Dark Prayer

Thursday, December 25th, 2008

The water churned and pushed against the ice with a dark seriousness that reminded me of prayer.

Subzero Chicago night at the edge of the year, the edge of change, the edge of what’s bearable. I stood on an old breakwater, a long, crumbling construction of concrete and steel that jutted into Lake Michigan — just stood, feeling the wind scrape my face. Whatever thoughts came to me were honest ones. Or maybe I just needed to grieve.

“Courage grows strong at the wound.”

Someone said this to me earlier this year and I felt a rush of reverence as I contemplated wounds and war, a wrecked economy, a wasted planet, hope, illusion, the holidays, the human condition. My niece just got married; the same day, a friend was mugged in the alley behind her house. The dark water undulated beyond the ice, gurgling, whispering. Dear God . . .

I don’t pray easily. At least not for the big stuff. But there I was, praying, it seemed, against the tide. Dear God, let us find the courage to endure whatever is to come and the wisdom to pull together around the worst of it. Europe, shattered after World War II, finally understood this. Grant us transformation at the point of our wounds and the vision of a future beyond them. Grant us a president who believes in something beyond the military-industrial consensus that surrounds him and would own him. Grant us sanity and the courage to face our worst fears. Grant us peace.

“Peace activists in Pakistan and India are attempting desperately to be heard above the din raised by warmongers . . . in the wake of the Mumbai carnage. Jingoism is in the air — be it from so-called nationalists (posing as analysts on television) advocating a nuclear attack for the defense of their country, or the man on the street. Be they from Pakistan or India, they speak of war with great abandon as if it is child’s play.”

These are the words of Zubeida Mustafa, writing for The Women’s International Perspective (published a few days ago on Common Dreams). They scratch at the collective unreason of our age, the unyielding obstinacy at which I felt my dark prayer hurling itself. It’s so much easier simply to be angry. How do we get beyond our national — our global — impasse over what empowerment means?

We live in a world in which no word is more feared than “disarmament” — and the logic of that fear brooks no compromise. There seems to be an unbroken line of logic that runs from personal sidearms to nuclear weapons. My prayer as the year ends is that a few more stalwarts see the greater logic of laying down both their weapons and the fear that makes doing so unthinkable.

Since I was out, I decided to walk on this raw night to the Barbara Tree. That’s what I call it — the tree I had specially planted by the Chicago Park District some years ago to honor my late wife, who died of cancer in 1998. Originally the tree was a linden, but that one died in its second summer, during a drought. Eventually another tree was planted on the spot; a cherry, I think. It’s still, at any rate, “her” — leaning, just like the other one did, irreverently off square.

Death is the ultimate fear and the ultimate enemy, but when Barbara died I learned that death wasn’t the enemy at all — rather, it was something like the waves and the darkness, unknowable and beckoning and maybe no more than a doorway. What does this awareness change? I don’t know, but if I hated death, my grief could have no dimension, no restorative power, and would be as trite and hellish as regret.

As I thought about Mustafa’s observations about nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, and the carnage in Mumbai, I found myself groping along the seam of the horror for the wrong turn toward revenge and a desire to hurt back, consequences be damned. “They speak of war with great abandon as if it is child’s play.”

The turn is political: the instant promised land of victory. This real estate always appears attainable at a bargain rate, even in the nuclear era that mocks the very idea of victory. The face I see at the juncture of this wrong turn is that of our own Departing Fool, whose greatest (known) crime, in my view, was steering the United States down the path of revenge after 9/11. But he didn’t do it alone.

Dear God, let George Bush be the last of his line, the 20th century’s smirking bookend. Let his successor be a true leader, whose agenda transcends the interests that surround him. Courage grows strong at the wound. Let us move as a planet to a unity greater than the blood cult of nationalism.

I stroked the cold bark of the Barbara Tre one last time, then turned, struck out across the snow toward the lights of the city and the life waiting for me there.