in the beginning

In the beginning was word and it mattered.
In the beginning was question and it wondered.
In the beginning was chaos, and it created.
In the beginning was wisdom, and it was everywhere.

In the sun and the moon. Will you remember?
In the blessing and the boats. Will you journey?
In the known and no longer. Will you sing?
In the blinding and untitled. Will you bear witness?
In the water. Will you pour?
In the story. Will you proclaim?
In litany and in liturgy. Will you be? Or maybe not?

In the beginning was a practice, and it was alive.
It was flesh and bone, river and earth.
It was road to nowhere and eternal return.
It was resurrection morning, all day long.
It was holy difference and the same old thing.
It was sum and parts, everything and nothing.
It was life and death, and all manner of hubris in between.
It was breath. It was body. It was enough.

In the beginning was here. It was also there.
We were, too. And it was good.

October 10, 2020

mai-mai more than

I saw you online recently. You were one of five women participating on a panel tackling complex questions on a tight timeline. The scheduled hour was never going to be long enough for both generous introductions and deep thought-work. Unsurprisingly, the intersection of gender, religion, and difference requires a longer runway. As does the work of holding space for the fullness of one another. What, then, do we make of these invitations that squeeze us in and mete us out?

The conversation was scheduled during dinnertime and I was hungry as I logged onto the call. I wondered whether you had found time to eat. I wondered about your family and their sustenance. But the show must go on. Or so they say. You were brilliant and eloquent and fierce and strong. And when you called out your mother and daughter as fieldwork companions? The ancestors heard their names. And when you claimed kinship in the same sentence as a Mai-Mai warlord? Power repurposed. Plain and never, ever simple.

There is more to say about this group of women who took the time to introduce us to worlds beyond our knowing. During dinner. In a pandemic. I remember the wholly predictable moment a young child came into the room where her mother was presenting. As this child tucked into her parent’s side, it was a gift. Because, we rarely see labor – or its fruits – in spaces set apart for a different kind of production.

As the call came to its close, we were invited to celebrate both the poise of the interrupted mother and the monographs these scholars – women all, and many Black and Brown – would write this coming year. Business as usual. Or so they say. And I wondered about the other books these women were writing, revising, improvising, and eking out in this season of compounding assault. Sometimes, writing our own names – and those of our beloveds – into the book of life is more than enough. May it be so. Asè.

For Jojo, with love

September 1, 2020

the perfect cut

I like to measure my words carefully and often take my time with phrases that turn on so many things. Before I open my mouth, then, there are lifetimes to lean into, learn from, and let go. I find that the written word holds more space for my meanderings. It takes some doing and redoing and undoing to weigh – and walk – the distance between intention and impact, to honor the relationship between his- and her-stories, and to grapple with reception before succumbing to the seduction of getting it just right. Perfectionism. Bless. We have a complicated relationship that comes from places worn down by years of practice intended to make perfect. There are many ways to measure a day, a life, a world. If articulation is part of my salvation, then perfection is my downfall. It’s also an exhausting, insidious supremacy that silences. What would I say if it didn’t have to be quite so perfect?

I was recently invited to spend some time with friends and colleagues on a radio show. We have known one another for years and planned to chat about some of my favorite things. I am actually very comfortable as a public speaker, but the mind tells her own stories. While the conversation flowed freely and we tackled the questions at hand, I remember most clearly what I did not say. Sometimes, the “perfect” isn’t timely. And how loudly the unspoken echoes and reverberates.

It is tempting to rewrite the histories we proclaim ourselves. Why not spend time and space articulating “better” responses to questions posed days ago? After all, I have plenty to say about how relationship can be its own quiet and audacious revolution. But my practice invites resistance and inveighs against the urge to instant replay and constant improvement. There is liberation in managing not just expectations, but also in putting performance in its proper place.

I will always prefer a blank page to a live microphone. But, when and as I open my mouth to speak, I commit to keep showing perfection the door. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be just and also more than enough in their own glorious imperfection.

August 27, 2020

this i remember

I recently traveled across the state for the first time in months and was grateful to accept an invitation for food and fellowship along the way. I always look forward to a good porch-sit, but it’s an interesting season for introductions. Getting to know someone during a pandemic is tricky, especially when the assaults—on life and livelihood—just keep coming. And they don’t come for everyone with the same voracity and insistence. With life and death far from equal propositions, how then, do we turn to one another? And how will we continue to navigate contagion, collision, and collapse across lines that color us into boxes and birthrights alike? What if relationship is revolution? And what if salvation shows up at tables we set for one another?

