here today, gone tomorrow

There is a small herd of cattle in our neighborhood. They belong to an older couple that lives in the house at the foot of a mountain hillside tucked underneath our small-town cemetery. When I first drove out to see the house we would purchase and make our home, I noticed the cows right away. They were a mixed bunch – black and brown and tan and white, some spotted, others plain. I fell in love with a house and lot that day, due in no small part to the cows grazing on the nearby hillside that reminded me of other fields where my grandfather raised our family’s herds. I passed the cows each time I drove out to the house for one of the many inspections you schedule when purchasing a home. I was eager to make friends with my new neighbors. “Here, pretty girls,” I called out the window of my car, remembering how my grandmother greeted those entrusted to her care. Even as she declined, my grandmother could trace most of the cows’ bloodlines back several generations. She was always ready to point out the good mothers, those who could fatten their calves year after year.

Since moving into our new home, I begin and end most of my days in the cemetery at the top of the hill. It’s a beautiful place to walk and I like the quality of quiet rarely found among the living. Sometimes, the cattle graze on the other side of the field and I don’t see them. When I’m lucky, they’re right by the fence and I stop for a while. In the evenings when the wind is just right, the air smells like sunshine and manure. Breathing deeply, I am both home.

A few weeks ago, I was out early with our new dog. I dearly love this 95-pound excuse to start my day with a brisk walk. We were headed up to the cemetery when I first noticed that the cattle up ahead looked different. All of the usual suspects were gone and a new herd was standing in for my favorites. I know what it means to move cattle, having watched and helped my grandfather rotate herds to different pastures on the farm before loading them up to sell at auction. I should have been expecting a change in lineup. “My” cows had been growing and were probably ready to sell. And still, as I gazed out across unfamiliar faces, I was surprised.

There was no goodbye or final morning check-in across the fence. They were simply gone, replaced overnight by a new herd that will join my morning gaggle this year. This witness-bearing to the raising and releasing (and also the slaughtering) of one’s neighbors gives me pause, even as I step up to a well-rounded plate each and every meal. There is more than one way to honor life and death. Perhaps there’s something to greeting each day – and each creature – with enough love and wonder that you can bear a goodbye foreclosed. Perhaps there’s something about the paths from which we can see death and departure as simply part of the journey. I wonder what we can learn from loving – fiercely, tender – all that will inevitably leave us, sometimes with precious little warning? I wonder what it means to count ourselves, too, among that which passes away? The auction block hovers over far more than the neighborhood food supply. What happens when we are judge, jury, and executioner?

I am still getting used to this new herd of cattle and am grateful for their presence, even as my eyes keep looking for what is no longer there. It’s clear that I’ll have opportunity to practice leave-taking again next year. I wonder what I’ll be seeing and asking when it comes time to bid this group farewell. Until then, there are lifetimes to spend honoring the fullness of this season and all that it gives and takes away.

Dog meet Dog

And then one day, it was time. Not necessarily right or perfect, but simply time itself. Hunkering down at home during COVID-19’s foreseeable future, my husband and I figured this could be the perfect season to introduce a new dog into the family. We decided long ago that our lives were built for four-legged expansion and our nine year-old shepherd mix, Zeke, has been enjoying a solo act for years. While Zeke loves the spotlight, he wasn’t always an only child. Beulah was the first dog we added to our family and our very best girl. It feels like lifetimes ago that we had to put her down well before her time. With Zeke’s coat graying around the jowls and his joints stiffening on the walks he tolerates solely for our sakes, we have been contemplating the possibility of once more adding to our pack. We’re excited for the youthful, boisterous energy that will rally us for long walks and misadventures, but this is not a step we take lightly. When we’re being honest, this welcoming of the fresh and new is part of how we’ll say goodbye when the time comes. We know from experience that we will fare better with another dog-in-waiting when Zeke takes his leave. And while we hope that’s several years off, there are no guarantees. There rarely are. And so, it’s not so much now or never, but simply now.

With Zeke in the backseat, we drove up to Mitchell County last weekend. At the recommendation of our fabulous local pet pantry, I had been messaging with the owner of a remarkable rescue operation located a few counties to the north. After looking at some pictures online, we scheduled a meet-and-greet. As we turned up the driveway and passed the barn, we had been made. A raucous chorus of yelps and barks and howls greeted us before we even opened our doors. From the car, I could see dog yards and single pens surrounded by a hillside where a herd of cattle was grazing in the distance. The welcome itself was overwhelming. Seeing and hearing so many different faces and sounds of need incarnate can be jarring. Sometimes, it’s easier to keep our distance from those awaiting their more than just human rights to food, shelter, and love. Some journeys, then, are about how we respond to those we encounter along the way. We were talking a good talk on the drive up. We would just meet some dogs and head back home to talk things over. But fate is a thing and any lingering resolve disappeared as we waited in the back field to meet some dogs. I’m not sure when our thinking shifted from whether to bring a new family member home to which dog would be leaving with us, but it did. When the time is right, it’s just a matter of fit.

We learned something about fit when Zeke surprised us at an adoption fair almost ten years ago. We were caring for my grandmother in Batesville, Arkansas, when it dawned on us. We could get a dog! Married for just a few years, we were still learning how much adulting was ours for the making. We were living in an old family home with a backyard we could easily fence in and the farm was only a short 20-minute drive away. So much was out of our hands as we learned how to navigate my grandmother’s decline. But a dog – a puppy, even – was something we could wrap our heads and hands and hearts around.

Batesville is a small town in a rural community where dogs are working animals with important jobs. While we planned on romping our dog-to-be through the farm’s fields and pastures, we were less interested in any highly-prized skillsets like coon treeing or duck hunting. We were simply excited for exuberant companionship. When we’re being honest, we also needed some puppy energy to remind us about other seasons of life, where you could train a loved one to remember things. Little did we know that one dog would teach us so much about death, too.

