Congratulations to Christian Detisch, whose essay “What I Might Otherwise Call Joy” was selected by Christian Wiman for the 2020 Frederick Buechner Prize. Learn more about the Frederick Buechner Prize here.
Being born, in the sense of constantly experiencing change, does not come about as the result of external initiative, as is the case with the birth of the body, which takes place by chance. Such a birth occurs by choice. We are in some manner our own parents, giving birth to ourselves by our own free choice in accordance with whatever we wish to be, whether male or female, moulding ourselves to the teaching of virtue or vice.
—Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses
I was adopted from South Korea when I was three months old.
Notice, as I am, the passive voice of the sentence. In any creative writing workshop, like the ones in which three years of my Monday evenings from 7 to 9:40 pm were spent, the instructor and other interlocutors will offer commonplaces like, “Watch your ‘to be’ verbs,” and, “Be wary of the passive voice.” We are captivated by action, the thinking goes, in both our verbs and our characters. We don’t want to read about characters without agency, who are merely acted upon. Write in the active voice, you are taught, and you’ll have a story/poem/essay that moves, that makes things happen, that sells.
Revision. Active voice, snappier verbs: “My parents adopted me from South Korea after I had aged three months, like a mild cheddar cheese.”
Notice now, as I am, how my parents have been inserted as the agents of the sentence in my life’s first paragraph. My position in the grammar has shifted from subject to object, which is in a disturbingly true sense the exact dynamic of adoption reified in writing. No matter how the scene is rendered, active or passive, I’ve not yet learned to take ownership of it.
In the enormous three-ringed white binder my mother has kept and compiled for thirty years—named simply The Book of My Life—the second page contains the tourist brochures my parents received at the Long Beach Naval Station. It maps the tour route of the ship, the sixteen inch guns, the close-in weapons system, the vessel’s famed “Surrender Deck,” and also provides a timeline of the ship’s life. On the next page is taped a photograph, my father in his Navy dress whites grinning with a thin, unflattering mustache he no longer carries above his lip, standing next to my mother in a white blouse, her eyes obscured by her turtle frame sunglasses. She holds me in my lacy baptismal gown, handsewn, she told me later, by her grandmother. Her mother behind her darkly clad in a green velvety dress provides the only note of color, aside from the gray deck of the ship, the cerulean California sky in the background. This is the scene at my baptism: everyone smiling as I am initiated into the Roman Catholic Church on the forecastle of BB-63, the USS Missouri.
That I was baptized on a battleship did not appear to me strange until I was twenty-four, when I tried to write about it. I had determined at nineteen without any understanding of what it might require to become a poet, and for five years wrote increasingly abstract poems in a high Latinate register intended, I realize now, to affect the auspices of Catholicism’s formal clarities, the shape of its liturgical sentences, the strictness of its theological systems.
The problem was the life, my life, that remained unfelt behind the language, no warmth and little light emanating from the kindling. In short, I was making bad poems. In the final year of my MFA my teacher David reminded me that even Thomas Merton on occasion snuck out of his monastery, put on a beret to hide his tonsure, and drank in the local Kentucky bars. “Perhaps what would be helpful,” he drawled, leaning back in his office chair as his interlocked fingers rested on his belly, “is a sense of how personal and world history are not so different.”
I could never finish the poem.
I’ve felt for much of my life a connection with Moses as both adoptee and writer. And yet the relatively recent understanding that Moses himself did not write all of the Pentateuch— his biography—seems to me a basic if not intuitive fact. Adoption elides language. Perhaps for Moses too this was the case.
