What I Might Otherwise Call Joy

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.


Since Plants Are Asleep

Congratulations to Holly Huff, whose essay “Since Plants Are Asleep” was selected by Christian Wiman for the 2019 Frederick Buechner Prize. Learn more about the Frederick Buechner Prize here.

From a conversation I’ve forgotten with a friend whose face has blurred, I remember a single line. It was a warrant, the handrail from one point to the next. The steps have dissolved, but I have kept hold of that rail:

“Since plants are asleep—”

A bewildering assertion, but illuminating. Since plants are asleep, they must be alive, and in more than the biology class sense. I see the pothos vine on the sill, squared by morning windowlight. Though the eyes of its knowing are closed to me, its marbled green leaves and their waxy finish contain a knower, who sleeps. And dreams?

Since plants are asleep, the world is their dream. Or they live in this world only as they dream in another, like a collie who sleeps sprawled on hardwood with twitching feet, chasing wisps of rabbits.

How awake are the blue jays that root through the fading November grass? Saturday I saw four. Are fish awake? Do ants sleep? If wakefulness is consciousness, but plants are asleep, where do the rest of us fall? Have I ever yet said good morning?

I live and work in a church down the hill from my school, and each night I walk through that complex of buildings: a faded mansion joined by a cinder brick nursery school wing to the 1950s Swedish Lutheran sanctuary, whose bowed wooden ceiling looks like Noah’s ark hung out to dry. It leaks badly in the rain. In the fall, the wind from Whitney Avenue herds each passing leaf through the parking lot up to the entrance of the church. Invisible feet track them into the building and press them crumbling into the carpet. As caretaker I watch over the ‘leaf ministry,’ as Richard, head of facilities, calls it. Each night I rake the door clear again.

On my rounds I check lights and locks, check for trash. On Tuesdays I find plant clippings in the bins. Sue trims the houseplants that populate the Sunday school wing: viper’s bowstring, devil’s ivy, and dracaena crouching in drafty windows, and long ferns trailing from wicker stands. When certain vines spark fancy or pity, I pluck them from the trash and deposit them in glasses of water in my kitchen where they drift and dream and grow roots.

At the end of the night, I pause in the chapel to pray compline on my way out. “Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.”

Simone Weil said, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.” Prayer is a training of perception and so any action can take on prayer. Ultimately prayer is to be not action itself but the quality of all action. “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” This side of Eden, prayerfulness is wakefulness.

Weil made it her practice to pray the Lord’s Prayer once each day with perfect attention. She began the discipline while working in a vineyard. “If during the recitation my attention wanders or goes to sleep in the minutest degree, I begin again until I have once succeeded in going through it with absolutely pure attention.” Gathering her mind tightly to the form of those words, she entered into a silence that was “not an absence of sound” but a positive presence. “Christ himself came down and took possession of me.”

A priest I know told me about his yearly prayer retreat. Ten days of silence. This is how he keeps sane. Ten, because the first three days are spent sleeping. This is necessary, he told me. After this repose, he is ready to make the exercises.

I have been weary lately. During fall break I spent a day at Mercy by the Sea, the former novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy. This small complex of painted brick buildings grounded on Long Island Sound is now open to the public as a retreat center. I came with a spirit flattened under its own weight. My mind was the leaf bin: overflowing, pressed down too many times.

So I walked on sand and renounced all usefulness. I picked up stones that pleased me. I added shells and grasses to the shrines arranged by others who have passed there. The froth came in to salt my boots and I tripped and laughed on the water’s edge.

Back in the main hall, there is a room with rocking chairs and a view of the sea where no one may speak. In that relieving silence I stretched out my shoulder and read the Gospel of John. “I am the true vine. I am the vine, and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

All that day there was no effort but the cessation of effort. Quite apart from my doing, an electric wakefulness started to flow through me. The wash of the waves rooted me back to the ground. This vitality was not dammed against pain but conductive. I closed the circuit with my body—better to keep both hands crackling on the main than let one slip. I laid in the grass by the labyrinth. I ate a fig sandwich and took a nap. And then it was easy to pray.

