5 Presence Practices

This summer, Amber and I traveled to Tuscany with a group of fellow writers. It was an eclectic group; there was a semi-conservative Baptist minister, a progressive author from Salt Lake City, an author and travel writer from Portland, a missionary, a millennial, and us. Though a few of us were friends, the group was, for the most part, composed of strangers. When traveling with strangers--whether on an international tour, or on a local church mission trip or humanitarian relief excursion--connection can be awkward. You may find the newness of your experience coupled with the awkwardness of greasing the conversational skids creates a sort of discombobulating perfect storm. And in this perfect storm, there is a great temptation to check out, to distract yourself, to turn to the things that are familiar--things like social media, the twenty-four hour news cycle, or the book you packed in your carry-on luggage.

This, of course, is not a temptation limited to international travel with strangers. This is the great temptation of the day.

We live in a state of modern disconnection, our lives fragmented from the present reality by the virtual or fantastical. A colleague comes into your office, and you fail to look up from your iPhone. In conversation with your spouse, a text message pops up on your screen, and you reach for your phone with near animal instinct. The waitress brings your your food, and you do not look up from the CNN app on your tablet to thank her, nor do you notice the arrangement of food on the plate before digging in. As Henri Nouwen wrote,

"In a time so filled with methods and techniques designed to change people, to influence their behavior, and to make them do new things and think new thoughts, we have lost the simple but difficult gift of being present to each other."

We are all fellow travelers here, whether we're traveling through Tuscany, or the mundane 8-5 shift of the day. The goal of that traveling, I think, is to recognize the presence of God around us, and to be present with each other. And allow me to make this disclaimer: I've developed my own practices of fragmentation and un-presence. That being said, here are a few practices that may help increase our practice of presence.

5 Presence Practices

1. Delete Apps. (GASP!)

If there is one thing that distracts me from recognizing the presence of God and from being present with those around me, it's the constant buzzing of my iPhone. Last week, I tried to shut off all notification hoping that this would somehow keep me from constantly looking at the ever-present stream of communication crossing my device. Alas, I am a weak man, and checked my apps during every spare moment, including conversational lulls. I am addicted to my apps.

Just a few years ago, we humans traversed this one life just fine without constant communication. Now, it's become part of the milieu of our fragmented society. Delete the apps for a day and be fully engaged with the world around you. See how you feel without the constant buzzing distractions.

2. Look up  from your phone.

I know that the news is important, that the Facebook message you just received from your friend in Kalamazoo deserves a good laugh. [tweetherder]I'm sure that the tweet mentioning you just launched you into the vaunted viral stratosphere.[/tweetherder] I know that work is buzzing, buzzing, buzzing, and that you have to answer just one last email. You keep saying, "this is it, I promise," as if the emphatic tone somehow denotes that it really is the last notification, tweet, or email you'll answer while we're at the lunch table.

Stop. Put the phone face down. Ignore the news alerts and look at your traveling companions.

3. Listen to others.

Listening is a learned skill, one which, if I'm honest, I've not honed as well as I would like. Allow me to suggest a few listening observations: (1) if you are listening while typing a text message, you are not listening; (2) if you are listening while scrolling through your Facebook feed, you are probably not listening; (3) if you are listening while thinking of what to say next, or how to turn the conversation to your own topic du jour, you are definitely not listening.

Listen to those around you. Give them your undivided attention. See how this practice affects your presence.

4. Describe your experience with words

Presence requires communication, and though some communication is non-verbal, language is our primary medium of conveying messages. Language matters. Stretch yourself to describe your experiences in the most descriptive terms possible. Is the cheese good, or is it musky, smokey, perhaps a touch sweet? Is the mountain big or does it stretch above the tree line, just over the tops of the low clouds. More descriptive language draws us deeper into the present experience. Descriptive language requires us to be observant and creative; in a word, it requires us to be present.

5. Compromise

Presence with your fellow travelers requires compromise. Your sojourner is tired and needs a minute to rest? Find a coffee bar, order a couple of macchiatos and converse. Your co-worker needs a little help with a pressing deadline and they are loosing their stuff trying to get it done? Ask whether you can help, listen as they describe the goals of the project.

The ability to compromise shows our willingness to serve our fellow travelers. Compromise with joy, peace, and patience. Serve because you want to be present.

These are not the easiest presence practices, I know. In fact, I'm struggling my way through practices 1 and 2. But the little things make a big difference, and allow us to experience the presence of God in each other. Consider employing these presence practices, and feel free to share some of your own with me.

Now, go forth and be present.

*****

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On Sandra's Grandbaby

Sandra is a lean, sinewy woman, with arms well-defined from lifting heavy wheels of organic pecorino cheese.  She greets us with open-arms and sincere hugs at the entrance to Podere Il Casale, the organic cheese and vegetable farm she operates with her husband Ulisse. "Welcome to our humble farm," she says with a broad smile. "It will be my pleasure to show you around."

