Justine Johnston Hemmestad
Writing as My Sacred Path
Writing, in the sacred, life-altering form, began for me when I was around 13 years old, during a summer in the mid 1980s when a serial killer called the Night Stalker was terrorizing LA . The police had just released a composite sketch of him and everyone knew generally who they were looking for…and I thought that if someone was running from the police in LA the first, nearest place they would go to disappear would be the desert of inland California (where we lived). I locked our windows every night, triple checking them, and slept with a big kitchen knife under my mattress, scared to death to fall asleep. When he was caught and shown in court spewing devil worshiping ideology, I felt strongly that God wanted to save everyone, even this person who had scared me so badly. The first thing I did was look for my little pocket Bible that I’d had since the 5th grade in Texas. I stuck a poem card inside the inner flap, called “A Letter from Jesus,” about how forgiving and loving He is, and then I wrapped it up to mail to the Night Stalker (Richard Ramirez) at the LA County Jail. My mom wouldn’t mail it and said it was ridiculous, so my best friend’s mom mailed it for me (she was moved by what I was doing). The next time Richard Ramirez (the Night Stalker) was on the news though, he continued to proclaim “Satan rules” to the TV cameras, so I figured he never got the Bible I sent or that it didn’t matter, though I thought it was supposed to have been graced by God.
But I had enacted the concept of ‘paying it forward’ with the written word and a humility to God that was spirit-changing (for me), and I think that even though it did nothing for Richard Ramirez, somehow it’s shaped the rest of my life. I realized that my act wasn’t for the accused killer, but for God Himself. I affirmed God before I needed to be affirmed myself, and I’ve always felt that sending Richard Ramirez the Bible when I was 13 was the reason I recovered from a severe car accident when I was 19, in 1990.
I very nearly died when my vehicle was broadsided by a city bus– the frontal lobe of my brain and my brain stem were severely injured and hemorrhaging, and I was in a coma. I was effectively stripped of my personality when I woke up, but from the moment I could read again, I devoured The Gospel of John, over and over, because it was the nearest I could feel to Jesus whilst I was still bound to physical life. I endeavored to feel Jesus as wind, or see with him as he gazed upon Nicodemus before meeting him. I read the Bible because I missed Jesus so much, and it was familiar. Then I felt guided to embark upon other works, such as Kabbalistic readings. I struggled to see clearly, but I read all I could about the most ancient form of Kabbalah—nothing contemporary—and I infused what I learned into my own writing, releasing myself to the words and meanings completely. I ingested the story of the: “beloved, ravishing maiden, hidden deep within her palace. She has one lover, unknown to anyone, hidden too. Out of love for her, this lover passes her gate constantly. What does she do? She opens a little window in her palace, revealing her face to her lover, and his heart and his soul and everything within him flow out to her. He knows that out of love for him she revealed herself for that one moment to awaken love in him.
“So it is with the Law: she reveals herself to no one but her lover. The Law knows that one who is wise of heart hovers about her gate every day. What does he do? She reveals her face to him from the palace and beckons him with a hint, then swiftly withdraws to her hiding place. No one there knows or reflects – he alone does, and his heart and his soul and everything within him flows out to her. That is why the Law reveals and conceals herself. With love she approaches her lover to arouse love with him.” I always felt patient with the understanding of my readings, and Jesus was not restrictive of His religion, but He was inclusive of all religions and wisdoms for me, and they all brought me recovery.
I could no longer claim who I once was in the process of my recovery, but rather I was pliable, like a sponge. And I journaled my prayers and my dreams—I was learning the language of symbols and mysticism through Kabbalah and Rumi (which felt like a path to Jesus but was essentially my path to recovery), upon the wings of the Bible’s Song of Solomon and Plato’s Synopsium, and of course Kabbalah’s Zohar and Rumi’s Sufism.These were the focal points from which I formed my new self. Nothing was simply reading material or even wisdom or enlightenment, but they each gave me an aspect of the foundation from which I formed my very self.
Where Rumi, Sufism, and Kabbalah, raised me from the ashes and taught me to think and feel profoundly and deeply, other mystical traditions, as well as Plato, smoothed out the rough edges and helped me truly see beyond literal meaning. Plato taught me the highest form of love amidst his drinking party, which is to say that the true beauty of love is not defiled but it waxes poetic. When I was emotionally abused in my recovery, I absorbed a philosophy from Tao Te Ching: “The person of superior integrity takes no action, nor has he a purpose for acting. The person of superior humaneness takes action, but has no purpose for acting. The person of superior righteousness takes action, and has a purpose for acting. The person of superior etiquette takes action, but others do not respond to him; Whereupon he rolls up his sleeves and coerces them.” And: “Great perfection appears defective…great cleverness seems clumsy, great triumph seems awkward.” As well as: “Seeing what is small is called insight, abiding in softness is called strength. Use your light to return to insight…” In my silence, when no one listened to me, I adhered to: “One who knows does not speak; one who speaks does not know…Understanding others is knowledgeable, Understanding oneself is enlightenment.” And I absorbed Rumi’s words: “Many actions which seem cruel are from a deep friendship. Many demolitions are actually renovations.” In this wisdom, I found meaning and purpose.
I found that my one true love, the nearest I could feel to Jesus as I had known him in my coma, was writing, absorbing and expressing the spiritual truths I had learned in a different form, a form unique to myself. As I wrote I learned to discern Truth, as I learned it and as I trusted myself to distinguish it. And my children were gifts of love in physical form.
I wrote a novel in the latter half of my recover, when I could manage it, about Alexander the Great—his severe persecution and defamation of character by his own tutor Aristotle, and by those who wanted him to enact their own will in Macedonia—a plot that hinged upon the persecution and false accusations I was enduring in my own life. I faced severe prejudice of the handicapped, both from the state of California and in my own surroundings, by those who were supposed to have loved me the most. I learned not to be bitter but to use my isolation as John had used his when he wrote Revelation. I truly found myself in writing.
Writing has been the iridescence of heaven, my comfort and my unity, my solace in an improbable recovery. My most intimate friend has been writing, my deepest love and clearest vision of God has been writing. To this day I consider myself adherent to three primary religions: Christianity, Kabbalah, and Sufism, none of which conflict the other in their truest forms, all of which shape and guide my writing, form my thoughts, foster my beliefs, and promote my healing, for Rumi said, “Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion…my place is placeless…I belong to the beloved…breath breathing human being.” Now, I rest in who I am—God’s.