Paying attention is staying awake, but staying awake is no act of self-will. Attention doesn’t correspond to effort. We cannot keep watch even one hour.

I am grown weary of those who demand more effort for God. Try harder, be better, pray more! A delusional project of self-creation. We can’t save ourselves—we can hardly get up in the morning. “Being useless and silent in the presence of our God belongs to the core of all prayer,” Henri Nouwen said.

Paul says prayer is what the Spirit does in all creation. Not we who pray, but the Spirit of God who prays in us. Every tree and stone groan and sway in the wind of prayer inarticulable. And since plants are asleep, they are always praying.

In Salt Lake, a neighbor I’d never met who was about to move gave me three spider plants. She entreated me to take good care of them: she had nursed them for four years and grown fond. Two lived in bottles of water. I took them and have since moved myself. In the new apartment, a large and happy spider plant, five times its original size, sits perched on a blue bookshelf. I had been there about a month when I looked up from my corner chair to see six tiny white teardrop blossoms extended from a plant I had only ever known to be green.

Nouwen again: “The paradox of prayer is that it asks for a serious effort while it can only be received as a gift.”

For a time I lived under the California sun as a missionary. On the sidewalk, most people determinedly ignored us, but Maria had flagged us down from her motorized chair, brought us in, sat us on her grimy couch to hear about her back pain and asked us to walk her pit bull. One day as we approached her door we heard an awful moaning through the window screen. Maria’s spinal injury sent electric pain snaking through her legs and feet, and this morning she wailed and screamed, really, rocking back and forth in her chair. “Just leave,” she groaned—“It’s bad today.”

Her pain was too searing to abide. We left, our hair standing up. But before we had passed the laundromat, a pain in my side towed me to a halt. In the center of this affordable housing complex, there stood a small gritty cement fountain—a birdbath—brimming over with rare rainwater. The wind had blown dogwood blossoms into the basin, where they floated, bruised.

Hermana Howell and I lingered here a few minutes, and I prodded the petals suspended in the water. The flowers were striped by discolored veins; they wouldn’t last much longer. Behind us, through a chain-link fence, children shouted as they splashed in the pool. “We have to go back.”

Maria was weeping now. We let ourselves in. Obeying an instinctual gravity, I knelt at her feet. She talked a little, and we cried with her. Despite the impulse to be useful—we brought water, cleaned out the vacuum she couldn’t reach—we had no real offering but silence, and our witness to her pain. So passed the morning.

In Catholic devotion, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is revered as Our Lady of Sorrows, the Mater Dolorosa. She is often depicted with seven daggers piercing her heart, one for each of her seven great sorrows. It is said that she still weeps for the sins of the world and for the pain of her son. Though Christ be risen, Mary is in a sense not yet comforted.

Mary is the one whose flesh can bear the voltage of divinity. When the disciples fell asleep in the garden of Gethsemane, when Peter ran—Mary stayed, and kept awake. Rooted at the foot of the cross, she is the faithful witness, the model of Christian prayer. Mary tends pain, attends to pain, pays attention with tenacity and tenderness. Can she hold it? There is too much. With piercing focus Mary keeps vigil over the sufferings of the world, seeing always the suffering of Christ.

“Where is wisdom to be found?” Job cried. Humans have tried to find wisdom on our own, apart from God. There was once a tree whose fruit was desired to make one wise, and when they had eaten, their eyes were opened, they woke up, and they left the garden. The sin is in coming to consciousness outside the awareness of God. We want to will our own being. We know ourselves as separate. We fancy we are awake.

God’s wisdom contains sorrow, and we separated ourselves from that pain. But our separateness brings us pain, too. Severed from the energy that makes us, clipped from the vine, we are fading. Our faces have blurred.

St. Irenaeus wrote about the restoration of the image of God. Incarnation reimpresses the imago Dei into creation, rooting our wakefulness in God. Scott Cairns renders Irenaeus this way:

The tender flesh itself
will be found one day
—quite surprisingly—
to be capable of receiving,
and yes, full
capable of embracing
the searing energies of God.
Go figure. Fear not.