Through the courtyard, past the mural of Sandra created by a local artist from the shards of broken dishes dropped over the years at Podere Il Casale, we make our way into the heart of the farm.

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We pass the enclosure for the newly captured wild-boar piglets. They are rooting in the straw, and Sandra attempts to catch one, hopes to allow us to pet their pink snouts. It seems, though, that Italian pigs are as difficult to catch as American ones, and Sandra quickly gives up. "Follow me to the sheep," she says.

We pass the beehive, make our way to the pride and joy of the farm. "These are our sheep," she says, "which are raised organically and treated only with natural medicines. They produce the best milk through the spring, and this is the milk that we use in cheese making." She smiles, and a dog the size of a small lion rounds the corner, makes his way to the fence. Sandra reaches in and pats the dog on the head. "Don't touch the dog," she warns. "He is the protector of the sheep and might consider you foe if you get too close. Me he knows; you, he does not." On its hind legs, the lion-dog's paws could easily rest on my shoulders. I note its wolf-like frame, its jutting snout, its pointed teeth. It is docile enough looking at a distance.

From the sheep pen, Sandra leads us to the cheese factory, where Ulisse, clad in a long white apron, meets us. She instructs us in the artisanal ways of organic cheese making, shows us how young cheese is aged on wooden boards while Ulisse stands watching. "The aging process," she says, " reduces the amount of moisture in the cheese and concentrates the flavors."  She walks into the refrigerator, pulls out a large wheel. "Also," she says, "it allows for the growth of natural bacteria. The bacteria lend to the flavor of the cheese, but they also enhance the probiotic content of the cheese, which is good for the body."

Large Cheese

"How much would that wheel of cheese run?" someone asks.

"Oh, perhaps eight-hundred Euro."

Ulisse, arm propped against a large piece of machinery, interrupts any discussion of economics. "We do things by the old ways here--raw milk organic cheeses, all aged on wooden boards. This is the way that humans have been making cheese for hundreds of years," he says with a waive of his hand. "But we've been told that your Government has recently banned these kinds of artisanal practices. This is ridiculous," he says, with no sense of hyperbolic overstatement. "The science has proven that the cultures and bacteria preserved in this manner of cheese making are beneficial to the human body. And now your government says it is illegal? Why? Do the people no longer want what is natural and good for the body?"

Ulisse

"It's not about what the people want," I lament.

"That is the true shame," he says. "Is this how the United States people," he begins, but is interrupted by a ding from Sandra's iPhone. We turn to look at Sandra, who is gasping, hand on her chest.

"Our second grandchild is born!" she says, and the lot of us break into wide smiles. All notions of overreaching governments, the passing of the artisanal ways, and dogs the size of baby lions fade. She gushes like a proud grandmother, and Ulisse remains in place, smiling in quiet. "Out of the body!" she exclaims, and we laugh, living into what it means to be human together.

7 Things Tuscany Taught Me

Last week, Amber and I took a trip to the Italian region of Tuscany. I learned a great deal there, and I'll be sharing more in the coming days. For now, allow this to serve as a preview. Here are 7 things Tuscany taught me. (And for more short photo stories, check out my Facebook page.) 1. “Literally” is literally the best adverb for everything in Tuscany.

I consider myself a man of ample vocabulary, with the ability to wield it with precision and creativity. That being said, while visiting the Tuscan region of Italy, I found myself often at a loss for words. All of my adverbs seemed to take flight with the rowdy Italian swallows, and I was left with only one—literally.

For example, I found the Tuscan countryside was "literally the most well-manicured landscape in the world.” The cheese from the nearby organic farm was “literally the best cheese I’ve ever put in my mouth.” The gelato, of course, was “literally the best desert known to man.”

I’m ashamed to admit it: I literally turn into a vocabulary buffoon once I set foot on Italian soil.

2. The best adjective for describing anything in Tuscany is the word itself with an added y.

When in Tuscany you will find yourself awed by how thingy a thing is. In other words, a tomatoe taste more like a tomato than any tomato you’ve ever eaten. Lavender smells more like lavender than any lavender you’ve ever smelled. The grapes are more grapey; the sky is more sky-y; the olives are more olivey. This is not a hyperbolic observation, and it works its way into everyday conversation in Tuscany. "Have you ever smelled more jasminey jasmine?" you might ask.

These sorts of adjectives work well in Tuscany, and the English speakers in the region are, for the most part, over-joyed by these expressions. That being said, there are two notable exceptions.

Exception No. 1: First, the adjective use is limited when the thing itself ends with an “ee” sound (try to say “celery-y celery” ten times fast).