To know Zeke is to know about Beulah. Weaned too early from her mother and siblings, Beulah was waiting for us one rainy Saturday morning. We drove out to get her with a tiny leash we never used. Beulah fit into the palm of my hand and tried valiantly to climb into my sweater. She couldn’t get close enough. Tucked against the unfamiliar smell of my skin, she cried all the way home. We made all kinds of plans to put her in a crate and do the sensible things you do to train dogs. But Beulah’s whimper was enough to stymie the best of our intentions and she quickly became the center of our world. A yellow lab mix, Beulah easily won over my grandmother who liked to feed her scraps from the table. My grandmother could never remember Beulah’s name and one day christened her “Whitey.” When Zeke joined the family a few months later, my grandmother nicknamed our black-and-tan addition “Blackie.”

Much like this week’s seemingly impromptu trip to Mitchell County, Zeke came our way in his own perfect timing. Beulah had been with us for a few months and much as we tried, we could not be the dog she needed. And so, we found ourselves at the pet store after church one Sunday. We often ran errands on Sunday afternoons and had planned to stop in for a treat of some kind while my grandmother napped. We had been discussing how much we would benefit from another dog in the house, but were not necessarily planning to act on our musings. We were quite certain that a second dog would be for another day or time or season. But, as we learn time and again, some decisions are not ours alone.

I remember how warm it was that Sunday and how surprised we were to see crates and cages stacked up in the parking lot of an otherwise nondescript strip mall with a shoe store, an off-brand vitamin shop, and one of the county’s two Mexican restaurants. I also remember our excitement as we reconsidered our plans to look for a new chew toy or ball. Instead, we began taking a closer look at some of the dogs and puppies. We were new to parenthood, cutting our teeth on canines and elders. Far from experts, we thought we knew what we wanted. A puppy. A female. Something small and sweet. In many ways, we were looking for something that Beulah was not.

Beulah was far from an easy dog, but her imperfections were manageable until they became dangerous. When we first met Zeke, Beulah was a rambunctious lab mix with more energy than we could walk or run out in any given day. As we led Beulah toward the dogs we had preselected, she could not contain her excitement. Her energy level was so high that the adoption coordinator worried about the safety – of the dogs in her care, of us. After meeting Beulah, her fears were assuaged. The aggression genetically coded into Beulah’s inbred lineage would not surface for over a year. That day, it really was just excitement – the kind that should have a happy ending.

Our preferences notwithstanding, the dogs we tried to pair with Beulah cowered at her exuberance. There really can be too much of a good thing. We moved methodically through our list, hoping that one of our choices would work. The adoption coordinator was exceedingly patient. After Beulah scared each and every dog on our list, she stepped in and suggested we take a look at “Ramiro,” a young shepherd mix we hadn’t noticed. She thought that he might be confident enough to stand up to Beulah’s energetic overtures.

When one of the staff members let “Ramiro” out of his pen: pure magic. His crate had been tucked into a van parked on the lot and we didn’t know what to expect. “Ramiro” ran straight up to Beulah, wagging his tail in greeting as he bobbed down in front of her before batting her swiftly on the nose. She looked up in surprise as they took off running. They never looked back. It was love at first sight and we were all blindsided by it. It’s amazing what we can’t see until someone – or something – opens our eyes.

We had Beulah only a few short years before her behavior escalated in ways too dangerous for our home – or any other. The decision to put her down counts among the more difficult of our family’s life. How do you weigh the cost of the greater good? And what if that cost is death? We agonized over Beulah’s options. And still, her last day with us was beautiful. We played fetch for hours and enjoyed a final family walk. And then we loaded Beulah in the car – one of her most favorite places – and drove to the vet. We held Beulah close and loved on her as she took her last breaths. It was a gut-wrenching, heart-bursting day. And it was so final. There was no going back. There rarely is. As we left the vet’s office and drove home, Zeke was waiting at the door.

Zeke adapted quickly to life as a single dog, teaching us about the resilience that comes from the places we can’t know until we’re already there. In her final months, Beulah was not the kindest companion, but Zeke was a faithful friend. And he has been an exemplary solo dog ever since Beulah’s early departure – loving and kind to all creatures with the exception of cats. We knew Zeke would not be tricky to pair, but still. You don’t love and lose lightly. Zeke’s opinion was the one that mattered as we met possible additions to our family. Thinking back on the list of hopefuls that Beulah rejected one after the other, I had to smile. So much has changed since we first set out on this journey of companionship. Growing our hearts and home to meet a given season, we keep showing up to this thing called life.

We met two dogs at the rescue before we asked about the big black and tan hound dog we could see from the back field. From afar, he was bigger than we thought we were looking for. They always are. When the proprietor brought out “Luke,” he reminded me somewhat of Beulah – eager and excited to meet a new friend. After a successful initial greeting, we let both dogs off their leashes to see how they might get along unattended. It was pretty much perfect: some chasing and running before each dog headed off to his own corner of the field to look at the cows and eat grass.

It’s fascinating to watch Zeke and Luke-now-Ezra figure out this new arrangement. I’m also curiously watching our household adapt to its newest family member. It’s humbling how much we can learn from those entrusted to our care. So far, the adjustment period is going beautifully. And still, I notice that I am anticipating Beulah-like responses from this new-to-us dog who has shown zero indication of anything but goofy, oversized love. When memories of bared teeth and snapping jaws surface, I am reminded that love sometimes hurts us in unexpected ways. The wounds we inflict on those closest to us run deep. They smart beyond the grave. I am grateful for the lessons that Beulah gifted and know that she is with us still. She is present in my eagerness to do right by this new-to-us dog. She is present in that which we did not – could not – know before. Beulah’s is not just a presence marked by the tin we keep on the kitchen shelf, its floral green pattern masking the remnants of a life reduced, ashes to ashes. Hers is a presence that invites remembrance, joy, and sorrow – the bittersweet things of life and of death.

