I couldn’t quite believe the action of my prayers two days ago. I am a pray-er. I never really was, until I began a program of recovery a few years ago, where prayer and meditation is essential to working the program. They even say that whether you’re atheist, agnostic, or a believer, pray anyway; just go through the motions and witness how it shifts your life. I can personally attest that once you’re immersed in working the 12 steps, your whole life begins to focus on fine-tuning your character and how you walk in the world.
Being a person who “stages” moments in her life, and isn’t especially skillful at how she responds to plans not going the way they were planned, I got in my car early in the day for a Thanksgiving that would be spent alone, and I knew I’d have to fend off those defects today. I’m fairly new in my city, with all my family elsewhere. And though I’ve made friends, I just barely hang out with a few of them, so being without plans for Thanksgiving isn’t unusual. Instead, I made my own plans: to go to the movies (my first time since Covid, which is a ritual I have missed sorely, as I love the movies, and especially on holidays that I spend alone….yes, even living in L.A. I sometimes did holidays alone), then follow the movies with finding a cool restaurant to eat a meal in, while I’d sit and dine with a good book——one of my favorite solitude rituals. As I drove, I took note how gorgeous the weather was, and immediately got a jolt of adrenaline that told me the next words out of my mouth were going to be “this day rocks!” So, I immediately went into prayer about expectations. I spoke out loud something like, “please allow me to accept the unfolding of this day in whatever way it will, and to respond with pliancy and flow and understanding if anything I’m planning falls apart. Please help me to take a breath first and to be okay with whatever happens instead of stomping my feet like a brat…which I can do. Let this day unfold without disappointment because I have received the day with open-heartedness, whatever happens.” Something along those lines.
My plan was to go to a particular movie theater, which was in a part of town not terribly close to home, because it’s right next door to the only Trader Joe’s in town. I figured I could kill two birds with one stone. The movie showing was at 1:30, so I planned to arrive nearly an hour before that to do some much needed grocery shopping first. I knew stores would close early for Thanksgiving. They might even be crowded because of last minute turkey dinner shopping, and I would be perfectly all right with that.
With the prayer for patience and non-attachment out of the way, I continued driving, and at a red light, I idled at an intersection where a homeless man stood on the corner right next to me, with his sign in his hands. I had no cash on me to offer him, but I instantly went into prayer mode again to ask that he be able to find warmth today, and some food on this beautiful but nippy Thanksgiving. And I swear, a second after my amen, a man in the car behind me at this red light hastened quickly out of his car with a gift bag of food and handed it to the homeless gentleman. It was so ready-made that I realized he had a carload of gift baskets that were prepared to be passed out as he encountered the homeless community today. The timing of that witness against my prayer was so insane, like something out of a movie, as I watched this all unfold, that I started to cry as the light turned green.
This kindhearted man had made his plan to feed some homeless folk long before my prayer, so it could hardly take credit for the magic we usually associate with prayer (believers and skeptics alike). But the timing was such a level of perfection that what it really served was the attuning of my own consciousness. Because as I kept on driving, so moved by this witness that I was in tears, I thought about how little I have been of service to others in my life, and what a marvelous and kind idea to do on a holiday like Thanksgiving, and I was suddenly deciding, right then and there, that I would do this next year. I also did something quite out of my usual character, which ordinarily would be to self-berate for not thinking of this myself. Instead, I got excited by the prospect of being given a great idea for next Thanksgiving, or any other day of the year, as the homelessness in this city is fairly profound. It was a good moment for me.
Okay, one prayer instantly, remarkably answered. The other, already s-l-o-w-l-y beginning to unfold, and I didn’t even know it yet.
As I finally entered the parking lot that houses the Trader Joe’s and the AMC complex, I could see that Trader Joe’s was closed. My impulse was to get angry, as I’d driven a good ways for this plan, but I remembered my prayer and took a breath. Several. I saw cars in the adjacent parking lot, and my curiosity took me around the bend to see what they might be connected to, since it obviously wasn’t for Trader Joe’s.