Christ stamps the face of God afresh. And so, wide awake, we can bear the pain we thought we could not bear, letting God lead our vision as though we were dreaming.

And at last I have remembered that I share a name with a plant. This isn’t the first time I’ve forgotten. Several summers ago I walked the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. Under delicious dry heat I slowly stretched out my Spanish, remembering distant flashcards and learning to lisp my ‘z’s. The Camino winds through innumerable small villages whose proper names blended together. I walked through El Acebo and wondered idly what ‘acebo’ meant. I wasn’t paying attention. (Denise Levertov: “Lord, not you, it is I who am absent.”) 50 km and three days later, as I passed through O Acebo, I remembered with a jolt that I knew that word. ‘Acebo’: holly tree.

A holly bush keeps watch just down the front steps from my second-floor apartment. It holds vigil over a large cross made of stones laid into the grass. A small fountain bubbles praises at irregular intervals. This is the “healing waters garden” at a church named for the pool of Bethesda, where angels troubled the water and the wounded lay waiting. The path to the preschool arcs through this small garden swatch. In the morning, children traipse through yawning; in the afternoon, they follow their parents home, ready to nap.

Martin Laird says, “Union with God is not something that needs to be acquired, but realized.” We are already in God. We need only remember.

Though the garden still sleeps in the peace of God, we cannot go back to sleep, nor should we. We must live in sharpest memory, as if we were dreaming. Awake the way plants are asleep, with total attention and no effort. Assenting to witness the shock of all things, we watch with Christ. We mourn, but we don’t fade. We rake away the leaves. We slip clippings back into their jars. And “whether we wake or whether we sleep, we are the Lord’s.” Even as we lie forgetful, absent, asleep on the hardwood, we remain always and already held, rooted in water.


Holly Huff is a writer by night, professional church lady by day. She enjoys hiking, doing puzzles, and improvising in the kitchen. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah with her dog Macrina, who is going through a teenage phase.

Searching for God in the ESC

Congratulations to Heather Burtman, whose essay “Searching for God in the ESC” was selected by Christian Wiman for the 2018 Frederick Buechner Prize. Learn more about the Frederick Buechner Prize here.

It was October and there were stars in the concrete jungle. You could kick a chip bag up with your shoe and scuff through plastic wrappers like fallen leaves, and it was almost like a perfect fall. Though we could not see them, the milkweed pods were spooning each other in the pastures and the seeds of silver dollar plants were sneaking into translucency. My roommates and I were all twenty-something and we believed things stubbornly one moment and doubted them the next. Everything was on the verge of nothingness or love. The apples were apocalyptic or else they were just apples.

The just apples I packed for lunch with a quarter cup of peanut butter in a lunch bag that smelled of leaked tomato soup. It was Thursday maybe, and running late per usual, I half-jogged the twenty minute stretch between the church where I lived and the homeless shelter where I worked. I passed by lemon and violet and gray houses, some peeling, others pristine. My focus blurred in and out: a bright blue slice of sky, a broken TV, a cracked flower pot spilling daisies, a cat with steel-colored eyes. I would sit in on my first depression screening at the shelter that day.

As I jogged, I thought about milk. Our fights back at the house seemed to start and end with milk these days. People drank too much milk – our grocery budget was exhausted. The women wanted to buy Greek yogurt, but that was a luxury item. Feta, on the other hand…

Our other pet argument was theology. Wasn’t open communion an abomination? Did the prayer really count if it didn’t come from the BCP? Or did the BCP actually invalidate prayer, make it rote and insincere? My roommates would discuss these things heatedly at community dinner over cheap cuts of chicken from Stop N Shop. As the night went on, knives would saw harder and voices would rise.

When the conversation promised to drag long into the night, I would clear my dishes and retreat to the attic. A pair of nuns used to live in that attic and there were still little wooden crosses hung on the wall keeping watch over our empty suitcases. One of the nuns’ names had been Ruby. She reportedly had had a drinking habit and definitely had a fierce stare which now looked out from us from a framed snapshot on our living room coffee table. “Welcome to the Episcopal Service Corps,” that scowl said. To Sister Ruby’s perpetual dismay, I was always late for Morning Prayer.