It’s not surprising that this introduction to the newest member of our family has become a story about those who came before. But that’s how it works when the next generation arrives; they remind us of those whose journeys are already intertwined with ours. When we talk about the ancestors, we often mean our people. That’s why this story about our new dog somehow circles back to my grandmother who nicknamed our now-aging shepherd “Blackie” before she died. When we’re being honest, we share more in common with our four-leggeds than we think, especially when we remember that death comes for us all. Looking back, I can see how the season that gifted my grandmother’s decline, and the addition of our first “fur-child,” offered lessons that seem contradictory only at first glance. To love is to know loss. And my husband and I loved my grandmother and Beulah – fiercely. In their own ways, each is with us now as we grow our family once more.

My husband and I stayed with my grandmother, and with Beulah, after they passed. Holding a body in transition is not easy. Staying present to what’s left behind is hard work. My grandmother had already died when we were called to her bedside. I don’t know what compelled me to do so, but I climbed into bed with my grandmother’s body and stayed there for hours while we waited for those in charge of her transport to arrive. After my parents and grandfather left, my husband and I sang and cried before settling into the quiet impossibility of that holy moment. Flesh of my flesh. Heart of my heart.

We held Beulah’s body, too, after the drugs stopped her heart and slowed her breath until all we could hear were our own sobs. Some things you cannot know until you hold life in your hands and let it go. As we reckon in this season with the calculus of choice itself, I like to think that our learning can honor this deep truth: life and death come for us all. Even then, they do not play fair. When we hold death gently among us, climbing into its arms to be comforted by that which awaits us all, some of our choices become clearer. Sometimes, we get to learn that so many choices aren’t ours to make at all. I like to think that our newest family member, Ezra, will live into the examples set by the two-and four-legged creatures who journeyed with us until their end. I like to think that we have learned from those who lived and died among us. I also like to think that he’ll just be a great dog. What I know for certain is that that my grandmother would have smiled at Ezra’s big paws and floppy ears. She would not have remembered his name, but she would have reached out her hand and loved him.

let us pray

I was wrapping up a meeting late last week when a colleague took me by surprise. I had joined the conversation midway, tasked with bringing some new team members up to speed. The straightforward agenda was short; just some workflow processes and projected deadlines to introduce. Everything was running like clockwork as we brought our conversations to a close. But then, after thanking me for my time and contributions, my colleague asked if I would offer a word of prayer. There are many places and contexts where I might anticipate this invitation, but most of my work meetings don’t answer to quite so high a calling. Surprised, but not unpleasantly so, I bowed my head.

There is much I could say about my native tongues, none of which sound like the prayers of my childhood or adolescence. “Though I may speak with bravest fire,” my prayers are quick to flame out. I have been prayed over my entire life, but some phrases just don’t sound like mine to utter. Whereas music comes naturally and the written word often flows freely, even the prospect of prayer can be silencing. Raised in traditions where heartfelt, extemporaneous prayer is an expression of both faith and formation, I sometimes long for a different kind of inclination to in-voking and up-lifting of all kinds. For me, words are the part of the Christian incarnation that makes the most sense. And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us? Yes, please. But, then what?

I like to weigh my words carefully, measuring each thought against its many possible expressions. But the immediacy of some prayer traditions asks for a different kind of practice, a relaxing of an otherwise curated word order. Being asked to pray in last week’s meeting transported me to the times and places in my life where the divine has commanded more of my attention, standing guard over a tongue that tends to wander off on its own. I thought of the Landmark Missionary Baptist Church where my grandparents were baptized and my mother was raised. I remembered the Southern Baptist congregation in New Jersey where I learned to sing all four verses of the hymns I still know by heart. I also heard voices lifted in the Evangelisch-Freikirchlicher Gemeinden where my own faith sounded foreign. I, too, am a stranger in the land.

As I ended the meeting in prayer, I drew on roots I will spend a lifetime tending. In my tentative gestures, I heard my grandfather’s voice lifting hopes that might one day be mine. When my grandfather prays, as he does at each meal and every time we head out the door for a homeward journey, he beseeches traveling mercies for his loved ones. His are the prayers that call us by name. When my grandfather dies, I worry that our words will not suffice. Can unproven liturgies carry the weight of so much grief? I imagine we’ll be shocked by the silence, listening for echoes of my grandfather’s voice and its daily call to obedience and grace.

Once, when we were visiting the small country church where my grandparents worshipped in the name of a Spirit unashamed to move, the pastor of a dwindling congregation invited my grandfather to close out the service. “Brother Ford, will you lead us in prayer?” The words my grandfather lifted up that day were unlike any I have ever heard him pray. In a space set apart from convention and conventions alike, he called on power and spirit and the mighty hands of a holy God to come down and move and act among His people. The words were loving and fierce and they were not what I was expecting. But it stuck with me, this impassioned plea for presence, this expectation of intervention. And it was these words – visceral and unbidden – that came through at the end of last week’s meeting.

You never know when words will come out of your mouth that preach empire in the name of love. But sometimes might and power and kingdom are the words we have to shout the glory down, including our own. And power doesn’t always signal the worst of things. Sometimes, the Blessed Be shows up to remind us that power is beautiful in the sovereignty of those creating a brave new world. I like to know where my words come from, but as I closed out an otherwise regular meeting in prayer, I yielded to an unfolding verse, a sentence built on heart strings plucked by someone, something beyond my ken. Perhaps one day, I’ll have a prayer practice that speaks with the regularity and conviction of my grandfather. Until then, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart suffice. Amen.

