Practicing Presence

Growing up, I practiced the flute daily. I worked hard to stay true to what I saw on the page, translating black and white into lines and phrases of someone else's imagination. These days, a different kind of practice holds me accountable – to people, to place, to purpose. Writing in the early 20th century, French philosopher Simone Weil described attention as a rare and pure form of generosity. Attention, Weil contended, is something like prayer. More recently, social justice activist adrienne maree brown characterized attention as one of our most valuable resources and called for its liberation. Attending deeply is the foundation of our learning. It is also the foundation of my practice. To be present – to our surroundings and stories, to the systems that shape our worlds, to our true selves, and to one another – answers a sacred calling and invites a transformative journey. This journey is what Wendell Berry calls "our real work." Mine unfolds here, in the chronicling of thoughtwork captured as I trace the contours of a heart's yearning, the seeing of a mind's eye. Practicing presence, I get off the page and listen for the spaces in-between the notes. These transcriptions capture the moments when breath and music and word become one.

mamaw’s masons

Late last week, I made it through the last box of my grandmother’s mason jars. My grandmother was many things, including a devoted steward of the garden she grew each year. Not one for wasting or wanting, my grandmother canned with commitment, preserving precious things for her household and others. Each spring, summer, and fall, my grandmother shipped home-canned goods to wherever my family happened to be living. I remember my mother’s excitement when these boxes arrived, each packed as carefully as the jars containing pickled beets and okra, stewed tomatoes, relishes, and jellies.

I inherited a glorious assortment of my grandmother’s jars several years ago. It remains my joy – and my journey – to keep becoming the kind of person that grows the kinds of things that warrant preservation. My grandmother’s jars are perfectly and differently sized to serve up our favorites. The thick-walled pint jars are the glasses we refill several times each meal. The tall, narrow jars are just right for the okra we forget to pick before it overgrows. The gallon-sized are perfect for the peaches we pickle for the holidays. I am mindful that size and shape are material to what each jar can – and cannot – hold. In my daily quest for the just enough, sufficiency shows up in a metric measured by the headspace required for things like air and water, heat and pressure. Even so, I sometimes overfill jars beyond their capacity. What does the promise of more than and too much sound like? It is a crack I can hear as the bottom falls out. If only we could hold in our hands other things we stress and strain to the point of breaking. If only we would.

This batch of jars came my way earlier this summer after my parents made a trek to rural northeast Arkansas where they cleaned out the last storage unit holding remnants of my grandparent’s lives. The boxes sat under my carport until I had time to honor the depths of so much emptiness. Some homecomings are piecemeal and this final stash from my grandmother’s kitchen has been taking up more than space alone; it has been calling for communion. Over the course of a few weeks, I carried box after box to the kitchen counter where each jar made its way into the sink. Once there, this simple liturgy felt right: pick up. handle with care. wash. rinse. repeat. As dirt and dust swirled down the drain, elements returned to their own. The heft and hope and holiness and humanity of these jars – in these jars – was and is both work and witness. Returned to their shiny clean glory, these jars are returning for me still. Together, we are putting up (with) a birthright that is both fertile ground and glass refracting.

I love these jars that line almost every shelf in our home. They remind me of things made for filling up and sharing, washing out and repurposing. Even as these jars call to mind what it means to use and re-use, to be used and used up, they aren’t the only things speaking. Now that each box is empty, I find my gaze shifting from content to container and back again. There is always more to notice, and I am mesmerized by my grandmother’s handwriting scrawled across boxes and the occasional lid that was left behind. The notes I can make out catalog a careful process that began by planting living things to harvest. If these jars are teaching process and patience, these boxes carry stories, too, including those about the many childhood meals supplemented by the work of my grandmother’s hands. One small box that once held pint-sized mason jars keeps coming for me. It’s similar to several others I have already recycled. This one, though, has the mailing label my grandmother wrote out to the Cincinnati address where my family was living the year I was born.

I don’t know what matters more: that my grandmother grew and processed and canned and shipped the vegetables that nourished my mother through her pregnancy, or that this box keeps making its way home, full of emptied jars that are living proof of what it takes to feed one another. This label that shows the distance love keeps traveling to grow a family? It is testimony to fruits of all kinds of spirits. Some inheritances beg questions. Others show up as practices of being and knowing and believing and becoming. Who am I? Someone who prays with and over and through jars that preach a gospel of the sustainable and all-sufficient.

