Praying After Amen

At the banquet dinner for the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival, a local minister enters stage right and steps up to the podium to lead us in prayer. On cue, the roomful of nearly two hundred people settles into silence, heads bowed instinctually. It is a lovely sight, really, when the pasture of uneven heads poking up like grass blades suddenly levels to specks of shiny light reflecting off bald heads and glossy hair.

But I remain erect with my head above the cut line, un-harvested and awkward. I feel immediately alone in this envelope of a faith I cannot claim, though I respect its right to free expression.

I have tried to pray to a god. At some events I still tuck my chin inward and bow, an effort to blend in and show respect. But I always feel like my presence taints the prayer. I do not believe. And in the South, that means something different than in my native Oregon, where in the rare event that I caught myself in the middle of a public prayer, I could always spot the other non-Christians when the masses bowed because while we still stuck out, there was a we – not just a me – and we also stuck together.

I delight in the minister’s words, the seamless melody of her prayerful sentences, and the gift of silence that accompanies prayer. She is a fine speechwriter, I think to myself. Excellent imagery, solid-rock intention, and a smooth reading voice. But I stumble over Amen when she concludes because as a Buddhist, my Amen lies in the breath and not the tongue. My waking moments are the container for prayer. A Christian could say the same and I would believe her, but that wasn’t in this prayer and that’s another story anyway.

The point is this: I cry all the way home and maybe it was the excellence of words, poetry like long-distance lovers gone made for each other in their dreams, pounding their pillows of reality, eating at the fleshy magnitudes of our human predicament. Or maybe it was the way Britt’s lower lip trembled during the prayer, as she in her pink perfection and high-heeled grace bowed her head with the others and I felt magnetized to the readiness of her faith. Or maybe it was my surrender to the struggle of words: the reminder from Turchi that “Writing never gets any easier,” the zip of Zuber as she jutted her shaky fist into the air – “Persevere,” the grace of Byer as she free-associated about the array of lyrical moments a writer can experience, the tremble down my spine each time I remembered that this is what I am doing, this is my choice, this is my writer’s life.

I turn the keys in the ignition and set the parking break. Home. Gravel. Mountainsides. Rabbit and squirrel, and stepping out of the car now I am struck by the night sky. Overhead, more stars than there are words in the dictionary, more cicadas singing than there are published books, more leaves turning from the kiss of fall than there are words I have published. I walk a hundred yards through pitch black, the trail I know by heart. My hand on the cold cabin doorknob, my lungs filled with crisp air, my heart finally sinking back away from my throat and into its cavern, my mind at ease, my breath caught between the in and out. This is my prayer. I bow my head, though no one is there to see. I turn the doorknob, though no one is there to meet me. And I will close my eyes in bed confident that there is no one to hold the world for me while I rest. Confident that I will make each day anew each after sunrise. That I will write my truth into possibility. That I will pray to words in the moment they are written, pray to life as it unfolds with each breath, and hold no hope for anything other than now.

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