December 3, 2012 / Creative Writing
In “Prayer as Definition,” the poet Nicholas Samaras meditates on the essence of prayer as both conversation and communion, even with the barest of words.
November 2, 2015
I. Breast, n.
either of the pair of mammary glands extending from the front of the chest in pubescent and adult human females and some other mammals
the seat of emotion and thought
When my breasts started to develop in early puberty, I thought I had cancer. On a family visit to my grandparents’ house, ducked into their low-ceilinged basement shower one midmorning, I noticed that my breasts felt different. They were lumpy. I could feel a mass inside of each one. All day, I paced around the house trying to check my worried expression before someone asked what was wrong. Even more horrifying than the thought of imminent death was the prospect of talking about my breasts and their—what could I call them?—mysterious growths. Back then I knew how to pray, and I prayed fervently that God would heal me before I’d ever have to tell anyone what was wrong.
Months later, once I noticed that my body was changing in all the ways we’d learned about in the girls-only movie in the school library, I would look in the bathroom mirror and chuckle nervously at myself and the memory of my terror. Then I’d reach behind my back and gather the fabric of my shirt in my hand, pulling it to stretch taut across my chest. I waited and watched for the day when the gentle curve of my breasts would be sufficient to hold the fabric that stretched between them out away from my chest, a cotton bridge spanning flesh to flesh.
One afternoon, John, a leader in our church and a family friend, was spending time at our house, as he often did. He told us a story. Once, when he was in junior high, he borrowed his sister’s polo shirt. It was a green, unisex shirt, he said. It could have just as easily been his. Except when he got to school, his friends started to look at him strangely, and then someone cracked a joke. His sister’s shirt was stretched into her shape, contoured to her breasts. On John, the well-worn fabric bagged around his adolescent chest. The limp cloth betrayed his gender-crossing treachery. Telling the story, he laughed. We all did. And then he delivered the punch line: “But that wouldn’t have happened if I’d borrowed a shirt from Shea!”
I was small-breasted, always, and I almost never minded. My family and church background had taught me to value self-control and chastity, so it worked out fine for me that my breasts were unobtrusive. I prided myself on my conservative dress and careful navigation of relationships. When my ninth-grade boyfriend whispered “I love you” in my ear at the homecoming dance, I steered him into a cafeteria chair and told him I needed to slow down. The following summer, when I went on the first real dates of my life with a charming, handsome farm boy, I loved every minute, except for all the minutes I thought he might be about to kiss me.
By tenth-grade homecoming, I was single again. I was still pining after my farmboy, but I was going to the dance with some friends, and we were determined to have a good night. I had found the most beautiful dress. It was midnight blue velvet, floor length, and halter style, with a sheer back. Along the halter line from the underarm to the meeting of neck and shoulder ran an inch-wide chiffon trim studded with rhinestone-centered flowers. I was a little self-conscious about that trim, because it was sheer like the back of the dress, and it ran along the far sides of my breasts, but I told myself I was being overly cautious as usual.
At the dance, I walked around greeting friends and trading the required but sincere compliments: I love your dress! Your hair looks beautiful! Wow, your earrings are amazing! I saw my friend Corey, who was often hilarious and absurd and cynical all at once. He was also gay, though I can’t remember if I knew that yet. “Wow, Shea,” he said, looking me up and down. “Look at you, showing some boobage,” and he poked me in the almost-armpit almost-breast, that sheer strip traversing the line between silliness and sex.
“Corey!” I said and flushed. I spent the rest of the night trying to tell myself that he was being ridiculous and that no one else would give my now naked-feeling breasts a second thought.
That winter, the winter I was fifteen, John touched my breasts one night while I was sleeping. I woke up confused, my mind casting about for explanations for what was happening. And then I turned over, and he stopped. Somehow, later, I went back to sleep.
I walked through the next days feeling stunned, desperately trying to understand. The word abuse crossed my mind, but I ruled it out. This was John—whom I loved, who loved me, who was revered in our family, community, and church. It wasn’t possible that he would do something so hurtful, so wrong.
A year later, John told his therapist what he did. He did not know about mandated reporters, but he learned. We all did: the next day I sat in a small conference room with two police officers and a representative from child protective services, and I had to figure out how to say the word breasts out loud.
During my first week of college, I met Adrian. Though we never exactly dated, we were virtually inseparable for that school year, and we did a lot of cuddling. Adrian was the first person I voluntarily told about the abuse. (Abuse: another word I was trying to learn to say.) I carefully omitted what exactly John had touched, but it didn’t matter. Adrian heard me. And what he heard was a story so like his own that he lay down on his dorm room bed and cried, great sobs wracking his beautiful body.
