by Harmony Button
This essay is the first in our new feature “This Word Is” where writers meditate on a single word and its meaning through sound and memory, anecdote and etymology.
One Sunday morning, my brother and I woke up early and, while our parents were still asleep, we changed all the clocks in the house an hour forward.
“Oh well,” we said, when the adults came downstairs. “I guess we’ve missed church today. There should be scrambled eggs and Smurfs instead.”
By the time they figured it out, we really had missed the service.
This move became known as “pulling a church” or “churching it.” My wary, clever mother learned to ask if I was “churching one over” on her.
I tried, but unfortunately, it never worked again — not for the dentist, not for the doctor’s, and definitely not for church.
I’m not sure why my parents thought it was important that we go. They knew we’d turn out more or less all right, regardless of the brand name on our souls. It’s not like they were all that churchy, themselves — I figured out pretty fast that my engineer father didn’t buy that stuff about the body and the blood, and my mom’s lip always curled at the mention of Pat Robertson. Our house was full of books about fractals and feminism. All our art was MC Escher or Georgia O’Keefe.
This explains so much about my personal aesthetic.
Still, it happened: we were Presbyterians. In the snowy depths of grey-skied upstate NY, every Sunday we drove out to the lip of the almost-gentrified-but-still-kind-of-cow-town neighborhood to join the ranks of the frozen chosen.
When it comes to holy stuff, I don’t much like the sound of church: it seems too sharp and measured, too controlled. I much prefer the business of the soul to start with vowels: open mouthed, inspired, awe-struck mouths of appreciation. Hallelujah. Allah. Holla back, y’all! Even the soft ‘g’ in “god” will leave you agape; if you’re looking for any kind of peace or comfort, you should avoid the tsk-tsk-ing church — seek out the altar, the cathedral nave, the sift and whirr of “worship” instead.
Temple, mosque, meetinghouse: all of these sacred places combine the hum of prayer with a moment of some sharpness, a pinprick of consonant and insight. Sermon, mass, service: I’d prefer to spend time in any of these words than in “church.” Cathedral, synagogue, inner sanctum: now these are the sounds of places I aspire to. Perhaps this was the problem — church was just too normal, too domesticated to contain all the big and wonderful of what I felt I should have found inside it. What is “church” but an empty bauble, a hymnbook but no organ, a house you hope one day will be a home?
Church: it is an odd little word. It starts out sounding like a chapel, like a Roman arch, all vaulted up with flying buttresses. It is a place of worship, a space to rendezvous your best self with your worst. Say it several times: church church church. It chirps like a hedgerow of sparrows. It chatters and tuts like an irked chipmunk, hunkering acorns for the fall. It is the sound of best intentions bundled up in base anxiety: church will get you out of bed, make you brush your teeth, and then kick your sorry butt into the world with only some bus money and a sack lunch to protect you. Church is stoic, and it doesn’t suffer fools. It sandwiches the ‘ch’ of white lace Sunday stockings with the ‘urrr’ of grunts and burps and unexpected body functions. Church is made of solid shoes that are both ugly and uncomfortable, but your mother thought they might match your new purse.
I cringe at the word “purse” — it gives me the heebie jeebies. Purse reeks of restrictive femininity, of talcum powder, little leather straps and sweat-stained polyester. Purse hangs out with church in my mind; purse admires all her coupons and her perfect manicure. Church, approving, notes the tightly buttoned neckline of her blouse.
Still, there is something to “church.” It lingers in the air, like the hollow kiss of full wine glasses when you toast. Church practices communion; church toasts to its practice. Church believes in symmetry and tradition. Church keeps all the books in good condition and it never breaks their spines. Church‘s favorite color is the purple wax of Lent, the lush and dust of robes. Church stays after the service and picks up lint and cough-drop wrappers off the floor. Church likes rainy days when droplets run down the stained glass, but church is always too busy for brunch.
I understand: my mother was often like this. While everybody else filed out to the parking lot in their click-clickity shoes, my mother disappeared into back rooms and offices to count donation packages or arrange the details of the Welcome Dinner for the Bosnian refugees. I wasn’t always patient at the time, but in retrospect, I realize that I always liked church best when the people had all gone, when I had eaten most of the leftover sleeve of Saltene crackers that Mr. Bolinger the usher would putter around handing out to all the kids after the service. There was something comfortably rumpled about the space, like God had put on a good show and now he was back stage, shaking out his hair and wiping off eyeliner.
