Sunday, August 22, 2004

Pray Tell

Late afternoon. She squats in a small west-facing clearing at the margins of the wooded river bank, a tangled scrim of weed and vine between her and the bright meadow. Another universe fills the camera lens, black shadows threading through a world of green. She thinks of the pink and blue cellular geographies that she scanned through her microscope lens in school, the same geographies that she seemed to see palisade through autumn sky at sunset after her long hours in the lab. She thinks of prayer flags on isolated mountaintops. Worlds within worlds, within and without.

The long pods in the tree overhead wave in the wind. Their movement reminds her of laundry hung out to dry, or curtains blown inward. Or prayer flags. What is prayer ? Wind inspiriting fabric. Breath moving through creature, the made thing. Breath animating dust. Homely as now I lay me down to sleep. Words for perilous junctures: wakefulness and sleep, health and sickness, being and non-being. The first prayer, the child's prayer, is a petition of the kindly parent, of the fierce protective father. It is the prayer that springs to the lips in all subsequent moments of peril.

Hanging things, seed filled, made for wind. For disseminating. Any text or speech is like a seed, taking root in the recipient's mind. And a prayer ? Where does it take root ? In a desert, on a lonely mountaintop. If a tree falls in a forest and there's no one there, does it still make a sound ? She'd always found that question absurd, sophomoric, based on ill-stated assumptions. And prayer ? It is not so simple as mouth and ear.

So is prayer a soliloquoy ? She peers at the seedhead, astonished at its beauty and intricacy. No soliloquoy, this. It is pure colloquoy. She lowers the camera. The grass field undulates in the wind. Pollen scatters. Seeds fall to the ground. The field browns, dies, lies fallow under snow. Regrows in spring. Chorale, not solo. Multiple chorales, assonant, dissonant, infinitely polyphonic. Field, ocean, planet, galaxy, universe. The many turned to one. The one turned to many.

Who can separate the eye from the vivid purple of the vetch ? They are co-conspirators in prayer, made for one another. What was that Buddhist phrase ? Dependant origination. Arising in tandem. Light moves between them, Holy Spirit.

And light invades the substance of the leaf. The leaf's prayer ? Green. The eye replies: Amen

Ailanthus. Tree of life. Hardy, urban, ubiquitous. She loves its seeds, the bunched samaras, each with its cyclops eye, each ending in a twisty little dollop. A lumbering metaphor, a compendium of stories. A pantheon, a bible.

Nature bristles. Earlier, she'd stood by the small inlet, watching ducks. A man and woman approached, with a plastic bag full of bread. The ducks, keen for a handout, swarmed close. The man and woman threw bread and smiled, happy to be feeding, happy to be engaging the birds. Generous, eager for connection. The woman turned to her, shy, and said Nature can be so beautiful sometimes . Nature bristles. We bristle back.

There's something nuptial about this whole enterprise, she thinks. Pale green, dangling ribbon. A big bridal bouquet, a wedding night, a charivari. How is a prayer like a wedding ? That sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. I do meets Thy will be done. Not so much a consent to what is, but a vow to clearly see what is.

Even the smallest twig hangs, anchored. Gravity, the ground bass of creation. Tufted seeds fly aloft, then land.

Here green and dun coexist. There are no nursing homes in nature. A bud and a bone make equal claims on beauty. In the psalms, the sublimest adoration follows the most anguished, outraged curse.

Humans were swift to harness gravity. The gibbet, the gallows: tree as prototype. Archetype. She thinks of how the hanged seem to cock their heads, as if curious, incredulous. An accident of gravity and biomechanics, to be sure. But still. How could you ?

How could we ? Images, each worse than the next, arise in her mind, as if from graves that open at midnight and disgorge ghouls. She thinks of leaders, powerful men. Her president, whose discourse always bring the psalmist's words to mind: His throat is an open grave. Arms dealers, jailers, warlords, profiteers. It is a dark age. Has it always been so ? No wonder she sees hanged people on a dead branch. It has already been noted: Strange fruit. Pity us, forgive us, she prays (prays?) our estrangement.

And further prays Forgive me for seeing hanged men's twitching legs in these back-lit maple samaras, a literary and metaphysical transgression. They are not keyholes, either. Or eyes.

Help me simply to see curve, and color. Pattern and structure. Light, shadow, delicacy, intricacy. Then I'll ask: what is that ? Speech fails. Prayer begins.

But who could live within such a wordless prayer ? Who would want to ? The dry, faded grass forms graceful banners against a background of straight twigs. Intrinsically beautiful to the eye, she thinks, and beautiful in the evocation of flags, those valiant human attempts to write text on wind. But these banners remind her of crusaders' flags. The banners of war, religious war.

Then what about berries, silhouetted against snow ? Round, discrete, engaging. More Basho than Donne or Herbert. More koan than credo.

But, being human, she can't forego the stories, the metaphors, the associations. They're hardwired. Delicious. Seductive as a candy house in the forest. Who's that looking out the window ? Kindly crone ? Hungry witch ? River serpent ?

Through the fence she sees the used car lot. A man is grilling meat. Plastic flags in red white and blue flap above him. Red white and blue balloons sway like showy flower spikes among the cars. A plume of smoke ascends, savory, propitiating, petitioning. We will give them this day, it announces, that which is fully loaded. The absurdities of dailiness, always grinning just beyond the hedge.

She thinks back. It was an early, cloudy Sunday morning in June. The playground was empty. School was out, and the children's garden was a fallow mess of blackened tomato plants and smashed gourds. A small sundial stood in the middle. It was a sunless, timeless morning. Two rows of pendant thetas dangled from a crossbar on the gymn. She listened and heard kindertotenlied. One of the most anguished prayers possible.

She could try, next time, to fashion her prayer from ascent.

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