So now, a few things proceeded to unfold that made me realize my prayer was being answered in even more nuanced ways than I was intending. I had arrived a little after 12:30 and the movie would start at 1:30. That was going to give me roughly 45-50 minutes to do my grocery shopping. I have been to this Trader Joe’s many times, but had never been to this AMC, and I had a picture in my head of where its entrance might’ve been. In this instant of looking to find out why cars were in the parking lot of a closed Trader Joe’s, I learned that the entrance to the AMC was directly behind the Trader Joe’s, and not at all what I had pictured by the way the buildings congregate against each other. I knew at that discovery that I’d just been saved several frustrated minutes circling this rather large shopping center, which has lots of other stores too, trying to find the damned entrance. Only because Trader Joe’s was closed, and cars were curiously parked there, did I find the entrance immediately, out of my nosiness plain and simple.
I decided I should probably go on in and buy my ticket now, even though the showing was still 45 minutes away. And when I walked up to the window, I saw that the online information had been wrong and the movie was actually starting in 15 minutes, at 1:00. Had I not been attempting to do some grocery shopping first and instead simply driven out here just to see the movie, I’d’ve been half an hour late.
Trader Joe’s was never meant to be open. I had made assumptions because most grocery stores are open on Thanksgiving, even if they close earlier than usual. But I was meant to think it was, so that I could get to this movie on time. The way my prayer was answered was not to simply make me okay with being unable to grocery shop, but also by giving me the gift of my misunderstanding, so that it could benefit another part of my plan.
Was this the magic of prayer? I’m more inclined to believe it’s simply what CAN happen when we let go and stop holding on so tight to a conclusion. The truth is, every bit of it could’ve shit the bed for me that day, and I was actually asking in my prayer to be prepared for all of that. To not curse loudly in my car because I couldn’t get my groceries or see a movie. Perhaps, because I bothered to ask, to have my consciousness attuned to a certain behavior and reaction to life, I was given hidden gifts; little grace notes. Maybe. I’m not necessarily convinced, because I have a hard enough time believing in magic. But I AM inclined to believe we are rewarded, however subtly or small, when we at least attempt to be better than we usually are.
Likewise, when the movie was over, and it was now so late in the afternoon that I knew I wouldn’t find any grocery stores open, I thought to myself, “well now, I HAVE to find a restaurant open somewhere, because I’ve got very little food at home.” I proceeded to drive back into town and passed several restaurants I’m fond of, to see if any could accommodate an easy party of one, as families often choose to take their Thanksgivings outside of the home. And yet this city, I came to learn, is a virtual ghost town on Thanksgiving, and there was absolutely nothing open anywhere. So now I had no groceries AND I had no restaurant to give me my Thanksgiving dinner experience (thank God, I’d at least gotten some popcorn at the movies).
See, I actually really love the ritual of going to a favorite restaurant alone, and enjoying a meal while having my head buried in a great book, and being waited on. I don’t feel remotely lonely on such holidays if I happen to be spending them alone. But I’ll be honest; I was beginning to feel a little let down. A little lonely. A little abandoned by society because it dared to shut down so that its laborers could enjoy Thanksgiving too. Let down is okay. Disappointed is okay. It’s the full-on, pissed off, yelling-at-no-one as I drive my car around town looking futilely for something to be open, and the punching of my steering wheel, like a petulant child, that I was asking to be delivered from.
And I truly was. I breathed deeply, stayed in a calm mood, even feeling cheery as I listened to a Christmas carol playlist, and resolved to just go home and make whatever was in my fridge for my Thanksgiving dinner, even if it was only a bowl of cereal. I certainly knew it wouldn’t be special. But it turned out all right. More than all right actually. I found a frozen piece of salmon in the freezer, and some broccoli that I roasted, and I did a hot pot of brown rice. Perfectly respectable and enjoyable, if not especially fancy and fun and benefiting a Thanksgiving.
Even more importantly, I was surprisingly swept with gratitude. This day pointed out to me, in some none-too-subtle ways, that I was a person who had a roof over my head, food in my fridge, warmth on my arms, and a program of recovery that, on this Thanksgiving Day, truly helped to deliver me to an appropriate, mature response and sense of serenity to the fact that my day only just barely resembled the one I had planned. I was able——privileged, in fact——to bear witness to a tiny spurt of emotional and spiritual growth; a gift that gave me so much more than my perfectly planned day, had it been perfectly realized.
I’m not terribly inclined to give much credence to magic, which is how I sometimes see prayer. But Thanksgiving 2021 was a grand show for me of the power that can be experienced. Then again, the poet Eden Phillpotts may have been onto something when he wrote: “The universe is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference