Call Me Ethel

Design by Claire Soohoo

My biggest red flag is that I’ve always been susceptible to crises of faith. If there was a photo album documenting all my major milestones, there would be a trace of doubt and unwarranted angst streaming across every page.

Let me be clear. When I say crises, I mean those of epic, plague-like proportions. I become an echo chamber of my own thoughts, a walking spectacle: full-bodied emotional breakdowns, unpreventable insomnia, monologues directed at blank walls, locked Notes app entries, dramatic sighs in the dining hall. I achieve a general sense of disillusionment, floating through suburban backyards looking like a lost lamb. The goal, for a while now, has been to strive for a fine-tuned combination of existential apathy and weaponized sacrilege. I don’t give a shit about religion, I say, as I pen yet another ghazal about killing God. I frequently blast Chris Tomlin on aux for the irony of it all.

It’s not like I was always this heretic. As a kid, I gave up Halloween because my youth pastor called it satanic. But the disillusionment started arriving like waves, receding for a minute only to come crashing back—a pastor’s homophobic, multi-sermonic interpretations of Leviticus that spurred my yearlong episode of self-hatred, deacons’ cover-ups of sexual harassment, habitual lies crafted to appease my parents.

Yet somehow, three weeks into nominal independence and 8,012 miles from my childhood church in North Point, Hong Kong, I bore witness to a miracle of my own creation that unmoored me towards yet another crisis. In other words: I spent this past Sunday walking on water. Umbrella-less and entirely unshielded from that deluge of a morning, I half-stumbled, half-sprinted from Old Campus to the Christ Presbyterian Church, soles floating above the sinking pavement. For the first time in nearly five years, I sat firmly within a church pew, as the sky regurgitated all its stomached heat. My body moved beyond me—hand reaching for the Eucharist, knees bent in front of the cross like no time had passed since I’d left. And yes, maybe I felt a strange hollowing in my chest as I stood in front of that altar. It might’ve even been holy. 

See, my second biggest red flag is that I’m a hypocrite. All I ever do is act in defiance of myself. If you made a word cloud from any poem or essay I’ve ever written, you’d find the words holy, sin, repentance blasted all over the screen in size 50 font. You’d discover my unfortunate junior-year obsession with Kierkegaard and The Brothers Karamazov

To be completely honest, I am still desperate to coalesce to the aesthetic of religion. I wish I could call it a reclamation of my religious trauma, but, in all honesty, Chrisitanity remains my biggest frame of reference for speaking about this world. I still mold the majority of my metaphors out of the tattered remnants of preteen Sunday School readings. My mantra for English Lit is that everything can be sharpened into an allegory from the Bible. Sunday brunch still imbues me with a surprising amount of guilt. I spent last summer writing a chapbook about the proverb of the prodigal son, asking over and over again: why does the son turn back? At what point does he decide that the pigsty—a life estranged from his roots, devoid of God—is too much? 

Again, I’ve adopted a crisis. All this obsession with the symbolic trappings of Christianity, and for what? I’m still caught in that liminal quicksand—unsure whether or not to turn back. Railing against God while I try my hardest to namedrop Him in every other stanza.

Third red flag: I’m a liar. The truth is that I didn’t voluntarily make that pilgrimage to the Presbyterian church. I was coerced. The truth is that my mom demanded that I do so and dragged my stumbling, hungover body through a rainstorm—30 minutes after the service had already started. But still, I walked into the white-tiled house and surprised myself at every turn. I swear it was literal divine possession—the way I still remembered the words to the hymns and devotionals; the way I clasped my psalm together for prayer. I barely cringed when the pastor announced that they were organizing a Sunday Funday after the service. I don’t know why I was so eager to fill out my name and every variation of my contact info in their stack of welcome cards. I don’t know why I felt moved enough to tell the usher that I’d be coming back next week.

Perhaps the answer, most simply, is that this church feels like a sort of anchor. Like Ethel Cain said, these cross all over my body / remind me of who I used to be. I want to be saved, to be rescued from the mundane instability of new classes and auditions and tedious small talk.

And as a mug emblazoned with the crest of the Christ Presbyterian Church sits on my desk right now, there’s another question bubbling to the surface. It’s the one that I obsessed the most over in that chapbook on the prodigal son: what does he give up to return? To what extent must he cannibalize his own self, his own body?

But that might have to be a crisis scheduled for next Sunday.

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