A brief timeline of the Missouri’s life:
6 Jan 1941, USS Missouri’s keel is laid at the New York Naval Shipyard in Brooklyn
11 Jun 1944, commissioned at the New York Naval Shipyard
14 Dec 1944, departs San Francisco for the Pacific theater
2 Sep 1945, Supreme Allied Commander General Douglas MacArthur receives the formal instrument of Surrender signed by the Japanese aboard Missouri, effectively ending hostilities in the war
15 Sep 1950, bombards Samchok in present-day South Korea, the first time Missouri fired her guns in anger since World War II
19 Jan 1988, Mighty Mo’s first western Pacific/Indian Ocean deployment where she operated 102 days continuously at sea
30 Jun 1989, Cher films the music video for “If I Could Turn Back Time” on the forecastle, featuring two hundred of the ship’s crew, scandalizing the Navy with the appearance of too much (or too little) black leather, a butterfly tattoo apparent on her posterior
13 Nov 1990, the Missouri sets out to fight in the Gulf War
Sometime between those two latter moments in her history, my family poses for a photo
“Think not of the machinery,” writes my friend Florian. “Allow yourself this liberty.” He’s speaking of and to the incorrigible knot I cannot unravel each time I try to work out a sentence or thought about adoption. My adoption. I’m surprised by how deeply and accurately he’s diagnosed the problem: always how my mind turns to the machinery, a machinery so immense in scale and significance—World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, capitalism, communism, imperialism, and the well-intentioned but perhaps naive aim of an entire infrastructure of social workers and lawmakers and the other mechanisms that made international adoption not just a possibility but a global phenomenon in the second half of the twentieth century—that my imagination out of necessity abstracts it all, far enough that I can dimly see; too far to touch.
But vision is not freedom. Moses understood. As he ascended Mount Nebo for his first and final look into Canaan, the meaning of all those forty years in the desert like glass from sand sharpened into clarity. The loneliness of the climb, the distance that grew between himself and his people, the unspoken, unsolvable, but undeniable awareness that he was destined never to enter, not fully, into the promised home of his family—none of this was new. Moses, in those last moments when God graced the man an instant to see into the life he could never feel was his own, died as he lived.
Before us, God has set both life and death.
The wilderness he wandered in, the knife
that slit the lamb’s pink throat—he assented life’s
demands, a slave to it, who he loved less
as he grew old. His one-time mother drew him, bare,
from the river’s arm. Egyptian, Hebrew:
who could he claim as his own? Red and blue,
the blood’s allegiance changes with the air.
An alien, he once took refuge in
the desert’s austere, miraged horizons
where shrouded in the sun’s exposure he could hide.
Mt. Nebo’s heights afford him no asylum.
His life: this gap between his and God’s own vision,
his promised home a specter in his eye.
Always the story begins, “Putting you up for adoption was an act of love,” as my parents tell it. In this way they testify more to their experience, or perhaps to their faith, than what I think of as the truth.
Revision: the story begins with an anonymous thirty-eight-year-old woman who works in a cafeteria in a seaport city in South Korea. She is divorced. She meets a man with whom she has a short relationship, more physical in character than anything, and not long after parting the first and perhaps last time from him discovers she is pregnant. The social and legal pressures of the country at the time make it difficult, perhaps impossible, for a single mother to raise a child, and so she explores, not without growing anxiety, her options until she finds an adoption agency created to place Korean children with families in the United States. The people are kind. They promise the child will be taken care of. They will protect the rights and the privacy of the woman. They are doing this, they say, because they believe as their motto states that every child deserves his own home. And so the woman is assured enough that she agrees to surrender the child immediately after birth at the hospital, where a social worker assigns him a first name that translates in English to “success.” The name given as his family name, the only shred of language he has to tie him to the woman, translates to “chapter,” as in a book. He often wonders (as he does now, writing these words) if the synchronicity of his name and his vocation as a writer was meant as a joke, a smirk, or a gift from God. Other times he wonders if the name he believes is his Korean family name is just a fabrication, a placeholder to get the paperwork done. Perhaps, like so much else, he never had a choice other than to be a writer. Or perhaps, like so much else, it’s something he stumbled on. The paperwork provides few answers, except for the woman’s recorded reason she gave the child up: “So that he might have a better life.”
