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.


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.

it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.