“We have a fuel leak on the right side of the plane. We need to evacuate.”

The pilot’s voice got everyone’s attention. I heard the word “evacuate” but wasn’t sure about the rest of what he said through the distortion in the sound system. I turned toward the man and woman sitting next to me in the same row. The man said, “What did he say?” The woman replied, “I think he said…” she was interrupted by a more urgent, and louder, statement.

“Everyone needs to evacuate the plane NOW. Please take all your carry-ons with you.”

The smell of jet fuel began to fill the enclosed space where we sat near the back of the jet. No one panicked but the people ahead of us began to move toward the exit more quickly.

My day began at 3:30 in the morning when I woke up after two hours’ sleep to wash the sleep from my eyes and head for the airport. When I boarded my third flight of the day in Denver they announced that we were delayed by a few minutes because the co-pilot hadn’t arrived yet. Then we were delayed by another twenty minutes because of weather in New York, my final destination. Then the fuel leak resulted in the abandonment of our plane.

“I’m glad they found it here,” said the man who sat next to me, “rather than when we were at 36,000 feet.”

“No kidding,” I replied as I pulled my suitcase from the overhead and followed him off the plane.

We left Denver two hours late on a replacement plane. There were no further incidents. When we landed at LaGuardia I asked one of the flight attendants, “How bad would it have been if they didn’t discover the fuel leak until we were in the air?”

“That would’ve been bad,” she said, “real bad.”

“You mean emergency landing bad, or…?” I asked.

“It was really good they found it when they did,” she said. “If we had taken off it would have required an emergency landing and they would have foamed the runway.”

I guess she could see the startled, concerned look in my eyes. She tilted her head with a “yeah, it was that serious” look in her own eyes. “It’s really good they discovered it when they did.”

My imagination lit up with the potentially dire possibilities had the leak not been discovered. I was grateful to walk on terra ferma toward baggage claim, to see Sharon pull up to the curb, and to drive–on the ground–to her house.

I was unnerved by this experience and grateful to my guardian angels for keeping me safe. I thought about my wife and how we just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. I thought about our children and our grandchildren. I gave thanks for the blessings in my life and for the awareness of them in this… one… precious… moment.

I picked up Peace is Every Step, the wonderful book by Thich Nhat Hanh that I brought with me to read over the next month.

We are very good at preparing to live, but not very good at living. We know how to sacrifice ten years for a diploma, and we are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house, and so on. But we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive. Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity. We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment.

I flew to New York to join my writing partner, Sharon Morgan. We embark this weekend on a month-long, 5,700 mile road trip through fifteen states in the South and Midwest as part of the healing journey we’ll document in our upcoming book Gather at the Table that will be published by Beacon Press in 2012.

My goal is to be present in the precious moments we share; to be present for what we will experience and learn together. We will document some of our “moments” at our blog. We hope you’ll travel vicariously along with us as we visit communities where our ancestors lived; overnight at an antebellum guest house and a sharecropping plantation; attend Civil War reenactments; tour cultural institutions related to slavery and history; and research genealogical records in rural courthouses. Together, we will explore the meaning of what we experience from our separate, black and white perspectives.

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I gotta run. We got the oil changed in Sharon’s car, filled it with gas, and now all that’s left is to load up the car and head South. Kentucky here we come!