About a year ago, I had a painful but eye-opening experience. I made a date, once again, with a young man who didn’t show up, once again. I knew he probably wouldn’t come, because over the course of the last ten years, this man had come in and out of my life in a pattern: Ask me out, cancel with lame excuse, ask me out, don’t show up, ask me out, etc. But I did it anyway. Years would go by between these incidents, and still I didn’t learn my lesson. He asked me out. I made time. He didn’t show up.
After I spent a few days reveling in the embarrassment and self-righteous anger, I admitted to myself what I should have admitted the second, third, and fourth time this happened: That I deserved any of the blame that was worth apportioning. After all, he is the only person who can honestly scrutinize his behavior; I was in charge of my own complicity in the repeating situation, and, knowing the kind of person he was, I had still been receptive to his proposition.
That night, as I pounded away my angst on the spin bike, I vowed that such a thing would never happen again. I would never chase anyone who showed themselves to be less than eagerly interested, I would not allow anyone to play games; and if they did, I would call them out forthrightly and then cut off contact. So that’s what I did.
The summer following that incident, this past summer, I was invited to visit Israel by the mother of the Jewish family for whom I used to nanny. In exchange for a plane ticket there and back, I would provide childcare hours equivalent to the price of the ticket – most importantly, childcare on the flights. Of course I accepted, and so began to lay plans for my next excellent summer travel adventure.
Over the past nine months, I had tried to completely change my behavior around dating. I thought more seriously about what I wanted, and what it would look like. I mentally took my share of the responsibility for the behavior that led to my first marriage and its decline. I considered carefully the red flags that had shown themselves early and often in past relationships, as well as my own tendency to pursue people who were emotionally unavailable and often downright abusive. I could speculate for eternity about the various personal insecurities and issues that led me to behave this way, but at some point those things become irrelevant. If I wanted things to change, I would have to change, and finally I was ready. I became more selective in some ways, and gave people more chances in others. I didn’t meet anyone serious, but my dating patterns began to change, and I started going out with sweeter, more considerate men.
May came around. I graduated from my master’s program with a renewed sense of finishing important milestones and being ready to take the next step and find a permanent relationship. At the end of May, I found a sale on flights from Tel Aviv to Athens during my time in Israel, and decided to take a road trip around the country and visit some of its ancient ruins. I researched Delphi, the Temple of Apollo, and the Parthenon. I made plans to drive a giant loop around the country and hit some of the major cities and some smaller ones, too. June came. Leaving Burt in the company of my younger brothers, who I had bribed with many snacks and yummy treats, I left for Chicago and began my summer travels.
Quite a few years ago now, in my early college years, I took a class called Philosophy of Religion. I’m sure I took it for the same reason that the Mormon kids took it, albeit from the opposite side of the religious aisle: To find proof that I was right. Two weeks into the semester, when it became clear that the class would be less about opportunities for expressing religious dogma or lack thereof and more about ancient philosophical religious theory, more than two thirds of the class had dropped and things got interesting. My teacher was Richard Sherlock, a fascinating old gentleman with a spicy personality, and who had left Mormonism and converted to Catholicism. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, he joked himself, and those of us who stayed were fascinated by and loved him and the discussions we had.
One day in particular stood out to me, although at the time it had much less significance than it does now. We were discussing the question of prayer, and Professor Sherlock shut down all of our unsophisticated arguments about why humans should pray. If God has a plan, could petty humans beg to change it? Surely not. If God transcends humans in every way, could He receive something meaningful from the prayer, like a stroke to His everlasting ego? That didn’t make sense, either. We wrestled with this for a class period, prodded along by Sherlock, until he finally revealed the thinking of many religious philosophers: Prayer is not for God.
Prayer is for us. It’s a kind of religiously-motivated meditation. It’s an opportunity for us to single-mindedly focus on the thing we want and consider the trade-offs we are willing do to get it (which prayer often motivates – I remember as a kid, thinking, ‘If I get this or that for Christmas, I will never hit my younger brothers again.’ Didn’t usually work, but there were chunks of time when I was nicer).
