The spirit of the autumn wind chases me to the farthest reaches of my memory. When I was almost too small to remember, I saw the railing on a stroller, the creaky spinning of the wheels, the smell of baby vomit and soiled diapers. This is me, little more than a baby, not nearly a toddler, smaller than a child.
And I remember the wonder that came upon me, from the moment I looked beyond myself and into a world of trees and stores and roads and all the things that come together to become this land around me.
What a wonder! What a marvel! So many things, and all so different. I was too little, I didn’t know the names of things, I didn’t know what they were but I knew they were there. And from the first, I strained to hear what they were called, I listened to the words of grownups, I made no sense of any of it, I tried to remember them so that when the time cam I could give them all a name.
After a while I learned basic words: the shapes, what they could do, the things that weren’t allowed. I began to ask about the things I didn’t know. “What’s this?” I asked a thousand times. “What does this do?”; ”What does this mean?”
But I never once learned the answer to the question: “Why?”
It was then that my mama told me she would teach me to pray.
I did as mama told me, at a time when following your mama’s commands were easy. “Now, dear, get down on your knees, kneel beside your bed, fold your hands together.”
That was easy. What do I do now?
“Close your eyes and tilt your head up to the sky,”
Okay. Easy enough.
“Ask God for the things you want. And tell him what a good boy you’ve been.”
That was easy. I wasn’t old enough to have done anything that bad. I reeled off a short list: tricycle, baseball mitt, basketball, sister.
Some of those things came soon enough (Christmas, birthday, etc.), and some never did (sister). Nevertheless, I enjoyed this system, I figured could use it for whatever came to mind.
But after a while it stopped. Too much, too much, something told me.
I was 14 years old. I thought that prayer was a formality. I didn’t take it too seriously. I was in high school, I had all the swagger of a teenager, I took what I wanted and took for granted the necessities of life (a car, a girlfriend, money in my pocket). And for the longest time, I went without prayer, and replaced it with grander ideas, all of which started with the word “I”.
I humbled myself down a few pegs, I was done with school and parents, new with independence, new with ideas of having the world at my fingertips. And I was introduced to the brand new world of grownups, to the world of aging and jobs and mortgage payments. And later, funerals, lots of funerals. No longer did I sit in the back row or stay out in the car. People around me were dying, friends and relatives, people I barely knew. So I did what I thought was right: I went back to praying. This time I’d say things like “bless mama, bless daddy, bless Uncle Harold and Sam the neighbor across the street, And I’m sorry, Aunt Martha, for the things I said that one time, and I miss you, brother John, and I’m sorry for all the bad things in the world.”
After a while, there were too many things to pray about. I never once thought I’d done a complete job. How about the names of the people I never knew? Don’t they count? How about all the tragedy in the world? It was too much.
And so it came to me one night. I thought of all the bad things in the world, sure, there were plenty of those. But I also thought about the birds gliding through the trees (and the songs they sang while they flew); I thought of how a fresh mountain stream feels against your face; I thought of how it felt when you get yourself kissed by a pretty girl; I thought of my own little girl, and how perfect that felt. I thought of a thousand things, big and little, that made living so worthwhile.
So it came to this. I didn’t need to kneel or to fold my hands, I didn’t need to look up at the sky. I just needed to close my eyes and smile. I’d finally thought of the right thing to say. “Thank you,” I whispered to myself. “I love you.”