One day, these newest companions will make their way back to the kitchen counter where they will be sterilized, packed, and submitted to all kinds of pressure. For now, they watch and wait for their season. Until then, I join them in the work of sacred accompaniment. It remains unclear who is accompanying whom, but the jars keep showing up. As do I. As does my grandmother. May we keep listening for the gifts we are born to share with one another. I pray these jars hold just enough – for you and for me.

music man

He was many things to many people. To me, he was sometimes synonymous with the dance community that changed how I move through the world. He was also his own. It’s hard to imagine he is no longer with us. I wonder who we will be now that he is gone. I remembering meeting him at the bi-monthly dances he hosted at the Greenfield grange. Perched on his chair at the front of the small stage, he played fiddle and called dances that people loved and lamented and loved to lament. It takes a certain kind of person to believe so deeply in a certain kind of tradition to risk a certain kind of standing. I am grateful for the witness he was, even as my love language calls for a balanced stance that swings. And still, in his insistence that some of us know the history of these movements we step into together, he nurtured something bigger than any one person or preference.

This beloved was a gifted artist in so many ways. He hand lettered and illustrated the beautiful flyers that promoted his dances, and chronicled each gathering in books he kept at his feet. Sitting out at the top, you could thumb through pages telling stories of those who came before. Waiting to find your way back into a dance takes time. Sometimes the measure of 8 bars takes years to master. And he was a master teacher. It means something that what he leaves behind is a community of people who know how to call themselves together. No matter the occasion – New Year, May Day, a random Friday night, each and every birthday – we know what to sing. May you, too, have a long, long life!

In the worn-down places where bone and rosin meet, his body stood tallest. And it’s neither easy nor uncomplicated, this truth where right-ness becomes righteousness before to dust we return. And still, his commitments kept him with us for longer than he might have otherwise managed. When I think about (t)his light, three moments come to mind:

There was that Dance Flurry in the early aughts that wasn’t. A heavy snowstorm hit Saratoga Springs while thousands were traveling in for a weekend of dance and connection. When the electricity went out, event organizers began triaging what could be triaged. Never mind the pending cancellation, he grabbed his fiddle and made his way to the center of a ballroom. There, he planted himself among those of us not yet ready to call it quits, playing acoustically while shouting calls to a room that had to get so very quiet in order to move together. I am still in awe of the way he held court that night, reminding us that we are the power we need. On the up bow, he held us suspended while snow fell all around.

Then there was that night at the grange when he turned to my recently relocated partner and said, “You should call here.” This newcomer had called some dances before and was still learning the patter that has matured to ensure equal parts groaning and grinning. I’m not sure why this elder extended generosity to an unknown dancer from down South. But he did. And that invitation was both opening and initiation. I remember the combination of butterflies and pride that kept me on my toes that night. Our household keeps this memory alive in the framed print of the hand-drawn flyer that celebrates what it means and takes to open not only a door, but to gift a place and a practice. I hope to honor all that he saw from stages all across this country. He did not always see or hear everyone. But sometimes, he looked into a crowd and grew community – one beat at a time.

The last time I saw him in person he was navigating the final chapter of a slow and steady and almost-unspeakable decline. He could no longer talk, but his fiddle sounded just like him. I spotted him standing alone on a corner in Montague Center. Fiddle on his shoulder, he was a one-man cheering section for a local road race. His fingers did not falter as they played reel after reel, jig after jig. I can’t remember the last time we spoke, but what remains is the sound of his music – unmistakable and irrepressible. And also his calling – and the way he played so many of us home.

In memory of David Kaynor

June 10, 2021

skipping stones

i believe in you and me
– and a we that leads from here to there and back again.
i believe in the long way round that gets somewhere by dark.

i believe in day and the night
– and in shadows that fall in all four directions.
i believe we can learn to hear across distance that echoes.

i believe in shores foreign and familiar
– and that we can meet (t)here without dashing ourselves or others on the rocks.
i believe some things are dashing and crashing and burning for a reason.

i believe difference is stone skipping across water

i believe in all kinds of things
– that are watching and working and wondering and wanting.
i believe they will not wait forever.

i believe in learning that lingers
– and in lifespans longer than you can imagine.
i believe teachings trip us up until they become love.

i believe eyes see what they remember
– even when they do not see at all.
i believe seeing and believing are not the same.

i believe truth is stone skipping across water

i believe that gathering in among the breathless
– calls to mind brothers and sisters who are not breathing still.
i believe calling is commitment is care is community.

i believe that nature and nurture are more than
– culture and belonging, too.
i believe rocks carry hard things that matter.

i believe that worlds fit in pockets and palms
– and that time is eternity lived in the blink of an eye.
i believe measurement is an errand that makes fools out of you and me.

i believe spirit is stone skipping across water

i believe in formation over frameworks, and people over profits
– in lives and lifetimes, in dyads and triads and quadrants, and so many lists.
i believe all 26-letters are speaking someone’s language.

i believe what you believe matters
– even when it chafes and churns. 
i believe some things are not worth believing.

i believe that some beliefs cause grave harm
– and that claims can crucify or resurrect.
i believe all beliefs are not made equal, even when we call one another by name.

