting in a place where people who scare the shit out of me, people who think I’m a piece of shit, are almost guaranteed to walk through the door.
I don’t know what I’ll do if they do. I don’t know if I’ll talk to them. All I know is that I have to assert my right to exist in the same space as them, let them know they didn’t humiliate me so badly that I believed their lies. They can believe the lies they told about me. That’s between them and God. I don’t have to.
I won’t. That tattoo on my wrist is the truth. I am a beloved daughter of God, and I will behave accordingly.
P.S. Here are screenshots from the interview from Rathalla Review. You can view it online here: http://rathallareview.org/issues/
I’ve said it before, and in the interest of being utterly redundant, I’ll say it again. I’m a deeply spiritual person. (We all are, I believe, but some of us are more consciously aware of the spiritual pursuit than others.) I keep the particulars of my spirituality pretty close to my heart, not because I’m “ashamed” of it, but because the deeper I step into the reality I have been guided into, the more personal it becomes, the more I know I can never teach anyone anything, nor can anyone really teach me. The best I can do is point at someone’s heart and say, “There’s the door. Walk through it.”
I believe no two paths are the same, because the path to truth is about undoing your own bullshit, and you have very different bullshit than I do. Your bullshit is your personal hell. My bullshit is my personal hell. To leave hell, we must walk a path into ourselves, and out again, through the other side, into freedom, and man, it has taken me years to even begin to unravel the mysterious mess of me. I can’t imagine taking a stab at you.
So I said all that to say I’m very hesitant to put pen to page to try to express some of my path to people. I don’t want to give people a formula. Formulas are bullshit. Dogma becomes a thread in the noose around a person’s neck, binding him to the illusion of unbelovedness and death. Anytime you take a living truth and turn into a fixed fact or rule, you have performed a sick alchemy. Living things move and breathe. Dead things stay the same and rot.
But. I like to think about the nature of reality, and I also like to talk about it. I think it’s really exciting. Frankly, I’m bored by a lot of things these days, but the reality underlying “reality” is endlessly fascinating to me. I like to read religious texts and quantum physics. I like to think about the things other human beings have postulated about the nature of reality. My heart beats faster when I read about the things scientists are discovering now. So I write about it and then never show it to anyone, for fear of adding to the burden of dogma that is busy suffocating this planet. But today, I’m writing for love and interest in sharing, not in the interest of creating dogma or setting anything in stone, saying, “Hey, from one fucked up person to another, let’s chat.” Please take it in the spirit which it was intended.
I’ve spent my morning thinking about lack. Jesus said, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” I think there is a root at the root of the love of money, and that is fear of lack. We believe there isn’t enough. We believe it is possible to be worthless, not just financially speaking, but holistically speaking. We believe we are nothings that have to fight for every bit of love and sustenance we get, and so, this becomes our reality. We believe we are finite beings competing with one another for a finite set of resources, so we create haves and have nots, go about the business of oppressing and killing one another so we can be the “haves.” We become grasping, desperate, hateful things.
I know there is a better way. I’ve by no means perfected it, but I’ve seen it in action again and again in my own life. We are, in fact, creating this “reality.” I see people who hear this and then try really hard to “manifest” wealth (or love or power or whatever) and get nothing and say it’s not real.
If some of the very rudimentary science that links human emotion to the creation of reality is to be believed (and I think it is), our realities are affected by a very basic belief system, something that produces genuine emotion in us, not a conjured, drummed up, desperate grab for wealth. The emotion underlying the act of grasping for wealth is, in fact, a deep seeded belief in lack and worthlessness. That is what “reality” reads and manifests–the profound desperation underlying the grab. And I think as long as our first response to this kind of knowledge is a grab for physical wealth, or physical anything, we are operating from the place that says we don’t have enough. And whatever results we get, they will be a twisted, crippling manifestation of our belief in our own worthlessness.
I think growth into beings that can manifest something outside of this limited lack reality (limited by our collective minds) takes years and years of un-brainwashing, of coming to understand one’s own worth, of coming to see that so much of what you’ve believed about your value and the meaning of life is flawed. It has nothing to do with a grab for money because once you begin to scratch the surface of your own belovedness, you also begin to understand that you are utterly provided for, and although we have all worked very hard to create this “reality” of lack together, and although we are all born into it, and brainwashed by it, and begin feeding into it very early in life, there is a way out.
And that way out is written on our hearts. We have to listen to them. We have to override the decades of conditioning and brainwashing we have undergone since our arrival on this planet, because truth does live inside us. Not outside. Inside. When you start listening to that still, small voice within and taking the tiny steps of truth-telling and courage it asks of you, you start to notice that the world around you is conspiring with it. With you. You start to see that none of this has ever been random, that you have always had way more power than you believed. You are not a victim of fate. You are not worthless. You are not ugly. You are not a reject. You are a dazzling child of the divine. And underneath all of the years of hardened black earth ooze coated on your gorgeous mind, you are unbroken.
And if ever I’ve seen a really wonderful way to “manifest” good things, it’s by starting to express gratitude for the good things I already have. When I make a list and say, “I’m grateful I had enough to eat today,” I might not feel much gratitude when I first start that list, but if I keep going, by the time I get 20 lines down, and I’m saying, “I’m grateful that I have two beautiful, loving, amazing children,” I’m really feeling the “thank you.” And every time, when I feel that “thank you,” good things start to happen.
Conversely, I’ve noticed when I start making lists of reasons my day was shitty (“I got stuck in traffic,” “the Fed Ex guy was a jerk,”) the bad stuff starts swirling, and viola, I have a super shitty day on my hands. So I guess I think that if you want to break through some of your own bullshit without rerouting your entire psyche, making lists is a good way to start, because eventually, you’ll build up some true emotion, and it will manifest.
And I know there are people reading this getting angry, saying, “What about the babies that are abused? What about wars? There are true victims.” I’d say yes, I absolutely agree with that. And I don’t have easy answers. I am by no means am claiming to be a guru that understands all things. On my best day, I’m fifty shades of fucked-up. I am only observing things I’ve noticed in my own life. I do believe we are all victims of the reality we are creating together. Our collective bullshit has produced some truly horrific bullshit, and we victimize the hell out of ourselves and each other.
But I do think that the way to start changing that is by changing our own hearts and minds. If we all have been given a plot in the garden of existence (our own mind), we can control what goes into our plot. I can weed and fertilize my plot, or I can fill the ground with arsenic. If I do fill it with arsenic, it will leach into the soil of the plot next to me, and maybe the one next to that, and on and on and on. But if I feed my plot well, yank out the weeds, fertilize it, that goodness will leach out too. We don’t have to have all the answers to begin. Maybe all we have is questions. But we can begin, right? And we have to start at home. We have to start with the messy, mysterious mind we can touch.