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An Atheist, A Buddhist & The Meaning of Prayer

I got home tonight just after 9 o'clock after being gone all day dealing with an illness in the family (this has been the bulk of my Labor Day weekend; shit happens) and took Pearl for a late walk through the neighborhood. We both needed it.

It's a cool, crisp night after the pouring rain we had most of the day. A nearly full moon is visible as the clouds clear away. It's a quiet Sunday evening, just the two of us strolling along Chandler St., Pearl trotting happily after being stuck in the house alone since 2:30pm. I'm enjoying the fresh air and movement, the chance to let my mind wander a bit.

Half a mile from my house lives a family of Vietnamese immigrants. There's a husband and wife about my age, and for a while a pair of elderly parents, whom I haven't seen in some time. I don't know if they've passed on, but for a long time I'd see the old woman outside at dusk, lighting incense and setting out small bowls of sweetened milk and chocolate candies while softly chanting. It was a Buddhist ceremony, an offering she made. When I'd see her, I'd smile politely, inhale the fragrant incense, appreciating the small beauty of the ritual. I haven't seen that old woman in months.

Tonight, as we walked by just after 9:30, the sweet fragrance of incense once again filled the air outside of their meticulously maintained home. The small flower garden out front is still in bloom, immaculate in its care. Decorative lights strung along the A-frame of the house. I paused in front of the house, inhaling the scent. There was no cup of sweetened milk nor any bowl of candy left out to curry favor with the gods. In the doorway however was the younger woman, smiling peacefully at me even as it appeared I'd interrupted her quiet meditation. Was she honoring her mother? Continuing the tradition? Awakening her own spirituality?

Simple human moments. An atheist and a Buddhist (and a dog) sharing a smile and a glimmer of recognition of kindred spirits. It doesn't require some artificially proscribed "National Day of Prayer" to take a moment and appreciate the humanity that links us as people; it just takes a tiny bit of humanity.

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