A thoughtful prayer


This evening when we sat down to dinner, we began as we usually do, with one of the kids saying a prayer. Sometimes I cue them by asking if there is something for which they are most thankful that day, or someone they are thinking of who may be going through a difficult time. When I don’t give them a cue, they usually rattle off a breezy:


When I was a kid our go-to prayer before dinner was: “God is great. God is good. Let us thank Him for our food. By His hand must all be led, give us Lord our daily bread, Amen.” We would race through the words as if we were trying to break a world record for speed each time. For most of my childhood I would say: “By his hand mustobbly led…,” only stopping to wonder what the heck “mustobbly” meant after many years of mindlessly repeating the word.

So this evening I asked my son to say a thoughtful prayer.

He paused to gather his thoughts and then began:

Dear God, 

Thank you for giving us this food…and sustenance…

And for not giving us…



Showing up

First posted a year ago today…

A week ago today I went to a memorial service for a woman I first met in graduate school in New York City. She had been a fellow student in my department for a year or so before she disappeared. People dropped out of the program all the time, and I assumed that she, like so many others, had decided it wasn’t for her. Although we were never close, I was surprised and delighted to spot her familiar face in the choir loft of the church my husband and I began to attend when we moved to Charlottesville about four years later. I found her after the service and tried to reconnect with her by chatting about our department and about New York. My overtures were coldly rebuffed. I was bewildered, but gave it no more thought until the following Sunday when she found me and wordlessly handed me a handwritten note on a scrap of paper before walking away. In the note she told me that she had been forced to give up her studies because of her health problems. It was painful for her to talk about her time in New York, because it was a cruel reminder of everything she had lost.

“Thank you for your note,” I said the next time I saw her. She did not reply. I’m sad to say that these were the last words we ever exchanged. Over the years, I awkwardly smiled at her or waved as we crossed paths. She would make eye contact with me, but nothing more. I feared that the very sight of me made her unhappy. Our paths diverged further and further. I eventually finished my degree and began teaching in my field. My family rapidly proliferated. She grew sicker and ever more remote. I would often see her walking along the road on her crutches, always alone. I learned from her obituary that on top of her other health issues, she had been diagnosed with Asperger’s, which would explain some of the difficulty we had in interacting. From her obituary I also learned that she had graduated from Harvard with high honors, that she had a working knowledge of seven languages, and that she was a Chicago Cubs fan…Now she’s gone, and I’m left wondering if I should have tried harder to be a friend to her. If I had persisted, maybe I would have learned these things from her, rather than from her obituary. In the end, all I could do was show up for her memorial service.

It was a beautiful service given with love and compassion by our minister who knew her and appreciated her struggles, her strengths, her quirks and the essential goodness of her character. Knowing that she was unable to work, the church staff had appointed her as “adjunct staff.” She took care of things like folding the church bulletins, making sure the pencils in the friendship register were sharpened just so, and gathering up bulletins left behind in the pews to recycle. She volunteered at the hospital and for Emergency Food Bank, and many other places as well. The minister read a prayer for her called “For Those Whose Work is Invisible” by Mary Gordon from her series of “Prayers for the Unprayed-for”:

For those who paint the undersides of boats, makers of ornamental drains on roofs too high to be seen, for cobblers who labour over inner-soles, for seamstresses who stitch the wrong sides of linings, for scholars whose research leads to no obvious discovery, for dentists who polish each gold surface of the fillings on upper molars, for sewer engineers and those who repair water mains, for electricians, for artists who suppress what does injustice to their visions, for surgeons whose sutures are things of beauty. For all those whose work is for your eyes only, who labour for your entertainment or their own, who sleep in peace, or who do not sleep in peace, knowing that their efforts are unknown. Protect them from downheartedness and from diseases of the eye. Grant them perseverence, for the sake of your love which is humble, invisible and heedless of reward.

I’ve only been able to locate these prayers on JSTOR, which I hope you can access. They are full of poetry, humor, and empathy for human beings in all of their diversity. Gordon lovingly casts a holy light on human frailties and foibles by juxtaposing them with divine acts of creation, mercy and love. Here are excerpts from the other prayers in this series, all of which are worth reading:

For Liars: “Shelter them in their dream for an earth more various than our own…For your sake, who have thought of universes not yet made that rest, like lies, in the mind of your infinite love.”

For Those Who Have Given Up Everything for Sexual Love: “Grant that we who have lacked their courage may be strengthened by their example to pursue our partial loves with gladness and fullness of heart.”

For Those Who Devote Themselves to Personal Adornment: “Bless them, because a change in fashion can allow us to believe there could just be, for all of us, a change in heart. Grant this for the sake of your love which has adorned the mountains and created feathers and elaborate tails, O Lord, source of all that exists for delight only, for display only, suggestions, in the joy of their variety, of the ecstasy of light that is eternal, changeless and ever changing.”

