The Ground is Broken (creative non-fiction essay)

I used to think that I was a trailblazer, a groundbreaker, a mover and a shaker. But one day as I was rushing to some oh-so-important destination on my journey a car splashed mud on my clothes so perfect and clean. I was annoyed, thinking, “What have you done!” (Let’s be honest: I was pissed.) I was bothered by the delay that was causing me to keep my eyes off the prize. You see I was on this groundbreaking journey, so I thought. But at that moment a strange sensation came over me. I felt a pull from the earth. I bent slowly down to the ground, descended; yet my soul felt strangely lifted up. It was then that I realized that I was no groundbreaker, for the ground was already broken.

The land on which I tread upon had been turned many times before. I was humbled by its contents. I was no groundbreaker, I was just another who tilled the soil.

I heard the earth speak. At first I was startled, until I understood that it had been speaking all along. How long had I mindlessly walked upon it? Who had I ever truly lead, if I was only just now hearing the earth’s enriched and fertile song? By stopping to listen I had only just begun to know my journey. From the rocks I heard melodious honey sweet whispers:

Listen more often to things than to beings.

Listen more often to things than to beings.

‘Tis the ancestor’s breath when the fire’s voice is heard.

‘Tis the ancestor’s breath, in the voice of the water.

As I stopped to listen, I heard voices, voices clear. Can you hear them? Shh. Close your eyes and listen.
Those who have died have never, never left
The dead are not under the earth

The earth told me that these were the voices of those who had come before me whose stories had massaged their way deep into the earth upon which I tread. Their stories resurfaced into the air as I dug into ground that I was so-called breaking that really wasn’t all that new.

I closed my eyes as I dug deeper unearthing a wealth of experiences. I discovered ancient civilizations of people so beautiful and so deep that we are still enamored by their beauty so long ago defined. I discovered evidence of stories told through voyages, dredged from the lands under the sea.

You hear that woman’s story?” the earth said. “Listen. Let its words surround you. She used to say she was the first to…” the earth stopped.

“The first to do what?” I questioned.

“Does it matter? You want to mark deeds by first, best, most, or worthiest. Those measurements aren’t real because she, like all the others, was walking on broken ground. Perhaps she thought she was the first to solve a chemical formula. Maybe she thought she was the first to break through the walls of business or politics. Maybe she thought she was the first to be counted. But when she stopped to listen, when she began to dig her hands into the soil, she realized that she was not breaking new ground, but instead unearthing the ancestors’ breath that lies with me. Their stories were many more than she could have possibly heard in her one lifetime. But these stories surrounded her, enveloped her, and burrowed their way within her being, giving her strength as the stories once again came alive above ground. The ground had been broken even before a little girl grew up to tell little children to get on board, for there was room for plenty more upon her train headed to the promised land. She grew to be a woman who mastered astronomy, medicine, strategic planning, navigation, and political finesse because she listened to the stories within me.”

“Listen. Listen,” the earth said.

I could faintly hear a train whistling in the background. I could feel the conductor’s steady presence.

As I began to dig deeper, my hands now soiled and full of earth, I could see how alive the earth was.

At that moment that I began to understand the strength and abilities that earned a long awaited Oscar win were actually unearthed stories of acting skills that were honed over a period of four hundred years.

I realized that our modern day notions of changing the business that this world is in came about because someone somewhere had plowed the remains of a man named George, commingled with a few grape seeds and strips of burnt fabric. Fighting for equal rights isn’t new ground; it’s been dug many times before, shoveled by two Loving hands and jumped over with a broom.

The ground for my education had been broken by miles of barefoot steps and the wheels of  buses going round and round. The ground was plowed by young girls and boys, whose ranks were noted not by pomp and circumstance, but by progression from a seat in the rafters or the basements in the wee hours of the morning, to a desk in a one-room schoolhouse, and later to a fully recognized Chair.

I stopped listening for a moment, and heard my mind whisper, “But my story is different.”

“Listen. Listen,” the earth said.

“But you don’t understand,” I said.

The earth unveiled the calming lullabies of a young woman wading in the waters of rice fields, singing quietly to herself to sooth the flailing infant swaddled on her back and to equally sooth her mind filled with the pain of a body just hours away from giving birth. I heard her eastern lullabies of yesterday sung in perfect harmony with another woman’s western melody of today:

I am a woman I’ve come through the ages

Bearing the water and bearing the babe

Little I’ve owned, not even my body
I’ve lived my whole life by laws I’ve not made
I was reminded that the red tape I often try to break is the same shade of red as the tape that bound the wounds of a slave’s hands.

The earth cried out, “Keep Your Hands on the Plow, Hold On,” and I felt its song.  The ground had been broken.

“Listen. Listen,” the earth said.

There are no secrets kept from the ground. Inside lie broken spirits, lost dreams and the bones of battles lost and won. It holds all the remnants of yesterdays, the sighs, cries, and lies. I am reminded of my grandmother retelling a story that was unearthed to her: “If you find yourself broken into forty pieces, don’t just look at them. Pick up your pieces, and keep walking.”

As I dug my hands into the soil, the earth reminded me that I would not be the first nor the last to be broken. But the earth also reminded me, that not everyone can collect all his or her pieces. “There are pieces that can be mended, and there are those that are forever scattered in the wind, having landed all here within me,” the earth said. The rocks again dripped a honey-sweetened melody:
Those who have died have never, never left
The dead are not under the earth

They are in the rustling trees

They are in the groaning woods

They are in the crying grass

They are in the moaning woods

The dead are not under the earth

So listen more often…

That day I listened; I still listen. The wind may have rinsed away the footsteps from the sand or the sea, but the earth has recorded every step. I have learned to close my eyes to get a better view. The ground has always been broken.

“What of my story?” I asked, smiling, because I knew the answer.

“I’ve listened,” the earth said.

So when I arose from the ground, I was no longer on my journey to be a so-called groundbreaker, a trailblazer, a mover or a shaker. I realized that I was not climbing the mountain; I was living the mountain, the hills and the earth that surround me with their presence. One day some other will dig his or her hands into the ground to feel the earth enriched with my dreams, my journeys, my brokenness, my bones, and they will arise knowing their journey too will be counted. I realize now that when I hear the whistling wind, when a car splashes dirt upon my clothes so perfect and clean, when I smell the fresh cut grass of an early spring day, when I am moving along my journey, I am really standing still, firm and planted. The earth is urging me down to the ground, so my soul can be lifted up. I am ascended. I tread lighter, knowing that the earth is speaking to me, reminding me that I do not have to break ground, because the ground is already broken.

So I listen. I listen.


Author’s Note:

This essay contains lyrics quoted from two Negro Spirituals, Keep Your Hand on the Plow and Get On Board Little Children, from Song of Hands by Carolyn McDade, and from the song Breaths, written by Ysaye Barnwell, a member of the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock.

2 responses to “The Ground is Broken (creative non-fiction essay)”

  1. Deeply moving and so true… I have felt the same pull of the earth and felt more and more connected to the deep sorrows and the ancient joys, felt humbled, humoured and caressed. Thanks very much for writing and sharing this piece. It would be beautiful to create paintings for this essay. Perhaps we can collaborate together sometime.


    • Thank, Srivi. Of course a pairing of art and words is always welcome, especially with you.

      Glad you connecting with this piece.

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