Later that winter, I was asleep in my dorm room one night when Adrian and another friend of ours knocked on the door. My roommate let them in, and Adrian came over to my bed to say hello. Through the dark of night and the fog of sleep, I couldn’t quite figure out why he was there, why he wasn’t leaving when he saw that I was in bed, why he was tickling me in my half sleep. He knew I didn’t like to be tickled—I had asked him not to do it in the past—but that night, he wouldn’t stop. I stumbled out of bed. Then, pushed back by the force of the tickling and my futile efforts to escape, I clambered back up onto my bed and stood pressed against the wall, trying to fend him off. My roommate and our other friend were in the room, laughing and helping nominally in the tickle-attack. But really it was just Adrian, and it was strangely aggressive, and my laughing protests seemed to evaporate into the dark room. The entire time, I was aware of my bare breasts against the inside of my sweatshirt—I had not, of course, been sleeping in a bra—and I worried that his fingers, relentlessly digging into my sides, could feel the bareness of my skin.
II. Tongue, n.
a fleshy movable, muscular process of the floor of the mouths of most vertebrates that bears sensory end organs and small glands and functions especially in taking and swallowing food and in humans as a speech organ
ecstatic usually unintelligible utterance usually accompanying religious excitation—usually used in plural
During winter break of my first year of college, a few days before the new year, I got baptized in the pool of a central Illinois hotel. I was at a conference for college kids, one that promised to revive our faith and outfit us to storm the spiritual battlefields of our various Midwestern campuses. Though faith had remained at the center of my life, I had been feeling down about it pretty much constantly since about four years before, when little doubts and discomforts started worming their way into my praise choruses and quiet times. The Christian fellowship group I found in college met these questions with prayer and tears, pleas for God’s power to set things right, and the practice of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. They explained to me that this ecstatic speech would cover all the prayers we didn’t know to pray.
All year, I had leaned into my faith and my group with as much commitment as I could muster. I didn’t know how to speak in tongues, but I prayed in all the ways I knew how: I woke up early in the mornings to spend time with God, sing, journal, and read the Bible. I sought accountability partners. I fasted. I told people about Jesus. None of it seemed to be helping in any way that I could see, but I knew God worked in mysterious ways; I knew my job was to be obedient. And so I packed myself off to the conference.
The hotel was crawling with college kids. We flooded into the exhibition hall in the mornings to sing songs and hear the day’s lesson, which we scribbled furiously in our notebooks. In the late mornings and early afternoons, we went to breakout sessions on worship team–building, campus evangelism, or the book of Revelation. After dinners of limp salads and every kind of chicken, we stormed the exhibition hall again to hear the keynote speaker, Damon.
Damon had the whole getup: expensive-looking suit, dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar, classy belt buckle, slick hair, smooth voice. He spoke without notes and never stumbled. He told stories, clipped his consonants and lingered over his vowels, ramped up the volume, paused before the clinching line. He rationed his million-dollar smile, and we would’ve waited for it all night long.
We started each evening with an hour of singing, and then Damon spoke at length, working his way from stories and deft Bible-quoting to prophecies and altar calls. A few nights in, Damon preached on following Christ with abandon, calling each of us into self-surrender for the glory of God.
Yes, I thought. I am in. And when he cued the band to lead us in singing our devotion, I stood, closed my eyes, lifted my hands, opened my heart, and told God, You can have everything.
With my eyes still closed, I saw God sitting on a great throne, towering above me. And as I laid myself low, an offering before him, I saw his great hand extend, hesitate, and then brush me away. And I felt in my bones the words the gesture implied: no thanks.
I gasped and opened my eyes. Is it demons? I wondered. Could I be possessed? Or a somehow more frightening thought: Maybe I am so far gone, so hardened to the love of God, that God can’t even reach me here. And then the most frightening thought of all: Or maybe it’s true. Maybe God really doesn’t want me. And this last thought sent me circling back to the first.
As is my tendency, I reckoned with my emotional confusion through logic. I decided to think hard, to search my soul, and to eliminate any possibility of disobedience. What did I know God called people to do that I hadn’t done? And it came to me: baptism. Which is why my alarm went off at 5:30 the next morning, and why my friends met me at the pool, and why I got dunked and prayed over, my eyes burning with chlorine: because I didn’t want God to reject me anymore.
