I took a break from my winter writing retreat to join the living and it was scary how quickly those buttons called and how quickly I heeded that call. I’m back for a week and then will retreat again. I’m beginning to think I could live off-the-grid forever.
Submissions for my Long Ago: Community series/contest close tomorrrow. Thank you to all who have entered. I have loved reading your stories. I will announce the winner in mid-February…but the truth is…we’re all winners when we share community. Thank you. yrs. Laura
Please enjoy this journey of mindfullness, land, food, and deep connection…with writer, Emma KateTsai.
Common Ground, by Emma Kate Tsai
Context clues couldn’t prepare me for what I found when I arrived at the Live Oak Friends Meeting House, those five words more than just the name of a facility, a place of worship, a center for congregation. Each word lent its own definition to a place—the space, the land, the built structures, the air that moved between all three elements—that was nature and humanity and togetherness and home. I felt the grass and dirt beneath my feet, the common ground we stand on, the common ground we share. And that’s why I was there. For the Common Ground Festival, a gathering a local farmer had organized to raise money for a community garden.
David, the farmer, introduced himself to all of us. But he didn’t tell us what college he went to, or where he was from. Instead he told us about his relationship with land. That he spent summers on his grandfather’s farm. That he wanted to grow bamboo. That his men knew the land intimately, they spoke its language, and he demonstrated how they showed height by a simple stroke upwards and laid down seeds with a kind of balletic arm. I fell into a kind of trance as I watched the graceful movements of hands that have worked the land, but never stopped being gentle with it. David would close his eyes sometimes, thinking about what he wanted to say next, letting his mind catch up with him, maybe. “Friends, music, food, and silence,” he went on. Together, they would contribute in some way to common ground, that ground being the garden he was helping to erect.
A teacher named Kimberly Alexander spoke next. She smiled without trying or needing any encouragement, she stood easy with herself and straight without straining. “We’re growing humanity together in my classroom,” she breathed, “where I teach ESL to such amazing students. I’m in love with every single one of them.” A Chinese boy with a self-portrait of a face running with tears that had no mouth. He had no voice, because he couldn’t speak English. A boy who’d been rejected by the girl he loved, and said, “I feel like a lemon with the juice extracted.”
She told stories like a mother might. We were all each other’s children, each other’s mothers, in that room, that day. As Kimberly talked, her paintings were passed around, each one inspired by one of her students, containing a line of their dialogue. She let the students be heard—through her words—and seen—through her art. “See, we’re all displaced. All of us don’t belong.” Which means all of us do.
Then it was Darwin Nelson’s turn. Bamboo brought he and David together. He grabbed a chair and sat down, explaining his behavior as he did so, “I’m gonna sit down because I’m a student, not a teacher, so I’m gonna sit with all o’ you.” Darwin spoke with a Texas drawl, which was encloaked in a deep, timbred voice. His wasn’t a presentation, or a speech, but half a conversation.
“This is such a peaceful place, is it not?” Darwin asked, and our answer was merely assumed, not heard. “All the Nelsons,” he says, using that very Texan way to refer to his family, quickly taking us to places I’ve never heard of—Mount Home, Spring Creek—“we were married to North America. The reason why I tell you this is to tell you we were in the minority view. Doin’ sheep in cattle country.” Darwin emphasized his words carefully, speaking some with full force and volume, never forgetting to help us along. Like Larry McMurtry, this Texas-wise man spoke a language that was both Texan-colloquial and literary at the same time.
“I have a li’l bamboo farm, nothing like David’s, but I feel good bein’ there,” he says, almost scowling with intensity as he leads us toward the wisest of all plants. “The key to happiness is relationships. Happiness is love. Hard to go wrong with that. There’s interpersonal, right, an intrapersonal, our relationship with our self. And we’re rougher on ourselves. Remember, everything’s about connections. There is no such thing as individual.” He pauses. “Each person is a system. We exist in an environment, just as a plant does, in the soil and the sun. That’s the healthy way to exist, that means being human.” His big, almost childlike, hands move through the air. They have lived.