(N)ever Appalachia

I wonder about forbidden things – people and places, too. So much so that I wrote a dissertation about what it might mean to uncover the forbidden in the stories we love to tell. My doctoral work took up where my masters degree in Appalachian Studies left off. That degree was a thinly veiled excuse to spend two years in western North Carolina singing hymns and gospel songs in missionary Baptist churches that sounded like the stories my mother and grandparents told about a small rural congregation in north central Arkansas. During those two years in the North Carolina mountains, my husband and I were welcomed by faith communities connected by the close-knit kinship networks I was learning about in books and seminars. Sitting on the alto bench, I watched families three and four generations-deep worshipping together. Over a two-year period, I observed families navigate life and death as new generations came along to fill in pews claimed by ancestors long gone. I also noticed how these families cared for one another. Living into a gospel that preached Jesus first, family second, I watched women in their 60s and 70s cook, clean, and care for parents in their 80s and 90s. Literally lifting one another up as they walked into church together, each multi-generational pair taught me something about the holiness – and sacrifice – of so deep a commitment. I was deep in my book learning, but it wasn’t my thesis that kept me up at night. It was the women in these churches who reminded me of my grandmother and her mother and her mother before. Preaching by example, these church ladies – Ms. Jan, and Ms. Ruth, and Ms. Kathy and Ms. Eulala – reminded me that I, too, was a granddaughter. Looking out over other people’s families, I remembered my own.

My grandmother was diagnosed with dementia right before I began my graduate studies. Scattered across the country, my family struggled to hear what this diagnosis would mean for us all. Some held out for a miracle. Others hoped for a gentle decline that would foreclose dementia’s indignities. I wasn’t sure what to think, but after two years of bearing witness to the living gospel of those accompanying loved ones to life’s end, I was convicted that the next chapter of my learning would be hands-on and heart-bursting. The years my husband and I spent living in my great grandfather’s house were messy and complicated, and not just because of the decline in the house next door that shaped the contours of each day. The precious gift of the rare cogent moment or recipe improbably remembered were hard to translate for those holding onto a different measuring stick from afar. I struggled to make legible and tangible and meaningful both what remained – and what was fading each day. It was one thing to remember and face my own convictions. It was harder to learn that we all get to show up in our own ways and on our own timelines.

Caring for my grandmother was my calling. And then, the phone rang and I was offered a spot in a prestigious doctoral program where I could step forward – but also always back – into another kind of learning. On the very same night that my grandfather finally agreed to let us raise chickens in the old dog pen out back, I choked out the news: I would be trading in one season for another. We would be leaving so that I might pursue the next chapter of my professional life. While the cost of our decisions count among those things we don’t always talk about, we all paid a price for the learning I sought elsewhere. Had she been lucid, my grandmother would have insisted on our departure. She believed in education above most things, but my grandmother was no longer able to bless any of our choices. And so I held fast to what I thought I knew, and we left.

There are some things too tender to probe, too complicated to parse. My grandmother’s decline is one of them. She has been gone for almost five years and I am just now stepping up to the fault lines we crossed in our efforts to do right by her. For a little while, the intellectual journey of my doctoral program offered new and often deeply engaging ways to talk about identity and belonging. From the very beginning, though, I wondered about the trade-off. Even as we crossed the Mississippi on our way to Atlanta, Georgia, where I would enroll in Emory University’s Graduate Division of Religion, I wondered what it meant that I could leave someone behind. How would academic training stack up against the learning – and the wisdom – gifted in the unwinding of a life?

Forbidden thoughts and disquieting questions about my own choices accompanied me throughout the coursework that I navigated with flying colors. It wasn’t until I began writing a dissertation about my own storied inheritances that my grandmother – by then an ancestor – asked for a different kind of memorial. For a while, I thought I was writing about categories of abstract belonging, trying to unpack the history of a particular term to figure out how and why it excluded so many. I eventually figured out that I was actually trying to write my way back – to a farm, to a family, and to a grandmother who asked me to be my best self until she no longer remembered who I was.

The deeper I got into the dissertation, the more my narrative voice wandered off, circling the familiar places I couldn’t seem to leave behind. When Walk ‘Til the Dogs Get Mean hit my desk, a compilation of first-person narratives about the politics of telling a story that doesn’t register as authentically “Appalachian,” the volume’s bold, unflinching prose reminded me that I, too, have a homeplace begging for a reckoning. Sections titled “Forbidden Gods,” “O Ruiner of Holy Things,” and “Wayfaring Stranger” alluded to the stories my dissertation was deferring. In narratives of betrayal, memories of strange fruit, mourning rituals, and rites of confession, I encountered again and again the tricky proposition of being a someone else, an outsider, an other. With deadlines to meet and a degree to earn, I stayed the course – but my words were already shifting, begging to tell a story I was remembering from lands both strange and familiar.

Hitting my desk mid-dissertation writing, this volume walked me to a place of courage from which I began to remember my own stories and truth-claims. In the volume’s introduction, the editors name faith, poverty, and woundedness among the threads that both bind and blind us to one another. Exploring the shifting fault lines that claim those from a cherished “here” while questioning those from everywhere and nowhere else, I began to consider what it might mean to lean into and live out the contradictions I was studying – between the imagined and real, the expectation and shortcoming, the presumed and precluded. As someone from “off” teasing out the relationship between religious tradition and regional identity, I found others’ willingness to call out the politics of their own realities both empowering and sobering.   

