On the Sunday morning of October 7th, 2018, amidst washing clothes, grading, and pacing the living room and kitchen floors, I burst into a prayer that, almost immediately, opened up, broadened, and animated my imagination.
That this prayer came to me—came over me?—is not just surprising to me because I don’t pray like I used to; it is surprising to me because, in a season that might look like nothing but gains on paper, I feel like I’ve been taking loss after loss after loss.
As I write these words, I am in the fourth year of my Ph.D. experience in English Studies. In this academic year, I need to write a 200-page dissertation (or: rewrite, rewrite, rewrite a 200-page dissertation), prepare job materials, go on the job market, try to land a job in academia in a time where most of us are convinced that jobs are unicorn-rare, teach two classes a semester, and continue to work on an edited collection that myself and a faculty member are trying to move to publication.
No, I’m exhausted. I’m a kind of exhausted that is at least a layer beneath any kind of exhausted I’ve felt before. It’s a kind of exhausted that it hurts to talk about, hurts to touch, hurts to visit, but hurts worst, I’m finding, to ignore. My blood pressure is up for the first time in my life. I’ve started having trouble standing on my feet, my heels and ankles sore to the touch of the ground, as if they never signed on to carry the load I’m under. I have migraines that lead to vomiting, and I eat too much, no doubt compensating for a lifestyle where all you are is your production and all the worth you have is targeted—not in what you have accomplished—but in what you must accomplish next.
And, on the Sunday morning in question, I am right back in the incessant race that leads to all the things above. And, yet. On this Sunday morning, a prayer came over me.
Where it came from, I couldn’t immediately say, but I have some guesses now.
In the last week, I have turned my attention, in the moments where my attention could be turned, away from academic writing and onto a nonfiction that demands reflection, demands a pause in whatever is happening in the day, demands contemplation, rumination, and—dare I say—a state of prayerful watch.
This turn-of-attention began when, researching flash nonfiction sites for an assignment for my students, I discovered the site you are reading from today: Ruminate. I discovered, in particular, the blog entry “Grammar Lessons” by Donna Margara. Previously, I had used other sites on flash nonfiction with my students, ones that I still find valuable and important. But never had my introverted self discovered a site so explicitly dedicated both to flash nonfiction and to interiority.
I don’t know if this combination awakened something in me, but, at minimum, I know this: it nudged something half-dead within me back to motion. On the very night I found this site, I wrote my first piece of flash nonfiction in well over a year. That piece, “Slip Into Fictive: A Nonfiction,” is now making the rounds of consideration at various nonfiction sites.
But days go by quickly and the responsibilities, along with the bad habits in tending to the responsibilities, take over again. At least, I would have thought so. And, short of doing something about the habits intentionally, I guess they would take over again.
But, in the midst of the laundry and the grading and the pacing, something else was with me today.
How do I explain it?
It was sort of a culmination of a weeks-worth of good contemplation, stored safely out of sight, (lest it be ruined by the habits of any given day) rushing over me when I needed it the most.
Whether I spoke the prayer or it spoke me, I cannot say. But the words were a turning of perspective, well needed, for way too long. The words of the prayer seemed to ask me, How many times have you accomplished something you deemed impossible, only to explain it away and make the next thing needing accomplishing as undoable to your belief system as the last thing? The words of the prayer seemed to ask me, Why do you pretend that you are only a single present moment facing a future, arriving moment that is just too big for you? Funny thing, the prayer was attentive to spatial rhetoric, as, pacing with this prayer-like thing that had come over me, I found myself facing this giant board where I am writing the names, states, and countries of the schools I’m applying to (while actively not believing I have a chance to get hired by any).
Yet, in the midst of this prayer, the fear, the pressure, the demands of life, seemed as flimsy as the foam board that my future is written upon.
The prayer continued: Why do you measure from present to future struggle, when you could just as easily measure from past to present to future? It asked me, How might the son of parents who never made it to high school measure your being in a Ph.D. program? How would you, when you became a high school dropout, measure your now being in a Ph.D. program? How would the twenty-something-year-old you who didn’t know a community college from a university measure your being in a Ph.D. program? How would you as undergraduate? You in M.A.? You just one or two years ago?
This prayer—this moment of contemplation in an otherwise pre-determined day—left me asking, Why do we measure our lives from the vantage point that gives us the least amount of belief, the least amount of evidence, the least amount of testimony?
Some of it is systematic, no doubt. All of us who sit in classrooms speaking rhetoric against the system also serve to prop the system up. Part of it, I’m sure, is habitual. We learn, over time, to doubt, to fear, to discourage ourselves. In our information age, much of it is simply drowning in a sea of details, stories that are not ours told by people we do not know, that seem always to point to the worst-case scenario.
What this prayer did, however, was take my attention off the many details programmed in me, habitual to me, downloaded digitally in front of my face, and, for a moment, this prayer changed the material from which I measure my life.
This prayer took me inward, took me backward, to who I used to be and who I realized I still carry in me today.
This prayer took my attention off external details and put it on the space between details.
This space, this prayer, may not heal my body or redeem time, but it will allow, if briefly, a chance to reacquaint myself with my self.
And if one second of space should become two and two should become three?
I might just find myself finding myself, finding my own belief system, all over again.
D. Shane Combs is a fourth-year Ph.D. Candidate at Illinois State University. His professional passions include mentoring, teaching life writing and narrative, and writing when he finds the time. His work has appeared in Composition Forum, Composition Studies, Writing on the Edge, and Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, among others. With Amy Robillard, an edited collection, How Stories Teach Us: Composition, Life Writing, and Blended Scholarship, is due out in late 2019. Alongside his professional pursuits, he is currently trying to reimplement his personal passions, including prayer and meditation, occasional gaming, hikes, and staying relationally connected.
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