w/ Rachel Lee White
w/ Rachel Lee White
When I traveled to Georgia to meet Rachel, my 24-year-old daughter, I didn’t know what to expect. I just wanted to be there to support her in whatever ways I could.
Rachel has always known her own mind. When she was 4 and watched a violinist perform at church, Rachel told me this is what she wanted—to learn to play violin. I thought it was just a toddler’s whim, but for three solid months, Rachel insisted. Then, when I agreed to lessons, she passionately threw herself into learning. I say passionately because all the emotions were there, out in the open—ranging from frustration at not being able to match with her fingers what she heard in her mind to exuberant joy when she mastered a piece. Through all the time of her growth to young adulthood, there was never any doubt what Rachel was feeling. She never hid who she really was. Never, until these last few years.
I wake up to the sound of the captain preparing the cabin for landing. I look out the window and am surprised by the anomalous hills sticking up through the heavily forested Georgian landscape. I have heard that these huge brown and gray balding spots are the results of deforestation. Landslides of dirt run through deep furrows, looking for all the world as if the mountains are crying for the loggers to plant more trees. It gives me an uncanny feeling.
My mom picks me up from the Atlanta airport. She has driven for two straight days from New York City to rescue me. As we take her car deeper into the alluring countryside, toward Pisgah National Forest, I tell her about my semester at school in Chicago and my struggles financially and as a violinist. I tell her all my musician drama. I talk to her about my brand-new (and only) boyfriend. We talk about things I would never have dreamed of telling my father. That thought makes me feel as hollowed out and exposed as the deforested hills.
As the road winds into the mountains, it starts raining, and we start counting churches. The further into the forest we get, the more churches there are—and the fewer people. Then the sky clears up and reveals the intense blue of Sharp Top Mountain and the vitality of green around us. But breathing in as much oxygen from the clean air as my lungs can hold doesn’t release the suffocating fist that’s clamped over my heart.
I came from Chicago to New York City over Christmas time with the vague attempt to hang out with my brother who lives in Brooklyn. My dad, in an equally ambiguous effort at holiday cheer, came up to New York City for Boxing Day and to take my brother and me out to dinner. We were at an adorable little Italian restaurant, decorated from floor to ceiling in colored lights and evergreens. Everything should have felt lit and alive. But I felt suffocated. My dad gave my brother a small check, but to me, he gave an April trip to a Christian women's conference in Atlanta. I snapped.
“It’s just all wrong,” I choked out at my father, through mouthfuls of food, not caring that I was making a scene in the tiny restaurant. “Do you think I've become a heathen? Are you trying to re-convert me? Are you sending me to a cult?”
I spoke in anger. But on the inside, the truth of who I am came into stark conflict with the person I guessed my father thought I was. I was all twisted up over the dilemma of whether I should try to please him or let him see the real me.
For twenty-five years, we were a family—a Christian married couple with two beautiful children who went to church two times a week. On the outside, everything looked perfect. But on the interior—inside the walls of our home—it was different. I couldn’t be honest with my friends at church about the problems in our home, but I also knew I couldn’t be honest with myself—with who I am. To keep my own integrity, I had to leave.
I wasn’t abandoning my faith, but as I was pushing away from my marriage, I was also walking away from a church that, to me, had never felt authentic.
And now, here I am, with Rachel in the passenger seat of my car, driving to a Christian women’s retreat in the mountains north of Atlanta. It's April, the trees are already lush and full, and there is no sign of the deforestation we had seen closer to Atlanta. Although I had read that northern Georgia lost 100,000 acres of forest to development in the last twenty years and that as much as one-third of the land had been clear-cut, I was glad to see, as we drove deeper into the national forest, that the trees have been protected here.
In all my years of attending strict, conservative churches, it was evident that who we are as individuals isn’t welcome or acceptable—that whatever is different between us will be cut out and cleared away. But since I left, I have been able to cultivate who I really am, and the faith I live out now is both vibrant and authentic.
“So, this is all going to be okay,” I say to reassure Rachel (and myself) as we drive closer and closer to the Christian women’s conference. “I’ll attend some sessions with you, and you can come with me back to the hotel I’ve booked anytime you want. You don’t have to stay at the camp the whole time.”
This is all manageable, I tell myself as my mom inches the car down the last steep grade of the mountain, through the open electric gate, and into the beautiful, but enclosed, compound.