As I looked at the well-dressed people nodding here and there and chatting with one another, I could not help but thank God for His mercy in having spared our land the horrors of war. Korea is another world from the one in which we live. Ours consisted of plush surroundings. Korea was a world of gutted buildings, shabby dwellings, starving children, lepers and amputees.
So writes Bertha Holt who with her husband Harry established Holt International Services, credited with starting international adoptions in South Korea. The two of them have just watched a documentary on the Korean War and its ensuing humanitarian crisis. “I feel ashamed,” says Harry, leaving the auditorium, whose feelings mirror Bertha’s own.
What’s not clear is the source of their shame.
Harry soon flies abroad to adopt eight Korean orphans. Meanwhile Bertha lobbies Congress to pass a law allowing Harry to return to the United States with the children. The bill and agency that bear their name created the structures necessary for the placement of thousands of children in new countries, in new homes, in new families who chose them.
Not shown in the documentary, twenty miles off the coast of Korea, out of the frame of the cameras focused on the starving children, the Missouri conjuring a man-made storm fires her cannons, obscured behind the white flash of gunpowder, shrouded in black smoke. Explosions from an unseen source gut the buildings.
I once thought providence for my parents was wholly uncomplicated. Should you ask my mother what my adoption meant to her she would say, “It was a gift from God.” Should you ask my father why he arranged to celebrate my baptism—my adoption into his faith—in the shadow of a famous battleship’s silent three-pronged cannons that enraged could shake the water with a wrath Poseidon’s trident itself could never summon, he would say, “I thought you’d appreciate the history.”
Perhaps closer to the truth is that like true spiritual descendants of the Holts, my parents—despite the first years of their marriage spent in India, my father’s twenty years in the Navy deployed variously to Japan, Guam, Korea, Singapore, etc.—are at ease in their lives and their imaginations as a result are trained on the world directly in front of them. Korea, they might say, is another world from the one in which we live.
Some time not long after I entered the United States via the San Francisco Airport, my grandmother mailed my mother a book, The Primal Wound, as both context and guide for my parents as much as for me. Feelings have memories, it read, even if a child can’t recall the events evoking them. And separation from the birth mother is a fundamental loss despite the child’s inability to access or express it. I once asked my mother if she had read the book when I found it some otherwise forgettable afternoon on one of the bookshelves at home. “No,” she said. “I was too busy living it,” in her own way endorsing exactly what the book proposed, even as she dismissed it.
This is perhaps the starkest difference between my mother and I. Despite the bags and bags and shelves and shelves of books, her books, puzzled and crannied into all the spare spots of the house—Dean Koontz, Stephen King, David Baldacci—what they signify remain somehow outside of life. Though there were few limits on what I could read, and fewer still on how much my mother volunteered to read aloud to me, and no matter how much I was encouraged to oblige myself in the habit, reading as the moral act it became for me remained for my mother inert, an escape. “Life is hard enough,” she once said. “Why make it worse by reading something sad?”
Nearly everything I’ve discerned about my adoption has come second- or third-hand: via facsimiles of social work reports, via birth certificates and naturalization forms, via history books, photographs and brochures, the memory of my parents. As with most other forms of knowing, adoption is mediated. Literature as a result is life, or so it often feels; a feeling inaccessible to my mother. A blessing, perhaps: should she feel resistance to the narrative, she shuts the book. I translate my resistance as sadness disguised as gall.
I admit: I too am tired of thinking of and representing the content of my life through analogy, allegory, metaphor, anecdote. But how else to address any of this but obliquely?
Love is not always enough. Though I was deeply loved my whole life, it is not sufficient, for instance, to explain the vagaries of Fate or Grace, the machinery or hand who brought us—me—to where I am. And as a child, in my stormy, inarticulate rages inaugurated by God-knows-what, that’s what I believed I always wanted: understanding. What better tonic to a boy who felt at once unknowable and unknown, to his classmates let alone his family? Let alone himself?