On the heels of a few phone calls to explore collaborations, I arrived right before lunch. Before I could knock on the door, I heard a voice greeting me warmly. Following my host onto her porch was both threshold-crossing and crossroads-journey. We stayed put for hours, but the Holy has a way of transporting and transforming unawares.

It was an afternoon to remember and I can still see the bright colors and bold patterns and beloved plants everywhere. I remember art celebrating the fullness of creation. I remember beauty. I remember a round table and gorgeous settings and a meal lovingly prepared. I remember a conversation that meandered from Mebane to Mars Hill to Morocco and beyond. I remember a late morning that turned to afternoon before the evening fell. I remember roasted plums. I remember the generations who came alongside bringing lifetimes to share. I remember the heart in my throat stilling the voice in my head. And I remember the time it takes to settle into one another before the possibility of a “we” enters a conversation. I remember the work and joy of beginnings. I remember life itself holding just enough space for all that needed to be said and heard.

It was a day for simple pleasures with radical implications. Sitting together on the porch, the systems raging all around quieted just long enough for a different kind of memory to surface. Some wells run deep. How, then, we will drink? Some rivers speak of thirst. What, then, will we quench? May we have ears to hear and eyes to see. And may we stay present long enough to know what it means—and takes—to remember one another, always. Insha’Allah and Amen.

for Jaki Shelton Green, with gratitude

August 26, 2020

Yahrzeit Recitation

A few weeks ago, I missed the one-year anniversary of a surgery that both saved and changed my life. I’m not sure what it means that the day passed me by unawares. Some reckonings must happen on their own timeline. There is much to say about those who came alongside during a season of compounding unknowns, and I was raised to write thank-you notes for the smallest of gestures. But expressions of gratitude can be daunting, especially when kindness gifted reveals things that become more real in their naming and claiming. Since this time last year, when some of my bits and pieces ran amok at the cellular level, my world keeps rearranging itself. My body is begging for patience even as my mind is made up. It’s time to give thanks. But how do we honor those who show up? And when is an unexpected, unfolding journey ready for its accounting?

It takes time to speak from a core that is rebuilding itself muscle by muscle, breath by breath. On the inhale, I find myself searching for words that don’t always surface. With each exhale, meaning itself becomes a memory. 365+ days later, I may know some things anew. Other lessons will be lifelong companions, as will the beloved community that bore generous witness to a diagnosis so rare that I claimed unicorn status for myself and all sojourners. I am still learning to speak cancer. Its harsh consonants betray the gentle learning that has me reaching for an underbelly that just keeps growing. Before speaking, though, there is so much to hear. I am still learning to quiet enough of me to honor what my body has to say. Perhaps the listing of Team Unicorn’s improbable mercies will give voice to a resurrection journey that hopes to take nothing for granted. Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? This liturgy of thanksgiving is both recitation and remembrance. I name these generosities to claim the power they twice bestow— first in the giving, then in the naming. May these memories be a blessing.

Was it you who packaged love in take-away meals and late-afternoon pours? Mothering takes many forms and the overflowing box of my favorite treats you sent home fed body and soul. The way you share pieces of yourself in each plate of food you prepare is the stuff of communion. When we become one another’s keepers, wine-shop counters become holy altars. For the bread and the wine, I give thanks.

I get that this might be part of the job description, but it didn’t feel like work when you sat with me on the porch while I grappled with the gospel of life and death. Waiting together for scan results, you brought to mind the women of faith who raised me. You are not my grandmother’s baptists, but she would have loved that you showed up with the full armor of God and a lemon bundt cake. I give thanks for preachers who know when to pray and when to bake. May you be blessed.

Years had passed since we last communicated beyond Facebook and annual Christmas cards, but you responded to my message immediately. The hour we spent on a call, when you listened to my panicked rehearsal of things beyond my control, was initiation and rite of passage. Sharing your own impossible journey, you helped me to hear what I could not yet articulate. But it was your tears that brought me to my senses and gave me license to feel. Thank you for modeling how to play a shitty hand and for loving me enough to say the hard things. I wish for us both the gift of time and the wisdom to keep living this life, day by majestic day.

