All That’s Left Is God
Born in the heart of the Bible Belt, the author found refuge on the Front Range after a series of traumas. Through it all, she was discovering who she was—as a daughter, a woman, a partner, and a mother. One woman’s journey to faith and family.
San Antonio, Texas
In my driveway, I load my Nissan Pathfinder with the last of my things. I wrap my hand inside my T-shirt before lowering the branding-iron hot metal tailgate with its Jesus fish on one side, and a bumper sticker that reads, “Love Many, Trust Few, Always Paddle Your Own Canoe” on the other. I get Bear and Chance—all 200 pounds of wolf hybrid and husky—settled in the back and point the Pathfinder northwest to Colorado.
Though the Lone Star State contains pockets of liberalism, it is largely a place where men and women hunt, buy American, attend right-to-life rallies, and paint their water towers with the name of the local football team. And although it is also the place where I was born and raised, where the rhythm of cicadas and dancing fireflies lulled me at dusk, it has never really been home.
In college, I’d visited a friend who lived in Eldorado Springs, Colorado, just outside the narrow jaws of a canyon on the shore of South Boulder Creek. She rented a mattress in the attic of a home that cost twice what I paid in rent for my apartment in Lubbock. She accessed her living quarters from a wooden, pull-down ladder in the kitchen, and her bedroom “loft,” as she called it, had just three feet of clearance from the ceiling. But at night, without even lifting her head from the pillow, she’d crank open the skylight and fall asleep to the din of creek and owl, cricket and guitar. I stayed a week, skipping class, and for the first time in my life, I knew what peace felt like. I knew that Colorado wasn’t just a place for respite or vacation—it might also be the place where I belonged.
Now, heading west on I-10, bugs splatter against the windshield. The terrain shifts from scrub oak and cracked earth to rolling hills and serrated peaks. Without my family, I am untethered, but it isn’t the same as being free.
The house I buy sits on three acres in the middle of nowhere with views of Longs Peak, a waterfall, and a mix of trails leading off the property that might go all the way to Canada. My first night there, it is so quiet the blood rushing in my head awakens me. I go out on the deck, cocooned in a wool blanket, and stare at stars so dense I cannot identify a single constellation. In the morning, four feet of snow lands atop my house like vanilla frosting. The weight of nature takes power and transportation with it. I cook off the wood stove, use the deck for a refrigerator, and rely on a backup cistern for water. In a man-made world stripped bare, all that’s left is God. And though I cannot see Him, in the same way I cannot see the wind, His presence makes me weep.
Pinewood Springs, Colorado
Until this January day, all I have received in the mail from my mother are anonymous prayer cards, most featuring the Virgin Mary, along with singles dating-service memberships. Then an e-mail arrives. Halfway through the message, my mother writes:
The path you are continuing to follow is against everything I believe in, and I simply cannot get past that.…I believe in the long run, you will suffer the consequences of your lifestyle. The most troubling thing about all this is that I am devastated that you have turned your back on the church. As your mother, I beg you to try and visit a priest in Colorado.… Perhaps he will not sanction your actions, but we are taught to love the sinner and hate the sin.…Some congregations are openly trying to find a place for everyone.…Temporal happiness is short-lived, but the salvation of your immortal soul is for eternity. And please don’t make excuses about how you can pray anywhere. I know that, but I do know that Christ established the church of which you are fortunate to be a member by your baptism.…I will love you and pray for you no matter what. I am not your judge, my dear, only your mother, who has tried her best to do what is right for her children. I love you, and God bless you. Mom
Three weeks later, boxes arrive. They are filled with report cards, finger paintings, and spelling bee awards. My mother has sealed up my childhood and sent it to me, paid in full.
