My edition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead calls a prayer a “wish-path.” I keep mixing up the words: pray-wish. Path-prayer. Player. Pish. I learned prayer as the vehicle of ask and messenger of fear. “Say a prayer for _____,” my mother would enjoin, mostly as grim acknowledgment of an illness, my father’s troubles at work, or the dangers invoked by even minor travel. But health or money or safe arrival never brought reciprocal prayers of thanks. Joy. Celebration. This made me suspicious of praying, as it seemed more of a way to hedge one’s bets than to have any kind of conversation with God.
When my dog, Freire, was sick but still himself, I wanted to offer thanks for his life and I didn’t know how to do that or whom I should address or what I should say. Mostly I would walk outside in the mornings and squat down so I could run my fingers over the damp, cold grass and pat the frozen ground in our front yard. I said thank you to the morning sky, the street, the sparrows, to the trees, to the tattered wicker chair, to the moon if it was out— anything that would listen. I concocted small ceremonies that included burning juniper or sage or tiny offerings of tobacco inside a pink/gray clam shell. Every day. Often, at least. On our walks. I said thank you, thank you, thank you. Whenever we went to the park. Thank you geese, thank you pine trees and dumpster and lawn gnomes.
But I still wanted something. I wanted it to matter that I did these things. I wanted Freire not to die.
Perhaps a dog’s illness is not the proper occasion for exploring prayer in earnest, and indeed, since dogs are pure of heart they might not even need prayer. Still. I’m not sure what the Buddhists mean by “wish-path” or if that’s even a remotely correct translation, but I believe it means you’ve got to walk the wish off. Literally is probably best, but one way or another. Just walk it off. Along the way the wish will change shape and substance and this is how it becomes a prayer, after you’ve worn it for a bit and the two of you have traveled together for a while. You change each other. The path is transformed by weather and water and time.
One of my paths runs under the shale bluffs lining Backbone Road, not far from my house, then dips down to accompany Chartiers Creek on its way to the Ohio River. So far as I know it doesn’t have a name of its own; it is simply Chartiers Creek Path. The Indians who first inhabited this area likely had camps on top of these bluffs, for they offered a clear view in every direction. By virtue of their proximity to the convergence of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers these Indians were known as “Keepers of the Western Door.” But the Indians and the land were both elusive, the paths impermanent, the various tributaries and rivers always undermining the soil. According to Wikipedia, the Moravian missionary David Zeisberger explained that the Native American word Monongahela signified a high bank “which is ever washed out and therefore collapses.” Old paths give way to make roads for new wishes.
At either end of the valley there’s a pool of sky where planes pause— zeppelin-like—coming and going from the airport. I had another dog, Nesco, who chased planes. Big, commercial, slow-moving planes, small planes, anything in the sky. He barked at the moon, bright stars, satellites. I think he saw intersections everywhere – paths into the sky that brought bright objects within reach. I don’t think he ever really wished to catch them. Catching sight was enough.
Every time I walk the creek I glimpse some creature that moves almost instantly out of view. The other day it was a lion-canine tearing down the ravine. Feral collie? Hybrid coyote? It moved very fast for a normal dog, but I couldn’t see it long enough to tell. A man was walking far ahead of me, he was almost at the end of the path, but I didn’t see any creature following along. This time of year the frozen creek masquerades as a fast-moving stream tumbling white-capped out of the mountains; the motion of the water in this photo is all under the surface, what you see is only ice: a log jam of wishes praying for thaw.