Sometimes our newest family members arrive at just the right time. Not everyone is for every season, but you have been a sister since our fortuitous pairing as mountaintop roommates. Your willingness to celebrate and grieve in equal measure makes so much blessed room for our full humanity. When healing feels particularly circuitous, yours is the number I dial. I will cross counties with you any day. This grace of turning to one another in both pain and possibility? It is fellowship.

You were among the first to come over after my diagnosis, showing up for dinner with a unicorn-ready casserole and proclaiming a resounding “Fuck cancer!” as we settled into our meal. That might have been the first four-letter pronouncement of this journey, and it gave me both pause and permission to experience in full color. Ours is a chosen family that sings together around a shared table: Praise God, friends, from whom all blessings flow—in four-part harmonies and four-letter words alike.

We showed up on your doorstep after sending cryptic messages about heading to the city for some medical appointments. We arrived before you got home and got to work in your kitchen, losing ourselves in the familiar tasks of chopping, stirring, and marinating. It didn’t take long for you to piece our story together, but your quiet hospitality met us right where we needed to be. I like to think that our weekend of home-cooked meals and heart-led conversations shows up in each tune we play together. Music, then, carries us from cradle to the grave with melodies that circle us round and round until we become one.

Yours was the second household to take unsettling news in stride. Responding from wells that run deep, you showered me in stickers, kept the red wine flowing, and gifted presence for the trying on of a new season. We never know why our paths cross with those who become both tell and teller. When I attempt awakening (to) each and every day, I remember a magical weekend of truth-telling and table-setting. To the ever loving unicorn within, indeed.

Some friends show up for the long-haul. Beginning our journey together in the crucible of a doctoral program, it feels like we have already weathered much that life might send our way: three kids, multiple moves, career transitions, and now cancer. How grateful I am for friends who birth more than the godchildren I love so dearly. For those whose vocations also call us back to center, I give thanks. Your family, and prayers, and witness—and a truly epic introduction to the art and science of all things green tea—journey with me always.  

We met in a Yoga class taught by your daughter who weaves community across love, light, and breath. There is no good time to get cancer, but any season can be enriched by sitting with those who share their wisdom. After enjoying a meal on the porch, you read for me a powerful story about this year in my life and the patterns I might seek to understand. When you spoke, it was medicine. May we be open to receiving that which is not ours to know. May we always honor those who speak in tongues both foreign and sacred.

It takes a special friend to intuit that what I really needed was to hold the things I was about to lose in my hands. The bright pink uterus that arrived by mail was both heart-wrenching and hilarious. I can’t wait to feature this festive piñata at a Team Unicorn gathering. I am imagining all kinds of closure raining down as we tear apart this physical manifestation of loss itself. Until then, I am proud owner of a very large papier-mâché friend that makes its home on a shelf in my closet. Tucked between unicorn paraphernalia and my doctoral hood, it makes me laugh. There is so much learning—and healing—in the sound of laughter.

When we met to design my tattoo, you had the perfect touch. Together, we imagined and mapped the majestic itself onto my forearm. I have never aspired to body art and my family does not necessarily celebrate this particular mode of expression. But your theology of pain proclaimed a baptism by thousand pin pricks and my body said “Amen.” I might have had a panic attack the night I wore myself home, but that was the balance of forever seeping below the surface. When I woke up with my commitments right before my eyes, I caught up with something. It might have been me.

You are not really supposed to befriend your therapist. It gets in the way of boundaries. But I have long suspected that we would be close in a different way if I hadn’t first shown up in your office while I was finishing a dissertation that made clearer—word by word—that I did not, in fact, want the prize far-from-guaranteed by the three letters I could hardly bear to earn. In the realm of the hard things we’ve tackled, cancer hardly registers. But I am grateful that our practice was in place when this diagnosis came calling. Our post-op session on the front porch of the home you helped me be brave enough to wish for and purchase made clear that some of the best healing happens when we can reflect deep truths back to one another. You are the hand that holds the mirror through which I can see myself clearly. Sometimes you are the mirror. For the reflections through which we find our way, I give thanks.

