Gimme, gimme, gimme is what I prayed.
Of course, the prayers were never answered. I never got a horse or got rid of my siblings. I prayed daily for good stuff that never came.
Such silence from the heavens seeded doubts that bloomed into fashionable apostasy in my teen years and early 20s.
"Show me, Lord," is what I prayed, all through those boozy, studious years. I learned to sip bourbon and read Bishop Berkeley and Joyce. "If you're really there, God, show yourself"--as if the Creator must audition for the Creatures. And when lightning didn't strike at my command, or my erstwhile enemies prospered though I prayed against them, when the women I wanted or the windfall or the life I had in mind seemed elusive, it seemed like God was laying low.
Later--as a young husband and father, as a funeral director and a writer--I used to begin my incantations with "Why me, God?"
Why were my poems rejected? Why was the cashflow always a problem? Why was the woman I married unhappy? Why did I have to work nights and weekends and holidays, going out in the dark when someone died? Why was my hairline receding? What does a guy have to do to get a drink around here?
And when the litany of my own discontents ran short, I'd borrow the sorrows of neighbors and strangers. Why did those twin boys go through the ice and drown in the river? Why did young mothers die of cancer? Where was God when that young man put a gun in his mouth? Why plagues and wars and airplane disasters, floods or fires or other Acts of God? "Why me, God?" The more I drank, the more I prayed it, often on my knees, looking into the toilet and the void. Or, when hearing of someone else's bounty or success, "Why not me God?" Why not? The more I drank, the bigger the fist got that I shook in God's face, aiming at the sky. And the more I prayed, the darker and duller the firmament became.
Those prayers never got answered either.
Neither give me nor show me nor why me nor why not--the things and signs and wonders never came. Life dealt me, as life does, a random set of hands--some winners, some losers, some wild cards. I was desperate and divorced, friends died senselessly, my children grew in grace and beauty, my books got published, I fell in love again. People starved, the wrong men won elections, the dead were everywhere, the sick and sad.
The time came when I wanted to quit drinking, for the usual reasons--because I had this sense that it was killing me. I didn't want to die.
It was a meeting in a church hall on a beach in Santa Barbara, I remember. I was out there on a book tour, reading poems and trying not to take a drink, and holding on was getting harder and harder.
And there were no priests or pastors or sermons or tithes--just this room full of tables and people around them and all this talk, which eventually came around to me. And because it seemed like the thing to say, because everyone before me had been saying it, because I didn't want to be the only one who didn't, because I couldn't think of anything else to say, I said "My name's Tom, and I'm an alcoholic." No one seemed impressed. The earth didn't move. Someone there whose name I can't remember said we should quit praying for outcomes. "Just say thanks," is what this painfully cheerful stranger said. "Miracles are everywhere, just not the ones we pray for."
My wrath and worry and thirst subsided in concert with one another. The longer I didn't drink, the better I slept. The more A.A. meetings I went to, the more tolerant I became of this life's imperfections--my own, my children's, my God's. Oh, I hated the simplicity of it: Don't take a drink, go to meetings, and all the cutesy bromides--The past is history, the future is mystery, today is a gift. That's why they call it the "present"--and things like that. It was very hard for a complex, highly trained, internationally unknown poet to endure such things. But sobriety began to seem less like the count of drinks I couldn't have and more like a count of the blessings that I could.
I came to prayer the way I came to sobriety--kicking and screaming, always the last to know, but finally by surrender. The world didn't come to an end when I got sober. I didn't win the lotto, and the shit that always happens keeps on happening, but it doesn't do me in, and I don't have to drink about it. God was in charge--mostly by default--because I so clearly wasn't.
So I took to saying "Thanks" each morning. I'd say it whilst shaving or picking out cufflinks or even kneeling like the devout and idolatrous do.
And here's the thing. Here is the sign and wonder. Never once in the years I've been saying it--"Thanks"--to Whomever Is Out There or Whatever It Is, has the day gone by without an answer. Sometimes it comes to me loud and clear, sometimes in whispers, sometimes a sense. Sometimes it's my beloved's voice, or one of my sons' or my daughter's or the family of someone I'm called on to serve. Once in a while, it's a dream I have of my mother or my father, both dead and gone. Often as not it is a perfect stranger, someone at a meeting who says something true. Or it might be a sign, quite literally, like the one I've seen everywhere that says "Watch Your Step," or a wonder, or a gift outright. But it never fails, whenever I pray it. "Thanks," I say, and the answer always comes.
"You're welcome," it tells me, from out of the blue.