I do not know much about God and prayer, but I have come to believe, over the past twenty-five years, that there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple.

Help. Thanks. Wow.

You may in fact be wondering what I even mean when I use the word “prayer.” It’s certainly not what TV Christians mean. It’s not for display purposes, like plastic sushi or neon. Prayer is private, even when we pray with others. It is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding. Let’s say it is communication from one’s heart to God. Or if that is too triggering or ludicrous a concept for you, to the Good, the force that is beyond our comprehension but that in our pain or supplication or relief we don’t need to define or have proof of or any established contact with. Let’s say it is what the Greeks called the Really Real, what lies within us, beyond the scrim of our values, positions, convictions, and wounds. Or let’s say it is a cry from deep within to Life or Love, with capital L’s.

Exiled, I found citizenship
in the republic of my body—
that ravaged landscape I navigate
by heart. And it’s easy, becoming
what’s yours. Can’t say I know
why Adam asked for another—

my Lord lies

between my thighs, and each morning
I curl to meet my maker’s lips.
I pray faithfully in the cathedral
of raised legs, my hair haloed by sunlight,
as I bow deeper, eager to receive

His blessing.

river praying for strangers

Read one of River Jordan’s four novels, and her first memoir is no surprise. Spend a few minutes in her company, and it seems inevitable. She’s a person of depth and gentleness, a warm spirit who knows the power of words—spoken, written, or uttered in silence.

Praying for Strangers: An Adventure of the Human Spirit was a resolution before it was a book. At the end of 2008, she knew her two sons—her only children—would be deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In that quiet way ideas come upon all of us at times, River received her resolution for 2009. She was to pray for a stranger every day. This would be her way to focus on matters other than fear and worry.

Encouraged by her husband to keep notes, River chronicled her encounters with strangers. She shares the stories of some of them, most who received her offer with gratitude. During that year, she learned about the connections we all share as human beings and what a gift it can be to one’s self to reach out.

On Faith

By James B. Frost

Essay

My mother is the most appropriate religious person I know. She prays daily, goes to church whenever she can, volunteers at a local homeless shelter, gives money to charity, reads book after book about religion, and never once talks about it to the faithless, unless of course they ask. It hurts her, deeply, that of her seven children only one remains religious, and yet as she’s aged, she’s learned to keep her hurt to herself as best she can. Every once in a while she slips up and mails me a news clipping—something about the evils of the latest Harry Potter book—but I’ve reached an age where, given the depth of her beliefs, I see this as restraint rather than proselytizing.

Author’s Note: I’d like to thank TNB’s own Megan DiLullo for her invaluable comments as I created this piece.

 

When I was quite young, around a year old, my mom began reading to me. She started with Dr. Seuss books—The Cat in the Hat, On Beyond Zebra!, Green Eggs and Ham. My memories of those moments are extremely vague, smudged pastel impressions at best. But mom assures me that during those times I’d lay quietly in her arms, hypnotized by the sound of her voice, and the pages spread before me. With tiny fingers, I’d touch the colorful pictures. I’d touch the animated words practically leaping off the page.

Super Bowl Sunday. February 7, 2010, 2:00 p.m.

If the hereafter has a switchboard, it’s jammed today.

There are prayers going out to the saints, for the New Orleans Saints. St. Jude might be getting a break this afternoon. He heard pleas for four decades, I’ll bet, for that lost cause of a football team.

My own grandfather requested divine intervention for his home team, year after year. Some weekends, I sat within earshot of him and my uncles as they shouted and prayed. Lord, the noise! Dear Blessed Mother, the fumbles and fouls! In my smart-mouthed youth, I might have asked aloud why they continued to cheer every season for such losers. I am almost certain I, too, muttered the slur, The Ain’ts. All involved, please accept my apology.

Christmas.

That’s the word I come back to. My brain, sometimes, gets quiet, but never silent. In the background, there is a restless rustling, the sound of my mental secretary, poor girl, who is always working. The frontal lobes are at rest, passive, eyes and ears like buckets, just receiving, while somewhere in the amygdalae, she is trying to get my attention. “What about… what about… what about?”

The only word that comes through is Christmas. I’m not even religious. It may be May or September. There are no gifts taunting from under the tree, no early bird sales, no Advent wreathes, just me and that word like comfort food that presents itself to me. Christmas — it repeats itself soothingly. The gentle crunch of the c-h-r like gravel under foot. Christmas, the i-s-t-m whisper like prayers on a December night. Christmas, with the m-a-s pronounced like “muss,” like a dirty face, scrubbed clean and nestled against a pillow, excitedly trying to sleep. Christmas, and my inner secretary stops to consider where this word came from and why, and for a moment, she puts down her stacks of paper, forgets about the stapler, stops struggling to straighten her ill-fitting business attire.

Christmas. Christmas. Christmas.

I’m sorry this piece is so short. I really should make more effort. But from the next office I can hear them,  in their meeting, making plans and saying, “Yes, just ask Mary. She’ll take care of it. Just ask Mary,” and my mental secretary, poor girl, is getting restless again, reaching for her pen and pad, preparing to take notes or at least look busy should someone come out of that meeting needing anything at all, even just needing some reassurance that work goes on here. It is her job to uphold the image that this is a place of business, that things get done, that orders get places and packages tracked. She makes reservations and cancels them. She makes mental notes to pay the bills but not too soon, never all at once, always just a few days before they come due. She has her list. She’s checking it twice. She is always nice.