I don’t remember why my husband couldn’t come to my first oncology appointment, but you were the right person for the job. We had just moved to our new home within walking distance of the university where you had stopped me in my tracks a few years earlier. “Slow down,” you said, as I tried to first steer and then save a sinking ship. This invitation to not kill myself on the altar of something sacrificed long-ago still resonates as we live into this Thelma and Louise sequel I didn’t know we would star in together. It’s not just your mind that reminds me of all things science that bear on many things survival. It’s that you showed up in your convertible with the top down and helped me remember the questions I wanted to ask. And then you kept answering them again and again in texts I keep sending. Let’s keep driving off cliffs together.

We met in the most impossible of circumstances. Who hires a 37 year-old dean anyway? And when it was my time to go, you took my place and carried an unforgiving cross. And then you brought gluten-free cookies to the porch and we held court together—because we survived. Friend. For the laughter and the learning and for leaving it all behind. Onward.

There is something comforting about a marriage older than I am. I love sharing time with those who answer each other’s sentences and whose movements betray a choreography decades in the making. When death looms large, it’s good to take stock of what a partnership might hold. I remember being a bit nervous adding you to my meal train, but you showed up with soup and bread and salad and recipes. And when you blessed the food and the hands that prepared it? You spoke healing over us all.

Sometimes, a friend prepares a salad that meets each and every dietary restriction only to happily steal you away for ice cream. Ours was my first post-surgical joy ride and I am still grateful for your willingness to break the rules. Salad matters, but sprinkles are always worth it. Life is short. Let’s keep eating dessert first.

We didn’t invite many folks to join us at the hospital, because not everyone has a healing touch. But you came into the room and made yourself comfortable on my bed. You cut right to the heart of things when you took my feet into your hands. There’s a reason foot-washing is a Holy Week practice. Thank you for getting close enough to hold my pain, and for bringing the perfect socks to carry me through.

After reaching out for meal support, I remember the intention with which you showered each of your delicious offerings in prayer. The literal taking-in of the gifts we prepare for one another is both sating and sobering. We are one another’s keepers. And the wild rice salad you shared as a special treat? It has become a family favorite. Dishing it up, I am reminded of love both measured and freely given.

We met years ago in your Yoga studio where I finally caught my breath after struggling through a long sprint I couldn’t figure out how to pace. I don’t make as much space for my body these days—some healing is still too fresh—but the invitation you keep extending reminds me of the possibility of a sure return. Even as this long arc of recovery withholds both roadmap and timeline, I am grateful for the learning that keeps me apprenticed to the here and now.

Some people bring intimate knowledge of this cancer word and its many meanings. You were a familiar voice on the other end of the phone lifting up love and prayers, neither holds nor bullshit barred. What if all oncology nurses prayed and protested as fiercely as you? I love the unicorn popsicle mold you brought for our porch visit, but I love you more. Because you, too, were never shy to name this season for what it is: a mindfuck and mystery all at once.

Lady. Who do you call when you’re trying to negotiate a job offer while navigating a touch of cancer? You were out-of-town for the weekend when you got my message. Time is precious, but you shared yours anyway. We spent about 45 minutes on the phone, talking through the impossibility of timing and imagining all the priorities that change on a dime. You gave me courage to hold space for my many truths, however tender, however emergent. Your witness is part of how I claim just as much of this fallacious “everything” as I can stand. May we keep learning that we are always already enough.

Ours is a friendship born of a masters program that taught us to sit at one another’s feet and drink in wisdom too easily dismissed by systems and powers that be. We have crafted and storied and baked and walked and talked our way to a place where presence is optional. We couldn’t get our schedules to align in the thick of all the healing, but we didn’t need to. Your artwork that hangs on our walls keeps you close—each piece is a world in the making. Thank you.

I don’t know how to honor the hands that opened me up and took out something that proved to be so much more than we hoped for. I am living proof of the gifts you bring to the operating room, and to your teaching. Sometimes, we plant seeds of ourselves in others and watch our impact grow. You would have been more than enough, but you come with a posse of residents. Every time I interacted with someone you trained, they were there. Fully present. From the hourlong conversation about a surgery I didn’t understand to the practice of taking a knee to look me in the eye while I was in a hospital bed, I saw your heart at work. For knowing your own craft so well that you are tending to the next generation of those living into their calling, I give thanks.

