In many ways, the first printing of By Way of Water was a dream: me, from a town of two hundred, without an agent, had a novel acquired by a literary imprint of Penguin Putnam. I was thrilled beyond belief. I was living in Norfolk with my boyfriend – we’d come to Virginia so he could do research for a novel after a six-week road trip through the West. In the fall of 2001, in the shadow of 9/11, final edits for Water were overnighted from Port Townsend, Washington, the evening before we camped in the Olympic National Forest. I can still remember the sound of our footsteps on the thick humus as we hiked amidst the temperature rainforest, only the two of us and the hundreds of trees, the way clear, the pace steady.
In April of 2002, when I was now in Virginia, my father went into emergency surgery that saved his life by placing metal stints into the pathways from the kidneys to the bladder. All five of his children went home to see him. His battle with colon cancer was not going well, and the many close calls and lack of health coverage were adding up: we knew he wouldn’t be long on this planet. So, my oldest sister stayed in Northern California for six weeks, helping him get his paperwork in order. And on May 15, I replaced her, my role a little less clear. In my mind, I was there to help him die a peaceful death, to have tough conversations, to help him navigate his way toward his last breath.
Six days before my father’s 60th birthday, ten advance copies of By Way of Water arrived by UPS to the gate at the bottom of his dirt road. My father was suspicious – usually things from the outside world only brought pain or misery (think IRS and death notices of far-flung family members). In the cabin on the ridge, I opened the box, my father only a few feet away. Below is an excerpt from a memoir piece that I wrote about this moment:
Dad creeps closer.
“You going to let me see one of those?”
I place a copy in his extended hand, my nerves wired tight. Mom hated the early drafts, hates that anything that resembles her life could be judged by others. Dad’s never seen one word of it but since I wrote that new ending, I haven’t had any nightmares about him. That new ending was the pivotal point that lets me be here with him now.
Dad reads the dedication out loud, the words I practiced when I got stuck: “For my family, For the community, For the land, For all our different strengths. In memory of too many.”
Dad nods. “You did it right, this.” He rubs a rough finger over the looping letters.
“Whatever you wrote in here, it’s okay.” Maybe part of him feels redeemed, that his struggles to survive have ended up recorded, even in a fictional form. This is a leap for all of us, for all the moments we were kicked out, beaten, spit on; all the nights we’ve come home with weariness in us instead of blood, the times we’ve turned on each other, the worst in us rising and taking over, all of it gets to re-align because one of our stories has been told outside the circle.
I think about a line from a book, In the Country of Country: country music told the lives of people who didn’t see their stories in print, not in newspapers, not in books.
My father died seven days later, in his own bed, his children close, his last view that of the mountain he so loved and had worked so hard to secure for us. Seventeen days after that, my writing mentor was found shot in the chest in the Albuquerque airport; he died the next day. One month after holding the book with my father, the literary imprint responsible for my book was folded by Penguin. For a good chunk of time, I wandered inside, dropped into a landscape of grief with no navigation, no tools to even identify the path had there been one.
Now, that boyfriend is now my husband, and we have a beautiful nine-year-old daughter, Hope, that looks, to me, so much like my father. Now, these navigation tools have come to me: keep writing, keep teaching, keep the heart open despite the pain. Now, eleven years later, By Way of Water will be put out in the world again, and I couldn’t be more grateful, more pleased, more sure of the way through the forest.
A friend and I met up at Sao Paulo restaurant in Austin for dinner – we sat at a booth that had this incredible painting – we talked about its power, its balance, its pull. A couple weeks later, my husband and I had the evening to ourselves as our daughter was having a sleep over. Because the painting had remained in my mind and because we like Brazilian food, we went back to Sao Paulo and I showed him the painting.
“Yes,” he said, “that should be the new cover.” I asked the manager for the artist’s card and when we got home that night, I emailed her, explaining how much I liked “Under” and requesting she consider letting me use the painting for the re-issue of By Way of Water. She wrote back, saying she wanted to meet me, to see if we were of like minds.
The next day, I went to her studio and had tea with her. In this open, expansive space she’d created, hung a world of paintings, with water in almost all of them. During this hour with Inés Batlló, I had the honor of seeing her process, approach, and vision. I learned of her childhood in Spain where painting was her solace (her father had died when she was young, and when she got into trouble, she was told to stay in the same room that had his easel). I learned about encaustic painting and how much time goes into each piece.
I brought her an old copy of my novel, and while we drank our tea, she asked me about the book, about the role of water in the writing, about my life and my beliefs about art.
I left her studio with her permission to use “Under,” which was fantastic, but more importantly, I left with a sense of the power of art to be the backbone of our lives, and that when we take risks, we will often be greeted with warmth and kinship.
Thank you, Inés, for letting my words be graced by your image.
I believe in the power of art to transform the frightened heart, the scarred psyche, the unquiet mind. In the tradition of Spider Woman, I have been taught that the story is a co-creation woven by what we each bring to the circle, that to tell is as important as to listen. Storytellers use the web of story to inform, educate, enlighten, explore how we might live as social beings, capable of inflicting the worst kinds of pain and dispensing the deepest moments of compassion.
I believe that humans crave narrative, and that storytelling offers a path for healing, growth, and clarity. It is through the story we learn to know each other and to overcome our bigotries and our pettiness. I believe art should be available to all, no matter a person’s education, class, race, gender, sexual orientation—any of those small-minded categories where too many of us get confined or lost. I believe that art needs to remember to be humble, that accessibility is just as important as aesthetics, that the garbage man is just as important on the stage as is the senator.
Specifically, I believe art has taught me my most important lessons: to be patient with process, to keep an open heart toward all people; that there is more risk in vulnerability than there is in intellectual posturing; that sentimentality is too easy. Instead I want to pursue the quiet moments of potential change that are housed in every moment of our lives; that stories are a certain kind of magic, one that we willingly seek out so that our lives might seem brighter, wholer, more intact.