Background, P 3

"Sheltering the Creative Spirit"

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Taos, New Mexico USA





By Phaedra Greenwood


          On a damp summer morning in the mountains of northern New Mexico I found myself driving up a dirt road looking for house numbers on a gnarled fence post -- the only clue to the Frank Waters Foundation and home of his widow, Barbara Waters.

          I had come to interview Barbara Waters for The Taos News, to review her book Celebrating the Coyote.  Aware of the larger-than-life reputation of both Frank and Barbara Waters and the controversy around her new book, I was nervous about how to handle this assignment.

          Barbara Waters had mustered the energy and courage to sit down and write a memoir of their unique and complex union only three months after her husband’s death.  Though her book affirmed the positive things in sharing with the man she called her soul mate, it also offered an unflinching view of Frank Waters’ dark side.  As a responsible journalist, I couldn’t just skim over this in my review.

          “I don’t care what you say, as long as it’s true,” she had told me over the phone. Truth is relative, not absolute, I reminded myself, and it is also as hard to pin down as the whirling electrons in particle physics.  Within personal relationships, everyone has a dual nature.

          As I crossed the stream into the yard where Frank Waters had lived for the past forty-five years, the clouds thinned and sunlight warmed the walls of the old adobe.  I got out of the car and wandered into the “Sacred Aspen Grove” across the driveway where a memorial stone marks the passing of the revered Southwestern writer.  Some of his ashes are buried here in a blue tea tin beneath the carved boulder.  He had written twenty-five books of fiction and non-fiction and had been nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature five times when he died at home in 1995.

          I had never met the great man, but I had interviewed him once over the phone.  He was pleasant and easy to talk to, but I hadn’t asked him any probing personal questions.  His last book Of Time and Change was as close as he came to revealing his personal life.  “My mirror view is not an outline for a full autobiography, which I never will write,” he said in the preface.  What was he like in his unguarded moments?  I was struck by the mute finality of the monument stone.  For answers I would have to turn to the living.

          A vibrant-looking woman in her late 60s opens the side door, smiles, and calls hello.  Her perfectly coiffured blonde hair frames her face and dancing, blue eyes.  She picks up a basket of kindling and leads me into the living room where a fire is crackling in a traditional adobe fireplace in the corner of the room.  The house, she tells me, is still mainly heated by wood.

          In her chapter “Queen of Kindling” she celebrates the life of trees and the act of chopping her own kindling.  She raises the chore to an art with pithy descriptions of neighborhood women who have been chopping wood all their lives and adds, “Symbolically, wood stands for the mother, or female, and is associated with fertilization and rebirth.  Burnt wood is also associated with wisdom and death . . . .Who would suspect that the backyard woodpile is such a power spot? People don’t have to trek to far-off Tibet or Machu Picchu for enlightenment; I have long been advising them that they can find it in their own backyards.  But to me it seemed that this state would be attained through contemplation of beauty rather than panting, inhaling great gulps of air, sweating, and smashing wood.”

          I, too, chop my own wood, and am aware of our fire as a gift.  I sit on the couch and look around.  The living room is bright with Indian rugs and artifacts.  I notice a charcoal portrait of the author by the renowned Russian painter Nicolai Fechin and recall her story about a trip in the 1966 Ford Galaxie still parked outside, which Frank considered an extension of himself. In his later years they wintered in Tucson and did a lot of driving back and forth.  On one of those trips the engine caught fire.

          “I was told that almost no one tries to put engine fires out,” Barbara said.  “They just let them burn.  But I was in a panic because I didn’t want to lose the Fechin painting of Frank that we had in the back seat.”

          So she flung open the hood and doused the fire with a thermos of orange juice, followed by one of coffee, and smothered the remains with a dog sheet.

          She showed the same boldness when a Tucson neighbor called on her to remove a pair of rattlesnakes from the yard next door.  Barbara Waters talked softly and bagged them with a big stick.

          On the stereo nearby is Frank Waters' writing hand in bronze.  Following my gaze she says, “He wrote every day.  Even on Christmas.”  She shows me his writing desk in the bedroom.  “He wrote in long hand until 1956 when he got his portable Olivetti typewriter,” she said.

