I would havemade
a good 17th-century melancholic. Even as a child I was dreary. I remember my
mother yelling at me to smile more, like the other kids. I tried, but secretly
I didn’t see the point; grinners just didn’t understand the world. Even waking
up to a sunny summer day could fill me with dread. A beautiful day only underscored
the impermanence of happiness. Beauty today meant rain and wind would get me
later for sure.
Becoming a writer was a good-enough cover for bouts of nihilism,
depression, and black apparel. But when I had a child, J, who turned out to
have serious health problems and autism, I had to look straight into the
darkness, with no place to hide, no pose to hold, and really figure out how I
believed the universe worked and how I was going to continue to live in it.
When you are told your child has a serious disability, while
you’re still in shock, it is common for you, the mother, to be handed an essay,
“Welcome to Holland,” by Emily Perl Kingsly. It’s a piece that would not be out
of place on a Hallmark card. It compares finding out that you are living every
expectant parent’s worst nightmare to being on a plane to Italy but finding
yourself landing in Holland instead. So once you get over yourself — I want
the Trevi Fountain! Pasta Puttanesca! — and learn to appreciate the tulips
and wooden shoes, you’ll be able to see that what happened to you is not what
you planned but wonderful it its own way.
No disrespect to Ms. Kingsley (who has a child with Down
syndrome), but the women in the excellent parenting group I had the luck to
find had only two words for this poem: fuck that. Sometimes a new member
came in complaining about “Welcome to Holland,” and we could only cackle.
Raising a disabled child can sound noble, but we knew what it meant: screaming
fits that lasted for hours, painful bowel problems, seizures, self-injurious
behavior, extra large diapers, days and weeks swallowed by doctors’ visits,
never hearing the word Mommy.
In our group, we talked about how we all have points when we
hate our lives, not because our children are burdens but because we can’t make
them happy, or sometimes even comfortable. What bigger failing is there for a
parent than not being able to comfort her own child? One parent of a teen spoke
of how she had to lock her in the garage and stick her own head in the shower
when the second hour of high-pitched screaming pushed her near the edge.
(Autism carries with it a 90 percent divorce rate, and the latest awful trend
is parents — including a former Bush administration official — killing their
children, sometimes in murder-suicides).
It’s not easy being the embodiment of your friends’
nightmares: “I couldn’t do what you do.” “You’re a saint.” “Oh my God, I’m so
glad this didn’t happen to us!” What I understood less was the Christian
universe. On the one hand, we were told to pray that poor J would get better.
On the other hand, we were instructed to accept God’s divine plan, that it was
a test of our faith to not be angry at God. But I wasn’t angry at God; I just
didn’t even know anymore who God was.
With our son’s disability and medical issues (that he cannot
sit quietly is the least of it), attending church became, like air travel,
summer vacations, and eating at restaurants, just another activity Karl, my
husband, and I couldn’t do anymore. With Sundays suddenly free, there was the
strange silence that follows a broken habit: I had time to contemplate: Why
did I attend church? Because I am a Christian. Why am I a Christian?
Because my parents are. Is that it?
I had always enjoyed
church, knowing there was something bigger than myself out there. But mostly I
enjoyed the people. For someone growing up in rural Minnesota, the church
(ours, Presbyterian) was a major social organizing principle. In college, my
roommate’s grandfather was an Episcopal bishop, and part of our close
relationship involved attending chapel together. As a twentysomething alone in
New York, I found solace in the tiny Christ and Saint Stephen’s Church near my
apartment. Karl and I volunteered at the soup kitchen at the Cathedral of Saint
John the Divine. Later I attended a Korean church. Then, as a struggling
Fulbright Scholar in Korea, I was overjoyed to find an English-language
When I was growing up, I was under the impression that
Koreans were a Christian people. Everyone we knew were Christian, and there
were so many Korean-American churches. But in Korea, I came to view
Christianity as a minority religion. Depending on whom you ask, 10 to 30
percent of the population of South Korea is Christian, while the rest practice
variations of a complex mix, often a blend, of Buddhism, shamanism, Daoism, Confucianism,
indigenous folk beliefs and practices, and other teachings, including a
humanist theology called Chondogyo, which is also gaining popularity in North
For people like my parents, adopting Christianity and, by
extension, Western ways, was practical. The missionaries who came knocking on
their doors offered boarding school, which meant free food and English lessons,
and those English lessons were a link in the chain of events that eventually
permitted them to immigrate to the United States.