Our goals, as members of the ESC, were innocuous enough; most of us just trying to save the world in one way or another. Or else just trying to figure out what to do with another year of our lives and have a place to eat and sleep and grow up a little more slowly. Yet, the fact was that we often did not get along, and even the attic didn’t provide total escape. You could hear everything in that house, and the words would continue to drift up the stairs: liturgy, sacristy, thurifer, high church. Words that I couldn’t have argued about if I had tried. I had been baptized in a swimming pool at a Day’s Inn, for God’s Sake. I still didn’t know how to take communion properly, mostly because I wasn’t quite sure what the word, “intinct” meant. At the moment the most sacred word I knew was “alone.”


My first depression screening at the shelter felt voyeuristic at best, given that, as an intern, I had little to offer. The woman staying there with her four children wore her hair in a tight bun. She apologized for the mess and offered us glasses of water which we declined. We sat down, carefully arranging ourselves in a half circle around the woman, trying to make it look less like three on one.

The curtains were closed, and the light filtered in warm yellow. There was a jaundiced sadness to the stack of dishes that sat by the sink, especially the overturned sippy cup. Though very possibly I was just superimposing. “Do you have a support system?” The case manager began. “Are there people you can talk to? Do you feel alone?” The woman began to sob. I tried not to stare and also not to look like I was looking away. We should have agreed to the water, I thought. Though I quickly learned that this was a ritual: the client always offers water; the case manager always declines.

Afterwards I went home and a roommate, who was both very into the liturgy and experimental baking, had made a pie whose main ingredient was oranges. He offered me a piece; everything was the color of sunshine that day. I ate it and, though it was terrible, I thought then that I did not care about the milk, that maybe we should, in fact, buy more milk.

“What does a high church liturgy possibly have to say to a woman living in a homeless shelter?” I wanted to ask him.

“What does a low church liturgy possibly have to say to a woman living in a homeless shelter?” He might have asked me. But I didn’t start the conversation in the first place.

I choked down my pie and looked out the window. The leaves were falling, tarnished gold. Next month our church would spend a small fortune on wreaths and candles. Like the oil poured out on Jesus feet, they would say, there’s beauty in lavish waste. Maybe.

I had to laugh at myself a little. Just another day in the life of an ESC member; even the leaves prompted theological reflection.


Growing up my family attended a non-denominational church in Ontario called Shallow Lake. My memories of it are disjointed and fleeting: losing my Sunday school dues – a single quarter – down the sides of church pews; spitting watermelon seeds in the grass outside; the red glow of an oil lamp at a Christmas party. The day I picked a scab and showed up to Sunday School with dried blood on my shirt. My Sunday school teacher asked me if I had been eating chocolate ice cream, and I swallowed hard and said yes. That is, I agreed to the most comfortable deception. Is that all religion is? But even then I didn’t really think so. I remember also a woman at church who wore flowy pants and danced with a tambourine like she really meant it. And yet I might have been a happier child if I thought God hadn’t existed.

They say that our image of our father affects our image of God, but the fact is that my father left when I was two, and I never really knew him. I saw God as an opposite; as a hyper-presence, aware of my every action and thought, who knew, for example, that I loved my mother more than God. God, I also knew, was disappointed in my mother because she was getting divorced. God did not sanction divorces, even when they weren’t your fault.

But always remember, even when God is disappointed, God still loves you. I was often reminded of this. But I had nightmares that said otherwise: sharks grabbing at the edge of my red dress, wolves lurking along forest paths, the Jungle Book gone gray scale and filled with snakes and sharp-toothed monkeys. The worst one was my mother being crucified. I had that dream once. I would wake her in the middle of the night and she would draw me a bath and try to coax my nightmares out of me, but I never would tell her that one because it involved religion and God, and I thought it might scare her.