There is nothing pleasant about an extended diagnostic period, but your office showed grace and love and kindness. And on the day of my surgery, when my chosen coping mechanism was a series of unicorn-themed shenanigans, you joined the party. I hope to not need your surgical skills again, but if I do, I will be in good hands that give in the taking. Sometimes it takes magic to make magic, and you showed up for morning rounds wearing a unicorn horn. Let’s keep this winning streak alive!

Y’all are way too experienced in all things cancer. I hate that you knew to make our first round of post-diagnostic gin and tonics super-human strong. When we sat on the porch and felt the world grow brighter and dimmer all at once, you said, “I wish this wasn’t a club you were joining.” But how grateful I was—and am—to find myself in good company. It has long been my truth that we won some kind of lottery to find ourselves as family. Your son is my greatest treasure. And y’all have my heart.

We met on an island several years ago and found ourselves in adjacent rooms, sharing a hall, a bathroom, and the stuff of life itself. I was recovering from another surgery at that time—foreshadowing is something else—and you were gentle and caring and kind. When I called to talk shop about all this diagnosis was requiring, you gently reminded me of some of my favorite things. Along the way, we remembered what is too easily forgotten: that we get to choose ourselves over and over again. This idea that we are the bread of life? A celebration.

They say that this is why you take vows and commit to the better and the worse, to sickness and to health. This has been a private reckoning, and you have partnered with curiosity and generosity. While the core of who I am and strive to be is testing what we know to be true, you are holding steady. This season wears on each of us differently, and I am grateful for a partnership that dances and sings. We have long known how to hold for a downbeat and to lean into harmonies that grate before they resolve. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, then, is our solemn vow.

This was not the first time I didn’t tell you about a surgery until after the fact, but there you have it. Family is complicated and some things require more trust than we can muster. And so, you stayed in the dark for a while. And when the time came to walk together, you honored your place without complaint. There is wisdom in knowing what we can and cannot be to one another. Ours, then, is a work in progress. When so many of my beloveds were sitting in the thick of it with me, I am grateful that there was place and purpose set aside for life before death. In the many ways we are learning to be with and for one another, there is hope and healing.

This list keeps growing as gifts keep giving, some anticipated and announced, others unexpected and emergent. Even if this memorial recitation isn’t complete, I am letting go of the exhaustive in favor of the intentional. I am remembering enough to find my rest. I don’t always achieve the breath or balance that I seek, but this year has held more learning and unlearning than most. For love freely given, I name gratitude. For private revolutions paving the way to new commitments—to myself, to others—I claim victory over the grave.

July 30, 2020

little boxes

One of my husband’s many pandemic projects involved the making and installing of the flower boxes that now line the rails of our front porch. Since we moved in last spring, I have been eager to get my hands in the dirt of this place. These boxes housed the first beds we planted this spring. I remember my enthusiasm at our local farm stand as I picked out far more starts than these boxes will ever hold. Imagination can be hard to curtail. The prospect of abundance is intoxicating.

When the sign was right, I got to work planting. It was an auspicious beginning followed up with a tried-and-true watering routine. Things should be flourishing! Alas.

I wish I could report that this first season is producing picture-perfect flowers, but that is not the view from here. Among other miscalculations, we overestimated the sun-to-shade ratio, which means that the flowers are working overtime to survive. I see their effort and have contemplated starting over several times. Some seasons call for radical uprooting. But I’d hate to miss what is right in front of me. To make up for some of our choices, many of the flowers are growing horizontally. Reaching across the short-length of the bed, they are leaning into the light. Watching them grow, I too, am learning.

And the flowers are blooming, if haphazardly. Each improbable petal reminds me that we don’t always get it right the first time and that looks are rarely a measure of things that matter. We’ll do better next year. Until then, there is life happening right here in the weeds.

July 27, 2020

covid karaoke

We live tucked into a hillside on a dead-end road in a small rural community. Our valley lies between Main Street and Mountain View, streets named for the little town center and surrounding vistas within walking distance of our home. Ours is a small neighborhood of modest houses that sit just above the road. Something about the lay of the land makes for a breeze that blows year-round. Since COVID-19 restrictions have kept our household—and others—close to home, we’ve been getting to know the sounds of the neighborhood. There is the generator that runs the air-conditioning unit of the mobile home across the street. We can’t see the house from our porch, but I can hear evidence of its inner workings. When we first moved in, I wondered whether the motor’s steady hum would prove distracting. Four months of quarantine later, I am grateful for the evidence of things unseen.