That night, the second-to-last night of the conference, Damon pulled out the big-gun prophecies and altar calls at the end of his long message. “If you ever struggle with homosexual feelings,” Damon boomed into the microphone, “come before the Lord and be healed.” And a young man leapt from his chair and ran forward, and Damon placed his hands on the young man’s head and spoke in tongues and commanded demons—“in the name of Jesus Christ, come out!”—and the man fell to the ground, slain in the Spirit, and someone covered him with a thin blue blanket. And then a few more people stood and walked forward, a beautiful giant of a man, a wiry woman in a flowing skirt, a short, nerdy-looking kid. I buried my head in my arms. I couldn’t watch Damon’s hands fall on their heads, couldn’t watch them fall to the ground.
Later that night, Damon invited anyone who had been a victim of abuse to come forward and receive healing prayer. I went forward, but I did not go because I was longing for healing. I went forward because I felt so adrift that week, so intrigued by the prophecy and the healing and the glossolalia and the passion, even drawn to it, but also afraid of it. I went forward because I could not figure out where God was, and in case God was waiting at that altar, I figured I shouldn’t stay in my seat.
When I arrived at the altar—the edge of the rented stage—I found myself in the company of dozens and dozens of college students, almost all of them women. I noted this, but I was not especially surprised. I stayed for a song or two and I tried to pray, but mostly I kept wondering what my friends were thinking of me from their seats. I had never told any of them about being abused. No one, before or since, ever asked.
III. Fuck, trans.
to engage in coitus with—sometimes used interjectionally with an object (as a personal or reflexive pronoun) to express anger, contempt, or disgust
to deal with unfairly or harshly
The first day of my last year of college, I called Kristine, a counselor and spiritual director, to schedule our first appointment. I didn’t stop shaking until three in the morning, when I finally fell asleep.
When I met Kristine a week later, I told her about John. I explained to her that I had been fine—or nearly fine—for years but that now it seemed I was writhing in pain, every day uncovering new losses. I told her about my family, how we were finally rejecting some of the denial we had practiced for years. I told her about the professor who was mentoring me in my college’s pre-seminary program, how he was kind and attentive and encouraging, and how I couldn’t plan to meet him for coffee without being seized by anxiety. I told her how I hadn’t really wanted to touch anyone I’d dated. I was finally learning to trace the long line of causes and effects in my story, like finding familiar footprints miles from the trail you thought they had taken, realizing they’d been dogging you all along.
I liked Kristine because she was gentle and loving, because she talked about God in ways that made God seem gentle and loving too. But I loved Kristine because, during one session when I was sputtering angrily and searching for words that felt strong enough, she gave me her most direct, searching look and said, “John fucked up.”
I was flooded with such relief and gratitude I wanted to hug her or cry or both, but I couldn’t. I also couldn’t say it back to her, but when she asked me, “Have you said that? Have you said, ‘John fucked up?’” I managed a nod. I had. I was learning how.
During another session, I confessed to Kristine that I wasn’t sure I believed in healing; I wasn’t sure that anything ever came together. It looked to me like disintegration was the way of the world. I found myself telling her the story of that New Year’s conference from four years before. I wondered and worried about some of those women standing around me during the abuse altar call. What if they came forward because they were hungry for healing, for freedom from the fallout? And what if they found themselves still broken, afterward? What if they still felt afraid to get on the elevator back to their rooms that night? What if they found out the next day that their abusers had hurt someone new, or that their own woundedness had cost them another friend or lover? What if brokenness piled on brokenness, abuse piled on abuse, the sins of the fathers were visited upon their children to the third and fourth generations? How could Damon call on God to heal with a divine snap of the fingers something that can invade and spread and lay claim like a cancer?
As I reckoned, that year, with so many stories, I had a campus job working for the grounds department. In the mornings, I walked around campus with a five-gallon bucket and a trash-picker. In the afternoons, I weeded gardens or cut back hostas or mowed grass. And while I paced between sleepy dorms before sunrise or lost myself in hidden flower beds, a new kind of pacing began to convict my aching heart. I started to notice how the trees grow, which is to say, I didn’t notice them growing at all, yet they were growing. Under my hands, the perennials died, slept, grew back, flourished, and turned brittle again, but that process took an entire year, and the movement was never in any moment visible. The seasons crept one into the next. Change was slow.
The trees grew into my conversations with Kristine too.
“Maybe healing is like the trees,” I ventured one morning. She sipped her tea, and I glanced at my cup, steaming, on the table next to us. Beside it was the candle that she always lit to remind us of the Holy Spirit.
“Slow,” she said, to be sure she was with me. “Growing.”
“Right,” I said. “But Damon didn’t get that,” I told her. She nodded in agreement.
“God’s movement is gentle,” she said. “God does not force or coerce. God invites.” I sensed we weren’t just talking about Damon. I broke eye contact, nodded, and reached for my tea.