We lived near Georgian Bay and I can remember looking out at night over the bay as the lights of distant cottages winked out one by one. In the dregs of the last light, I felt terror for what became of people when they died. Lord Jesus, come into my heart. Those were the words of salvation I was taught and I whispered them to myself each night before I went to bed in hopes that one of the times it would take.

Even now I can’t fully explain why I was such an anxious child. Perhaps the simple fact of it is that when there is one parent and not two, life becomes harder to hide from your children. You see your mother having a panic attack on the stairs. You see her crying over receipts, kneeling to put frozen pot pies in the oven after a sledding accident and a busted ankle that will not heal. She has been crawling around on the floor for awhile now, but it doesn’t seem like a game anymore. You are small and you do not really understand, and there is nothing you can do to make her feel better.

More than that, there is no promise that life will ever be good really. God, the God your mother prays to, did not make it good for her. Why will God, the God you pray to, make it good for you? Your worship doesn’t change anything; you owe it to God, that’s all.

Like many, I became suspicious of the God of my childhood in college. I thought I had left the faith of my childhood completely behind by the end of my junior year. But still there was something I missed about looking at a cherry blossom tree and thinking it might have something to do with the way the world was brought forth in love.

Towards the end of college I became increasingly conscious of my continued search for God. I didn’t know what I believed. I didn’t even know if I really wanted to believe. I just wanted something. I might have gone on a cross-country road trip or a really long hike or a retreat at a monastery, but I didn’t. Instead, I started attending a Lutheran church, I worked at a Lutheran summer camp, and then joined the Episcopal Service Corps.


As the weather got warmer, my roommates and I started laying out on the section of tar paper roof outside my bedroom window. The roof was clearly visible from the rectory where the priest lived, but the lights were off which meant we were alright. It was just spring and the air wasn’t too sticky. We were looking up at the pine tree and above that the church steeple. Even above the church steeple was a sky, a hierarchy which I found increasingly important. A pollution of light streamed out of J.Crew and the Apple Store, and the stars wrinkled in the sky.

The church steeple was beautiful really, burnt, red brick. I didn’t care so much what happened inside it, but here from the outside it was beautiful. The pine tree was beautiful too and the smoky, polluted sky and the moonglow eyes of a cat slipping in and out of the courtyard gates. That night my mom called to tell me that our neighbor in Ontario had been diagnosed with cancer. His wife had passed away from cancer years before.

During dinner my roommates discussed the merits of Rite I versus Rite II Eucharist. I ate quickly, rinsed off my dish and retreated to the attic. I forced myself into conversation with God. “This is bullshit,” I began. That’s all I really had to say, but God didn’t respond and that made me angry.

“If You can’t provide answers, You should really just leave me alone,” I called after God, “You should have let me stay an atheist that one year in college. Your leading me on, it’s irresponsible. I’m tired of moral objectivity and holding onto hope for the redemption of humanity.” I began to cry.

In college, when I first stopped believing in God, I found the news increasingly oppressive, not because it had grown any worse but because there would be no one there to fix it all in the end. Because it would not have mattered that anyone had suffered. All suffering was in vain, and birth, life, and death cycled on endlessly, meaninglessly. Believing in God, however, does not necessarily produce more comforting answers. If human suffering exists, then God must allow it to. That fact is inescapable and troubling.

Trying to believe in God, it turns out, means a lot of time spent raging against God in attics. “Explain Yourself,” I said finally through my tears, but God never did. I began to sob, and when I finally stopped I found myself once again alone with my silence. That night in the shower I tried my best to wipe away the tar paper smudges on my thighs. The roof and the beautiful sky overhead from earlier that night felt like some sort of betrayal.


That year in the ESC, I found that there were certain parts of the liturgy that touched me deeply, and I thought they might have something to do with the somethingI was looking for. “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep, this night…” the choir sang during Compline. The single red candle we had placed on the pulpit flickered red. Smoke eddied along the dark ribs of the church ceiling. The smell of incense would cling to the clothes of the congregants long afterwards. It was a smell that was neither sour nor sweet, equal parts must and mystery. Vetiver, I thought. I had never smelled vetiver before, but the word seemed right. I would sit in a comforting haze of smoke and darkness and cry for the single mothers at the shelter.  Not just for them, but for my own mother too, and ultimately myself.