What I remembered, as my thought-work veered from the abstract to the deeply person, is that the voices we listen to matter – especially when they speak ancestral truths; that the questions we raise have impact – especially when we honor the vulnerable places from which they spring; and that inclusion and exclusion both come at a cost – especially when we take the time to pay attention to the invitations we extend and those we do not. Writing on the other side of so many unexpected chapters, I continue to remember that we are all conditioned to – and measured by – theologies of difference that scar as much as they save. Remembering the contortions I have made to to reconcile my full self with ideals articulated and authorized elsewhere, I notice how easily and repeatedly we fail to recognize ourselves and others; how distinctions between insiders and outsiders can blur. I tackled this slipperiness between “us” and “them” in my dissertation, hoping that a deep dive into the story of “Appalachian religion” might yield a threshold worth crossing. In religious cosmologies, thresholds are portals to new worlds, but their transformations often exact unexpected sacrifices. For a long time, I thought that teasing out the relationship between regional and disciplinary identity politics would be enough. But my raising has proven hardy and my roots have always been calling me to a different place of inquiry. I am a scholar of religions and regions we know by their storied exceptionalism. But I was a granddaughter first, and my questions keep coming back to what I left behind at the kitchen table. What story can I tell that counts the cost of looking for myself – and my roots – everywhere but home?

While all dissertations tell one story or another, mine explored the relationship between the naming and claiming of difference. Some of the questions I once raised ring hollow now, but I am still compelled to journey with the stories we revere as gospel truth. The place where our convictions and truth claims meet is what I call the religion of exceptionalism. This is not the religion of iconic country churches or of mainline missionary upstarts. Instead, it is the push and pull of nostalgia and caricature, dual inheritances that show up in the stories we tell about ourselves and others. Believers and skeptics, alike, we all have our role to play in the exceptionalisms that give shape to our daily liturgies.  

Truth-telling invites a deep exhale, but calling out our gods is dangerous business, especially for those on the outside looking in. Some of my questions – and my deepest truths – make me a ruiner of holy things. But perhaps ruination is just another name for salvation, making space for the outsiders among us to reframe the forbidden as an asset and not a liability. Most days, I wonder about the nature of our beliefs and the ways they shape our being and sense of belonging. But sometimes, I wonder about the ways we simply do not see one another at all.

If my grandmother were alive today, she would proudly display my bound dissertation on a bookshelf overflowing with old Sunday School books and compilations of condensed novels that Reader’s Digest sold by mail order. She would have loved the title I rarely use and would have eagerly shared my professional accomplishments with the ladies in her Sunday School class. I’d love to hear her mirror my learning in the simple homespun language that carried such depth. It’s hard to know what she would have made of my musings. I know she would have resisted some of my questions that pester too insistently at the foundations so firm in her mind. I also know that we would have weathered my grappling in the kitchen where my grandmother would have slaked my thirst – for knowledge, for life – with the meditations of her heart. Ours would have been a different kind of seminar, a diminishing circle with multiplying rewards.

There are no do-overs in this life and I’m not certain I would go back to make different choices if I could. And still, as I keep unlearning the lessons that try to silence my heart’s native tongue, I return to questions of the forbidden. What rich gifts lie just beyond the boundaries of our own knowing. And what sweet release lies waiting in stiller waters. For the work of knowing our own forbidden fault lines, and for the strength to follow them all the way home – I give thanks.

counter culture

Counter people are some of my favorites. As someone who works remotely, I try to be intentional about scheduling connection into my daily routine alongside virtual work obligations. Some of these connections involve transactions across a literal counter, but it’s not the coffee or the wine or the cheese that keep me coming back. It’s Eric. And Susan. And Elspeth. And Patty. And Vickie. And so many more.

For years, I have been tempering a professional life filled with too much screen time by staging many of my days in local businesses that feel like home. Instead of sequestering myself during the work week, I move between local spots where staff and other patrons have become “co-workers” and friends. When back-to-back meetings and improbable deadlines stack my calendar, I prefer sharing space with those busy tackling their own projects, reading books, or enjoying conversations over coffee. In community, it’s easier to remember that the world does not actually turn on the stroke of my keyboard. Among others, I find my way into a rhythm that makes room for more than just work. When the balance is right, it’s the moments between meetings – when we stand and smile and stretch together – that become the making and measure of a life.

At Allgood Coffee, some of the regulars try to get my attention when walking by “my” table. Sometimes, I don’t notice someone approaching until they are right in front of me, their proximity ultimately drawing my eyes off the screen. It’s amazing how much focus both gives and takes. “Look up, Meredith. Look up.” When I was writing my dissertation from the high-top by the door, I stayed put while people streamed in and out throughout the day. Head in my books and eyes on the prize as I eked out one. more. footnote, I became part of a place where strangers turned into friends who celebrated each blessed page with me. My beloved community includes other coffee shop regulars whose handwritten tabs are also taped to the wall over the coffee mugs by the sink. It’s not often that we settle so deeply into places of business. Sometimes these places – and the communities they nurture – become part of how we know ourselves in the world.

Right next door to the coffee shop is my other local haunt. A wine store with some killer food, Maggie B’s is often my follow-up to a great cup of coffee. Those who know me well can often gauge my whereabouts by time of day. Before noon? Allgood. Lunch or thereafter? Maggie B’s. Sitting at my favorite table under the big window in the back room, I work to the tunes of staff playlists that make my heart happy and enjoy solidarity with other ladies who do more than lunch together. Sometimes, I don’t know it’s quitting time until people begin stopping in for a glass of wine to mark the winding down of a day. There’s something magical about the motley crew that assembles at Maggie B’s in the late afternoon. It’s as if those who gather have remembered something too easily forgotten – that we need the kindness of community and the witness of strangers – daily. It is humbling to recognize how much these moments of seeing and being seen – however brief – literally make and make up my days.