          But he questioned his obsession.  In a letter to a friend he once wrote, “What do you think about my nature as to writing or wanting to do it all the time.  Mistake, eh?”

          I asked Ms. Waters what drove him to write.

          “I think he was trying to overcome that terrible childhood poverty,” she said. “And he wanted to establish himself in the literary world.”

          She mentions that his grandfather, who was from the South, had had a
metaphysical library that fascinated Frank.  “I’m sure that had an influence.”

          I am curious to know how she and Frank met.

          She was in her early 40s, had been married once and had two grown sons when she and Waters met, she said.  She was working in an art gallery in Taos for the summer.  Her life had already been deeply impacted by Waters’ Masked Gods, and she had been wanting to meet the author, so she jumped at the chance to drive up to his home in Arroyo Seco to deliver some books for him to sign.

          Her knock was answered by a tall man with a sculpted face, bushy eyebrows, and round, brown eyes -- “His deer eyes, I called them,” she said.  He was in his later 60s and had been married three times.  They had a great deal in common -- especially their love of nature and books -- and they fell into a comfortable conversation.  “Before I left, he kissed me,” she said.  “I was floored because I had been told that he was a very reticent man.  Later he said it was love at first sight.”

          Which is no guarantee that a relationship will be perfect.  It’s easy to find fault, she says in her memoir, but hard to illustrate how much they had together.  “It takes courage to list all that is gone, for we nearly had it all.”

          Unfortunately, solid companionship was not enough for two creative individuals who both needed time alone to do their work.  Writing has always been a part of Barbara’s life. She has a master’s in journalism and in counseling and guidance.  In Illinois and Arizona she taught high school English, Southwest literature and creative writing.  One purpose in writing the book was to offer a marriage manual, but she said she wrote it mainly to promote her husband’s work.  “I believe in his genius.”

          I, too, believe in his genius; but The Man Who Killed the Deer was the only novel that “unfolded like a flower in its own inherent pattern” and practically wrote itself, according to Frank.  Many of his books are meticulously researched, deeply mystical, and intellectual.  Of Time and Change is the most accessible of his works, the voice of a storyteller recalling the people he knew and loved.

          The difference in their writing styles is a perfect example of the dichotomy between men and women.  Celebrating has an easy flow, up close and intimate, like having lunch with a friend, talking about personal struggles and relationships.  Barbara’s memoir is inevitably about loss, mourning, and recovery; but it is also about a freedom that Barbara experienced with the death of her husband.  Her book shows that writing can heal, and that she can land on her feet like Coyote, the trickster of Native American mythology who dances between worlds of illusion and reality.  In some tribes he is seen as the all-wise Creator, but in others he is portrayed with human failings -- a sometimes ribald creature, lovable, but flawed.

           I ask Barbara if Frank ever helped critique her writing.

         “When I gave Frank something to read he’d say, ‘Oh, I wish I could write like that -- so easy and natural,’” she said.  “But most of the time, he didn’t encourage me to do my own writing.”

           To illustrate her point, she reminded me of a conversation with mutual friends that she had included in her book.  When they urged Barbara not to work so hard, “Frank snapped, ‘Oh, she’ll waste the summer again on all her usual worthless projects.’”

            I lean forward, pencil poised.  “What did he mean?”

           “My thesis was one of them, I never let him read it.  And helping others.”

             In her 200-page thesis she had researched the lives of women such as Frieda Lawrence, wife of D. H. Lawrence, whom she considered a mentor, and Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  She wanted to see if these women were able to hold their own while married to literary geniuses.

            “In our case,” she said, “I wanted to play ‘The Family Game.’  Frank wanted to play ‘Follow Your Leader or He’ll Scalp You.’”

              In 1977 when she decided to take a sabbatical from teaching to get a master’s degree in journalism, Frank belittled her decision saying, “Journalism is so noncreative, just like teaching.”

              In 1988, when she got her counseling degree and announced that she wanted to start her own practice, Frank said, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.  You’ve got enough to do around this house.”

             According to Barbara, Frank played passive-aggressive games as well, including one at the checkout counter in Safeway when he hit her with the cart and shoved her ahead of him “with all his puny strength.”

          “‘You’re running over your wife, sir,’ said the checker.

