On Presence: The Commonplace We Can No Longer Remember by Wally Swist

“This is the beginning,” I thought while taking the left-hand turn off of Bay Road onto South East Street in Amherst toward the farmhouse in which I have my writing studio. I thought that in respect to the last 15 years and the girth and depth of work I have produced there. I also thought about the passage of that time and the time after—my time after that moment while driving and this moment in which I write.

The poet Jack Gilbert, whom I knew as a friend, wrote in his poem “Highlights and Interstices” some of my all-time favorite lines, especially in regard to presence: “We think of lifetimes as mostly the exceptional / and sorrows. Marriage we remember as the children, / vacations, and emergencies. The uncommon parts. / But the best is often when nothing is happening. / The way a mother picks up the child almost without / noticing and carries her across Waller Street / while talking with the other woman.”

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What Jack writes further along in the poem truly does ignite the rigorous philosophical question of “What if we could keep all of that?” I often think of those two women on the corner of Waller Street in San Francisco and of that moment, an inadvertent moment, one in which we very well may be fluidly at one with our life and the lives of others, and without consciously realizing that we are blissfully in harmony and fully in accord with the world.

It is in that particular mother picking up her child “while talking with the other woman” who is part of the event of harmonic consciousness itself in which we discover, whether we are even partially aware of it or not, our presence in the moment. For Jack, it was an “a-ha” moment, often referred to as the haiku moment by practitioners in the English language haiku genre, of which he knew something about since he was married to a Japanese woman, Michiko, whom he actually names later in this poem. It is that moment I refer to as finding the numinous in the commonplace.

Later in “Highlights and Interstices,” Jack writes that he has “lost” several “thousand habitual breakfasts with Michiko.” And then he furthers the idea in his conclusion a premise I don’t agree with and would like to refute here, by his writing that: “What I miss most about [Michiko] is that commonplace I can no longer remember.”

Why I refute this is that Jack, as we all often do, is missing what he so brilliantly describes in the first half of the poem: the active presence of those two women on Waller Street who are completely at one in the moment, and so at one with the entirety of their lives in a kind of “harmonic perpetuity.” This harmony, if anything, resembles an awakening or a path to being awakened—a spiritual continuum which can be accessed in our lives whether we are aware of it or not. This is what real presence is.

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Through the experience of presence, or finding the numinous in the commonplace, we are connected to all the moments of our lives. In practice, we certainly, like Jack, may not always remember “the commonplace”—but it is indeed there. Joseph Campbell, in discussion with Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth PBS television series, describes a “higher consciousness” as being “right there, all the time.” Campbell further reflects that it is there close enough to reach out and touch, if it could be touched at all.

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We don’t have to miss immemorial breakfasts or our spouse or partner: they are always with us, as are our beginnings and endings, the latter of which we may be prescient of or we may not know of at all. However, in our practice of presence, we can enjoy the brilliant summer morning; we can be mindful of our driving onto the crushed black basalt driveway and to listen to the tires crackle over the stones. We can park the car in the barnyard where we saw the coyote only the other day, surprisingly just before noon, bounding into the thicket behind the cinderblock garage. We can step out of the car, breathing in the light breeze, and dig deep into our pockets for the keys to the studio where we will sit down to write, the interior erupting with the birdsong through the screen door.

We are here in the moment, but we can also be connected to the first time we ever saw the studio, when our landlady opened it through the door from the mudroom, and we gasped as we saw the light shine on the planks of the yellow pine floor. These moments are linked and within our consciousness through a kind of spiritual continuum. They are a component of that presence, an active part of our own particular facet of now.

Like those two women perpetually standing on Waller Street in San Francisco in Jack’s small but monumental poem, who are everlasting in the imagery he so masterfully conjures, we too can discover our eternity in the present moment. The practice of presence is a rigorous discipline, mostly because it is, indeed, a practice that demands constant focus. Any such application can be exhausting, imprecise, and consuming. It is especially when we are exhausted that it is difficult, but it is also during those times when we become aware of the light flooding in through the cracks of our own armor. Because of our practice of presence, an awakening may occur.

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However, the key is in the practice itself, even in imperfect practice. By sheer application of being conscious in the moment, we defy the odds and realize our birthright, which is the experience of finding the numinous in the commonplace. This leads us to live the “Christness” of our lives in every moment of the day.

This once again recalls the mindfulness of those two women on Waller Street, one of whom is lifting the child as she is speaking with the other. It is in that moment of “higher consciousness” and significant beauty that we can reside, no matter what the discussion or situation or event, as our lives become broadly multidimensional and lifted to a spiritual plane. We are at one with our lives, in harmony within and beyond ourselves on levels and in ways heretofore unknown.

These rich breakthroughs can occur each day if we are present. Similarly, as Joseph Campbell relayed, we might be surprised into consequential amazement by such a practice. By locating the bliss in our living our lives, Campbell said, “doors will open where you never believed that doors would be.”

Wally Swist’s recent books include The Map of Eternity (Shanti Arts, 2018), Singing for Nothing: Selected Nonfiction as Literary Memoir (The Operating System, 2018), and On Beauty: Essays, Reviews, Fiction, and Plays (Adelaide Books, 2018). His book A Bird Who Seems to Know Me: Poems Regarding Birds & Nature was the winner of the 2018 Ex Ophidia Press Poetry Prize and published in 2019. His other books include The Bees of the Invisible (2019) and Evanescence: Selected and New Poems (2020), also from Shanti Arts of Brunswick, Maine.

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