With important social distancing practices starting to reverberate across the county earlier this week, I made a few quick stops to check on the places where my work and life are best served. I didn’t just go to stock up on wine and coffee. I went to pay my respects and take my leave from those who also lean across counters, either ordering or dishing up community to those who walk through the door. While I stocked up on things in an effort to ease the burden of economic disruption, some things aren’t for sale. I already miss my people and their places in my world.

I am a creature of habit in more ways than one. As the world grows both larger and smaller each day, I am certainly following the large-scale transitions upending communities and countries across the globe. But sometimes, it’s a smaller measure that brings change to life, and I find that my grief is suspended over countertops no longer serving up family and familiarity. With my remote work proceeding largely uninterrupted, I am finding myself at work without my co-workers; not the people I actually work with – we’re all set with our remote work tools. It’s my other work family that I’m missing – the people I know by the check-ins and random conversations that pull us out of our own worlds into something we create together – not in our doing, but simply in our being. As we continue to live into this period of vital social isolation, I yearn for my people who share in the work of keeping tabs on a community that convenes in places where business-as-usual is no longer on the menu. May we all find ourselves at our regular tables again soon. Until then, may we look for ways to share in the work of bringing a new world into being – one full of counters and cultures where seeing and serving one another becomes the bottom line of our daily promise and practice.

a time to breathe

I have remarkably advanced skills in over-extending myself. It takes virtually no effort for me to schedule back-to-back obligations, exceeding limits forgotten until I cross them – time and again. This was supposed to be a season of serial meetings, convenings, and conferences connected by relentless travel. At the outset of a fast-paced first quarter, I was steeling myself to muster the kind of fortitude required for the schedule I had built for myself. A more relaxed April was going to be my reward for navigating a too-full season. I was even planning a three-day silent retreat in late March to mark my transition from overdrive to a more sustainable pace. Instead, the breath and pause I had earmarked for April has come early. We just took down the complex spreadsheet my husband laminated so that we could hang an indestructible copy of my comings-and-goings over the calendar that hangs in the kitchen. With work-related travel suspended indefinitely, my habit of living fast and furiously has been disrupted. We no longer need the cheat sheet I was living by and I now find myself at home with just enough time to catch my breath.

It is not lost on me that the virus affording this privilege is devastating lives and livelihoods. No exhale on my end can cover the mounting costs born by others. My breath – however life-giving to me – will not revive the dead or the dying.

And still, this sense of time reclaimed returns me to the cyclical nature of so much learning. Mere days ago, I was pushing myself to the limits of my own capacities. As I ponder this unexpected reprieve from my own scheduling hubris, I am reminded that things we come by honestly are still ours for the reckoning, even during a global pandemic. This relentless drive of mine comes from somewhere; from ancestors who passed down a work ethic that was supposed to save us all – from ourselves, from one another, from the evil within and without. I know now that this inherited investment in the promise of more becomes the too-much that robs me of life itself. I will spend more than one season tempering the dangerous equation in which we become the sum of our most productive parts. Some lessons are made for the unlearning. Again.

It is this perpetual state of learning that softens my expectations. This softening is not a capitulation to lesser gods. Each pause nudges, gently, the places where my deep longing chafes against the inhumanities that ask for some to give all and others to give nothing. What will it take to honor the measure of my own – and others’ – flourishing? As I sit on the porch in the waning afternoon sun and feel the possibility of time recalibrated, I know that raising this question is part of my work. The other part involves something resembling resistance, something about less doing and more being that stops short of being more than.

In this unexpected reprieve from my own tendencies, I know one thing for certain: that our struggle to breathe collectively might hinge on some of us understanding the privilege of breath itself. May I know the measure of my own learning by what my calendar – and my community – looks like when the next global pandemic hits. May I not need the next global emergency as cover story for my own limits. For all those struggling to breathe deeply – if at all – may our learning not be your burden alone to bear.

red hats, full hearts

On a walk earlier this week, I chatted with an older man perched on the fold-out bench he had pulled down from the back side of his walker. It was the first sunny afternoon in a long spell and I was stretching my legs after several hours at my laptop. I spied the man from the curve at the top of the hill. He was sitting in the sunshine, eyes shaded by a bright red baseball hat. I want to think that I noticed him first – a neighbor, perhaps – out for an afternoon stroll. But it was the hat that caught my eye, its familiar color inviting foregone conclusions and conversations foreclosed. I make a habit out of talking to most people I encounter and this man proved no exception. As I got closer, I noticed that the hat in question was not – in fact – proclaiming greatness of any kind, but rather promoting a local auction house in a nearby town. Everything is not always as it seems. Sometimes, a hat is just a hat.

When I approached, I made the kind of polite small talk built for strangers. We began with the weather and advanced quickly to our respective ages. Me, 39. Him, 83. We didn’t exchange names, but I did learn that he and his brother were born just under two years apart, their birthdays separated by days. I can also tell you that the man’s mother was born in March. Our conversation didn’t last long, and beyond bonding over the fortune of a shared March birthright, we didn’t get very far. But in the exchange of common pleasantries, I was reminded of how close we sometimes need to get to see beyond our own assumptions. Red hats and full hearts, friend. And room to grow, always.