In Korea, the Christians I attended church with — an
English-language congregation and my aunt’s Presbyterian one — were constantly
pounding into our heads that our Christian duty was to save our Korean
relatives from their own heathenism, stopping them, physically if necessary,
from going to the shaman or the fortune-teller or the Buddhist temple and
dragging them to church. In contrast, the non-Christians of varied spiritual
persuasions seemed to welcome all and did not impose their views on those who
While doing research for my Fulbright project, a novel, I
worked at an unwed mothers’ home, a place that provided a haven for young women
with unintended pregnancies. But that haven came with a catch: the home was a
church-sponsored program and required the women to attend religious services in
return for housing, food, and prenatal care. And, of course, placing the baby
for adoption by Americans was highly encouraged.
Many women, rewarded by huge baptismal parties, did convert,
though these conversions often didn’t seem truly meaningful. The women studied
their Bibles zealously (if there’s anything the Korean people have a talent
for, it’s studying), memorizing passages and rituals and saying their ahhhhh-mehns.
But they seemed to regard the conversion as less about being “born again” than
signing up for, say, a different political party. Some of them, much to the
frustration of the ministers, seemed to regard Yesu Christo as just
another in the pantheon of numerous Korean gods. I understood this completely,
though, as much of Korean spirituality is less what you are (as in “Are
you Jewish? Catholic? Protestant?”) than it is a pastiche of folk rituals and
spirituality interwoven into the fabric of daily life. At the Buddhist temple,
no one minds if you throw in a little Daoism or ancestor worship or if you call
the shaman for an exorcism when you have a headache or if you trot off to
church on Sundays. Lowering the fixed orthodoxy and exclusivity of the
Christian religions onto the more nuanced and intermixed and changing character
of Korean spirituality was like trying to lasso water.
When I was
growing up, our family took occasional trips to Korea, during which my father
performed ancestor worship — a sight that so freaked out my very Americanized
brother that he started weeping. But my father considered himself very Christian and very
up on his Bible and a good Korean son. When, as an adult, I visited a
Buddhist temple with my family, I wanted to submit a prayer, half jokingly, for
a little extra help for my husband’s dissertation. My father took up the
calligraphy brush and–zip-zip-zip!–inked the prayer and added a few
requests of his own. It was clear he had done this before. When I asked, “So
what were you, before — you know, before the missionaries got you?” he shrugged,
“Nothing.” There is so much more behind this terse statement; it is a double,
triple sadness to me that my father has passed on and can’t tell me. It was
exactly the type of answer he would give me when I asked him about emigrating
straight from Korea to Jim Crow Alabama: What kind of experiences with racism
did he have? Did he sit in the front or back of the bus? He’d only reply, “I
didn’t ride the bus.”
My first jerky steps away from my lifelong religious beliefs
occurred thanks to Herman Melville.
After we’d been churchless for a few years, we were sort of
forced to take a vacation. It was a vacation in name only. With our son,
unhappy at home but unhappier still in unfamiliar surroundings, our rare trips
were a torture we undertook for the sake of family. My husband’s brother was
about to move across the country, and we were renting a beach house together
for a week.
One day we all went to the Whaling Museum in New Bedford,
Massachusetts. One of my favorite books was Moby-Dick, so I was
particularly excited to visit the nearby Seamen’s Bethel, a chapel Melville
himself had attended. While my husband wrangled our son, I slipped away for a
little author worship.
