"Sheltering the Creative Spirit"
Taos, New Mexico USA
After the talk, I stepped outside the auditorium and lingered under the bright summer stars, contemplating the deep, internal responses created by this profound writer and thinker. Before me, a red sports car idled at the curb, an attractive, late middle-aged blonde at the wheel. I paid little attention to her, until a tall, slightly stooped Frank Waters emerged from the auditorium's side door and with surprising quickness, dashed to the fiery car and folded his lanky body into its plush interior.
I realized then that the woman was Barbara Waters, the author's wife. Still, I had a momentary shock seeing this living Western literary legend entering a crimson machine that seemed so antithetical to his image and to the spirit of his literary works.
However, revealing the "true" Frank Waters has long been a role for Barbara Waters, his fourth and final wife. Even before his death in 1995, her interviews and essays unmasked the imperfect human being behind Frank Waters' mythic persona, bringing to light surprising characteristics that many of his disciples find uncomfortable. But like the red sports car, these distinctly unsaintly foibles were no less a part of Frank Waters' world than were his vivid literary images and consciousness-changing observations.
Waters' memoir, Celebrating the Coyote, is the climax of her
"revisionist" biographical work, and even addresses the reluctance of
Frank Waters' followers to accept the reality underneath the authorial mask.
"In my opinion," she writes, "Frank disliked aggressive people
because they reflected his own unacknowledged shadow side. This hidden
side made him passive-aggressive, and it usually came out only at home. No
one realized it existed unless they spent a lot of time with him. When I
pointed this out once to Dr. Charles Adams [a major Frank Waters' scholar], he
said coldly, 'We don't know that Frank Waters. We only know the Frank
Waters glimpsed in his books.' You could tell he didn't want to hear
another word about the real Frank Waters. It's like the woman who told me,
'I'm in the midst of reading his magical Pumpkin Seed Point. And
you tell me Frank Waters likes to eat corn beef and cabbage. In a place
called the Iron Mask. Spare me any more details that might send me
crashing to earth.' I guess I was supposed to say he lived on ambrosia,
honey, and nectar like the rest of the Olympian gods." To any reader
who may harbor a god-like image of Frank Waters, Barbara Waters, a Jungian
therapist, will certainly send him or her "crashing to earth."
She details Waters' childish pranks, his tendency to over-indulge in alcohol,
his occasional mean spiritedness towards family and friends, his failed
marriages, his fear of death, even his terrible driving (he once rammed his car
into a light pole while waving goodbye to Barbara). Finally, there is his
extremely sexist remark during a talk at Colorado College that before he married
Barbara he "thought all women were good for was the bedroom and
kitchen," an attitude he made manifest by repressing his wives' creative
"It is easy to detail the faults, the failings, the lapses," she writes. "But one can scarcely bring alive for others the chemistry, the stimulation, the love, the always being there for each other. Looking forward each morning to the day's blessings, joy and excitement. To sleeping together each night. The sensuality. Working together creatively. Daring together. Cooking, suffering, and laughing together. Frank's curiosity, intellect, gentleness, kindness, kind as his great brown Deer Eyes. The stability. The completion. The balance. Most of all the contentment." And I would add, most of all, the sensitive self-portrait of a woman who has lost a man she deeply, deeply loves. Without resorting to cliché or sentimentalism, Barbara Waters evokes the soul wounding pain she feels at her husband's death -- the finest testament she could have given to the man whose writings and love utterly transformed her life.
There is much of Barbara Waters' life in Celebrating the Coyote, including the years before she met Frank Waters and the first months after his death, and there are many aspects of that life that are fascinating -- including her hiking journeys through the Grand Canyon, her spiritual encounters across the Southwest, and her thoughts on archetypal psychology and Jungian synchronicity. Also, she includes an extended passage on Frieda Lawrence's difficult marriage to D. H. Lawrence, with insightful parrallels to her own relationship with Frank Waters. Readers expecting a book solely focused on Frank Waters may at first be disappointed by these explorations, but they should open themselves to the perceptions and power of this woman's story It is an important one, examining the difficulties and joys of love and death.
frustration with Celebrating the Coyote is that Barbara Waters teases the
reader with sometimes brief accounts of Frank Waters' friendships with such
contemporary luminaries as Edward Abbey, Dennis Hopper, Leslie Marmon Silko, and
Barbara Kingsolver. I want to shout, "Give us more!" when
Barbara Waters tosses off a line like "Frank told Dennis Hopper that the
incense smell of burning copal used in Guatemala's sacred places, would drive
away unwanted spirits present in Mabel Luhan's house after the actor purchased
it." But Celebrating the Coyote is after all, Barbara Waters'
memoir, not a thorough biography of Frank Waters, a publishing event many
Southwestern readers await with restless anticipation. Hopefully, the
author of that future book will track down such connections and explore them in
depth. Meanwhile, we have Barbara Waters' many wonderful stories about her
husband. One of my favorites concerns their picnic, complete with oxygen
equipment for Frank Waters' failing lungs, on Cuchama, a mountain on the Mexican
border sacred to the Yuma Indians. A police officer from Tecate interrupts
their picnic to tell them of the mountain's dangers: "In the first place,
this is a hiding place for those who illegally leave Mexico. Then there
are the drug smugglers. These illegals are watching you. In the
second place, those whose duty it is to catch the illegals are watching you and
them. Shots have been known to be fired." Frank and Barbara
Waters continue their picnic and have a superb time. Barbara adds that,
"All these dangerous 'eyes' added relish." Celebrating the
Coyote is a rich and sensitive book. While it strips away some of the
saintly aura that surrounds Frank Waters, we are left with a deeper
understanding of the man and the contradictions that fed his work. The
result is a far more textured portrait of this major Southwestern author than we
had before, and a highly valuable biographical memoir that paradoxically adds to
his increasing literary stature.
John Nizalowski is a writer and reader living in
Delta, Colo. He also teaches in the English Department Mesa State College,
in Grand Junction.
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