Pinewood Springs, Colorado
The headline on the New York Times article reads “$120 Million Damage Award for Sexual Abuse by Priest.” Ten former altar boys and the family of an 11th who committed suicide have won a landmark civil suit against the Dallas Roman Catholic Diocese for hiding and protecting Father Rudolph Kos, who was sexually abusing boys. One of the plaintiffs in the case is the boy who Kos claimed was his adopted son. I recall being jealous of my male classmates because Kos spent more time with them than with me. It never occurred to me that they might be hurt in the same way I had been. Because Father Kos was an employee of All Saints, my parents’ years of tithing, along with the monetary offerings of the rest of All Saints’ parishioners, paid for Kos’ and the diocese’s legal defense fund.
Summer paints my land with locoweed, larkspur, columbine, asters, and iris. Hummingbirds swarm my feeders; males dive like missiles toward the earth. My new home off Magnolia Drive sits on 10 feral acres of an elk migration pattern, dwarfed by views of 12,000-foot peaks. From June through September, my dogs kick up wild sage and track it into the house on their paws. For an entire season, their fur smells like clover and sap. Together, we navigate the wilderness adjacent to my acreage using aspens, rock outcroppings, and scats like road signs. I’m aware that I now trust wild animals more than people and can go months without speaking to another human soul.
I believe that I do not need anyone. Even when my quarter horse shatters my right hand, I drive myself to the ER, shifting gears and steering down the hairpin, 20-degree sloping road with my left. In the winter and early spring, elk break the fence line, looking like amateur high jumpers when their back legs catch the smooth wire. I become adept at staking T-bar fence posts into the ground, steeped in sweat and vibrating with the body shock of hard, physical work. At an altitude of 8,500 feet and living off miles of rutted dirt roads, I feel safe. I leave the doors to my house unlocked. I don’t even own a key.
In this refuge, I allow myself the latitude to realize several things. First, living alone and being celibate does not make me any less gay. Second, I am not gay because I was abused. One in three women worldwide will be abused, and one in three women are not gay. Third, it’s not my fault. Any of it. Fourth, I still like men, even though at 32 years old, I’ve been drugged, assaulted, and carjacked at gunpoint by them. And while these things made me into the kind of person who kept her hackles up—one who would rather see a mountain lion track than a human footprint—they did not make me gay. God made me gay.
But being abused does have residual effects. I have never stayed in any relationship more than three months with a man or woman without bolting. I envy gay and straight women and men who can enjoy uncomplicated and playful intimacy with one another, who can believe that somebody who touches them might do so out of love. This gift has been stolen from me. And, if I cannot be with women or men, where does that leave me besides alone?
I pray several times a day beneath a sky that opens up to me like an apse in a cathedral. As much as I am comfortable with my isolation, one thing is very clear to me: If I lose the ability to love, I will become something less than human. So this is the bargain I make with God: If you can heal me and teach me to trust again, I will leave this mountain.
I sleep in a Marmot sleeping bag on the hardwood floor. For six years, I’ve measured time by the ending of seasons; now, as the late-summer flowers lose their color with the first frost, I too am moving on.
Two years ago, I spoke on the phone with a woman named Avery—a friend of a friend from college—who invited me to a party in Denver on a Friday night. I couldn’t think of anything worse than leaving my utopia to battle rush-hour traffic to spend time with a bunch of people I didn’t even know—people who had chosen a life in the city over one in the mountains. I told her I’d pass. Never having met me, Avery said, “Oh come on, who are you, Nell? Even the Unabomber left his cabin to send out mail.” So much captivated me about those two sentences that I said yes—and kept saying it until we both sold our homes to purchase one together in Boulder. Perhaps mirroring us, the new place splits the line of mountain and city, half wild and half tame, with open space at the front door and civilization out the back.
With the moving truck loaded and gone, I spend my last night in my empty mountain home. I watch the peaks flash white against a full moon, like trout bellies in a river, and pray for a send-off, a blessing from this place that has made me whole again. But I do not expect or demand it. Instead, I call it to me.
At 3 a.m., I hear knocking. I slip out from my sleeping bag and tiptoe to the doors and windows. Elk, a herd of 80 or so, have formed a ring around my home, antlers tapping on the wood siding. They remain like that until sunrise, hugging my house. They are so close that their snorts of breath fog the windows.