“That’s exactly the seat Melville sat in when he came
here,” said the docent. I was the only person in the place. “He’d take notes,
just like you.” I didn’t know whether to be charmed or cynical — I’m sure that
was the standard docent’s line he used with every Melville fan. He tottered
back downstairs, leaving me alone. The stillness settled like dust.
What does one do in a chapel like this? Had it been
decommissioned, desanctified, kept up for looks only? Or was it still a holy
place? Sitting in the pew reminded me I hadn’t been in a church in ages.
I was in my early 40s then, kind of late in the game, but I
had to acknowledge that the Christian faith in which I had been raised was
drifting out of my sight. But this didn’t leave me bereft. Without it, I still
had moments of peace and grace and, well, divinity, which I happened to be
feeling right then in that chapel with the ghost of Melville as my witness. But
it wasn’t a churchy-God-Jesus feeling; it was a simpler sensation of oneness,
one that I felt when I was meditating. Ever since I was nine, I’d felt a strong
pull toward something I’d later recognize as Buddhism. Even as a kid I did my
own version of meditation, sitting very still, closing my eyes, and trying to
empty my mind of thoughts (and causing my mother to shout at me when she caught
me doing it, hidden, I thought, in the backyard).
Images of the Buddha were and continue to be familiar and
comforting to me. Since I’d stopped going to church, I’d given myself
permission to end my nightly prayers, but I still meditated. I also identified
the special feeling of oneness as something that occurred when out in nature,
especially around trees and inanimate objects not thought to be biologically
alive: stones, rivers, dirt. I’d also been fascinated with crystals ever since
I was young, not even knowing that my Korean name meant “brilliant crystal.” My
office was festooned with quartz crystals, sea-shells, twigs, which I swore
helped me write. This element of “oneness” was veering dangerously toward New
Age-ness, and my sister, a born-again Christian, warned me that I was taking
the down escalator to hell. But I couldn’t help what I was starting to believe.
When my father passed away, it was a natural thing to create
a shrine in our house, something that provoked discomfort during family visits
but was rarely mentioned. On his birthday and holidays, I lit his candle and
bowed three times, the way he had done for his ancestors.
My father had willed me his diaries, which he’d kept since
the 1940s. Reading them, I realized that the New Age religion I was assembling
for myself actually hewed closely to the traditional Korean animism that
believes in the oneness of all things. Was I then just reclaiming my family’s
original state before the missionaries “got” them? Maybe. I did know I was
letting go of my fear of eternal damnation while I tentatively embraced an
uncertain world without a dogma I had to follow.
Like recognizing the blind but glorious gropings that go
into the first pass at a novel, I knew that my new spirituality was leading me
somewhere. This was not a Pollyanna-ish “Holland” acceptance without insight
but a way to engage by observing and experiencing deeply, without judgment and
with compassion. It is exactly the state I can achieve when my writing is going
I am finally comfortable with my mixed-breed spirituality.
Pantheist. Buddhist. Korean animist. Nature worshiper. And Christian — as Thomas
Merton suggested, Jesus and Buddha have a lot in common. Once, not being able
to pin down my beliefs would have made me anxious; I’d have accused myself of
being a dabbler with commitment issues. But now I see that being open to all
things adds to the richness of one’s spiritual life. I am confident I can know
my own truth without someone else approving it. Because of my son, my writing,
and the divine spirit of the universe, I am no longer sitting at a distance
from my own life –scared, angry, wondering why I am being punished. I can live
into life. That is grace and that is God, once lost and now found.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee is an author and essayist. Her work has
been published in The Atlantic, Witness, The Kenyon Review, Newsweek, Slate,
and The New York Times. A version of the essay first appeared in Rumpus Women: Personal Essays by Women, Volume 1.This adapted version was originally
published by Tricycle (Spring 2013).