In addition to the generator, we can hear a crew of neighborhood dogs from the front porch. Some holler at all hours. Both day and night, it is lovely to live in a dog-greet-dog world. We need never worry about our boys making too much noise. Everyone’s dogs make too much noise. While there is little car traffic, we can sometimes hear vehicles on the road above ours or neighbors parking tractors and farm trucks on the hillside across the street. The teenagers who live below us like to pretend the cul-de-sac is a destination worth speeding towards and we occasionally hear motors revving as young folks make their way home. These commotions aside, the neighborhood is mostly quiet. Bird song. Leaves rustling. The occasional lawn mower. And the sound of conversation that carries farther than you’d think.

A few weeks ago, a new set of sounds began filtering through the trees, traveling into earshot from the house on the other side of the open lot just past the old barn. We don’t know the family that lives there, but they have become an integral part of our quarantine thanks to their newfound commitment to outdoor karaoke. We haven’t met the family in question, but we believe this to be an intergenerational household. Most evenings as we sit down to dinner, these beloveds head outside to share their pandemic practice with the neighborhood. It’s not that they’re intentionally loud—noise travels in mysterious ways across mountains and hollers. But at both regular and random hours of the day, this family is booting up its machine and making a joyful noise—for themselves and for us all.

It is true that our neighbors are not destined for musical greatness. On the contrary. And yet, listening for this family has become a quarantine lifeline. For several days in a row, their singing will accompany our evening meal and turn a table-for-two into a neighborhood dinner party with a reliably quirky soundtrack. We haven’t been tempted to join in yet, but the pandemic is far from over. I am already excited to meet this family once restrictions ease. It already feels like we’re more than neighbors, even though we haven’t officially met. Somehow, this karaoke machine is transforming how we see and hear one another in this little valley—one off-key rendition of something we can’t quite make out at a time. And that might be how we make it through this season–together.

July 21, 2020

spoiler alert

I had a long conversation with a friend several weeks ago. It was supposed to be a short call about a possible collaboration, but we found ourselves drawn to this season’s uncoverings and contradictions. We talked of ripening and rotting, of hubris and harvest, of pain and possibility. Reaching across the color line, we traced the long arc of justice landing in places for too long plagued by unyielding commitments to exceptionalisms of all kind. Greatness, then, is beside the point. I’d settle for ideals both more humble and radical. Liberty. Equality. Freedom.

At some point, our conversation turned organically to the subject of the Titanic, because sinking ships and epic blockbusters are both relevant to this summer of compounding assault–on lives (black!), on senses (all!), on possibility (emergence!). I can’t retrace the exact turns of our conversation, but we made our way around to icebergs foreseen and depths unplumbed before turning to an improbable moment at the end of a movie in which two love-struck protagonists fail to share space on a piece of wood (obviously!) big enough to hold and save both.

It was a conversation equal parts tragedy and comedy–the real talk of life itself. Why did millions of people show up to watch a movie about a ship that could do nothing but sink? What is it about things predestined to crash and burn that compel and blind in equal measure? For how much longer will we fail to make enough lifeboats for everyone to make it safely to shore? When will we learn that our own saving graces are caught up in the lives of others?

Conversations sometimes make meaning in registers that do not sound until long after we sign off. Calls alone will not carry sinking ships to their eventual demise, but they can remind us of those who—by design—are always already under water. The metaphor strains, but what must we sink in order for ocean depths to birth new constitutions and covenants? What foregone conclusions will we protest and deny to claim those drowning within arm’s reach?

It has been weeks since my friend and I lamented and laughed together, but there’s something about the Titanic and the way we remember its name that that will not let me go. I wonder, then, about ships that did not founder in their passing, but rather in passage provided. Sometimes, our work hovers close to the surface. Sometimes, we have to dive deep to retrieve what was stolen and left behind—like the living cargo (say their names!) carried to a world neither new nor free. Spoiler alert: these ships are still sailing today and we continue to grant them safe harbor. There’s a blockbuster being lived right now in this Third Reconstruction season. Who will we be and for whom will we stand in this never-ending sequel? As the story goes, the soul of a nation—and its people—hangs in the balance.

July 4, 2020


cattle call

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.

May 17, 2020