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; and yet, when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. Rather, I began to see as the adults I had aimed my anger at—which is to say, I learned the motivations for their actions and decisions were as inscrutable to them as to me. We see each other as we see ourselves, through a glass darkly. I imagine the impulse to start a family and raise a child is as powerful and incomprehensible as the desire to feel you’ve touched the scales toward justice even if it’s just one six pound, seven ounce baby at a time against the forty-thousand ton berth of guilt and shame displacing all the body-warm comfort from your soul, confronted for the first time with the suffering of an entire nation. And the wordless, inchoate recognition that somehow you played a part in this too.
If such insight does not induce in me the understanding I hoped for, it at least warrants compassion. For my parents, the pharaoh’s daughter, my birth mother, the Holts. And too for myself, who similarly knows not his own mind.
The first page in The Book of My Life holds a large photo of an elderly white-haired, gently smiling Bertha Holt accompanied by a letter she wrote, meant for me. Dear child, she says,
Welcome to your new family. I invite you to think of me as a member of your family too. I’m known as “Grandma Holt,” and I hope more than anything that one day you’ll come to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior.
Encountering the letter as I did years ago engendered in me all the old resentments: at the paternalism masquerading as kindly grandma talk, the imperialism masquerading as evangelism. But who would have believed? The name my parents gave me—my name—is Christian. Here I am, I thought, exactly who and what Bertha had hoped I would be, awake to and agitated by the strangeness of my own life’s narration. In response I adopted something of the USS Missouri’s own dormant anger, perhaps as soon as the aspersions of holy water dribbled onto my forehead.
Now berthed as a museum ship at Pearl Harbor while history as I imagine it sneers on, perhaps it’s too much to assume Missouri’s anger has diffused entirely into equanimity. Feelings have memories after all. But having sat for a long time unburdened from all the ammunition of her guns in the warm topaz waters of the Pacific, removed in both time and space from her bellicose youth with scores and scores of visitors each day reciting the facts and events of her life, in essence asserting on her behalf, this is what she did, this is who she is, this is what she meant to the world—one hopes that such distance provided her the perspective to make meaning, her meaning, on her own.
Vision is not freedom. And yet. I wonder if during that one miraculous pulse when he viewed the world through the totality of God’s perspective from the top of Mt. Nebo, Moses saw history finally as a blessing rather than a curse. Finally, if not a joke at his expense, then one God let him in on. I once thought my father’s decision to arrange my baptism on the USS Missouri was some dark uncanny joke worthy of Kafka or Camus, his simple justification for it some depthless, flip dismissal of history. But as I draw nearer the age my parents were when they first became parents, I wonder if time has deepened the remark, or me.
I decided to become a writer, insofar as I chose, because it demanded and made present a certain attention to experience that seems uninhabitable to me elsewhere. So much of my life has felt veiled by a whole mess of feelings and presentiments, anger, sadness, loss, confusion, frustrations I thought I could never unstitch; writing hasn’t taught me how. “I thought you’d appreciate the history,” said my father, meaning, yes, the ship’s more fraught resonances with the past, my past; but also, perhaps, whatever it will come to mean, whatever it has come to mean in this wrestling with syntax and suggestion, word choice and thought as I’ve attempted to emend everything unreal in me into closer contact with honesty.
“Here I am,” says Moses at the beginning of his second life seeing for the first time the God he never recognized till then. I once thought everything Moses must have felt in that moment amounted to fear, freed for the first time from all defenses and illusions, left alone with himself, the memory of the past. But perhaps as the man encountered a reality so unbelievable that neither he nor any of his parents could have imagined it and he chose to speak at last exactly as he was, his “Here I am” out of trepidation bloomed into a feeling he carried and appealed to for the rest of his life: the abiding, surprising sense that what had been inflicted had now at last been chosen. A feeling that I might otherwise call joy.