More and Less

This summer was not the first time my body has thought about killing me. Almost twenty years ago, I woke up in an ambulance on Christmas Eve to learn of the seizure that had roused everyone in our household but me. An otherwise healthy college student with one semester under my belt, my brain showed up that Christmas with a syllabus of its own. I don’t remember many details from the relentless diagnostic period that carried me and my family through that first Epiphany. I do remember being equal parts terrified and annoyed. How could my body betray me in this way? What was my brain doing? Looking back, I can see how hard I pushed to keep promises of normalcy on my horizon. Overnight, the prospect of completing the degree I was just beginning began to feel aspirational at best. Who was I to assume four years to grow on?

Amid a battery of tests methodically examining the brain tumor detected on Christmas Eve, I was determined to keep to my plans of celebrating the new year with friends in Berlin, Germany. For me, going on this trip to the city I called home during my teenage years became the life and death battle that mattered. It would put “Bob” in his rightful place, lodged deep in my right parietal lobe – out of sight, but hardly out of my mind. Getting my parents and an ever-expanding team of specialists to clear me for international travel was not easy. But the test results were looking increasingly hopeful and I flew to Berlin a few days after Christmas. Less than ten days after my brain waves started a party of their own, I celebrated under the Brandenburg Gate. Dancing and singing together, my friends and I rang in the new millennium watching bottle rockets streak across the sky. Even the brightest colors fizzled out before raining down clouds of ash.

Life with Bob has been quiet enough. He could have been cancerous or evidence of a more serious seizure disorder, but he wasn’t. After surviving both Y2K and the possibility of a life-altering diagnosis, I returned to the second semester of my freshman year. Back among a peer group of young women more concerned with the possibility of bringing new life into the world than with the foregone conclusion of death itself, I could go for long stretches without remembering Bob’s standing invitation to a different calling.

These days, when I let myself breathe into the deepest part of me, I remember that we sometimes wake up changed, altered by things that come to us in the night. When Bob surfaces, I remember that scary things become ours in their naming and claiming. Transformation begins when we make space for the pieces of ourselves that beg to be seen and heard. Sometimes, we become the objects of our own learning. Unexpected teachers show up when we are ready – and when we’re not.

This summer, a new sojourner appeared. My doctors initially thought I was growing a large ovarian cyst and I named this new friend Gertie in an effort to welcome her into the same benign club that has suited Bob these many years. Unfortunately, Gertie didn’t take to her initial diagnosis. Instead of your friendly garden-variety cyst, she turned out to be a rare and unusual form of ovarian cancer. So rare, that Gertie has taken on unicorn status; a magical creature with a blessed propensity for disappearing into the fog of surgical anesthesia. After weeks of increasingly anxious waiting for a report delayed by experts who struggled to determine Gertie’s pathology, the call came in. My husband and I were driving through some back roads with particularly spotty cell reception when my surgeon reached out with the news. We pulled over to make sure I could hear what I already knew; that twenty years after Bob became the bullet I dodged, my body was catching up to some deep learning.

Cancer has a way of stopping you in your tracks, but we kept driving after I got off the phone, repeating to one another the words that have become both mantra and rallying cry – rare, treatable, good prognosis. From that initial call through a second surgery to remove any organ Gertie might enjoy as a second home, I have been revisiting my journey with Bob. Am I ready to remember the learning deferred and sacrifice suspended so many years ago? I wonder what I might be willing to ask again and know more deeply in this season.

I am still new to the world of cancer and recovery. Navigating a changing body – and a renewing mind – is both my daily doing and undoing. Almost 20 years after Bob showed up, making an understated case for life itself, I am at once my former self and a brave new woman. During Gertie’s diagnostic period, I was navigating the shock, adrenaline, and fear that my body remembered all too well from Bob’s early days. My husband and I had just purchased our first home together and I couldn’t quite wrap my head around a curtailed definition of the “forever” we had so readily deferred until just a few months before. Sitting on our new porch, my mind had a hard time quieting. But my eyes took note of the light filtering through the trees and my skin welcomed the sun’s warmth. I was almost unbearably alive as the specter of death rocked with me in the chair I inherited from an ancestor whose effortless old age had once seemed my birthright, too.

The body keeps tabs on us while we work on connecting the dots. My body likes to speak in ellipses, and I can trace what’s missing – and what remains – along invisible lines that connect my scars across more than just my abdomen. I stoically navigated Gertie’s entrance into my life much as I had welcomed Bob so many years before. Several days into my diagnosis, I was deep in my head about what it might mean to be dying. Pivoting seamlessly between gratitude for breath itself and bone-deep anxiety about what it might mean to claim any given day as a holy measure of enough, I found myself driving down the road we were traveling when my surgeon called with the news. As I approached the curve, the familiarity of it all – the waiting, the watching, the wondering – transported me to another season. I might have been sitting on the side of the road in Madison County, North Carolina, but I was also in a hospital room in Atlanta, Georgia, waiting for the angiogram that would determine the balance of so many things. Right before that procedure, my tears finally found me in the bathroom. With nurses and parents hovering anxiously on the other side of the door, there wasn’t time to sit with the deep truths welling up. I live into those depths now, making peace with my own flesh and blood.

This summer’s round of tests and two back-to-back surgeries ended just like that day in the Atlanta hospital – a kill shot that missed. Miraculously. And still, this lease on life chafes on those days when my new normal doesn’t feel like me. Navigating a recovery process that wades into ever deeper waters, my body begs for attention and accountability. In this season of unicorn wonder, I am called to live the questions that give voice to both presence and absence, to bitter loss and sweet, sweet gain. What, then, this body? How, then, this life? Sometimes, answers come on the porch where my ancestors hold court with Bob and Gertie. I don’t always hear, and when I do, I don’t always listen. But in my reach, again and again, for the light that makes the sum of me greater than the loss of any one part, I find my way.

