Prayer, Dream, and Flight

Boarded but stuck in a delay at the gate, I see that one of my ex’s posted a picture of her Bible in sunlight on her old wooden table—some glare on the red plastic cover, toast crumbs on the butter dish peeking into the corner of the shot. She wasn’t religious when I knew her, but, since then, she’s been through break-ups and affairs, chemical abuse, even the suicide of one of her husbands. Now she’s raising children on her own, working as a med tech in a Des Moines hospital, and striving to follow the teachings of Jesus. In her post, she’s providing her prayer list for the week—asking friends to pray for her children to overcome trauma and be happy someday, after so much turmoil and pain. And for her father’s laryngectomy—he tried and tried for years to quit smoking but some things are just too heavy, too hard. And for the waters to recede that are seeping into her Iowa basement—the furniture’s not damaged yet, but if more rain falls this week, it’s going to get dicey. And also for her upcoming flight to Cabo for a girlfriend weekend—pray it goes smoothly because those charters often rattle and she doesn’t want to take the drugs because then she’d lose that whole day, and finally for those other children she saw on the news, just this morning, afloat on tiny rafts on a sea somewhere in Europe or was it Asia, hoping to land in a country free from violent zealotry.

I haven’t held to my own childhood religion, but I have fond—frankly, mainly sexual—memories of certain times she and I spent together during a brief period in the distant past, and I truly wish her only the best in life. I’ve got nothing to do anyway but look out the Plexiglas across the airfield at the downtown skyline in the distance, so I decide to give it a shot. The young woman next to me is coloring mandalas, and I don’t want to disturb her, so I turn toward the bulkhead and very quietly whisper “Dear God” and then I hold my phone where I can see it and basically mumble-whisper her wishes right off the screen. I throw in a good word for my own family just in case, and then I close my eyes and say “amen.” To be honest, I don’t feel great about it. I used to pray all the time, as a kid—immaturely, you know, just asking for stuff, mainly—but then at some point I had the deadly thought: what about all the people of other religions who believe in different gods? Was I really prepared to think of them as wrong? No. I wasn’t. From there, it was an easy step to think of all religions as historical constructs, based on cultural conditions and human need and common existential dilemmas. Was there an actual revelation of divine secrets exclusively to Christians? It seemed unlikely. Sure, everything had to come from somewhere, but do I think people know much about it? Not really. So, I’m sitting there in my coach seat, and my eyes naturally close as I conclude my more or less fraudulent prayer, and I realize that I’m very tired. It’s been a hectic day of working and preparing to travel, and I am suddenly wiped.

As I begin to drift into a nap, I get this image of a blue-line graph of every human prayer, emerging from its speaker’s mouth to arc up into the sky, through the clouds, and burst through our atmosphere: beyond our planet, a giant cluster of about a billion soft blue, lightly pulsating prayers streaks away, past Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus, recirculating briefly at the membranous eddy formed by our sun’s radiation hitting its furthest reach against the total vacuum beyond our solar system, and then the blue cluster wobbles past even that barrier into deepest space, where, over nearly infinite time, these prayer-pixels race past all the galaxies our lenses have glimpsed to the flattened outskirt edges of the sombrero-shaped multi-dimensional unimaginably huge and complex blob of space-time we’re currently calling the universe, until, finally, the prayers reach the edge of the universe and in an orderly fashion, one-at-a-time, kind of drip, bloop, over the side into a vortex shaped like the big hairy ear of, I guess, God.

After a few minutes, I wake up, a little disoriented. We’re still delayed, and, after I wipe drool from my cheek, I check back to my phone and find that that same old friend of mine has posted a throwback Thursday snapshot from Sturgis, last August—herself with two girlfriends wearing ass-less chaps, looking back over their shoulders, smiling big, whitened Midwestern smiles that kind of gleam off all the chrome and chains hanging off tight leather vests that seem more like lingerie than something one might actually wear on a motorcycle. My mind goes several directions at once: 1) her ass still looks awesome after all these years—it looks, actually, familiar, and I can’t believe how many really great memories I have of it; 2) I wonder how an all-knowing God responds to drastic tonal variations in the social media posts of his devotees; and 3) it’s so good to see her smile—somehow, despite all the hard things she’s been through, she remains capable of carefree, playful, innocently sexy happiness. She must have a really powerful, innate love of life that allows her to feel confident and secure in how she expresses herself in a world that’s been so challenging to her.

Finally, our plane lurches and pulls back from the gate, taxis for a while and then bursts into forward motion so powerfully that a few tilting surfaces on the wing allow it to launch into the sky. And as we rise up into the clouds like gods, ourselves, I’m thinking through the whole complex of imagery that her post has brought to my mind—those times so long ago when we were intimate with each other, but also her father needing throat surgery, her children in their precarious youth, myself as a child, praying at night for a girlfriend, or a Schwinn bike, and her husband who reached such a low point of despair that he took the belt from his pants and hanged himself with it in a hotel shower off I-80 outside Cedar Rapids. This feels like real prayer, just recognizing it all together, feeling it all happening within the explosion of time, and understanding there are no judgments, just pleas for help and mercy.



William Stobb's most recent poetry collection is You Are Still Alive (2019, 42 Miles Books). He is also the author of the National Poetry Series selection, Nervous Systems, and Absentia, both from Penguin Books. He works on the editorial staff of Conduit and its book-publishing arm, Conduit Books & Ephemera, and he teaches on the Creative Writing faculty at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse.

Categories: Airplanes, Death

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