          “‘What’s the matter with you?’ I protested after he finally stopped.  ‘You could see what you were doing, and feel it too.’

          “‘Well, yes, I could, but I thought we should get this cart through to the front of the store right away.’

            “Brushing off my suede suit, I muttered to Frank, ‘You need a lifetime course in how to treat a wife properly.’”

             (In all fairness, he probably wasn’t the first or the last man who wanted to run his wife down with a shopping cart by the time they got to the checkout counter.  Supermarkets are known to be major places of conflict over issues of diet, health, and spending.)

              Barbara gave half a dozen more examples in which Frank contradicted or dismissed her statements, interrupted her while she was trying to write, or abruptly turned off the lights and heat while she was reading.

            “Again, it is important to remember all of how it was,” she wrote.  “In To Heal Again is a lovely painting of a grieving woman climbing a long zigzagging flight of stairs.  This is the Trail of Grief.  Several of these stairs to be recognized and surmounted are the negative ways we were.”

             Why all the conflicts?  “If Frank had been on a deathbed and asked why we’d had our conflicts, paraphrasing Frieda Lawrence I would have answered him, ‘Such as we were, creatures striving to find our own unique selves within a relationship, how could we help it?’”

             After the interview, striving for objectivity, I talked to a few friends of Frank Waters.  Some of them had resisted reading Barbara Waters’ book and didn’t want to hear any criticism of Frank.  “He was an icon,” one woman said.  “When he walked into a room, he drew all the energy.  People crowded around him and hung on his words until he announced abruptly, ‘Excuse me a moment.’  Off he’d go, and they’d wait patiently for him to return.  He was known as a gentle, humble man who never spoke an unkind word about anyone.”

             Barbara acknowledged the “Great Man” in Frank but said most people saw only the modest side of Frank and believed that his public image was the whole man.

             I was beginning to suspect that Frank Waters had his own self-esteem problem. The deepest part of his identity was formed by his love for an outcast parent.  “My father, with his dark skin and straight black hair, was of a different breed than the Dozier clan,” he wrote in Of Time and Change. “We didn’t know much of his background save that he was part Indian -- Cheyenne.  National prejudice against Indians was still prevalent, and my maternal grandmother was never quite reconciled to accepting him into the family.”

            Raised on the wrong side of the tracks at the wrong end of Colorado Springs during the hey-day of the Cripple Creek gold strike, he lost his father at an early age and suffered from poverty and isolation as his grandfather ruined a successful contracting business by investing everything in mining claims while Frank's mother struggled to provide for her two children.  The deprivation of childhood may have triggered a boyhood experience of emergence.  While playing with a handful of sand on the dump of one of his grandfather’s mines, “I saw that it was composed of all these millions of grains of sand which were mysteriously and precisely fitted together into one mighty, single whole -- a sacred place of power, as the Utes regarded it.”

            This revelation was the beginning of a lifelong exploration of universal and sacred cosmology.  He studied Native American, Mesoamerican, and oriental mythology, and remained open, all his life, to the spirit of place that could invoke a vision of wholeness.  His prose is often lush with natural details that lift the reader out of the mundane into the holiness of autumn frost glittering on pale grasses.

            But writing was a struggle for Frank Waters, especially in his early years.  In his third year at Colorado College he dropped out in the middle of an exam and headed for the Salt Creek oil fields in Wyoming to work as a laborer.  Over the years he took various jobs to keep him going while he wrote.  Somehow he managed to sustain what he regarded as “his gift” in the face of the “instant flop” of his early books.

           When an unscrupulous agent ran off with his $150 advance, Frank starved for eight months while he completed Midas of the Rockies.  It wasn’t the first or the last time he starved for his art.  He and his second wife, Janey, “went broke” in the 40s and hit the road to Washington State where they survived by picking apples.

           Having enough money to survive and time to write were not his only priorities.  Partially driven by a desire to understand his own cultural heritage, Waters sought out the Hopis at Oraibi in Arizona where he lived for three years and began The Book of the Hopi, the book that finally established his reputation.  A couple of years later he wrote Pumpkin Seed Point, about living at Oraibi and writing.  This was the book he enjoyed writing the most because he “didn’t have to do any research,” he said.