i believe life is stone skipping across water

i believe that rest is holy
– relationship, too.
i believe that reckoning is a reflection of us all.

i believe the sum is creation of her many parts
– even those missing, especially those excluded. 
i believe humanity to be an audacious hope and a wild dream. 

i believe the future is already happening
– it might be here.
i believe histories are always repeating. 

i believe time is stone skipping across water

i believe yours and mine are training wheels
– ours is aspirational at best.
i believe the work is to keep reaching for them.

i believe in a here that hears
– where there and theirs matter, too.
i believe in hard places where yours and mine yield to that which cannot be had.

i believe in brilliant complexities
– and ambiguities that humble.
i believe in that which is not mine to know.

were these stones all there is, i believe they would be enough

May 3, 2021

working girl

I come from women who carry the load and pretend that the weight doesn’t bear. They came from women who stayed the course while denying the cost. Theirs came from women, too. Mine then is an inheritance borne of labors picked up and passed on. Mine will always be the work of putting the too much back down. My spirit lives for moments like these, when the calm after a storm carries memories of a different kind of being. Sometimes, the work is remembering the lessons we keep living until we learn them all the way to the bone.

Systems and supremacies – stories, too – are wrapped up in assumptions we make about people, productivity, and profit. It is my truth that there are things more valuable than labor. It is also my truth that some things are not worth the work. How then do we measure the cost of price and profit, of meaning and metric, of labors of love? It is sobering when the seeming ease of a solo turn erases not just our own labor, but the work through which which we grow one another into the kind of people who notice the weight of any lift. On the other side of a long push, I wake up and wonder: When will I outgrow this place, where the giving and the taking are so far apart? It was once my truth that to hold so much and so many so fully would be a gift that multiplies and returns. These days, I look for myself elsewhere. A working girl, perhaps, but so much more. May the gift of less than always be more than just enough.

March 19, 2021

enough is enough

My morning routine starts with coffee. So much so that the ritual begins the night before, when my husband gets the coffee maker ready for my early morning switch-flipping. We’re not fancy with our caffeine at home. Strong coffee is more than sufficient, especially when I can rely on my favorite baristas and coffee connoisseurs for regular doses of the truly spectacular.

It has been a long season at home and we are weathering well enough. Some things remain the same while others keep changing. With my husband laid off from our region’s hospitality industry, homemade cold brew has been fueling work both indoors and out. With my husband’s health insurance also canceled, I have been running our weekly errands. Venturing forth for groceries and wine, dog food and wine, and seeds and starts, and more wine, we are counting the cost of too many things we used to take for granted. It is sobering to be out and about among once-thriving businesses still shuttered. It is heartbreaking to read about those who will never re-open.

The economy rarely sustains my undivided attention, even as its fluctuations and failures play out all around me. Left to my own devices, I choose life and the life-giving over capital systems that demand allegiance in exchange for livelihood both ensured and foreclosed. But if this pandemic teaches nothing else, perhaps it offers this reminder: we need one another. Driving by living-proof of all that will not survive COVID-19’s incursions, I find myself questioning assumptions—both mine and others’— about the nature of things. Not all systems are sui generis. In whose image, then, will we recreate the world? Yours? Mine? Ours?

I have written before about beloved people and places in my circles of consumption. This love letter rings true several months later as I watch my household trying to honor weekly purchases that might shore up a favorite local restaurant or small business. I can name too many ways in which our economic systems reward egregious behaviors, amplifying inequities purchase by purchase. And still, we are doing our damndest to do our part. Is this what being complicit looks like? Can anyone buy their way out of 2020’s mounting impossibilities? What might flourishing look like if we didn’t measure all things in dollars and cents?

Steeped in truth and poured in love, a cup of coffee can return us to one another, nurturing habits of interdependence strong enough to undercut supremacies—all of them. Sometimes, the littlest things point to the deepest truths. I’m still curious about my joy almost-unspeakable at seeing one of our local cafes offering curbside iced coffee on a recent round of errands. I am still surprised at how thirsty I remain for human contact shared face-to-face and heart-to-heart. Holding in my hand a remnant of something freely given, I keep wondering about the relationship between purchase and power, between self and system, between reckoning and revolution.

I am not hoping naively for the return of that which never was. Some things are bigger and deeper and harder than a simple cup of coffee can hold or convey. And still, teachers show up in many forms. Some lessons are daily medicine. I have been thinking a lot lately about questions of sufficiency, especially in the context of a world designed to extract the most from the least. What does enough look like? What does it feel like? And what does it mean to forgo the more than in favor of the enough? In a season when ground truths are shifting daily, I am searching for higher grounds. What to make of the way we see and serve one another? And will we keep counting the cost? Life and livelihood hang in the balance.

October 26, 2020

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