To Make a Garden Grow

My grandfather has been farming for most of his life. At 93, he grows a huge garden in the Atlanta suburbs my parents call home. In fact, when we moved him from rural Arkansas to the big city, one of the first things my grandfather did was break ground for a garden. Before unpacking, my grandfather grabbed the tiller that has seeded his ambitions since he was a young man and began staking a new claim. Apparently, you can take the man out of Arkansas, but the homegrown habits will come along for the ride. 

I can’t remember a time when we didn’t drive to Arkansas to spend our summers on the farm. Summer days began early in Arkansas, and for good reason. The heat and humidity that traveled the Mississippi river bottoms to the Ozark foothills could be stifling. It was worth getting up before dawn to try and beat the heat. Most days would begin with my grandfather’s heavy footfall in the back of the house, and the sounds of the refrigerator door opening and closing as my grandmother packed the ice chest for our morning chores. After getting himself ready, my grandfather would knock on my door and make his daily proclamation. “Now is the time for all good women to come to the aid of their country.”

Every single morning.

Ever the good woman, I dressed quickly and joined my grandfather in the truck. When we arrived on the farm, I was in charge of all gates and locks. As soon as we got through the front gate, I moved to the truck bed so that I could hop in and out more easily as we made our way deeper into the farm. After opening or closing a gate, I would climb back up and pound on the roof of the cab three times to let my grandfather know that I was holding on and ready to go.

Every single time.

Morning chores involved checking the cattle and putting out hay and minerals. I was also in charge of looking out for the thistles my grandfather liked to keep in check. If I spied the purple flower from my perch on the back of the truck, we would pull over and cut the stalk at the root so that the weed wouldn’t go to seed. After counting cows and stalking weeds, we headed to the garden. Tending a large plot on the other side of a small creek in a pasture near the old barn, my grandparents had been raising food on the farm for well over 30 years before I came along. In neat, long rows, they grew potatoes, squash, onions, beans, peas, greens, and tomatoes. And corn. And asparagus. And they grew not just for themselves, but for the entire family. Working the garden with my grandfather – untangling water hoses and picking beans while keeping an eye out for snakes – I grew and grew to love the living things that would make their way to my dinner table that same night. 

Mornings on the farm with my grandfather taught me a lot of things. How to answer a knock at the door. How to get up early to catch the cool part of the day. How to sit quietly to watch the fog lift from the river and the sun rise over a pasture. How to learn by doing. And how to bear the monotony that sows tradition bone deep.

Every single day.

I only lived in Arkansas twice in my life – once, as a foreign exchange student in high school, when I spent a semester abroad from my home in Berlin, Germany, to live with my grandparents in the United States. The second time, my husband and I moved into my great grandfather’s house next door to help care for my grandmother. There is a lot I could say about those years of tender care and heartbreak, but what bears on this story is how my grandfather slowly transitioned the farm garden to my grandparents’ in-town backyard. Moving and downsizing the garden was one of many adjustments we all made to try to support my grandmother’s new and ever-changing normal. Initially, my grandfather resisted, knowing that each inch he gave up was proof of an inevitable decline he could not grow his way out of. Working out his grief in the backyard, he produced a bounty my grandmother no longer remembered how to put up.

And so, I remembered for both of us – and I washed, and blanched, and pickled, and canned. And I sat with my grandmother as we sorted and snapped beans together. This time, it was my turn to watch her hands, to make sure she got all the strings and didn’t eat too many beans while we were working. When my husband and I moved away, I left intimate parts of myself behind, scattered across the farm and seated at my grandmother’s kitchen table. Turning to a life of the mind, I learned different kinds of knocks and encountered new gates to open and walk through. And, just like my grandfather grieved the loss of his farm-place garden and life partner, I too mourned the loss of roots that grow stronger with the planting and reaping of each season.

We moved my grandparents from the farm place almost five years ago. My grandmother has since passed and my grandfather tends an established garden that feeds an entire Atlanta neighborhood. I have been slower to give myself over to a new place. This spring, however, my husband and I threw in our lot with those audacious enough to plant roots in the world and purchased our first home in Madison County, North Carolina. Six months after closing, I am in love with our small, unfashionable ranch with its simple rooms and gas burners and scarred wooden floors and a deep porch that catches the late afternoon light. I am also in love with the possibility of what a half acre hillside might yield.

And so, one weekend this fall, my grandfather and I broke ground together, digging into a soil with its own ancestors and histories. It’s humbling to work alongside a 93 year-old who can still out-lift me and who hasn’t yet mastered the concept of quitting time. The sun was hot, but not as hot as an Arkansas scorcher. And the day was long, but not as long as the farming days that began long before sunrise. We did as much as we could that the first day.

Bright and early the next morning, I picked up my grandfather who was staying at the nearby motel. As my grandfather settled into the passenger seat, it was my turn to proclaim. “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.” After driving my grandfather down some back roads so that he could see farms and barns and cows that might remind him of his own, we pulled into the driveway and got to work. It was a holy and quiet time as we measured the rows and prepared the seeds for planting. We used an old cattle prod from the farm to tamp out the seed bed. My grandfather set out the first few rows and I came behind with the seeds. Side by side, we stepped into a generations-deep practice that binds us to one another and to the other places we have worked out our roots in the soil.

There is much I could say about that morning, but I’ll close with how it felt to be planting my own garden with my grandfather. It was nothing short of a homecoming. In this season of my life, I am beginning to understand what my grandfather learned when he moved the garden first from the farm to the backyard only to start over again in Atlanta’s fertile ground. He might not say so, but I imagine that my grandfather would agree that what and where we plant is no more important than the act of planting itself. It’s the tending of soil and seed that makes a homeplace, teaching us to dig in and grow, wherever we are.

Every single day.