The Hinge

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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.

10 Comments

Holly,

I keep meaning to buy your book and read it as I've heard you talk before about how horrible your mission was and how it was a defining moment for you. (Albeit a defining moment in a decidedly non-Mormonesque way, i.e. it did the opposite of what the church promised you it would do.)

This was a poignant post and pulled at my heart. Like many of us, I'm sure you believed if you followed all the rules unerringly and with blind faith and obedience, you'd come out on the receiving end with blessings and goodness and enlightenment in massive quantity.

The challenge is, we "belong" to a church that believes in perfection as the highest and noblest goal. As a result, we never quite measure up or get it. We try to accomplish goodness only to overcompensate and fail.

I remember when I came home from my mission, someone asked me if it hadn't been THE best experience of my life. They were stunned when I said, it was a good experience, but there was still a lot of life to be lived and I didn't want to limit or diminish the possibility of having additional "best" experiences. I'm glad that was my attitude, because I've been able to enjoy lots and lots of "bests" since--graduating from college and grad school, publishing my first book (and subsequent books thereafter), buying my first car and my first house, etc.

Holly, I hope for you that today is a day of liberation and the continuation of proud and re/defining moments in your life that eclipse your edenic experience.

Janet

hi Janet--

unfortunately you can't buy my book because it still isn't in print. I keep working at it, though, and just this morning I gave someone a ride to the airport and he was generous enough to give the name of an editor he'd worked with. So I maintain hope.

I remember when I came home from my mission, someone asked me if it hadn't been THE best experience of my life. They were stunned when I said, it was a good experience, but there was still a lot of life to be lived and I didn't want to limit or diminish the possibility of having additional "best" experiences. I'm glad that was my attitude, because I've been able to enjoy lots and lots of "bests" since--graduating from college and grad school, publishing my first book (and subsequent books thereafter), buying my first car and my first house, etc.

I like this attitude a lot. I just told people when I got home from my mission that it was the most painful experience of my life, which flummoxed a lot of people who hadn't served one and brought knowing smiles from plenty who had. :-)

But you're right, it would be very sad if the best experience of your life happened in late adolescence, and couldn't be topped (even for practicing Mormons) by marriage, parenthood, a rewarding career--even further church service.

Thanks for your good wishes, Janet--and I actually plan of having a great day today, if only to remind myself that no matter how crappy the thing that happened to me 20 years ago, I've survived and gone on to bigger and better things!

Holly,

I didn't realize you hadn't published it yet. For some reason, I thought you had. Regardless, I look forward to a good read one day.

Here's to you, and surviving, and moving on.

Janet

Happy Anniversay and wow, that's a very powerful and moving piece of your puzzle. Now go clean up the mess of that roof and your book.

This is a wonderful essay, Holly. I love your straight-forward manner as you combine humor and tragedy as well as the metaphors of the rib cage and the “fall.”

I also love how you tell us the stories in two ways. It reminds me – so movingly – that all events can be seen in a tragic, comic, magical or just plain ordinary light. Here are the facts. Here are the feelings. What would an onlooker see here? What would God see here? What do I see here? Then and now?

Well, I just can’t express how beautiful this post is. I wish I knew non-fiction editors for you - to spread your story and your art.

wonderfully written. love the metaphor. ;-)

I wish I knew non-fiction editors for you - to spread your story and your art.

Me too, Frankengirl. :-) Mostly I just try to remind myself that the goal is to keep writing, keep producing material. I'll find an audience for what I write one day or another--and the more I write, the more opportunity I have to find that audience.

I'm so happy to have found your site! I actually found it through one of my students who has been reading you as part of a feminist blog assignment. As soon as I heard ex-mormon feminist professor I knew I had to find you, as I'm all of those things too.

I love this post. You totally get the heartbreak of mormonism. Just today I had to explain how I came to feminism for a student project, and I found myself avoiding commiting my answer to tape because I couldn't explain my journey without first explaining what I *thought* I could be my whole life, as a true-believer, and how devastating it was to realize that I actually couldn't be very much and that the church I loved so much didn't want much more from me than to be able to raise good kids and know how to conduct music in a pinch, should I ever find myself in an east coast ward, where the converts are less musically talented than us truly chosen folks. Thanks for the beautiful words. Looking forward to reading more.

Hi Margo--I'm very glad you stopped by. It's always nice to run into someone else who understands the basic story--I look forward to learning more about yours.

It sounds fascinating -- especially about the Chinese Freudian psychiatrists!

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on April 14, 2006 12:16 AM.

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