My ear is smudged against my girlfriend’s bare sternum, at the place where skin and bone are closest, second to the temple. We were supposed to be at our end-of-year college party but decided to stay home and talk late into the night instead. Eventually the words run out and she sings a song called “Honey Bee” to me. When she sings the vibrations of her voice move through her muscles, through her fat, through her skin, and shake the small machinery in my ears. More importantly her voice also vibrates my own muscles, my own fat, my own skin. We are tuned together. The words she sang I won’t tell you here, and anyway it doesn’t matter what she sang, does it? A prayer has the same effect whether you know its meaning or not. The how of a prayer being formed is more important than the what of it. I fall asleep before she finishes the song.
I wake up to the loud chuffing sniffs of a black bear a few inches from my face across a thin nylon tent flap. I freeze up, unable to do anything except listen to the bear’s ambling and the measured breathes of my college friend Danny sleeping beside me. He wakes up too and instantly grabs a cooking pot along with a wooden spoon to bang together while shouting Hey bear! Hey bear!
He unzips the tent’s flap and chases the bear into the unending stretch of black night encasing the Canadian boreal forest we are camping in. I peer out and briefly see his long, skinny legs before they fade into the tree line. He is wearing nothing but his tiny yellow shorts. I can hear faint echoes of his Hey bears! in the woods. If Danny wasn’t speaking English, I would’ve thought he was casting a powerful bear-repellant spell. I would’ve thought the rhythm of his pot-banging gave him some special bear fighting prowess. Is that what a prayer is, nothing but a simply stated please, leave my loved ones alone? Or is the prayer not the words but rather the act of yelling after a stronger, more able predator in nothing but your shorts while you jet into a vast and unknown night?
The bear came sniffing to our tent because I left a Twix wrapper in my pockets, I tell Danny when he comes back ten minutes later, sweaty and bramble-scratched.
It is February in the Texas panhandle. Calvin and I stand five miles west of Amarillo at an interstate onramp waiting all day to catch a ride. We are hitchhiking from Minnesota to Mexico City and trying to get there before our 19th birthdays. Calvin, who since Louisiana insists I call him Danger, holds a cardboard sign with “W3st” sharpied on it. It’s cold. We thought anything south of the Midwest would be warm in winter. Eventually a young and clean cut couple pull over and welcome us into their purple Toyota Previa. They blast the heat for us, offer us bottled water and Doritos, and ask about our travel plans. He is a cartoonist working on his first graphic novel, charming and funny with thick black-rimmed glasses. She is eight months pregnant and gentle. When she speaks, Danger and I both listen intently.
They recently graduated from Baylor University and are on their way to visit their parents in southern California before the birth. They make pleasant small talk until they drop us off at a Walmart parking lot in Santa Rosa, New Mexico. Before they leave they ask if they can pray for us. After years of a conservative Christian upbringing, I’ve had more than my fair share of Jesus. Watching people pray makes me embarrassed. Before I can tell them no, Danger says, I’m cool with it, and I acquiesce. They pray over us in the large parking lot. At some point in their praying the prayer becomes a physical thing with heft whose weight I could almost feel sliding into my pocket. Their prayer is a gift, like a coin from a foreign country that I visited a long time ago, whose architecture and smells are faint impressions in me, and whose language I have forgotten entirely. A coin that later, while trying to sleep sheltered from a rain storm under a brush pile beside Danger, I will take out to rub my thumb over. When they finish praying, I feel deeply safe for the first time in a year.
My two closest friends and I spend one of our first post-college summers running around Lake Superior—the world’s largest freshwater lake. It takes us 86 days to cover the 1,400 miles on foot. We average running twenty miles a day and however far we make it that day we stop and make camp and cook our dinner. We imagine ourselves as pilgrims, but instead of heading toward a faraway holy land we are circling the landscape and water we call home, joining a long tradition of curious perambulators. I’m convinced there can be no grammar holy enough to fulfill what our feet will simply do. I’m convinced if we use our feet to pray, if we spend enough time thinking about and moving around the object of our shared love, an answer equally as physical and solid will come down to us.
The pastor pays us a house visit. I’m six and my parents have told him that their youngest son is ready to give his life and soul to Jesus Christ. At the dinner table the pastor asks if it’s true, that I’ve honestly, and autonomously, accepted Christ into my heart as my lord and savior. I say yes, of course. While sitting, my head barely clears the tabletop. After I confirm, my parents’ smiles grow wider. Their eyes soften. My dad puts his arm on my mom’s shoulders. The pastor smiles too. I have made a whole room of adults incredibly pleased. I’m ready to be a devout Christian, the best pray-er. They make plans for me to be baptized in Lake Superior in three weeks. It isn’t until much later I realize that it’s not “Jesus Christ our bored complainer” but “Jesus Christ our lord and savior.” Do I get credit for at least trying to be a faithful copycat? Like how before the scene with the pastor, when I was five and paralyzed with fear in the shadow-rich living room during the dead of night in my pee-soaked underwear, I repeated all the words I had heard at the recent church Christmas pageant: Amen! Christ! Mercy! Mercy! Hark the herald! Hark! I had no idea what the words meant but eventually my loud shouting brought my mom to me. She cleaned me up and changed my sheets. Was I not delivered through the form of my ad hoc and parroted prayer?
In spring of my last year of college, I attend my grandpa’s funeral. Four years later, my grandma’s. At both, the pastors tells us the deceased had good lives, that they were loved, that it was their time to peacefully die. The pastors tell us to bow our heads and pray. I don’t. In the intervening years my friend Jonathan dies. He didn’t have a full life. He died young and far away from home, scared and alone. When the pastor tells the gathered to bow and pray, I do. I fall into the groove of the ritual of prayer. It’s the only thing that soothes the shock of a premature death.
Through a mixture of pleading and the promise of exceptional behavior, I convince my advisor to let me into a senior-level creative writing class my freshman year. It turns out to be the first college class I ever take. I sit among the polished and serious-looking seniors as we wait for the professor. When she arrives she swings open the door and strides in, books tucked under her left arm. The professor is wearing all black and waits just one moment before announcing, “My name is Sarah and we’re all going to die eventually!” before sitting down at the head of the table. She sees our stunned faces and lets out a loud laugh before proceeding to tell us all the things writing won’t do for us. “Writing won’t make anyone love you,” she says, “writing won’t make anyone sleep with you, it won’t make you any money, and it probably won’t even make you happy.”
“Well uh,” a student across from me ventures “what does it do?” Sarah looks around the table, smirks, then jumps into the details of the class syllabus.
A few years later I think I get the first sense of what Sarah meant in that unanswered pause. I read Timothy Donnelly’s long poem “Hymn to Life” in Poetry. My vision tunnels into the poem’s lines and everything else dissolves away. I’m having an ecstatic moment and I don’t notice until I read the last line of the poem, set the journal down, and see that my hands are shaking. What writing might do, what all life-altering art might do, is reverse the flow of prayer. It might backwash all my desire and careful utterances so that I am not speaking to something, but being spoken through. Writing itself might be a prayer in that it thins the veil between me and the god I have been so desperate to know.
I walk upstairs to g