March 20, 2014 / Creative Writing
Tyler McCabe grieves the death of his cousin and considers how the body conducts pain.
February 6, 2013
I prayed better when the children were small, when we spread out the crayons in the center of the dining table and crafted leaf rubbings. When we modeled shapes from colored beeswax, and I’d find miniature wax cats and roses tucked in between the books on the shelves. When the children pushed little trains on those wooden tracks, figure eights, towns built of blocks, trees crafted of paper. Whole worlds passed on the dining table, on the floor, while I prayed.
I prayed better when I gardened, digging my tiny urban plot that grew almost nothing but lettuce—nine kinds of lettuce, which I loved. I prayed while I sifted the compost from our kitchen scraps, while finding that last year’s peach pit had become a baby tree. I prayed when I found strawberries in my herb patch. I prayed when the neighbors drove me crazy.
I prayed better when I walked, praying better than ever when that first mile passed and all the fury dissolved into rhythm and beach sand and lapping waves.
I also prayed better during the year when I suffered migraines, because, well, what else can you do? When the buzzing set into the bridge of my nose, I brought out my yarn-making tools. Spinning yarn with a hand spindle involves pacing, rhythm. The left hand holds a fluff of wool at eye level while the right hand turns a small disk attached to a stick, like a wheel and axle. The weight of the spindle pulls down while the twist travels up into the fluff. The headaches made me irritable, snappish, filled with dread, but the yarn-making buffered the horror and kept me tethered as I prayed to outlive the pain, praying for others whose headaches get far worse. I could spin while weeping, while shaking. Sometimes it seemed like the spindle did the praying for me, turning, working when I couldn’t. Baskets were filled with beautiful yarns, and then the yarn was knitted and wrapped into projects of all kinds, bits of prayers woven in. The migraines resolved. I haven’t suffered such pain for years.
I wonder now if I prayed better during the years I was a grad student, my head filling with stories and plotlines and all the reading I could gather. I prayed while driving children to and from lessons and school, and I prayed as I pulled my pen across page after page.
I try, now, not to let my prayers be full of worry about teenagers. The crayon box fills with dust. The yard is for whiffle ball, not lettuce. Now I make my own deadlines, and I teach, and I sometimes take on students’ whole lives, whole classrooms of lives. I still pray when I drive. I still pray when I walk. I spin yarn sometimes, only for the pleasure of my fingers, and I pray thanks for simple beauties, textures, colors passing through my hands.
My Buddhist friend tells me all we ever have is this very breath. When this breath is passed, all we have is this very breath, again. I may never be a disciplined woman of prayer, but I don’t need to pray any better than this: I can breathe, here, a breath of thanks. I don’t need to pray any better. I just need to pray.
Denise Frame Harlan
Denise Frame Harlan writes from her home on the edge of The Great Marsh in Ipswich, Massachusetts. When she is not writing, she teaches incoming students at Gordon College. When she is not writing or teaching, she is spinning yarn or making fun snacks with teenagers who are getting taller by the day.