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  • Writer's pictureLinda Odhner, with photos by Liz Kufs

Excerpted Inspirations #42

[Martha Beck describes her own experience of post-traumatic psychic numbing with Virginia Woolf's phrase, "living behind a pane of glass."]

"I am endlessly grateful for the fact that I was lucky enough to learn something Virginia Woolf never realized: glass can melt. It melted for me when I began allowing myself to know what I already knew, to feel consciously the pain I'd been ignoring almost all my life, to question the Mormon way of seeing the world. Call it awakening, call it being born again, call it whatever you like; but the sensation of my disowned self moving back into my body was so strange and delicious that it occupied much of my attention for many months.


"Mormonism had taught me that 'pure' meant sexless, tame, and manageable, which is just how things had felt behind my old pane of glass. It perplexed me to realize that the more I pursued the pure love of God, the wilder, juicier, and more carnally delicious my life was becoming.

"I'd taken all the bottles and cans out of the cupboards in order to dust them, and the sunlight from the window, pouring through the clutter of containers, made them sparkle like jewels. The sight took my breath away, and I had the odd feeling -- it happened often, those days -- that I was somehow falling in love. I wanted to touch the bottles, hear them clink against each other, see them in different arrangements. This desire, like any physical desire I experienced at the time, was so intense, so thirsty, that it felt confusingly close to sexual sensation.

"I pondered this as I replaced some jars in the cupboard, then, without thinking, put my hand to my lip like Rodin's Thinker. Suddenly my mouth was filled with an explosion of peppermint. It started at the tip of my tongue, but within a second it had spread to my whole mouth, gone down my throat and up my sinuses, made my eyes water, set me coughing and wheezing. After a minute I managed to regain basic motor control, though the universe still seemed entirely mint flavored. I looked at the label on the bottle I'd just handled, which said PURE PEPPERMINT EXTRACT. I swear I heard that bubbling laughter, that joyful silent voice in the ether. That's what I mean by pure, it said. That's how 'pure love' feels.

"Ever since that experience, I have done my best to follow pure love wherever it takes me. It is the opposite of living behind a pane of glass; it's raw and unorthodox and unpredictable and sublime, and it never fades. I still have to wipe tears from my eyes in art supply stores, where the colors are so clean and pure, the smells so strong and beautiful. I can still feel drunk with bliss at the sound of a friend's laughter. I say 'Oh, God' a lot. Mormon believe that this is 'taking the name of the Lord in vain,' but it doesn't feel vain to me. It feels like prayer. People tend to say it when the divine aspect of their being connects with the divine aspect of everything else, when God within touches God without. What else could a physicist say, contemplating the way light curves through the vast continuum of space and time? What else could a human body breathe when its lips touch the skin behind a lover's ear? Every form of beauty perceived, every form of lovemaking, is God meeting God. And it is all pure."

-Martha Beck, Leaving the Saints (2005), pp. 199-200, 205-206

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