Prayer, as described by Maimonides (a Jewish philosopher, funnily enough, but also not significant to me at the time), has three functions: First, the humility we must undertake in order to admit that things are fundamentally out of our control. Second, the organization of our priorities when we think them through and decide what is important enough to pray for. Third, when we willingly and creatively consider making alternate lifestyle changes in order to achieve the things we truly want.
Seen this way, one need not be a theist to gain the benefits of prayer (although Maimonides probably would have disagreed). What the ancients considered prayer is essentially described in many other ways by many other gurus today – minus the explicit supplication to God part. Lovingkindness meditation is a kind of prayer. The Secret and all its woowoo-isms are essentially prayer that replaced God with The Universe (and what more godlike than The Universe, vaporously described as loving and infinite by those who supplicate it for the things they desire?).
All this and more was bungling around in my head while I planned my eastern travels. I probably could not have articulated it then as I did just now, but the questions were there, as well as inklings to some of the answers.
So when I arrived in Jerusalem on June 17th, and went to the Western Wall the next day, I did what I had decided to do before I even left Utah: Tuck a tiny note in the Kotel, asking for what I wanted the most but often felt to be out of my control: A healthy, loving, permanent relationship with a good man and then children.
Of course, because this is me, things did not quite go according to plan. When I arrived at the Western Wall with the extended family of the kids I had nannied, I quickly realized I had brought nothing to write on – a major SNAFU for an English teacher, especially one who prided herself on always having something to write on and with. I thought of a terribly lame excuse for asking around my party for a piece of paper, and somebody produced a receipt that was blank on one side, covered in inscrutable Hebrew on the other.
I told my group that my Christian grandmother had requested that I place a prayer in the wall on her behalf. I don’t know why I said that; I guess, being the forthright atheist I am, I was embarrassed to admit that I wanted something badly enough to supplicate the Western Wall for it. I had hoped to go tuck in the note by myself, but then a few of the group came along with me.
I stood back a little from everyone as we made our way to the women’s section of the wall, and, using my purse as a desk, I wrote on the receipt: husband, baby. I couldn’t think of anything else to say without sounding foolish, and that about summed it up anyway. I folded the note over three or four times, and then I approached the wall. It was crowded with women, many of whom were sobbing earnestly. Some rocked back and forth, moaning. Some had their hands on the wall, praying out loud. I reached over a wizened old woman who was crying, clutching a filthy handkerchief in her hand, looking up at the sky, and miserably repeating questions in Hebrew. A woman standing next to her nodded her head and kept her hand on the old woman’s shoulder.
I tried to wedge my sweaty note in next to the other notes, and I accidentally sent one tumbling down onto the ground. Even at the Western Wall, the word fuck involuntarily shot through my mind, and I looked around awkwardly to see if I should pick it up and put it back in. The note had fallen under the chair of the wailing woman, and there was no way for me to reach it without things getting incredibly awkward, so I decided to leave it. I looked around again, and, seeing the women around me, placed my hand against the chilly rock briefly, and then stepped back.
God, I thought, totally non-literally nor ironically. I really want this. Whatever I’m doing to get in the way of getting it, I will stop. When the opportunity presents itself, I will take it. I looked around a group of young girls all dressed alike, who had clearly come as part of an Israeli school group. I was overcome by a longing so powerful it tightened my chest and made it difficult to breathe. Would I have a daughter? Would she look like me? Would I ever get my act together sufficiently to attract the kind of person I really wanted to be with?
I turned away from my group and pretended to be walking into the shade – again, for some reason, ashamed to be doing what I was really doing: this time, crying. I can’t explain now why it felt so embarrassing to want this so badly that I was willing to pray or weep over it. I certainly wasn’t the first woman who wanted children badly enough that they were willing to do strange or uncharacteristic things to try to get them. And not just children – I wanted badly to meet somebody I could be happily and respectfully partnered with. I wanted it so badly, I finally admitted to myself as I stood there hiding my face, that I had spent the last few years deceiving myself into nonchalance and saying that if it never happened, I would be okay. Working under this theory, the choice of men I dated did not really matter because if it didn’t work out, that was equally acceptable.