I empty out the word “church” and pour in my own dough of experience. I pop the batch in the oven — out come church-word cookies! People are funny; they believe all kinds of wacky things. But please don’t think that I mock faith. Any divinity worth its stuff knows how to laugh at humanity. What is closer to divine than recognizing the scary space between a word and its intention? You look into the deep, deep trench of language, and you come up gasping with gratitude that we poor human-critters cross through the chaos and communicate, at all.
It’s not my fault that the word “church” comes in a whole multipack of tasty and entertaining flavors. To the poet’s palate, the world is endlessly amusing, and inevitably frail. One tick of connotation tips us out of orbit: poor, lonely poet — the world just wants to go to church and be done with it.
And I thought I was — done with it. But church has a way of hiding out in memory nooks, a stow-away on the opaque ship of childhood.
At first church was just arts & crafts and story time. And then, all the sudden, there was this super-cool young pastor. Her name was Ruth and I wished my parents had named me Ruth — it rhymed with Truth, but it was softer, like a reminder of a true thing we already knew, but had forgotten. My name was Harmony, which rhymed with Blarmony and blasphemy, which wasn’t very nice at all. Ruth was short, with hair that didn’t always stay in the right shape, and freckles. She wore colorful scarves over her robes and she was not so (so so so so) boring as the other guy.
The guy’s name was Zane. Zzzzzzane. Listening to his sermons was like breathing through the lint trap on the drier.
But Ruth — ! Ruth was friendly and comfortable and didn’t seem anxious or serious almost all the time, unlike so many adults. She had two little kids who tumbled around like a couple of puppies but she never seemed worried that they might chew something or pee on the floor. Ruth talked about love and community, and she made me feel hungry for something I didn’t quite know how to eat. It was not necessarily a good feeling — it was like when the blood starts coming back into your foot after you’ve been sitting on it: it’s a relief, but it also makes you realize how uncomfortable you’ve been, and for how long, and transition is always awkward and painful, especially when you know the worst is yet to come — kind of like turning twelve and knowing that you’re really in for it because adolescence is going to kick your ass.
One time, when I was, I dunno, maybe eleven or twelve, Ruth caught me lying under the Christmas tree in the sanctuary when I should have been in Sunday School making popsicle-stick ornaments with the other kids. When she found me, I thought I was going to get in trouble and my throat got all thick like I was about to cry, and Ruth asked me what was wrong, which made me unable to say anything because then I would cry for sure.
I was a child of the lake effect: I was full of partly-cloudy, brilliant sun-on-snow, and weather systems so intense, they’d knock the power out for the whole township. I was a child of ice storms and deep snows, but I never liked it when adults witnessed my precipitation. I liked to fake the doppler, toss a big sunshine on the blue screen and hide behind a book to weather out the storm.
Ruth didn’t send me back to Sunday school class. Instead, she crawled under the tree with me and we lay on our backs and watched how the lights made patterns on the walls, on the wooden pews, on the high arch of the ceiling. Some snow melt leaked out of my face and ran down into my ear canal. It was a weird feeling in my ear, like being underwater.
I can’t remember why Ruth left our church. I just remember her leaving.
When I turned thirteen, I aced Confirmation Class. I mean, I rocked the bible like it was the year Zero. And why not? It was the perfect combination of things I was good at: nerdy stuff and having feelings. I was also still young enough to think it was cool to raise my hand and answer every single question, and I was super-excited to show off how I could sing all the chapters of the New Testament to the tune of Good King Wencelas.
During the week, I went to an “alternative” school in the city, far away from the church. We walked via buddy-system to the Zen center and did yoga for gym credit. We called our teachers by their first names and we had “home learning” every night instead of doing homework.
None of the other kids in Confirmation Class had home learning. They laughed when I said it. They said my school sounded weird. It was, and so was I.
But I was good at Jesus! Who cared about friends when you could be winning? I got poison ivy from hiding behind the hedgerow at the church potluck during a game of Sardines in which I thought the point of playing was to not be found — ever. Everybody else knew that the game was just an excuse to cuddle together in small spaces while you waited for the last person to find you.