This is what Damon didn’t know or refused to remember: most of God’s world changes and grows over months or years or generations or millennia. As far as I can tell, we humans and our matters of heart, soul, and mind are the same. Just as one seed of a nonnative species can eventually affect an entire ecosystem, so one sin or one act of kindness can blaze on into forever. And so change and healing are often necessarily slow, so slow you can’t always be sure whether you’re settling into autumn or rising into spring.
IV. Yes, part of speech undefined
used as a function word to express assent or agreement
When I first met Drew during my first year of seminary, I didn’t like him. And then I did, very much, in ways that filled me with both exultation and dread. For months, I woke up every morning sick with anxiety, but I also couldn’t wait to get to campus to search out his bicycle in the rack, his dark mop of curls in the back of the lecture hall.
On Valentine’s Day, Drew called me after a party he attended with friends. I sat in the stairwell of my apartment, and we talked about nothing. And then, emboldened by Valentine’s wine, he asked me about the presence he had sensed on the edges of some of my stories and in the margins of some of my writing.
“What’s his name?” he asked, trying to sound casual.
I looked up into the high ceiling of the stairwell that I knew would catch and echo my voice, took a deep breath, and told him: “John.”
After three more weeks, Drew and I finally confessed aloud our interest in each other. Three days after that, we skipped class to walk in a park full of towering trees and the gentle shush of running water. After a hike around the perimeter, we found a place to sit together in the pebbly sand next to the creek. Drew put his arm around me, and I started shaking. And I knew I had to tell him then, right there, even though I didn’t know if he’d be willing to weather such a sure storm when we had so little behind us.
I talked for a long time, staring at my hands as they picked up bits of sand and dropped it again. The sand left my fingers shiny with tiny mica fragments that wouldn’t brush off. When I finished talking, there was a long pause. And then I said, “So where are you after all that?” And he said, “I’m here, next to you. And I want to be.”
In the cautious conversation that followed, Drew told me that he cared a lot about bodies. “Just think of the incarnation,” he told me, wonder in his voice. If God taking on human flesh had such enormous significance, he reasoned, then what we do with our bodies must also be enormously significant. He told me he had no problem asking me what was and wasn’t OK.
A few days later, he told me, “I enjoy taking you seriously,” and I could have wept.
Like everyone, Drew had his own ghosts. They weren’t the same as mine, but they haunted us too. It was a long, painful road, at once the essential continuation of the healing work I’d started with Kristine and also a new tearing open that left us both raw. Drew asked me, and asked me, and asked me how I felt, and what I thought, and if I wanted to. And sometimes I said no. And sometimes, little by little, I said yes.
But healing was hard work. We both grew blurry and exhausted, weary of healing’s grueling pace. One day, we took a walk between classes and wandered down into a creek bed under a bridge. We sat on a fallen log and tried to find the words to speak to each other. I looked around at the trees, some of them bigger around than we could reach together, some tiny seedlings a few inches tall. I wanted to draw strength from their slow, sheltering lives, but all I could see was the death everywhere, the decaying leaves and limbs that were required to feed life, the fallen tree we sat on, the gaping wounds we wore, our pained and smarting silence.
A few days before the next Valentine’s Day, we broke up. Two-and-a-half months later, we sat on the side of a mountain and talked about what we needed if we were going to be together. “I realized while we were apart,” I told Drew, “that I was terrified that the most attractive thing about me was John. That story. Those wounds. We can’t live that way anymore.”
Drew was wild with agreement, but he weighed his words before responding. “There will never again be a time,” he said, gently insistent, “when that story matters more than our story.”
We talked until we got hungry, and then we went for a wildly expensive dinner, and then we danced in the parking lot of my apartment complex, and the whole time, we were talking, and we were bold, and we were our own. When Drew asked if he could kiss me, I said, “Not yet.” But when we took our time this time, it was for us.
In my favorite photo from our wedding day, Drew is standing straight and easy, facing me. I am leaning in to kiss him, my arms open, our hands clasped. There is a tree behind us that I’m not sure we even noticed that day. It is enormous, towering far out of the frame of the photo. Its trunk is vast. Its history stretches back so much further than ours. Everyone knows that it is growing, changing, reaching higher, thickening ring by slender ring. It has taken what seems like forever. It has taken so fucking long. Still, all we say, when we notice it at all, is that it’s beautiful. We can’t stop saying how beautiful it is.
Shea Tuttle writes poems, essays, recipes, letters, and grocery lists, and she blogs about parenting and liturgy here. She lives in central Virginia with her husband, daughter, and son.