I used to fall asleep without praying. For decades, I would crawl into bed, arrange my pillows into a fluffy mountain to keep my head elevated all night, turn immediately onto my side with my legs curled in sort of a tree pose, and drift off to a choppy dreamland often marked by sugarplum dreams dosed slightly with acid. There was something comforting about getting into bed and just being done. Though my mind would often spin with unanswered questions and unrequited longings, those thoughts were never linear and they certainly weren’t planned out and there was a freedom to my nighttime ritual I wish I could reclaim. Because the thing is, I don’t quite know what happened or even when it happened, but I pray every single night now and it takes me a while to do and, rather than feeling quieted by my prayers, they cause nocturnal anxiety. I think it’s probably that my prayers, though coated with gratitude, are also motivated by fears I spend all day pretending are not there. I speak of my family and my wishes for them and I ask for safety and protection for all of us and I pepper my words with a request that those I care about will be alleviated from whatever ails them. I pray that those I loved who have passed on are at peace and that they are together in a spiritual stratosphere I’m not even sure I believe exists, and I end with thoughts of appreciation. All of it is done in my head; I do it whether I’m alone in my bed or not, and I never really talk about it with anyone – about how I feel like I have to do it now, about the way it’s almost become a superstition, about how I’m not even sure it helps anything, about the way I’ve convinced myself it cannot possibly hurt.
If I prayed for you at one point, you probably remain in my nightly thoughts. I’ve never been all that good at the process of elimination.
There are certain things I just don’tshare all that easily and I guess the reason for my reluctance is pretty simple: they’re the things that cause me to feel temporary (but still momentarily paralyzing) paroxysms of shame. Shame, you see, is a tough one. I can totally temper my anger and I can quietly quell my joy, but my shame comes roaring out like breath that’s been laced with fire, as though I’ve instantly been transformed into one of those mythical beasts from literature and film that have always psychologically traumatized me for absolutely no good reason whatsoever. Shame happens, and I find myself emotionally and mentally pummeled by something I probably should have – and could have – avoided in the first place. Very rarely will I find the strength to turn my fury on the person who caused the actual distress to infiltrate my life. No, I am far too preoccupied with going inward so I can more effectively beat the shit out of myself until my brain and my stomach and my tear ducts become as bruised and abused as my heart.
It was only yesterday when one of my students arrived for class looking like he’d just suffered an emotional punch to the face by someone who had never allowed a gym membership to lapse. As usual, he was the second student to arrive, but this time everything was different. He usually drops off his stuff on his desk, collects the handouts needed for the day, and then heads back into the hallway so he can coo and cuddle with his girlfriend before the bell rings. Then they all but dramatically scream, “Fare thee well!” at one another and reluctantly part ways for the next thirty-eight minutes.
I never say anything to kids who are making out in the hallway. I sort of just avert my eyes so I won’t see tongues flying about because I’m pretty certain that kind of image would scar me. And I rarely to never ask students about how their romantic relationships are going because I used to have this odd and rather terrible habit of inquiring about the status of things on the very day one of them was broken up with by the other via text. I’ve never said a word to this particular student about his girlfriend before and I don’t even know her name, but the absolute light that shines from his eyes when she is anywhere in his line of vision is obvious. As an adult who knows how rare it is for high school love to last forever, I wish I could hold a hand up in front of my face the way I did the first time I saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre because I just know the certain carnage that lies ahead.