The Matchbook Diaries

Beginning, Ending, and Re-Beginning

Going public about faith, I feel how it must feel for someone else who comes “out of the closet” about something they are.  I think this is how it must be to admit something you know will be judged, misinterpreted, flung back, or rejected.  Most public pronouncements of faith are loaded with righteous pretense and preening.  The way most people who claim to know God talk about God makes me shake my head.  The branding that goes on for God is a horror – drenched in hate, violence, disgusting promises of wealth and right-ness, or insipid platitudes.  I’m an evangelist, there is absolutely no question.  My ambition is to convert the whole world to faith.  I’d rather not.  But this is who I am, and I’ve certainly got the ego for the task.  (I feel the same way about my other calling as an artist – I mean – don’t be absurd.  Most people who say they are artists are so full of shit I can’t tolerate their company.)  I am enraged, easily, by people who drape themselves in a God who hates, who divides, who controls – as such a thing is categorically impossible.  (I’m tortured if I have to endure anyone who labels themselves an artist when clearly they use that phrase to excuse silly, self-gratifying behavior, dreams of money and fame, and really shitty art.)  We are, every single last one of us humans, immaculately, if not spectacularly made.  Not a single life is in error, not a single true passion will ever lead to the wrong place.  My twin callings, both of which I did not want, are as an artist and an evangelist.  I embrace them.

6 years I keened, nightly, in agony about the truth of my personal history.  I reached a moment last spring when I was no longer interested in getting up, wiped out after years of wild, terrorized grief.  I asked God, for 6 months in a row, in weakness, in self-pity, in childish anger, that I not wake in the following morning.

The death site of Bunny Hollow at Maple Haven.

The year had been hard.  A lifelong spiritual mentor pronounced her condemnation of me that December and permanently cast me out, telling me in all of her 50 years of counseling she’d only condemned one other person.  My best friend of 55 years, experiencing grief of her own, ended her friendship with me at the exact same time.  Morning, that moment when the sun comes and hope is renewed, morning became a dread.  I believed that my pain was bottomless; I felt that the God I’d bet everything on, the one true thing I held closest, my faith, that only thing I trusted utterly, was in jeopardy.  The acute agony I experienced was not diminishing, and six years of the reckoning I endured was something about which I wanted the authority to say, “Too much.” I wanted to say, “Stop.”  The pain did not stop; it accelerated.

But all the while I knew – I’m expensive.  This suffering is not the price of what my mother did to me, but rather the price of my own liberty, my own redemption.  I cry not for her, but for me.  To whine about my own cross is obscene.  But, of course, I had the audacity to whine, I managed.  I went through the motions, day after day, of ritual, of my extended time praying and worshipping.  But there was no light in me at all.  It was the first year that I was not called upon to mentor art students, or any students, about finding passion and following their hearts.  It was the first year that I was not deeply engaged with people from around the world asking me questions about faith.  No one sought me.  Those who I’d previously worked with were well into their own journey and did not need me.

In November of that year I’d looked online for a moment at off-grid housing in Maine.  I’d always dabbled in that arena, sort of touching on it, lured by the promise of privacy and liberty.  But as we own a very large farm in the US already, I wasn’t looking for real, and I rarely waste time surfing.  Our current farm is a hotel, as neither of us wishes to live there.  The first and only place I ever saw online that morning was a little cabin on 95 acres in Maine.  Three days later we bought it for cash, outdoing people who were bidding well over the asking price, but who were offering mortgaged money, and therefore legally could not outbid us.  I clung to the images of that little handmade cabin throughout the most miserable spring of my life.  Eventually I flew with my son, a month prior to summer, to move all of our personal history and possessions from the storage in our farm in Georgia to what I knew was our real home in Maine.  I drove the moving van and towed our Prius to Maine.  My son and I loaded more than 400 boxes into that cabin, a cabin that was essentially two large rooms attached to an enormous workshop buried deep in the woods.  Not another home was in sight or hearing.  Our cabin sat at the end of a quarter long mile driveway, off of a dirt road.  Nights were utter dark and silent.  My husband named the place Maple Haven.  Our farm in Georgia is called Beech Haven, and has been called that for a 100 years.  Our individual home on the family farm is called Happy Hollow, an absurd name that certainly doesn’t jive with my New York trash talk, but is perfect for the house and for the people who named the house.  I named our new home in Maine Bunny Hollow, as we had a tame and persistent little bunny who lived under us there.

