“Dear Heavenly Father,” I start the traditional way, the adjectives in a pleasing order, my list of requests and people at the ready. “I pray for…” I am lying on my side inside a thin sleeping bag in a youth center in Montgomery, Alabama. The boys are in a room next door, giggling to themselves. A block falls off a shelf, and they race into our room screeching that there are cockroaches in the room next door, and we screech back that we are all supposed to be asleep and if the teacher hears you he’s going to come in here and be disappointed.
We can’t stop laughing, though, under the thin sleeping bags and the humidity, I forget my prayer in an effort to scoot a little closer to the circle of people telling secrets and even though I don’t know any secrets, I hover just near enough to listen.
This is the summer where I try to be too cool to pray. I sit in church unenthusiastic, thinking more about how I want to marry the boy two aisles up and how I scrawl his name across journal pages. I pretend that church is just this thing we have to do, my family and I, and really I am just like everyone else and I want all the same things and Sunday morning with Bread and Wine is just like the soccer and lacrosse practices at the field in the town. I wish to myself I was playing soccer and lacrosse on Sunday mornings.
I have braces stretched across my smile, which makes me self-conscious about smiling, but it doesn’t really stop me. In the pictures of this trip, you’ll see me in clothes that don’t quite fit but I wanted so desperately to seem like I was the kind of girl in the advertisements with the cutoff shorts and the long straight hair and the effortless tan. In the pictures you can see my trying.
Myself, at fourteen – the word is trying. There is a yearning that radiates from my pictures, my smile, my neatly three-hole-punched tests and papers. There is a hopefulness that enough makeup will turn the school dance at Halloween into something fun and me into someone who could be brave enough to dance without looking over her shoulder. I watched the people watching, and I was afraid. Who wants to be the girl who prays when there is music and racing heartbeats? Who wants to be the girl who worries over Sunday morning worship when there is adventure on a Saturday night?
That June of cockroaches in Montgomery, the night we ate catfish from a local pond and I promised that I would come back to the South – it feels like a forever ago.
And then the other day I was her. She reappeared at the corner of my memories and my present, waved as if to remind me that in the summer of fourteen, I believed I could make my faith an add-on to my heart instead of its very blood and oxygen and beat. Because I wanted to curl up in the sleeping bag on the very inside of the circle and have the secrets and go to soccer practice instead of church. Maybe it had something to do with the harder things of daily life in faith, maybe it was just a day I didn’t really want to kneel, pencil skirt to office rug, over the work week. Maybe it was just a yearning without another reason.
I recognized her in me the other day, the girl who wanted to be too cool to pray that June and that whole summer. And I waved her nearer, so that perhaps in the mystery of knowing ourselves I could reassure her, though she is a past self, that it will be better to be on our knees for the world. It will be better to yearn after the Word made Flesh who comes to dwell inside and among us. It will be better, in the end, not to have been too cool for any of it.
Only on our knees can we hear our heartbeat.