Church: a crutch, an urge, an urchin’s first word. Church can hunch and crouch down, simple-like with the kiddos in the front; church can purge the room of all the air with one offhanded gesture, one careless word.
It started with the pronouns: he and his, him, He, but rarely hers. She was his; he was His, he had hers. This was distressing to me. Where were all the girls if they weren’t whores or wives or pregnant, immaculate or otherwise?
It wasn’t just because of boring! that I didn’t want to go. I could handle boring. I could hand boring’s ass back to him if it resulted in an A+ or a gold star.
And it wasn’t just the tyranny of panty hose, although they were a battle every Sunday morning. Eventually, I just peeled them off and left them wadded up and stuffed into the sanitary napkin receptacle in the Ladies’ room, hoping my mother wouldn’t notice the scandal of my skin on skin.
It wasn’t even the way the other children didn’t whisper with me during the services, or how I didn’t know to cross my legs and have a make-believe Hollywood boyfriend like the other girls who went to normal schools, who cut their hair in bangs and shopped at something called a Gap. A gap in what? My knowledge-base, for sure. I felt I needed to address this (along with pop music and all things Maybelline), but there were other things demanding my attention.
My mother started working at the Gift Center Inner City Ministry. Her church-friend Carol Ann founded it, and Mom had given up her full time job when she had kids, so — why not? Carol Ann was tall, with a southern drawl: she talked a lot and up-close and her laugh was terrifyingly unguarded. Carol Ann had two daughters: the older one was a goddess of art & whimsy who didn’t know I existed; the younger one stared blankly through me as if she had assessed my potential for advancing her social cache and was dismayed by the dearth of opportunity therein. It made for some awkward play dates.
The Gift Center was located on Joseph Avenue, one of the worst streets in Rochester, NY. You just didn’t go there. Nobody went there — except, of course, for the people who were, already.
My mom was small and wool-clad and steely; she was scared, but she did it anyway — she parked the minivan, didn’t bother the druggies, didn’t carry money on her, held her keys in hand after dark. The Gift Center was cool — it did after-school things and we went bowling with kids who came there because where else was there, anyway. One time, we took them in canoes, out in the suburbs of Fairport, on the Eerie canal. You’d swear those kids had never been on water.
“Because they haven’t,” said my mother, giving me the You Had Better Hadn’t look.
Back when Ruth brought her kids over to our swimming pool, I’d shown them how to balance on top of the inner tube and count the seconds until you fell over in the water. It was our favorite game: one, two, three — (sploosh!). I always loved the hush and wash of silence that surrounded me, underwater. I always loved the laughter that returned when I re-surfaced.
When my mother found out that Claude — the suave young director they’d hired to run the Gift Center full time — was embezzling money, she marched down there, found him alone at night in the back of the office, and fired him in person. I mean — dang. You’re going to drive down Joseph Avenue to fire a brother in the middle of the night? You’re one mighty fierce church-lady.
One time, years ago, my car broke down on the wrong side of town on my way to a job interview at a school for the deaf. There was a hiss and pop and smoke poured through all the vents into the cab. I limped off the road into the lot of what looked like one sad little church, or maybe a rec center of some kind, or perhaps a pool hall. As I waited for a tow truck, I noticed a low-slung black Buick doing slow-mo laps of the parking lot. Two skinny old black dudes in rumpled suits scoped me suspiciously as they drove past.
The car slowed, stopped. The window cranked — (squeaky squeaky squeaky) — down.
Skinny Old Guy #1 asked me if I was in some kind of trouble.
This was pretty obvious. Silly little white girl sitting on the bumper of a smoking car in the parking lot of a maybe-church in the bad bad town?
I told them the tow truck was five minutes away.
“Cars,” I chattered, nervously. “What can you do? They work until they break.”
“Church,” said Skinny Old Guy #2. I thought he meant it as an observation, as in, go wait in the church.
“Ain’t that right,” said the other, spitting something dark into a styrofoam cup.
Oh… church. True that. Confirmed. Gospel. Preach it. I agree. Booyah, sister.