Into that house went every piece of fine art I’d inherited from my mother, including two paintings that Christies had told me, several years earlier, were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.  In addition, there were very fine old sea trunks from the 1700’s that had come from Europe with my mother’s wealthy Jewish family, and Chinese heirlooms, as well as a hoard of other antiques, and all of the antique paper goods I use for my business.  For 8 weeks we poured ourselves into that tiny, savage place, huddling at night in front of the fire, using flashlights and candles for light.  My son and husband flew home to Tanzania, but I remained behind, to await a shipment of my work from Hong Kong.  In truth, though, I waited behind to finally do what I longed to do, hang myself.  I secretly felt that once the two men I loved were away, and I was utterly alone in that cabin, in a place where I would not be found, and where my family would never have to see or live, I could finally end my life.  I dropped them at the Boston airport, spent one night there in a hotel, and then drove back to our new home in 3 hours and a half.  Anyone who has ever driven to northern Maine from Boston knows the tremendous, suicidal speed at which I was driving to have done what I did.  Getting back to silent solitude, I had about 6 weeks to get myself killed.

There were interruptions.  My best friend, having recovered sufficiently from her own grief, reached out to me, suddenly, apologized in humility, and returned to our intimacy.  My husband, the steady, brilliant, romantic – sensing, maybe, something, shocked me by sending me hundreds and hundreds of fine, long stemmed pink roses from South America.  A neighbor man, one day, drove all the way down our driveway, crazed grief in his face, and asked if I’d seen his German shepherd.  I had not.  But I said I would pray for the dog to find its way home.  The following morning that total stranger was back on my doorsteps, his hat literally in his hand, telling me that his dog returned home directly after I had prayed.

I could not help recalling my own story of German shepherds.  I’ve been a runner all of my life, and in one season of my life I ran daily on a long country road past a dear old farmhouse that inevitably had a humungous German shepherd asleep on the porch.  One day running past, I saw the shepherd get up suddenly and very deliberately run straight towards me.  I thought, Shit, shit, shit, he’s going to kill me.  I knew there was no escape.  I just plunged ahead towards the huge dog, who, upon reaching me, picked up speed and hurled himself into the predator, an equally large chow who was following silently behind me to attack.  I named my hero The Good Shepherd after that, and thanked God for him when I ran past him.

Alone in Maine, I finally got to the tipping point.  I knew that I would do it, that night.  The rope was suspended in the workshop and I was ready.  Then, at like 1:30 am my time, my cell phone rang as I was heading to hang myself.  I answered reluctantly, incredulously.  My husband said, “I suddenly thought I needed to call you and tell you I love you.”  God damn it.  God help me.

My dearest cousin, who lives in Boston, suddenly felt the need to see me, and drove 7 hours up to spend that final weekend in Maine with me prior to my own departure.  My suicide had failed, and failed in a way I knew was permanent and irrevocable.  I was truly angry at God about this.  I’d engaged in suicidal ideation for years, and this was to be my culminating effort.  The relief I wanted, the end I sought, was not permitted to me.  I wanted the pain to stop.  I hurled my anger at God directly, as I always do, telling God to fuck off, to get the fuck out of my heart, to get away.  I’d collapse after yelling, in those last days, as God kept replying, I will not leave you.  You may leave me.  I will not leave you.  God damn you, I said to God.  God damn you.  The word hollow, the word we used for both our homes, it meant something different to me in that tipping point of my life.

