Would you like a prayer for anything today, ma’am?
No thank you, I said. We wished each other a good day with a smile apiece and I dashed down into the subway station. I believe in saying no to everyone (except those people collecting signatures to get a candidate on a ballot). But, having worked these grueling street gigs before, I never ignore the person or withhold a smile.
On this morning, though, I was almost-late for a client meeting. When I flicked my eyes at the red fabric banners held up between what looked like white PVC pipes, I saw ‘Prayer Station’ in large white letters. Oh boy, I thought to myself, the evangelists are here! If I’d had extra time I would’ve walked to a different subway entrance.
As I caught my breath on the platform, waiting for my train, I wondered whose format was he using: Which church bought the red apron he wore, printed the flyers in his pockets? I smiled imagining the conversation I might have instigated. I’m pretty sure those weren’t going to be neutral, platform-agnostic, open-source-type prayers.
I sat down on the scratched-up wooden station bench, and a lump formed in my throat. It was a lovely thought, the prayer offering. A free magic service. How wonderful and beautiful and healing it could be to offer poems to subway riders. I pictured myself on that hot street corner, poems in hand. Pen ready for service. It’d be no different. A fragment of belief, a flash of communion with the deeper and higher and interconnected world.
And it hit me: A prayer for peace! I would desperately like to suggest he pray for peace in the Middle East. But I missed my chance. Now I felt regretful—was that crazy?
Who knows what these prayers do—they certainly haven’t ended the violence yet—but in a world so raw and rough, can prayers or poems really be superfluous? As a poet, I believe I’m obligated to believe in their magic and necessity. (Or at least in their possibility—even nuns and rabbis wrestle with belief.) So in his way, that young man got me to make my prayer, my wish. And I hope in this moment the feeling of a poem or a prayer grasps you, and you allow it to stay for a moment.
We are human beings, inventors of new forms of beauty and wonder. We conjured the sonnet and the prayer from nothing. That in itself seems worthy of a moment of thanks.
A note: This morning run-in happened in July, when every morning had new and horrible headlines about Israel and the Palestinians. It was a summer of terrible news and feelings of helplessness, and unfortunately, the need for words and deeds is no less urgent this fall.
Bonus: If you feel hungry for some feelings and don’t see them anywhere inside yourself, let me invite you to check out Poetry’s app, a beautiful little gem to keep in your pocket. When you open it, you hit the Spin button and two wheels spin past each other, matching moods and subjects and generating a list of poems to explore.