The tow truck driver pulled up, flustered. He apologized for the delay, but as he was driving this way down St Paul Blvd, wouldn’t you know it, headed the other direction was a guy in a tow truck that had been reported stolen, yesterday.
“So I spun this mama around and tailed him all the way to the Genesee!” The tow truck driver wiped his face. “What could I do? Let him just drive on off in one of these? No way. No way. These big rigs are more ‘spensive than all your cars. No offense.”
I imagined a slow-mo tow-truck chase scene through the city and I was amused.
“Church,” I said.
Both the skinny old dudes nodded, solemnly.
Religion is all about the relationship of your insides to the insides of the world, but church remembers that your soul comes with a body: a naughty, bawdy body that gets hungry-antsy-horny, that sometimes misbehaves. Church can work with this — listen to it: church knows how to scratch an itch.
In the bastard language of today’s grammar-less adolescents, “ur” = your. Lookit: Church = Ch+(Your)+Ch. Imagine that as a text message. What could it mean? Check your cha-cha? Chap your cherry? Chalk your chutney? Oh come on. That’s funny.
And let’s be honest: “church” sounds like a naughty word. Church grunts, it lurches, it clutches and churns. Listen.
You can church right off.
Watch it, motherchurcher.
Like all good curse words, it feels good to say it: you can really dig in to the guttural ‘ur’ and chomp it off with the teeth of a ‘ch.’ Church was born to control urges, and yet, the very word is full of animal and muscle, tongue and throat. Church can wretch; church can hurt. Sometimes, church plays pain games and it bends your hands back into prayer and still holds them there even after you cry mercy. Church can ogle, church can leer. Church can pick and scratch, a cuss and cur.
I am not alone in this. The fabulous, whack-tastic Canadian poet Christian Bök (and can we take a moment to give kudos to a poet whose name is pretty much the bizarro world of the kinds of books he writes?) understands that church is, at heart, kind of a durty, durty gurl.
The word “eunoia” is the only word in the English language that contains all five vowels. It means “beautiful thinking” — and it is also the title of Christian Bök’s five chapter epic exploration of vowel and sound. Although my students sometimes call it “annoyia” if they fail to see its inherent beauty, I find Eunoia to be a weird and wonderful trip down the rabbit hole of language.
Bök’s Eunoia was heavily influenced by the Oilipo movement — zany French poetics based around seeing what happens to language when it is filtered through precise rules. The rule in Eunoia is deceptively simple: every chapter includes only words with a designated vowel and no other vowels, so that the only vowels in Chapter A are As, Chapter E uses only the letter E, etc.
At first, this seems to be too stringent a constraint: how can any authorial intention ever survive the journey down the narrow, narrow path of such restrictions? After all, as Bok writes (in Chapter A, of course), “A law as harsh as a fatwa bans all paragraphs that lack an A as a standard hallmark” (12). What emerges, however, is something wonderful: each chapter develops its own character and aesthetic. Chapter A is pragmatic: “Awkward grammar appalls a craftsman” (12); A always abashs and rants. Chapter I, on the other hand, is introspective, it is picky — it nits, it twits. “I dismiss nihilistic criticism which flirts with philistinism. I bitch; I kibitz…” (50).
My favorite chapter, however, is Chapter U, because it is earthy (urth-y) and hungry and shameless. U ruts and grunts; U rubs his gut up udders & butts. U is such a bulb & slut! The hero of Chapter U is one bad motherchurcher named Ubu: “Ubu fluffs Lulu’s tutu. Ubu cups Lulu’s dugs”(79). Oh my! You can imagine where it goes from there. Afterwards, “Ubu gluts up grub; thus Ubu’s plump gut hurts.” Poor Ubu, he ate too much. Eventually, “Ubu upchucks lunch”(80). Yuck.
Chapter U is where church lives, chumming around with pud and sluff. “Lush shrubs bud; thus church nuns pluck uncut mums”(81). Regardless of its clean-cut past, church knows how to slum it down in U-town: it bucks and yuck-yucks it up with cuddy tubs and hussy stuffs. Church knows all about the fur and burn of menstrual blood.
