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One of the most life-changing and life-affirming suggestions my first sponsor ever gave to me was simple in theory, yet difficult to put into practice:

Get out of your own head. Be present. Take notice of the wider world around you, and be open to meeting those traversing this earthly existence alongside you.

I’m still not 100 percent there; short of those who don the robes of a Buddhist monk, I don’t think anyone ever truly reaches such a state of enlightenment. In fact, I probably spent a good chunk of each day walking through life on autopilot, my eyes registering steps and doors and obstacles and passing pedestrians as blips on a radar screen. On the other side, my brain is plotting and planning and scheduling, working out problems and fixating on solutions and ruminating on conversations. I may smile or nod, but I’m not all there, because my focus is directed inward instead of outward.

Perhaps it was the change of scenery last weekend, but getting out of town and taking my mother to Mississippi helped hit the reset button on the part of my mind that automatically retreats inward. Some of it, I’m sure, came from the hunger for connection that I always feel down there, that place of tall pines and long shadows and potholed roads and men and women carved into hard lines and sharp angles by Southern gothic proportions of tragedy.

My mother grew up there, my aunt still lives there and the local cemetery is filled with the bones of my people. Their ghosts linger in the alleys between the mostly boarded up downtown buildings and the dilapidated farmhouses on winding backroads through farmland tilled out of unforgiving red clay. Every trip is the gathering of a few more pieces of the puzzle that is me — the history, the DNA, the blood and sweat and tears that have led to my existence in the here and now.

In being open to those stories and those spirits, I was blessed to see a familiar face and meet a new one on that trip. Whether we’ll cross paths again is up to fate, but in that moment, we were present together in the most unlikely of places.

Billy Hester

The first was Billy Hester, owner of Ole Tyme Ice Cream on College Street. The back half of a cherry red classic car juts from the front of the building, converted into a bench for outdoor seating; behind it, hidden by a wooden privacy fence along the back and enclosed by the brick of adjacent buildings on either side, a courtyard contains a wooden deck filled with tables and umbrellas, five fountains, pea gravel, painted stepping stones, pots of geraniums, petunias, ferns and begonias, a Coke bottle tree and an outhouse built from reclaimed barn wood.

We met Billy last year, and to be in his 80s, he was a spry and jovial gentleman who remembered Sept. 4, 1965, as clearly as he did the day before. On that day, he officiated the wedding of Robert Wildsmith and Charlotte Tidwell, marrying the couple who would become my parents in the East Booneville Baptist Church sanctuary. This year, Billy was more subdued. His wife, Mary, died a month ago, and the merriment that simmered beneath his lined countenance last year was dimmed by grief. He hugged my mama, though, and we spent a few minutes on old wooden rockers talking about the heat and remembering the past and being present in the here and now before parting ways.

The second was Abe Whitfield, the owner of a roadside dive called Abe’s Grill. It’s a diner adorned with knickknacks and decorated by license plates from across the country, which hang alongside so many trinkets, baubles and autographed pictures that your eyes seem drawn in opposite directions at the same time. Abe and his son man the grill, and within minutes of being seated, we were eating

Abe Whitfield

breakfast while Abe talked about being in business for the past 45 years. He gets up at 1:30 a.m. every morning to make fresh biscuits — made with Martha White Flour and, he declares, the secret ingredient: Bulgarian buttermilk. He’s proud of his food, as well he should be, and his customers are loyal. We sat at the counter across from a young financial planner who eats there every morning, he said, and in that moment, shoveling in scrambled eggs and pork tenderloin and the fluffiest pancake I’ve ever eaten, I marveled at my good fortune to cross paths with these people, way out in the hinterlands of the Deep South.

I need to do it more in my own backyard. We all do, I think. How often do we pass a new face wearing a Cornerstone badge and have no idea who this coworker is? How many names do you know in Housekeeping, in Nursing, in Medical Detox, in Transportation? Who are the Unidine employees who serve us meals?

How often do we stroll across campus with open eyes that do not see and brains that are everywhere but this place where we do so much good?

I needed that reminder, and I’m grateful I’m still capable of taking them to heart today. A friend of mine pointed out this week that in general, time is better spent trying to identify allies than enemies, but if we don’t take the time to get to know one another, then we find neither one.

We don’t have to be strangers to one another. All we need is the willingness to get out of our own heads and be present. That’s my goal, moving forward, and I hope you’ll consider making it yours.

Here’s your Friday motivation, friends.