But that wasn’t true. I wanted a good man to build a life with. I wanted a baby in my belly and then in my arms, and then another, and another. I wanted someone who was kind, intelligent, sensitive, and who loved me and was committed to me and our children. I was afraid that if I stayed in Utah, I would never find him, but I was also comfortable, and didn’t want to leave. I was independent and self-sufficient and thankful and pleased with what I had so far. But I was missing the critical piece of the other person, and that was one thing I couldn’t do alone. I had to wait for someone else. That in and of itself was humbling: This thing I wanted so badly that I could barely admit I wanted it for fear of not getting it was fundamentally out of my control. The tiny receipt with husband, baby written on it was my single-minded meditation on wanting that person to appear, a final admission to myself that I wanted it so badly that it terrified me to admit it, and that I was ready to do what I needed to do, and make the changes I needed to make, to find him.
I hid my face until I could control myself, and then I rejoined my group. Later that day, I separated from the group so I could wander around more of the Old City of Jerusalem. I did a lot of thinking as I wandered down the aisles of the underground shuk, long enough to come out the other side in the Arab Quarter, look around, and then come back again to the Jewish Quarter. Eventually, I sat with aching feet in a little shade and wrote the following down in my notes on my phone:
“The people who insist on the ridiculousness of prayer as literal enterprise seem, now, to be fundamentally missing the point. The function of prayer feels now like a universally human outpouring of longing and hope that can’t find expression in the mere literal. Some element of the transcendental – the idea that people from all over the world would come to weep their desires and griefs, to tuck a scrap of paper into a rock hoping to invoke some existential intervention, to put a pathetic inscription in an ancient wall as a benediction against the necessary evils of life running their due course – stopped seeming stupid and instead became necessary.
All our lives we are fed mixed messages about getting what we want: Work for it, ask the universe, seek and ye shall find, the moment you stop looking it will find you. These are but modern prayers, rules to live by in the hope that they will protect us from the sheer randomness that is life. Maybe if I strategized carefully, I would find a partner. Maybe if I stopped looking, he would find me. But maybe (and the bitter unfairness of it made me want to fall to the floor and scream, pound it with my fists), even if I did everything “right,” the family wouldn’t come. Maybe I’d be one of the unlucky ones. Maybe I would meet a perfect mate, and on the way to our wedding, he would die in a car accident. Maybe he would have a midlife crisis and leave.
If things like marriage are the public expression of a major commitment, maybe prayer is the private counterpart. It is a daily personal bargaining with life, an effort to control the uncontrollable. If I am allowed to survive this illness, I will be kinder, donate more to charity, stop cheating on my wife, etc. When viewed this way, the power of God is merely a metaphor for life itself – who can deny that life giveth and taketh away, at seemingly random intervals, with no care for our preferences? My brother recently told me the story of a friend who, shortly after getting engaged to his girlfriend of seven years, got a phone call from a lover’s worst nightmares. His girlfriend, out boating with friends, had accidentally fallen out of the boat and come into contact with the rudder. Her jaw was cut from her face and she was killed.
Even as we do everything right, everything can go so completely wrong. Likewise, the sense that “God” – life – has a plan for us can be seen in our natural behaviors, religious and nonreligious alike: Studies show that even after a major disaster like losing a limb, we rebound to our previous levels of happiness and even believe we are better off than we were before. It often feels as though the twists and turns of fate guide us down a better pathway than that which we would have chosen, even when things don’t go as planned. God need not play any role whatsoever in the arbitrary capriciousness of life’s goods and evils. That is simply the way things go. Prayer, then, becomes a subsuming of the individual to the bigger picture. I’d rather not get hit by a bus today – nevertheless, Not my will, but thine.”
This and more churned in my head. Things seemed more clear and simultaneously more obscure than they ever had. In some ways I felt closer to getting what I wanted, and at the same time, the cold, hard reality that I might not meet the right person at the right time made me feel further away than ever.
Eventually, I stood up and walked to the bus stop that would take me from the Old City back down to First Station. From there I walked back down into my little hotel in the German Colony, and collapsed onto the bed to read. Eventually, I quieted my mind and began thinking forward to my remaining three weeks in Israel and Greece. I definitely wanted to meet some locals to show me the best food and drink spots – this was something I always did when I traveled alone – and so I got onto Bumble.
That night, I swiped right on Udi.