When I woke,
I was alone.
I was thinking:
so this is how you swim inward,
so this is how you flow outward,
so this is how you pray.
Mary Oliver, excerpt from “Five A.M. in the Pinewoods”
When I was living in Nicaragua, in my late 20s, I spent so much of my time there feeling lonesome. There was the problem of language--my Spanish was poor, and the problem of money--I had so little that I had trouble finding safe rooms to live in. One late evening I was using my last precious calling card minutes to talk with my friend David who was back home in New York. There is no question in my mind that I was probably complaining about something. While we were talking, a wet, dead rat fell out of my cardboard ceiling and landed at the foot of my bed with a splat. It was the same bed I was sitting in. “David! Some kind of dead rodent just fell out of the ceiling and landed on my bed.” He was even more hysterical than I, and suggested we get to work air-lifting me out of there immediately. Feeling as lonesome as I did then, I can still remember how good it felt to laugh with him on the phone. I faced the large, dead rat only half alone.
In Nicaragua, each day there I was introduced to the inspiring, life-giving work of the organization I was working with, funded, in part, by my denomination. The people I worked alongside and learned from were exceptional--brilliant, bright, faithful, and incredibly patient with me. In nearly every interaction I had there, I always felt a little bit alone. This was no one’s fault, only the normal feeling any stranger in a strange land has in a situation like the one I was in. I always had the sense that I couldn’t fully show them who I was, and in turn, I couldn’t ever fully know them for all they were. I was simultaneously surrounded by people I deeply respected and wanted to know, and exhausted at the end of every day from all the effort trying. In some very raw and human way, even as lonesome as I was, the best part of every day was making it back into my own room and shutting my bedroom door for a long night, finally alone. God was my closest companion during that time. There was no language barrier with god, no getting frustratingly lost in translation. And there was no smartphone or texting or streaming to hide behind. I cried every day. I prayed constantly. I wrote to god while also feeling like god was writing the story too. It’s funny how we can, in hindsight, look back on an incredibly difficult time and remember it with fondness. When I lived there all I wanted was to go home, and here I am typing away about how close I felt to god and how that time was a true crucible for learning to love myself and coming to know myself as unconditionally loved.
I have experienced intense times of loneliness in my life. The lump in my throat when my parents dropped me off at college comes to mind. The disorienting loneliness I experienced traveling and living abroad. And that painful distance I have felt in some of my closest relationships, even in my own strong marriage. And despite the near-constant presence of those I love completely, I have felt so lonesome in this illness too.
But I have never felt all the way alone. In my earliest memories, I’ve had an always-present sense of god within me, close to me, hitched to me the way my breath is. This benevolent presence is not something I earned or was owed or applied for or remember receiving at some discrete moment in time. God’s loving presence has just been a truth of my life, and it’s been in the emptier, slowed-down, or even painful times I can feel this divine love and the strength of her company the most.
In seminary there was always this theological question that we students would pivot back to again and again--does prayer influence outcomes or does prayer (simply or not so simply) change the one who is praying? Both? I hope prayer has the power to influence outcomes, and I know prayer has changed me. Softened my rough edges, slowed down my anger, increased my capacity to hope, provided courage, and many other things I’m not even aware of. My understanding of what prayer is has changed in my adult years, I used to polish my prayers I would offer publicly when I worked in churches. There is nothing wrong with that, but it’s not really my jam anymore. My dad wrote a song called The Prayer of a Desperate Man. It was never listed on the Billboard charts, but people tell me often, at the grocery store or in the BNA airport, that that’s a song that changed them. One of the lyrics is “He’s known me from my birth, and I think he roams the earth for the prayer of a desperate man, ‘cause that’s what he understands.”
This is an exhausting, emotional illness. I am experiencing life at half-mast a lot of the time. In the same way as attempting to communicate in a language I don’t really speak, it can be lonely trying to translate how I see and what I feel to others. My prayers these days are pretty desperate, completely unpolished, and so immense they aren’t even offered in words, just tears. But what pulls me out of my fear and loneliness are prayers of thanksgiving--naming what I am grateful for--habitually, outrageously, daily. With these prayers, I swim inward, flow outward, and draw nearer to the Love who created me, surrounds me, resides within me. And it is the same Love who will carry me into that great beyond, I believe and I pray.
With love, tallu