The Matchbook Diaries

Hell and Heaven

I have spent a considerable amount of my lifetime thinking about hell. The simple answer is Hell is the place God is not. I cannot conceive of a world without hope, without light, without a shred of goodness, a world saturated in despair. What I do know is that I often cannot abide my own company. I am often writhing in shame as I reflect on the many cruel, selfish things I have done. In Hell I would lose the luxury afforded here, the luxury of avoiding the real. Hell is when I am eternally alone with myself, forever faced with myself without hope and without mitigation.

My mother is in that condition now. Hell is self-imposed, people who are there are they because they choose it.  A realm without God was not God’s idea. A realm without God is the unavoidable consequence of choice. I know what the fullest extent of free will can produce. Free will produces hell.  It produces my mother. She constructed my world so that I would be dizzily trapped and therefore in the right condition for sexual slavery. I was unable to write my letters d and b properly for the entire time I lived in New York.  I do not know my left from my right even today.  If you spin my body around one time slowly, I get so dizzy I’m sick and have to sit down.

During the day my mother called herself a twisted version of her beautiful Jewish surname Baruch. During the day my mother was my pal, Barchie. I hated that name. It was manifestly ugly. During the day my name was Eemia, that is, my proper name, but backwards. Eemia sounded to me like the name of a disease. In the daylight Eemia and Barchie were two girls at play. She often dressed us alike. At night, when she held me down and lowered herself onto my face so that I could perform oral sex, then she was Mommy. I was Aimee. At night she began our sessions by telling me what I would be doing for her, and reminding me that I was not to move, not to speak, and not to stop until she was finished with what she needed. This construct was convenient; it offered my mother two versions of life that could be partitioned off from one another.

In the beginning, when I first began to acknowledge what my body always remembered, I asked unanswerable questions. I asked the same questions hundreds of times a day, often trying desperately to stop only to find myself asking them an instant later. “Why would you do that?” “Why did you do that?” I know the answer now. She did it because she wanted to. That’s the terrible power of choice.

In public school on Long Island I carried a lunchbox. I wanted to have one like everyone else, a trite metal thing with a flimsy latch and a matching plastic thermos with a cartoon character. My mother made my lunchbox out of an old metal toolbox with a domed top. She pasted snippings from magazines onto the black toolbox and varnished it so that they would be sealed onto the surface. I was terrorized by that lunchbox. I don’t remember all of the images, but I am quite clear about two of them. Along the spine of the toolbox, the part I saw every day when it was snapped shut, was a snipped out community service warning from the State of New York. It read, “It is after dark, do you know where your children are?” Then, along the never invisible front rim, just below the latch, my mother made a sentence of her own by clipping out words to make the sentence, “Anything can happen…..after midnight.”

Hell is the place where nothing can happen. Hell is where there arer no possibilities, no alternatives. Hell is the place where the choices of my life are fixed, and I have no way to avoid the truth.

Always and never are words I use when I am trying to feel powerful.  These two words are only actually reasonable to use when speaking of God.  God will always be prepared to tolerate, forgive, and love me.  God will never leave me though I leave God.  Permanence isn’t an option right now, not in this life.  I’m not stuck.  I can choose to tell the truth, and pay whatever the price is for my own liberty.  God cannot make me good.  God can make me free.  God cannot make me right.  God can make me true.

Here in Tanzania, when a woman gets engaged, her betrothed has to pay a bride price.  My housekeeper Olipa has just gotten engaged.  Her family is charging 1,500,000 TZ shillings for her.  My Aya, as we call a housekeeper here, is worth, according to her family, $652.17.  The ransom for a human being is the death of God.  There is not atonement that satisfies in any religion I’ve studied.  There are plenty of symbolic atonements.  The lottery win of free will makes human beings staggeringly expensive to recover.  And if I ask God the same inane question I’d ask my mother, “Why would you do that?” “Why did you do that?” I know the answer now. God chooses intimacy with us because God wants to. That’s the terrible power of choice.

My favorite writer of all time, Jose Saramago says, “Strictly speaking, we do not make decisions.  Decisions make us.”  My mother’s decisions make her what she now is.  More important, God’s decisions tell me that God is catastrophically, unilaterally invested in reaching me.  God confers on me a value I cannot appreciate or understand.  I can wallow in it, though, roll around in all of that gorgeous love, all of that glorious mercy.  I can accept that if one end of the spectrum  is my mother, the other end is God.

I live in Dar Es Salaam, one of the poorest cities on the planet.  Walking through the endless slums created by my greed and consumption, I know that not a single inhabitant of that place is forgotten by God.  I know with absolute certainty that God knows every hair on every head, God knows every name.  God knows, loves, endures, in order to reach through and touch the finger of his beloved children.  Everyone is a prince or princess.  Everyone occupies a royal position in God’s scarcity-free economy.  I have done nothing to earn God’s love, and I can do nothing to forfeit it.  God’s love never changes, always exists.  A critical part of redemption is stepping into that truth, and acknowledging that I matter not because of what I have done, but because of what I am.  I am a child of God.  You are a child of God.  Here on earth we pave our streets with men.  In heaven the streets are paved with gold.  That’s God’s economy.  That truth makes the abominable truths of my life endurable.