When I check in at the registration desk, I ask about attending some sessions while I stay with my mother at a hotel off the grounds. "No," the staff at the women's conference say. "You can't just come and go like that. It’s never been done before. When women come to this conference, they live at the camp the whole time."
We are told they don’t make exceptions. The gates will lock after sunset. So, unfortunately, either my mom will have to leave me here for three days by myself, or I will leave with her. It's all or nothing at this place. Why is it that religious legalism makes us choose all or nothing?
"I want you to be free," my dad had said over the phone when we were talking about attending the conference. "I want you to have fun with other Christian women—to get away from all your stress and all your work and to maybe learn this weekend from these women who are older than you . . .”
These things all sound great in theory. Except now that I am on the grounds of the camp, I see that these women are all in their 40s and 50s. Except that they all brought their friends and their Bibles and are wearing their Kate Spade bags and UGG shoes. Except that I have social anxiety. Why is it so important for me to go to this “all or nothing” conference, anyway?
A few months ago, with the pressures of my performance career looming ahead, and a heap of failed relationships and poor health behind me, I became depressed. I quit school temporarily to begin the recovery process and to freelance as a violinist. But my dad had to start paying for my rent because I was unable to get enough gigs to support myself. My pride was hurt from my helplessness. I wanted to be independent—to be free from this guilt and sense of worthlessness, but I needed to stop lying and continually begging for help.
But now, here I am in Georgia. I’m lying to the world. I’m lying to myself. But mostly, I’m lying to my dad. For the money.
As I sit in the car in the parking lot of the Christian women’s conference compound, my mom says, "Now I understand why I felt I should meet you here in Georgia—so that I could support you as you decide to live who you are and as you make this hard phone call.”
For an hour, I write all that I want to say to my father. My mom leaves for a walk to give me privacy. But no matter how persuasive my words are, I am sure my father is going to disown me. He is going to see the real me for the first time and want to have nothing to do with me.
"Hi." My dad picks up sounding worried. I'm relieved at the worry. At least he is guessing what I'm about to say.
"I'm an honest person,” I tell him. “So whenever I am blatantly dishonest or even say something misleading, I’m torn to pieces on the inside. I’ve been lying to you for years. For money. I am not the good Christian girl you hoped I would be. I swear, I drink, I party. I have a boyfriend, and I'm probably going to move in with him soon. And a weekend conference that is full of unhappily married Christian women gives me the heebie-jeebies. It feels like a cult here. The only reason I agreed to this is because I felt I had to do what you wanted in order to receive financial support.”
But I am not this clear in the phone call. I am crying. I am trying to figure out how to survive on my own. I realize my dad has spoiled me for too long, but that I also need a financial donor so that I have the time to practice and to prepare for auditions, so that I can eventually get a paying job in an orchestra—so that I can someday, soon, live honestly and independently and be proud of my accomplishments. But right now, as I talk with my dad, I see I can't have a donor and a father in the same person—that no matter what happens, from this point on, I'm alone.
“I can't lie for money anymore,” I tell my dad. “I want to love you as my father without strings attached. Are you willing to support me unconditionally? Or do I need to walk away from all your help so we can start building a healthy relationship without all these filthy-feeling monetary restraints?"
My dad answers well. He says we are all broken people, but that God loves me. My dad also says he loves me, and he wants me to be free. But I am only half comforted. The other half is a little angry because although he has listened carefully, he still firmly thinks I am damaged and in need of divine intervention.
I thank Dad for buying me the “Christian Women's Fellowship Retreat Package,” but I tell him that Mom and I will probably just drive out those electric gates and back into Atlanta. This conversation is an attempt to rectify our relationship, but we say goodbye awkwardly and abruptly. I doubt I will be able to call him again for several weeks.
I press my face to the glass as we drive back up Sharp Top Mountain, staring behind us toward the incongruously vibrant sunset above the enclosed compound. I search out the window for wild turkeys and the little hand-painted signs of the white-painted churches. Then I see the balding hills once more. But now I realize that the mountainsides are not ashamed of their bareness. Though they might seem hurt, they are not broken. Seeds have been planted, and the hills are patiently anticipating growth through the sun and rain and wind and snow. I suddenly turn, searching for my violin, forgotten for all these hours. It is in its expected nook in the back seat, the carbon fiber case a cold comfort under my fingers.
And we drive into the growing dark toward the lights of Atlanta.