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whatever prayer is; whoever God is
(it all comes up, somehow)
In the interest of accessibility, I wanted to try including an audio version of these essays. And, hey, even if you’re able-eyed, maybe you can put down the screen and listen while you take a walk. XOXO - S
Gardening with kids is never as idyllic as we’re made to believe. There is an almost scripted order of events that one can expect, with most of the requisite steps falling under the umbrella of “leaves something to be desired.”
The liturgy looks like this: missplaced seeds, spilt water pails, minor injuries (theirs), flying spades, wayward limbs, more injuries (yours), power struggles, persistent begging, and more than a few expletives muttered under your now sweaty upper lip.
But in between that predictable rhythm, something terribly unpredictable happens: there is a moment — maybe two moments, but no more than that, don’t be greedy — that you catch each other’s eyes, squinting in the sun, wipe your faces with matching soil-stained hands, and share a wild, reckless grin. The grin of the gods. The grin of those who know they hold life and death in the palm of their hands.
My own children’s interest in gardening appears to be indirectly correlated to how many more interesting options are available to them at the time in question. But yesterday my five-year-old wanted to help transfer seedlings, motivated primarily by the luxurious promise of an endless supply of his beloved cucumbers.
We worked to the steady beat of his chatter. Oscar is not the kind of conversationalist who requires a worthy partner. He is the fourth son born to a very exhausted set of parents. Independent does not begin to describe it: at this point the child could probably secure a part-time job on his own, much less carry a conversation. He is perfectly capable of balancing a lengthy dialogue on a single-handed silver platter. So while he talked, I thought.
“What is prayer?” a podcast host had asked me earlier in the day. A tricky question, sure, but one she could rightfully suppose to be fair game for an author who was on the show to promote a prayer book, after all. Ten years ago, I would have had a better answer for her: something slick, seamless. An acknowledgement of mystery sandwiched between smug certainty. Oh but not these days. These days I’ve long been stripped of the spiritual hubris that once kept me cozy and satisfied on the darkest nights.
These days all I know is that when you plant a seed, sometimes it comes up and sometimes it doesn’t. And accepting whichever one I happen to get at any given moment is the most I know of prayer.
I study the rows of compostable starter pots strewn out before us, some sprouting green promises, others a barren wasteland of silent black soil.
My son doesn’t notice the ones that don’t come up. He’s perfectly satisfied with the ones that do.
In our home we have a little board book entitled The Carrot Seed, by Ruth Krauss. It is one of the select few books in the children’s literary canon that has stood the test of time, having been published in 1945, a contemporary of classics like Goodnight Moon and Harold and the Purple Crayon. In the brief tale, a little boy not unlike my Oscar obtains and confidently plants a single carrot seed. Somewhat inexplicably, everyone in his life tells him it won’t come up. Over and over again, his family members one by one prepare the child for the worst — not by any merit of the situation, but by the tenaciously guarded fears they themselves hold.
Prayer is “oneing” ourselves with God, Julian of Norwich wrote in the 15th century. And oh how I agree with her when I’m kneeling before my altar in the mornings, lighting candles and crossing myself and sprinkling holy water onto dried flowers in a tiny wooden chalice, chanting “Remember, O Most Gracious Virgin…”
But who gives a fuck about oneing when you’re praying for a friend with breast cancer and her little boys who are trying to make sense of the world when they lay their heads down at night? Then, any idea of oneing is insufficient mumbo jumbo. Then, I want the magic words; the bargaining chip; the superstition. Tell me the equation and I’ll perform it. I’ll say every bit of it just right.
No, I don’t know much of prayer. I don’t know much of prayer at all.
Back to The Carrot Seed.
Nonplussed by the haters, our diminuitive hero waters the seed faithfully, pulls up the weeds around it dutifully. Waits. And waits some more. Then one day an enormous carrot comes up, “just as the little boy had known it would.”
I watched as Oscar ran through the yard, the energy of possibility coursing through his legs, propelling him to investigate one sunny spot, then another. Finding one that garnered his approval, he endeavored to carry his pots over, one by one. Lined a fortress of white stones around them to keep the chickens out. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it wouldn’t be sufficient, because god he’s beautiful, the way his bare chest stretches taut when he runs. Not a care in the world. Not a doubt that all shall be well.
My son knows the carrot will come up, just like the boy in the book knows it; just like every child since the beginning of time has known it.
“If only I had the faith of a child,” I thought, the writer in me lunging for a metaphor. And right there, thighs itching from the blades of grass under my flesh, I understood.
I am not the child.
God is the child.
And all things will come up. Just as the child knew they would.
If buying a book of prayers from an author who just told you she doesn’t know anything about prayer sounds good to you, you can check out my latest book here. But since it’s also almost Mother’s Day I should probably tell you to look at this one as well.