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The Fine Art of Presence

The Fine Art of Presence

“You have nice teeth.” Ellen peers into my mouth with the studiousness of a scientist. “Who’s your dentist?” She asks. I explain, again, that my dentist’s office is in a nearby town. She responds, again, that she doesn’t know him but her husband was a dentist right down the street.

Ellen is a hospice client I’ve been visiting. I know her only through the veil of her dementia, which caused her to be sullen and angry much of the time. On this day, though, she’s in good spirits.

“You have nice teeth.”

“Thank you.”

“Who’s your dentist?”

We repeat our lines as though we’re practicing for a play and then I try to redirect. “Oh, look, the cherry tree is beginning to bloom.” I say cheerfully.

“It is, isn’t it?” She says this in a half-hearted way. It’s the same tone parents use when they’re only half-listening to their children. Then, more excitedly–as though she’s trying to redirect me, “You have nice teeth! Who’s your dentist?”

By the time I left the senior living home that day, we’d had the conversation so many times I’d lost track. It’s a special kind of challenge to stay present in a nonsensical situation. Parents know it well; it’s why so many of us struggle with activities of “let’s pretend,” where the rules are always changing and the game has no apparent goal, or when there’s endless word games and silly questions.

In Jan Richardson’s book Sacred Journey’s: A Woman’s Book of Daily Prayers, she reflects on the work of being present. She calls this the art of “with-craft.”  

Like any art, I believe the art of with-craft must be practiced. It comes more easily to some than others but we all grapple with it in our own way. We grapple with spending hours in pointless conversation when time is limited and tasks are not. We struggle to prioritize people over projects, or someone else’s needs over our own. We wrestle with simply slowing down enough to sit with another.

Practicing presence requires the same slow attention that meditation does, the same deliberate breathing, the same centeredness. It requires, too, the same willingness to embrace paradox. In with-craft as in meditation, we learn an amazing secret: that the times in which we appear to be doing the least–sitting, talking, breathing–are really the times in which we’re doing the most.

Ranier Maria Rilke says it well, “I have often wondered whether especially those days when we are forced to remain idle are not precisely the days spent in the most profound activity.”

So it is when we find ourselves tied up with “meaningless” interaction–the conversations that have no storyline, the childish games that have no winner, the conversations that meander. These moments carry with them the most power precisely because they lack purpose. They are transcendent, defying words and resting purely on the Mystery that drew us together in the first place.

This is the antithesis of our typical interactions. Too often, our exchanges are purely transactional. We communicate in order to get something. “Please get your shoes on.” “Can you do the dishes?” “When will that project be done?” Even our “how are yous” are often rushed through as a means to an end.

Practicing with-craft means learning to see relationships as ends-within-themselves, not the means to an end. This seems simple but it’s a bit revolutionary. After all, we’re people who hold networking events, which are after all nothing but relationship mining. In the business world, we even refer to people as “resources,” which of course we must carefully allocate.

With-craft demands another way. In practicing this powerful art, we learn that presence has power. I don’t know what, if any, good I accomplished for Ellen that day. I’d like to think that for an hour or so she experienced the pride of her younger years, before her independence was robbed along with her mind.

But I know that she did me good.

There is some ineffable joy that comes from sitting with another, just being people on a journey together. This is why I think that with-craft isn’t primarily about us helping others, as though our attention is an allotment that should be carefully doled out. It is just as much, if not more, about us being open to their presence. It’s about the amazing mystery of the incarnation: that God is with each person we meet in a new and unique way, which means each and every encounter is an opportunity for grace.