I was running on the treadmill, my legs struggling to keep up with the fast moving belt, when I looked up and saw a plane through the window. My eyes tracked the thumb-sized aircraft as it climbed slowly across the sky until – poof – it was gone, swallowed by a cloud. I let out a small gasp, my eyes scanning to where the plane might exit the clouds, hoping to see it emerge again. There it is, still visible but partially cloaked in haze, there it goes again, vanished into the white and grey.
It kept happening, plane after plane, ascending, passing in front of the clouds, then disappearing, then reemerging, then disappearing again. They all made the same journey, and something about it stirred me uncomfortably. I felt sadness when they vanished; I kept returning my eyes to the same place, hoping for another sighting.
“I am looking for a spiritual practice to ground me,” my friend told me between bites of red beans and rice.
“Oh,” I said, racking my brain. In theory I should have had an easy response ready as the resident, practicing Christian in the conversation, but I couldn’t find anything more to say.
My friend and I sat knee-to-knee, thankful for the chance to talk while others entertained our children around the table. It had been the best kind of night. Cold, windy, but cozy inside the dark restaurant where votive candles flickered and the air hummed with clinking glasses and flatware. We had just come from my friend’s graduation ceremony, and our whole wild crew clustered around a table in the back, the kind with a lazy Susan in the middle so we could share family-style heaping plates of pulled pork, collard greens, and cornbread.
Despite the fullness of that scene, I felt hollow as I looked at my friend with her clear desire to connect with God, her eyes bright, her family and friends surrounding her at the table. I wondered if a better Christian would have set down her glass of red wine then and there, ready to talk about daily prayer and bible reading.
I haven’t been that kind of Christian in a long time, and in that moment I felt aware of all I have lost these last few years. How numb I have felt, how alone. I tried to remember what that was like, to yearn for spiritual disciplines, to spend each morning writing out prayers to God in my spiral-bound journal.
Part of me wants to start praying again like I used to, but I don’t know where to begin. It’s like re-entering a room where you spent much time long ago, except everything is dusty and unused and you can’t remember where anything is.
I had the awkward experience of someone praying over me at a writing conference. I closed my eyes and tried to listen to her words but my thoughts kept ping-ponging around the room, wondering if she was just talking to air. But then she quoted from Isaiah and my body quieted. She spoke about oaks of righteousness and I hugged my knees to my chest, my nose and eyes running, while words of God’s love and goodness swirled in the air around me.
After years of silence toward God, her prayer softened something inside me that had long been hardened by disillusionment and cynicism and heartbreak. The empty feeling was gone and in its place I felt pain, but I didn’t feel alone.
This morning I skipped the treadmill and went to a yoga class instead. The studio room was dark and still, smelling faintly of feet and rubber. Sitar music floated from a CD player in the back and tall stacks of tumbling mats were heaped in the corner next to old weight machines. The instructor told the class to move into tree pose and find a drishti, which is a visual focal point to lock your eyes on while balancing. Sometimes I stared at a light fixture just to the right of the instructor’s head; sometimes it was a knot in the pinewood floor beyond my mat.
I followed the instructions: breathe in, breathe out. I thought about the conversation I had with my friend Jessica last week when I complained that I don’t know how to pray anymore. She told me to stop thinking of it as an add-on. “Find something that you are already doing,” she said. “Just pray while you are doing it.”
“Hi God,” I thought when I breathed in. “Hi.”
Today I lit candles for my friend’s brother-in-law who was just diagnosed with cancer, and I watched the flames dance and flicker. Later I prayed for my baby to stay asleep when I transferred him from the car seat to the house. I felt a little foolish for asking because I don’t really believe God answers prayers like that. But my baby did sleep. He took the best nap he has taken in months, and I felt grateful, but wary.
I don’t know where to attribute God’s work. I don’t know how to trust that God is present in my life in even little ways. I am still scared of misreading God, and don’t always know how to be in a relationship with a God who sometimes answers prayers about naps and sometimes lets 30-year-olds with young kids die of cancer.
As I think my sour thoughts, I watch the candle blinking in the corner. Even after the drought of these past few years, I am surprised when I find the smallest of hopes.
The planes were in my line of vision when I ran today and I pinned prayers to each one as they flew by. My eyes locked on each passing plane like a drishti, some looking as small as ants as they traced across the sky. I followed one soaring upward and I asked God to be present with my children, I saw another redirecting and I asked God to strengthen my marriage. I watched them keep coming, keep ascending, keep descending, keep disappearing, keep re-emerging.
The planes became prayer. I blessed them as they vanished from sight, as they took unknowable trajectories. I wondered about the people on board and where they would land; I wondered if they were traveling for work or vacation or to attend a funeral. Maybe it was just the endorphins pumping, but I felt myself smiling as the planes slipped away. I hoped they were flying home.