For The Wasteful: “Look with kindness upon those who travel first class in high season, on those who spend whole afternoons in cafes, those who replay songs on juke boxes, who engage in trivial conversations, who memorize jokes and card tricks, those who tear open their gifts and will not reuse the wrappings, who hate leftovers and love room service, who do not wait for sales. For all foolish virgins, for those who knowingly give their hearts to worthless charmers, for collectors of snowmen paperweights, memorial cups and souvenir pens. For those who take the long way home…We pray to you whose love is prodigal, who multiplied the loaves and fishes so that there were baskets upon baskets left, who turned plain water into wine of a quality no one required, who gave your life when you need only have lifted a finger…”

For Those Who Misuse, Or Do Not Use, Or Cannot Use Their Gifts: “For conservatory-trained composers of incidental music, for beauties run to fat, for the patrons of charlatans, for athletes who watch television, for poets who write commercials, for mathematicians turned card sharks, for legal aid lawyers turned corporate counsel, for actors who are waiters, for wives who do not wish to stay at home, for cat lovers afraid of mess, for paramours afraid of transmittable diseases, for those who no longer go to auditions, for blacksmiths and letterpress printers…protect them from diseases of the spine, so that they may turn and bend to glimpse your hand at the fork of roads not taken, at the tunnel’s end.”

My own prayer? That I will gain the courage, the strength of character, and the compassion exemplified in these prayers to show up for the living, rather than for the dead.

For you

It looks as if Hannah Graham’s earthly remains have been found. All of us collectively holding our breath for these 35 long days are finally exhaling a long and anguished sigh. The horrifying discovery took place against the backdrop of an exquisitely beautiful fall weekend here in Charlottesville. This is my attempt at making sense of the resulting cognitive dissonance.

For you – a stranger who became our own sister, our daughter,
We sent up our prayers and poured out our hearts like water.
For you the sun shone again after days of relentless rains
And leaves glowed like jewels with holy fire in their veins.
For you a million stars exploded in a firmament
Ablaze to bear witness to our mournful lament
And now may perfect peace enfold you like a mother’s embrace,
May you walk in light eternal, extravagant love, and amazing grace.


At one of the most difficult times of my life, I experienced one of the most beautiful moments of my life…

In Seoul I climbed mountains to stand in candle-lit Buddhist temples perched on the steep slopes. I’ve stood with the throng in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican listening to the Pope give his Easter address from a balcony. I’ve sat in silence with Quakers in the exquisite simplicity of a wooden meeting room lit by sun streaming in through skylights. But the most sacred moment I’ve been privy to thus far took place in a slightly shabby hospital room at New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

It happened about six years ago, when I was there with my daughter, who was six months old at the time. She was scheduled to have surgery the following day, and a trio of phlebotomists had come in to her hospital room to draw blood for the requisite pre-operative blood work. It’s a one-person job, but I was not at all surprised to see several come in together. Already by six months, my baby was a veteran of hospital rooms and E.R.s, so I knew by then that even the most experienced phlebotomists hate “sticking” infants. In those first six months of my daughter’s life, more than once I’d watch the phlebotomist’s face fall when he or she would enter the cubicle to see me waiting with a baby in my arms. They would immediately excuse themselves to start hunting for a colleague upon whom to foist off the dirty deed. What made it worse was that my daughter was what they call a “hard stick,” and it often took multiple attempts before a tiny vein could be found. More than once a nurse or phlebotomist would try a couple times and would then refuse to try again. On one occasion, after the first phlebotomist failed to draw blood after two attempts, we had to wait for another one to come back from lunch, because no one else could be conscripted.

So there in the hospital, when three phlebotomists walked in to my baby’s room to draw her blood, I understood. Other doctors and nurses happened to be in the room when they came in, and together they formed a circle around the bed where I sat holding my baby. At the periphery, others watched with bowed heads.

It was silent in the room as the phlebotomist prepared her needles and tubes, but as soon as she began a gentle whispering filled the room. It rose up all around me like the rustle of autumn leaves being blown by the wind. It took me a moment to realize what it was: the sound of people in that room, from all over the world, offering up prayers in their own languages for my little baby, for the phlebotomist to draw her blood easily, and on the first try.

She was able to do it. My baby cried for just a few seconds and then smiled up at the phlebotomist when the needle was withdrawn. The woman turned to look at me with tears in her own eyes and marveled in her softly accented English, “What kind of baby is this? She’s smiling at me, after I just poked her with a needle!”

There are very few moments in life like this: moments so rare and precious when you know that you are in the presence of something holy and you feel sanctified for having witnessed it. I will remember this moment and the goodness and decency of strangers, who all prayed to some higher being that my baby would be spared pain, with wonder and deep gratitude for the rest of my life.

Home from the hospital

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