Compline I found beautiful at least, the way in which it created space for reflection, for grief or rejoicing or awe. But at morning mass a priest would be standing wearing green and gold-stitched vestments. “Pity the afflicted,” he would say as the stain-glass filtered the light through lemon and orange and rose-colored, and I wondered at what happened out in the real world, who sat weeping in their stairwell while we sat unblinking in church.

There was a special liturgy for the last Compline service of the year. A roommate and I were asked to be torches. I had no idea what that meant, but I agreed. What it meant was that we would be part of the procession, carrying torches at the sides of the bearer of the heavy, metal cross. There was a certain amount of sweating and nervous laughter whenever I was asked to take part in the actual liturgy; I didn’t know where to turn, when to bow. This time the church, except the candles and torches, was completely dark, and I imagined the congregation might have missed the slight delay in our bowing, the extra shuffle of our feet to compensate for a missed turn. But as it so happened, after we had finished processing, we couldn’t get the torches back in their stands properly. Whoever was holding the cross dropped it on the stone floor. The clang reverberated throughout the church.

I looked out at the dark church; how did they remain so silent? I looked up at the choir on the balcony, their faces illuminated by clip lights on their music stands. They were paid musicians I knew, many of them not religious. They were laughing, I could tell. I began to think about the fact that I was wearing a cassock. I had the sudden urge to stand up and proclaim to everyone in the church that I had been baptized in a hotel swimming pool on a college ministry retreat. “This is absurd!” I wanted to yell. “Don’t you see how absurd this all is?”


I want to be able to say that all of the years’ questionings finally folded themselves into something as graceful as a stiff lemon meringue. That after everything, I met God again in the ESC.

I think, quite possibly, that I did meet God once after a party. Maybe that seems strange, but my roommates and I did, in fact, go to parties. We would walk home from these parties in the middle of the night and someone would still be smoking hookah outside of Mamoun’s. It didn’t matter what sort of thing we had fought about that day; we would link arms. The sky would shimmer with cold and someone would murmur something about the stars.

I remember that on one of these long, cold walks home, a roommate who had perhaps earlier been expounding on the virtues of Lenten disciplines, turned to me very wistfully and said, “Some days, I’m not sure I believe in God at all.”

I am not sure what I replied then, but I can hear the whispered response I would give now in my head, “Me neither, but I want to.” I wonder sometimes if it’s like Harry Potter and the sorting hat, if it’s what we want that really matters the most in the end, if God factors that in. If hope might in the end stand in very neatly for faith. That night I truly think I met God in my roommate’s disbelief. Maybe disbelief is exactly where God meets us.

I think now about haggling theology over dinner, about a woman at the homeless shelter who applied for jobs over and over only to be rejected, about my mother crying in our stairwell, about myself crying in our attic. The way in which even baking a pie or taking a snapshot of the stars requires a level of belief, and therefore questioning of belief, that is ultimately exhausting. In the end we fall to our knees; we have tried so bitterly for so long. The only comfort I can think of lies in the slightest possibility that in the end nothing else is asked of us.


When we lived in Ontario by Georgian Bay, we also lived by a dam. The trout would come to jump it and swim back to their birthplace to spawn. They would grate themselves to pieces on the rocks, and we would find them dead and eyeless among the lower rocks. I remember the one time, just another bright, unplaceable summer day, that we found one alive. It was floundering in the small pools at the bottom of the falls, fins torn, chunks of flesh missing, gills shivering in the sunlight.

I watched, not old enough yet to be surprised by such an action, as my mother picked the fish up. It regarded her with eyes bulging and glittery with panic, and its fins flicked water across her chest. She carried that trout up and over the rocks and set it down in the calm, golden afternoon water at the top of the damn. The water stirred for a brief moment and the trout swam away home.