A history of bamboo follows: its nativity to Texas, why it works in our climate, stories from China of how horses “kill for bamboo” and only the emperor’s horses could have it—it gave them a sheen. He talks about the fertile river valley, and how the plant is really an ancient grass that’s older than the trees. “I don’t disagree with the Dalai Lama on much, but I disagree with him on this. He thinks plants don’t think, but I know bamboo does. A mother bamboo plant cares about its children, squeezing moisture out so the children plants will live.” Then, he seamlessly brings us—people—back into the world that bamboo lives in: “The Internet has helped us connect, and we’re all connected.” Darwin looks out the window again. “I don’t like to see houses and cars and stuff. I like things perfectly quiet.” Adjusting his glasses with both his hands, almost like a little boy, he continues weaving his tale, one of love and romance, really. “I’ve been studying bamboo for thirty-seven years, and I’ve learned more from it than I have anything else. I was sixty-five and almost dead—yeah, I’m a slow learner—and I woke up on a stage in India, with a bouquet of flowers in my arms. I found a sudden awareness. I’d smoked, I weighed three hundred and fifty pounds, and I was arthritic. You know? You kill yourself off that way.” Darwin leans over his arm towards us. “What do you need to live?” We look at one another, kids in a classroom afraid to answer and disappoint this man we already look up to. “You need to breathe, right? Drink water, eat, exercise, and sleep. That’s it. Do you know less than three percent of people do that?”
Darwin moves further and further into my own psyche, my own philosophy, at a leisurely pace, until I barely know where I am. I feel a bit suspended in mid-air, so thrilled to be in the presence of someone who knows more than I do about what I believe. He puts his hand up as if to tell us to stop, but he doesn’t. “China’s struggling. All from bad habits. I clicked on to it finally. Gardening is the single most important thing in the world. Look at Emerson and Thoreau. Read books. Take action. Stay close to nature. It’s what people have forgotten. We don’t know where our food comes from. Think reflectively, naturally breathe. Start and end every day. Otherwise, they just never end. People used to go to bed at sundown, they had a balance. Bamboo illustrates all that. It’s really a Chinese philosophy. Humility, strength, flexibility. Bamboo bends, it won’t break, it has a quality of selflessness. That’s the secret to long life. Bamboo is resilient, it nurtures itself, it creates shade, it stops erosion, you can build with it. But,” he teases, “it helps to be seventy. Things make impressions.” He pauses again. “What we do we need to eat for? Why? For energy. At twenty-five, the brain stops growing. I never thought of it. So we need to regulate entropy. What we need is balance. Things, people, that give back more than they take. Do what David’s talking about, and you can’t keep the people away. It’s all about friendship, and peace.”
I sat there, trying to catch my breath from all that he said, and I couldn’t help feeling like we were sitting around a campfire, and he was sitting in the middle. Walking around, symbols of humanity caught my eye: all the clothes, how different they all were, what they said about their wearers; the smiles on nearly everyone’s faces, people introducing themselves in every corner of the house and the open air that surrounded it. I looked down at my wrinkled shirtsleeve stained red from the hibiscus. It looked like a battle wound. I almost hoped it wouldn’t wash out. Then I walked out into the garden, or what was just a lawn but would soon become a garden. David’s men sat under a tree, one solo band member began setting up quietly and respectfully, making no eye contact with me or anyone but his instruments and the concrete floor. I noticed a grown woman in a sweet jumper who made me smile.
We walked back in, took our seats—I moved to the other side—and we quieted down. All voices went still, all footsteps softened, and people began shhhing one another, but in an affectionate way. We were all friends here.
David’s farm is Utility Research Garden, and the URL is http://www.utilityresearchgarden.com
Darwin’s Bamboo Farm: http://bambootexas.com/
The Meeting House: http://friendshouston.org/