Today is the twentieth anniversary of the event I think of as the hinge of my life. Twenty years ago today, when I was 22, a great dark door swung ever so slightly ajar after I slammed against it so violently I cracked a rib and got a concussion. I knew instinctively that freedom lay beyond the door, but I was too frightened, too weak and muddled, to push it any further. Instead I retreated further into the claustrophobic darkness of the tiny, stifling room I inhabited, even though there was no place for me in it: it was agonizing to live there, but it was familiar, and it was also home to everyone I loved. How could I ever leave it?
That probably sounds histrionic and hyperbolic, but hey, there are times to say "today is the twentieth anniversary of something that really sucked" and then there are times to try to capture a certain profound, visceral distress accompanying an experience that can still quicken your pulse and bring bile to the back of your mouth, even after two decades.
Here's another way of saying it:
Because I wanted to discover the availability of grace and explore my own capacity for goodness, I decided to serve a mission. I volunteered to go wherever I was sent; I was sent to Taiwan. Each morning for a year and a half I pinned on my dress a piece of plastic on which someone had scratched thirteen Chinese characters, three of which were my name and ten of which were Jesus Christ End of the Earth Disciple Church, a fair enough translation for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The heart is silent, a fist-sized cone pointing down, forward and to the left, clenching and unclenching, inside a cage of cartilage and bone. The sound of the heartbeat is caused by turbulence in the blood as blood meets a closed valve, not by contractions of the heart itself.
The rib cage is shaped like a beehive, which the Mormon Church adopted as an icon, symbol of enterprise, harmony, sweetness. As a missionary I dropped through my neighbor's kitchen roof and snapped one of my ribs, one bar of the cage, right in two. Nothing escaped, nothing was freed. I only damaged my icon.
I converted people. I lost my faith. I wept. I understood nothing so well as the groanings of a body at prayer. I was told that what God wanted from me was a broken heart and a contrite spirit. I offered him both. He gave both back to me and that's what I was left with.
And here's yet another:
One muggy Monday afternoon I sat on my back balcony in central Taiwan, reading two aerograms from my friend Martha and talking into a tape recorder to her, morosely explaining my analogy of God as a bad basketball coach. I dropped one of Martha's letters; it landed on the roof of the neighbor's lean-to kitchen; I decided to try to retrieve it. Instead of regaining the letter I plummeted right through the roof. How foolish I felt, sitting cross-eyed and crying on my neighbor's kitchen floor amidst all the rubble I'd created, shouting "Hello, hello" while she stayed upstairs, shouting back at me in Chinese, "What is it? What do you want?" What I had wanted was a witness from God that he found me acceptable even with all my doubts and problems, but deep in my heart I suspected that falling through a roof was probably a sign of something else.
Here's the crux of one of two problems I was trying to work out on that tape to Martha:
Mormons believe that every last human being who has ever lived must be given the opportunity to accept the true church and be baptized, and that's why they aggressively pursue missionary work to convert the living, and do genealogy to find the names of everyone who was ever born so that baptisms can be performed for the dead, as the apostle Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 15. It's staggeringly ambitious and more generous than some plans of salvation, but still, the logic has always struck me as flawed. In Mormon scripture, God tells Moses, "For this is my work and my glory: to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39). In the Missionary Training Center we were shown a pie graph charting the number of adherents of all the world's religions. It was supposed to underscore how pressing it was that we get busy and convert the rest of the world, but I remember staring at it, thinking about the huge wedge of humanity on the chart that was Muslim, the huge wedge that was Hindu, the huge wedge that was Buddhist. Each of those religions has fewer adherents than Christianity--about a third of the world's population is Christian--but the Christian wedge seemed less substantial and imposing because it alone was fragmented into various denominations, in order to call our attention to the tiny, tiny wedge that was Mormon: in 1985, about 9 million of the earth's 5 billion inhabitants were Mormon. I considered that tiny fraction and thought, "For someone who is supposed to be omnipotent, God isn't meeting with much success in his work and his glory." Surely if it really mattered to him that the whole world hear the message of Mormonism, he'd work harder to get it out there. The Church had only been around for a little more than 150 years; if he were really anxious to offer the truth to every last human being who ever drew breath on this planet, why would he wait so long to reveal it? I felt there were several logical conclusions one could draw from this state of affairs: perhaps God wasn't omnipotent, or he didn't really care about us, or the Church wasn't as necessary to salvation as its adherents liked to claim--or perhaps all those things were true.
The crux of the other problem was this: what about art? Can God love someone who loves art and beauty and human endeavor at least as much as she loves God? And if not, why are those things so wonderful? Is creating and enjoying great art worth going to hell for?
Here's the upshot of the fall: No solutions to either problem, just more confusion. That led in turn to spiritual despair, a dark night of the soul that lasted a hell of a lot longer than a night and eventually required medical treatment. When I started crying a few weeks later and couldn't stop for hours or days at a time, I wasn't given any help or treatment, aside from the advice to work harder and thus offer my own suffering as a sacrifice to building the kingdom of the Lord; but when my body rebelled and made me so sick I could no longer sleep or digest food with any regularity, I was sent to a hospital for a barrage of tests, which eventually revealed that there was nothing whatsoever wrong with any of my organs or systems, at which point the doctor saw fit to ask me about my life, and figured out that I was depressed. (Keep in mind this was 1986, before the Prozac revolution.) I got my first prescription for anti-depressants from a trio of Freudian atheist psychiatrists who spoke to me in Mandarin while I answered in English. They could make absolutely no sense of the profound grief I felt whenever I thought about God or the Church.
The fall happened, by the way, in a particularly Edenic part of Taiwan: a small community with spacious streets and clean air (unlike the filthy cities Taipei or Kaohsiung), neatly cultivated banana fields, and a spectacular view of the marble mountain where Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan's most popular honeymoon destination, was located.
So that's right: I had a fall in an tropical edenic paradise, and I am a woman created out of a broken rib. A tidy metaphor, isn't it? I've written a book about it, trying to make it neat and comprehensible, but it's still all very messy, and I need to go be sick now.