Exception No. 2: These types of adjectives should not be employed when it will cause inadvertent offense. For instance, refrain from calling the wine of a Tuscan farmer the “most winey wine” you’ve ever tasted, lest he believe you are calling his wine immature or temperamental. (As an aside, and for those of you following my recovery series, this was not an issue for me.)

Luciano 2

3. All similes and metaphors in Tuscany can be condensed into eye rolls, sighs, and humms.

Sticking with grammar rules and literary devices, most similes and metaphors fall flat in Tuscany. Often at meals, I would literally taste the most cheesy chesse, and would exclaim, “this cheese is like….” (Allow the elipse to indicate my dumbfoundedness and inability to harness any appropriate simile.)

My striking lapse of literary language led me to toss my love for simile and metaphor out the window. Instead, and in the place of language, most comments regarding food were limited to eye rolls, deep inhalations, and the hum of a low “mmmmmm.”

Meat and Cheese 4. In Tuscany (along with the rest of Europe), you will see dead people in churches.

When you visit churches in Tuscany (as with the rest of Europe), be forewarned—you will occasionally see human remains. Evidently, this is a bit of a thing overseas, and what’s more, these long-passed saints are often adorned in gaudy garb. For instance, see my good friend St. Faustus.

St. Faustus is the patron saint of Castellina. According to a placard on the church wall, it is said that his remains, which were originally buried in the catacombs in Rome, were donated to a noble Florentine family. The family entombed St. Faustus' body in this reliquary, and mounted it on the church wall. According to town lore, St. Faustus has proven quite effective in warding off the plague since the 1700s.

Be further forewarned—the inclusion of skeletons in church reliquaries can create awkward prayer experiences. For instance while in Castellina, I ducked into the local church to offer a prayer for a friend. I sat in the pew closest to a burning candelabra, figuring the flickering fire good for a bit of ambiance. Upon whispering my amen, I turned to the candelabra, where I noticed the remains of St. Faustus in the glass box. I would be lying if I did not admit that it startled me almost to the point of swearing. By God’s grace, I kept it clean.

I credit St. Faustus for warding off my near swears.

 5. Americans work a grave disservice to the word “Tuscan.”

On my drive to the airport, I noticed an American housing subdivision named “Tuscan heights.” The houses were between 2,000 and 3,000 square feet, with front-facing garages and faux rock artifices. They were adorned with anemic, young maples and monkey-grass edged concrete walkways. They were archless, inset with vinyl windows, and hung with fake shutters.

Note to subdivision developers: this architectural style is not reminiscent of the Tuscan region. In fact, the only correlation between Tuscan Heights and Tuscany proper is that both have dirt and sky.

So, Mr. Subdivision Developer, if you’d like to coopt the name “Tuscan” for any future subdivisions, incorporate some homages to the subdivision’s namesake. Consider building a town wall with archer posts, planting a small olive grove, using a few thousand fifteenth century stones to pave the streets, or otherwise including a small Catholic church with a shadowbox containing the remains of an ancient Saint. It’s really the least you can do.

6. Tuscany is literally more Tuscany-y than any painting, photography, or video footage you’ve ever seen.

Have you seen the film Under the Tuscan Sun, or the heaven sequences in Gladiator (which were shot mere kilometers from our villa)? Have you seen photographs or paintings of Tuscany? The scenes are breathtaking; right?

Those images don’t do justice to the beauty of the Tuscan landscape and architecture. It’s true: Tuscany is literally more Tuscany-y any image you've seen.

7. We could learn a lot from people of Tuscany.

We stayed in the quaint village of Castelmuzio a few kilometers from Pienza. The people of Castelmuzio were kind, hospitable, authentic, and eager to serve. They smiled as we passed them on the street, sat next to us on the benches overlooking the countryside, and did their best to bridge the language gap with kind eyes and heartfelt ciaos. The waitress at the local restaurant served us as if it were her honor, suffered our broken Italian with a smile. Our trip coordinator, Isabella, helped us understand the local culture, and provided us with lavish meats, cheeses, snacks, olive oils, and beverages from the region.

And if their hospitality were not enough to win me over, the people of Castelmuzio took deep pride in their community. We saw elderly women sweeping their front stoops, children carrying trash to the strategically placed receptacles, and men carrying garbage to well-hidden dumpsters. The residents hung beautiful linen window treatments, and placed flowers in terracotta pots by their doors. Their gardens and courtyards smelled of lavendar and jasmine.

The town was squeaky clean, a pristine gem hidden in the countryside. “The people take pride in their homes,” Isabella, our coordinator from Le Casine Di Castello told us. “They believe what they have is a gift.”

This is the gift they gave to us.

Yes, the people of the Tuscan countryside are worthy of imitation. They made me pine for my own small, connected, hospitable ideal, made me believe that community can cooperate in gratitude.

We could learn a lot from these good people.