Adolescence makes things complicated. Your inner Ubu starts to rear his ugly head, and then, all the sudden, you’re facing down a supposedly divine force which designed your body to be like this, and the best reason anybody can come up with that you have to suffer indignity and unholy cramps is that some made-up ancestor ate a bad apple. And how is that my fault? Shit, Eve. I appreciate the whole fallen-language gift of figurative thinking, but really, this whole woman’s-burden thing is the pits.
And while you’re developing the power of independent thought and general mistrust of social structures which only use your gendered pronoun in passive constructions, you start doing things like reading Emily Dickinson and having crushes on boys. It’s all very inconvenient to maintaining the status quo of religious faith.
“I heard a Fly buzz — when I died –“
… and I heard a fly buzz in my pants, and it was freaky weird, and then I knew what shame was all about. And Emily? Just when she was waiting for the King of kings to come down and illuminate the way to Heaven, there were only the same old annoyances of life, and then, it got all dark, and she couldn’t see to see if God was there or not —
What. The. Hell.
And then Carol Ann’s husband died — suddenly, in the night — and the choir director’s husband was arrested for molesting little girls, and all the kids in Youth Group grew up enough that their parents didn’t feel like they had to bring them to church just because that’s what you did with kids, and nobody bothered to reset the clocks in the house anymore: I just refused — the passive, dull-eyed refusal of a sulky teenager bent over a history textbook. I had so much homework.
Dead was dead. Dark was dark.
Nothing would ever be okay again.
No longer was I trying to pull a church on my mother to avoid the indignity of pointy shoes and stockings. I was the one getting churched over — this ritual, this song? How could it be anything but a way of fooling the clocks, of telling yourself that mortality isn’t all that lonely, cold, and permanent? Church was just a building, an empty bell, hollowing its belly to fill up with rocks instead of bread.
Early on, I learned to equate words with food. Maybe it was because my mother would read aloud to me while I ate strips of toast dipped in chicken noodle soup. Maybe it was how I learned to read, myself — with a howl of desperation, a wordless declaration of resentment that the symbols on the page meant nothing to me, until, seemingly suddenly — they did. Maybe it was playing the “what food would your name be” game with my friends: Maggie was like peanuts; Sarah was an artichoke between the teeth. We could never quite decide what my name felt like in the mouth: it was like a missed bite, a chomp that never quite grits down into the crust.
The Greek word “agape” is often translated as “unconditional love,” the kind of goodwill and kindness that is without erotic overtones or any but the most altruistic motives. At the same time, it is linked to a kind of “love-feast,” a filling of the self with the very essence of godly love. I do like this: this world, this life, is one long love-feast to be glutted on until we all just loll about, agape, our mouths plugged up with the stuff of lovingkindness that overwhelms all words, that refuses to be chewed and swallowed. There is an equivalent with the cycle of breath: to inspire, to expire.
I always knew that good things came and went via the mouth. Why else would the mathematician Lewis Caroll balance out his calculations with “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / did gyre and gimble in the wabe: / all mimsy were the borogoves, / and the mome raths outgrabe,” words that weren’t words until suddenly, they were? Inspiration. Divine creation. Something from nothing.
There are a few books in my possession that I treat with reverence, that I dip into just to read a word, a favorite passage, just to find reassurance that the things I know to be true in my heart can be reflected back to me in beautiful, beautiful words. Sometimes, I don’t even need to read these books — I just want them near me, as if the presence of the words themselves held some kind of comfort even without reading them.
One of these books is Poetry As Survival, by Gregory Orr. You know Gregory Orr. He’s the guy who accidentally killed his little brother in a hunting accident when he was a child, who grew up knowing that his parents couldn’t ever really get over it, until his mother died in another cruel twist of fate and his father drifted away amidst addiction to pain medication.
This is a sad story. But Survival is not about his story — it’s about recovery, and salvation. Gregory Orr writes about poetry as a culturally universal impulse. He describes it as the safe space in which the human mind can look into the scary maw of chaos and, for one brief moment, contain it within the orderly structures of language.
Churches come in all kinds of shapes and sizes.