         “My long stay among the Hopis was one of the richest experiences in my life," he wrote.  “Their communal life, spent in constant touch with dreams, spirits, and living symbols, restored my own belief in another reality . . .”  In a letter to his friend Alan Swallow he wrote, “We all live two lives separated by the psychical Iron Curtain that makes us all schizophrenic, but they meet and blend in our daily actions as plain people.”

          From the subconscious came the two outstanding themes in his work -- duality and the oneness of things.  While Frank Waters acknowledged bipolar tensions in all of life, he also believed in the reconciliation of opposites as “our greatest hope.”

          Professor Alexander Blackburn says in A Sunrise Brighter Still, his critical analysis of Frank Waters’ work, that the point is to maintain an interplay between the two sides, a balance between darkness and light, that one can never dominate the other for long.  “In many Eastern traditions the dynamic balance between male and female modes of consciousness is the principal aim of meditation,” he wrote.

          I turned to some of Frank Waters’ novels to see how he mirrored the dynamic balance between men and women.  I discovered that his fictional female characters frequently play a major role in transcending opposites.  In The Woman at Otowi Crossing his heroine, Helen Chalmers, who lives between the atomic world of Los Alamos and San Ildefonso Pueblo, becomes “the still point of the turning world” where the atom smasher and the Indian drum are juxtaposed.

          In The Man Who Killed the Deer, his hero, Martiniano, is being flogged at his pueblo for refusing to conform to Indian tradition.  Suddenly he sees his wife, Flowers Playing, watching with the greatest love he has ever seen, the dark pools of her eyes “triumphant with a strange exultation.”  She has come to tell him she is pregnant.  Through her and others he finds faith “in the mystery of life.”

          Waters also wrote about powerful women friends like Mabel Dodge Luhan, “a woman who had focused all the social, radical, and art movements of her generation.”  He overcomes his personal reticence enough to paint a vivid portrait of a wealthy woman who was known for her “feminine wiles, and mental will to dominate everyone she knew . . . a rather short and compactly built woman with one of the loveliest voices I had ever heard,” in whom he saw both self-delusion and moments of awakening.

          Toward the end of his life, Frank Waters was shaken by bouts of skin cancer, which dreams caused him to believe were punishment for his “selfishness.”  Again, through fear and suffering, love and truth became the reconciling forces in his life.  In a speech he made at Colorado College a few years before he died, he hastened to acknowledge his debt to the women who had nurtured him.  He said of his mother, “I remember her unceasing devotion and tolerance. We loved her, but took her for granted.”

          He mentioned a school teacher who read mythology to his class and helped him write his first published story.  He thanked his sister for love, constant encouragement, and typing his manuscripts.  He paid tribute to a Hispanic neighbor, Alicia Quintana, and of course, Mabel Dodge Luhan.  “It seems that at every stage of life a woman was there to aid my slow growth toward maturity of heart and mind.”

          Of his fourth wife, Barbara, who retyped and helped edit his manuscripts and kept him going into his 90s, he said “ . . . of all the women who have influenced me, she has most nurtured my delayed development . . . . The physical help she gives me daily is immeasurable . . . .  Her special field will interest you members of this Women’s Educational Society -- to help women retain their self-esteem.”

          Intellectually, at least, he understood the modern woman’s struggle for
self-esteem, just as he condemned the old-fashioned view of women as inferior to men -- “a disastrous attitude.”  He admitted that he had been raised on the belief in male supremacy, that “a woman’s place was in the bedroom and the kitchen.  And I was taught to repress any displays of the feminine qualities of love, tenderness, and compassion in my own dual nature.  It just wasn’t manly. . . .  Barbara today is patiently unlocking these hidden qualities in me with her love and daily care, expanding my inner perspective and spiritual growth.”

          Perhaps the dynamic tension between Frank and Barbara Waters -- and their ability to transcend it with patience and love -- is exactly what kept their marriage alive and growing for so many years.

          It’s also entirely possible that the dynamic tension within Frank Waters, like the symbolic serpent biting its own tail, played a vital part in the creation of his extraordinary books.

             *(Phaedra Greenwood is a journalist living in Taos, New Mexico.  Her  article appeared in the January/February 2000 issue of The Salt Journal Volume 2/number 2.)
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