Only Hours and Hours
Letter by letter is how the kingdom comes
The prayer is finished, but he is not done. My son scowls, furrowed brows of frustration. He wanted to write our family prayer tonight, inspired to scribe for some reason, but the paper wedged into his clipboard only shows IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER in scrawling slant.
He stayed angry the whole time because we wouldn’t wait for him to catch up.
In a flash I see an opening. “I have a work you might like…” The invitation of every Montessori teacher (and every wannabe in the wings). From the cupboard I pull out a pouch with the Our Father printed on laminated cards, each line on its own thin strip.
He is skeptical, but draws closer.
I pull out the stack of white strips and start to spread them on the table. The familiar phrases are scrambled, but I know he knows them. “Would you like to sort”—but before I can finish the sentence, he is already off.
Our Father is set triumphantly at the top. The tide of his mood begins to turn. He picks up pen and paper (Lord, why not pencil for a first-grader, but I must pick my battles and this one has already chosen me) and starts to curve in careful, plodding letters:
He stops, suddenly chatty about cursive Rs and how the big one is so different from the little one, did I ever notice that?
Yes, I nod, yes, so interesting. My eyes dart to the paper, prompting him to finish the first word. He turns back, a happy seed growing. R…FATH. ER.
First line done, he scans the list of waiting possibilities. Who art in heaven, he snatches with a smile, sets it down underneath the first, and begins again. Who art takes an awfully long time. My internal maternal clock begins to tock.
He narrates each letter: “i-n-h-e-a-v-e-n,” steady as he goes, screaming in all caps on the page but I am calming my inner editor. I am staying present. I am going to embody a teacher’s patience if it’s the last thing I—
“Do you know why hallowed looks a lot like Halloween?” His brows muddle in the middle as he questions the strange similarity. A lightbulb flashes. “I do! So actually the word Halloween comes from the same word as hallowed—” But he interrupts me, digressing into a debate about best and worst candy.
“Let’s keep going,” I chirp instead. “What comes next?” I know it is my favorite line. Now we are humming, I think. Now we are on to something.
As he sorts, his older brother slides onto the open piano bench. Now is the perfect time, with a kitchen piled deep in dinner dishes and tomorrow’s homework waiting to be started, to practice a piano piece he hasn’t played in months. He begins—too fast, too confident—and soon we have a fitting soundtrack: flat where it should be sharp, uneven where it could be smooth. My ears are irritated. I make myself breathe slowly.
Back to the prayer. He has found it: Thy kingdom come. Before I can wax eloquent, he has grabbed the next: Thy will be done. For a moment I hope we might be moving—two lines at once?! But now he is plodding again, pausing after every letter to discuss: how to spell, what comes next, whether b or d has a line on which side.
Everything is stretching endless. My armpits sweat. Glancing at the clock, overhearing upstairs chaos, bathtime shouts punctuated by off-key piano, I calculate the motherly math and realize we will never make bedtime. And yet I cannot interrupt his work. What could be more important?
ThyWill BE looms in large loops; doNe is smashed against the edge. (An accurate rendering of my own prayer these days; I bite my tongue.) But he is not even halfway done and I’m getting itchy. How do teachers do it? I puzzle for the billionth time. I sit on my hands, breathe through my nose, smile through clenched teeth.
He searches for the next line, picks the wrong one, and starts to write. “Hmmm,” I try to intervene. I am not supposed to give the answers, so I go back to the beginning and read the prayer aloud to see if the rhythm will help him find his way. “Oh,” he laughs, self-corrects.
He sticks out his tongue and smears sticky black ink as he writes. This line is utterly unintelligible. If you squint, you might make out earth and heaven but I can barely see where he’s going. Words cut off halfway and jump in again on a new line; punctuation is nowhere to be found. The (ironic) college-ruled paper is covered with half-cursive, half-printed upper-case and lower-case. No matter. Move on.
GiveusTHISdayOuRdailYbread. My stomach growls.
The next two lines about forgiveness get mashed together, as if muttered under the breath by a surly sibling. (I pray this way, too, quite often. Give me the bread, the kingdom, the power, the glory; fine, here’s forgiveness. Can I really critique?)
Trespasses proves a tricky word too, not only to spell but to understand. I try one tack: “You know when you see ‘no trespassing’ signs on someone’s property? When we do the wrong thing, it’s like going where we shouldn’t go.” Blank stare. “Sins,” I try again. “The wrong thing. Hurting someone else.”
My own impatience is bubbling up like lava. I almost snap at both sons—at keyboard and clipboard—to quit. Or come back later, try again till tomorrow? But now is the point. Here is where we are. Lead us not into temptation. We are so close.
I let my mind drift. Memory’s flash: how many nights my older brother, in the throes of cancer, hobbled out to the driveway to shoot hoops with scrappy me, not an athletic bone in my body. He taught me layups, how to tie an invisible string between elbow and knee so both would rise together. He coached me on bounce passes, free throws, dribbling between my legs. He kept cheering my nickname when we both wanted to quit and chuck the ball at the garage door: thunk.
My son nears the end. Deliver US from Evil. He is tired, too, letters piling up at the edges, ignoring the margins. But he glows. Exactly what he wanted to do tonight: write our prayer. He has done it.
Upstairs he runs in a flash. Alone I am left with his words.
“Here comes everybody,” James Joyce wrote about the church. Now I see the truth spelled out by six year-old hands. Letter by letter is how the kingdom comes.
I always want the kingdom to sail like this: a perfect three-pointer, swish through the hoop, barely breezing the net. Instead it stumbles like this: thunk against the backboard, clang off the rim, air ball, embarrassing miss, try again. No easy layups. Only hours of practice.
Or I want the kingdom to flow: an effortless sonata, smooth as silk, beauty streaming from the fingertips. Instead it fumbles: wrong notes, restarts, same mistakes, fists pounding the keys in frustration. No instant genius. Only hours and hours.
But here comes the kingdom, again and always: slow and sacred, patient and plodding, human and divine. Demanding more than I want to give, demanding less than the world deems worthy, revealing everything that matters, relentless.
I pick up his paper and carry it upstairs, calmed and quiet. Was the work his or mine?
Or it is always ours?
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