One time, during the years in which I watched my mother watch her mother die a long, slow, prolonged death, my grandmother told my mother, tears in her eyes, that she was just so sorry that she wouldn’t be able to see us all in Heaven. At the time, I thought my grandma was finally coming around to the conclusion that I’d reached long ago: Heaven was an abstraction, a metaphor for all the love and peacefulness we wish upon each other in a time of loss and sadness. But no: my grandma thought we — my mother and father, my brother and me — weren’t going to get past the pearly gates because we hadn’t been attending church on Sundays. We were dutiful Christians no longer. My dying grandma thought she would spend eternity alone in Heaven because her family of sinners were all going to hell.
This is a sad story, but that is not the point. It was around about this time that I started to really get it: my mother didn’t care if I ended up a Christian, Buddhist, Muslim or atheist. She just wanted my life to be rich; she wanted me to taste something of beauty and wonder, to understand that consciousness is freaky-big and always on the edge of the unknowable. What is faith but a way of staring at the sun of sentience without going blind? Suddenly, the truth of the story didn’t seem to matter as much as the way it made people feel. Words make us feel — no, not just feel, but be — things — big things — things that overspill their syllables and shapes and make us gasp and stutter. But what of truth, of accuracy? I knew early on that there was no such thing as a synonym.
I always kind of rolled my eyes at people who said they grew up reading the dictionary. I mean, really? There were so many more interesting books to read! Reading the dictionary seemed like something that people just said to prove how nerdy they were. But then, at some point post-college, pre-grad school, I found myself lurking around the library of a local university, waiting for some unsuspecting student to leave their computer terminal without logging off so that I could slyly slip in and use the college subscription to access — oh glory! — JSTOR and the OED.
There is always a story in etymology, always a trail of bread crumbs to lead you in delicious circles, sometimes to nowhere in particular, but damn if the journey isn’t always rich. So it was I browsed for churches in the depths of language: churches through the ages, churches in other languages, churches in translation.
The Old English circe — a place of public worship or Christian collective — carries tinges of a ruler’s house, along with a hat tip to the Greek root of “to swell.” Along with this swelling, there is a distinct history of burning — the Latin adoleō (to burn in sacrifice, to destroy by fire) haunts the history of church like the pine tree haunts Christ’s mass. Just to make things one step weirder, all the Old English references to church keep tapping back into the root “to bury,” as in, “to protect, surround, or congregate.” Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Wrapped up in the concept of church is the image of a phoenix: it gathers, it communes, it burns, it buries, it gathers itself all over again. Even the word can’t escape resurrection.
Today, I live in a place where the rifts of religious difference run deep and everybody tiptoes over the same old bridges like there aren’t ravines of anger and resentment directly underneath. I live in Utah, where pretty much everybody is misunderstood and most of us are weary and wary in mixed company. It is a city full of churches: not just The Church, but the church of Burning Man, of dog parks, of yoga and raw foods. There is the church of the mountain, where plenty of snow people worship in the backcountry as well as at resorts. There is backyard chicken church, and a church of urban gardening. There’s the church of the ulta-marathon, attended by those lean and steely runner types who disappear into the wilderness to run a hundred miles at a time.
Me, I’m a church dabbler: not so much with the hymns and pews, these days, but everybody knows its not about the building. Some times, you find yourself across a threshold, and you know its something holy. Some times, the words are already half formed when you know that it’s significant. Some times, the best prayers are the wordless ones, the ones that come to me mid-stride or strike, when I turn the compost or bury a trowel in the earth.
In the Catholic church, a private chapel, intended for solitary worship, is called an “oratory.” Even in private, the church gives a mouth to an oral expression of intense emotion. So it is most Sundays, I put on some boots, grab a water bottle, stuff a snack in a backpack and huff it up a canyon to find — whatever you want to call it: Yahweh, Indra, Jehovah, Allah, the all-knowing, numen, mana, nirvana. Or maybe just a place to mouth my vowels in peace. Holy, holy, holy; primal yawp and yahoo and amen.
Harmony Button is a contributing editor for Paper Tape. She has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Web awards, and was awarded the Larry Levis Prize (Academy of American Poets). She attended Middlebury College and University of Utah (MFA). You can find her work in Colorado Review, Southwestern American Lit, Ithaca Lit, BlazeVOX, and other publications. She is currently English Department Chair of the Waterford School in Utah. More of her work can be found at harmonybutton.wordpress.com.