Christmas. Christmas. Christmas.

When she hears them fall into another language she knows it’s a chance to catch a break. The meeting ends. A door closes. Someone take a personal call. My mental secretary scoops up something in her arms, from a distance it’s hard to make out. She pulls the bundle to her chest, a favorite stuffed animal, a cloth baby doll. She whispers to it, to her soft self:

Christmas. Christmas. Christmas.


I wanted to be an actress. I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to be a rock star. For the two years I took gymnastics I thought I would go to the Olympics. I thought maybe I would be a lesbian. I fully intended to be a poor writer, living in an apartment somewhere in New York with two or three dogs and no electricity. I considered doing the same in the country except that the basic necessities would take up all my time. I feared I would live out the dream scene in Look Who’s Talking, in which Kirstie Alley’s character pictures her life if she married John Travolta’s character. I got really close on that one. I thought I might be single for a while. I thought of becoming a happy old maid. I thought I’d be dead by now. Not for any particular reason, of course. Just because, which is why I think most things.

I also wanted to be a saint. Not just any saint, though. Not the kind that get her sainthood by doing a lot of nice things for other people. Not the kind who donates money, volunteers, feeds the poor, touches dirty people and so forth. I wanted to be a martyr. I wanted to be one of those virgins who got thrown to the lions rather than betray her vow of purity, one of those who were so beautiful that to protect their virginity, they mutilated their beautiful faces. I considered becoming a nun because the idea of alternately praying and working in a vegetable garden within the stone walls of a convent sounded sublime. I hated tomatoes, but I could imagine the freshness and beautiful red ripeness of tomatoes grown by the virtuous women of my would-be convent. I thought a vow of silence would be fab. Then I learned about sex. In the eighth grade, I thought really hard and decided I couldn’t become a nun because I liked boys too much. Not boys, really, but guys. The ones who notice you. The ones who toss meaningful glances across the church when you are sitting in your pew pretending to pray.

I thought my mom would die when I was 16 because when she was 16, her mom died. I thought I was really lucky to still have a mom at 17, and then I thought I was pretty dumb because if she was going to follow in her mother’s footsteps, she would’ve died when my older sister turned 16, since my mom was the oldest of her family. But the whole pattern started to lose credibility because my mom was the oldest of three while there were four kids in our family, and the oldest was a boy. That was a turning point.

I wanted to be terribly skinny, but that was never going to happen. I wanted to be one of those girls that other girls call “skinny bitch,” because even if other girls hate you, at least you’re skinny, which is the most valuable trait a woman can have. But starving myself was out of the question, and I couldn’t bring myself to puke, not even with a spoon down the throat. Then I thought maybe I’d just lose a few pounds. I wanted to be crazy and wear dark eye liner and be excused for things because people thought I was “sensitive.” Then I got therapy, and I wanted to be listened to. And I wanted a big dictionary, and I got it, but I never open it because it’s too damned big, and who needs a dictionary that big when you’ve got internet, anyway? Then I got group therapy and realized I was comparatively incredibly well-adjusted, and that as fucked up as I was, so was everyone else. Then I just wanted to be left alone and not to have to listen to these people anymore, and then I told this girl in therapy to say hi to my old best friend who went to her high school, and only years later did I realize how awkward that must have been. “Hey, I’m in group therapy with your best friend from junior high, and she says to tell you hi.”

I considered becoming a Realtor. I worked in customer service, selling shoes, then selling jeans, then selling coffee. Turns out it doesn’t matter what I’m selling. I cannot be nice to people purely in the hopes of receiving money from them. I waited tables at a seedy strip club while wearing a black leotard, shiny tights, black heels and red lipstick for a week until a man offered me money to go home with him and a stripper tried to give me lessons on how to upsell: Don’t just make do with cash — offer to start him a tab. Ask him if he’d like to meet one of the girls. Don’t call them dancers, call them ladies. Then she did her dominatrix routine on stage in something resembling an Aeon Flux outfit. I really just wanted to hang out in the dressing room and watch them. One of them threw her cell phone across the room upon learning her boyfriend had spent all their rent money. On what, I wasn’t sure. Then a woman called Luna, who was the mother of a five-year-old boy, made the sign of the cross and said a blessing over her plate of spaghetti in front of the large makeup mirror all the girls shared. Her glittered breasts dangled precariously close to the marinara. I took cigarette breaks every fifteen minutes or so, and a stripper told me I should quit because smoking would ruin my good looks. I didn’t know I had any such thing, and I told her I didn’t care. I kept smoking for a couple years, but I took a job at the Gap a couple weeks later. I folded some shirts for a week and didn’t sell a single pair of jeans.

I wanted to be a journalist, or at least a copy editor, but I’m a bad speller and terrified of interviewing. I can’t write fast enough. I want to learn shorthand. I want to write a book. I want so much. I have wanted so much, but I have so much else.