Then, resigned, exhausted, humiliated, there I was on a plane returning to my family, a family I did not leave, not because I was strong, but because I was too weak to die.  There was no triumph in my return, after 5 months away, to my beloved home in Tanzania.  It wasn’t life I wanted, but death.

Two weeks after my return to Tanzania, on a Saturday afternoon, we received an urgent message from the man who manages our property in Maine.  He’d gone there at our request to meet a Danish man who was purchasing our mill to use in his wooden boat-building business in Bar Harbor.  Our home, and our car, had both burnt to the ground.  The fire had raged unsuppressed and undetected, until it had gone cold.  Our property manager is actually a retired fire chief, so he knew exactly how to proceed.  Maine takes fires seriously, as wood is a huge source of income.  Our home was embedded in 95 acres of wood.  Not a single tree burned.   Not one.  Only my home, my car, and every single thing I had that attached me to my mother.  The first words out of my mouth were, “Well, that’s the end of Dody.”  (My mother.)  Texting my best friend in the US, moments after, her instant reply was, “Well, that’s the end of Rosemary.”  (My mother’s legal name.)

They investigated, Maine did, as did our insurance company.  An Act of God, they said.  This was an off grid home, very little wiring in it at all, nothing turned on.  No one there, no evidence of any kind of tampering.

I walked outside that Saturday.  My son evaporated to his room.  My husband sat inside.  I walked to the end of this slide that sits here in our compound and sat down and looked up.  I’ve believed in God since I was 13 years old.  I have spent everything I have in my heart and in my bank account to express my passion and my intention towards God.  I know, with certainty, that God does not deal in spectacular behavior because such acts would ruin any chance humanity has of acting freely towards God.  Such undeniable acts would override free will.  And yet.

Less than 10 days later the insurance company dumped into our bank account 200% of the cash I’d just spent to buy that place.  And whilst the home was destroyed, the real value of that purchase was in the 95 acres, all of which are perfectly intact.  Once again, in stupefied wonder, and still in the initial stages of shock, I typed one sentence into a search engine.  Houses on the beach in Maine.  I cannot afford a house on the beach anywhere, and certainly not on the northeastern coast of the US.  One house came up.  Only one.  I don’t know why.  It had a turret.  All my life I’ve wanted a turret.  I called the agent.  The house was again in a bidding war as it was 50% less than the lowest priced house, on an island, off the coast of Maine.  Two days later, we’d once again beaten the other bidders by offering all cash.  Only afterwards did I know that the name of the place we’ve purchased is the Abbey.  Only afterwards did I know that they’d deliberately photoshopped the top of the turret to destroy the cross that actually sits there.  Only afterwards did I know that this 200 year old property had been built as a sanctuary for monastics.

Grief doesn’t end when I want it to.  But my identity as a sex slave has been castrated.  I still keen at night, but not every night.  It’s a different level of pain.  It’s not the agony of before.  I will always be informed, profoundly, by my history.  I cannot be what I am without having endured what I have endured – the structure of the woundedness within me is exactly why I have been driven without caution and without restraint into my lifelong love affair with God.

Everything with a beginning has an end.  When the past is directly and sincerely dealt with, it ends.  I did not want, I now know, to stop being a victim.  I relished that identity.  I was proud of my ability to suffer.  I am no longer my mother’s victim; I cannot say that anymore.  I am stronger, now, than I have ever been, empowered, profoundly, by the staggering weight of God’s attention, of God’s contempt for human pain, of God’s insistent, consistent, intimacy with someone like me.  I am a ball of hate, of judgement, of pettiness, of weakness.  Yet this gift was given to me, conferring, imposing value upon my life and my intentions.  I know what I wanted to know.  God will, God can, God does undo, completely, even something like what happened to me.  I’m not chosen, not more or less special than anyone else.  God lives.  God loves me, and you.  God loves all those we hate and all those we love and all those we feel nothing for.  Moreover, God acts, daily, towards each of us.  We can pretend not to see, not to know, but this pretense is a paper sword against the infinite flaming blade of the love of God.