The compost bins still need to be built. And the basil plants need to be pruned and weeded. The starter house in Huss needs to be constructed so seeding can begin this winter instead of late spring. And that food co-op we keep talking about hasn’t gotten underway yet.

And classes start in a week.

This statement sums up a portion of my emotions as I prepare to leave Three Rivers, MI for Grand Rapids, ending my summer internship with *culture is not optional. (Actually, at the moment I am sitting in a coffee shop in Kalamazoo, a momentary limbo between my summer and fall homes.) There is much to do — at the Huss Project, community garden, and the downstairs bathroom I forgot to clean — and just as I feel myself getting something of a grasp on my work here in Tres Ríos, it is time to move on, to turn the page and begin something new. On the other hand, these feelings of anxiety that are triggered by this sense of incompleteness — like planting, watering and caring for a garden, but leaving before the harvest — remind me of other lessons I’ve learned this summer.

On a sunny afternoon in early June, roughly a month into my summer in Three Rivers, I stood in the middle of the community garden behind the Huss Project staring tensely at the small space beginning to show signs of fertility. As the agriculture intern, it was deemed my responsibility to lead the caretaking of the community garden — now in its fifth year of production — and the weight of this duty was beginning to feel like an anvil on my chest. After expressing a mellowed-down version of this unease during a Monday staff meeting, my good friend (and boss) Rob put his arm around my shoulder and briskly walked me out to the garden just a few yards away. I sensed the urgency and deliberateness in his pace, but was unsure of what was coming next.

“Seth, look around. This garden exists as part of a gift economy. It is entirely the result of gifts from others. As a caretaker of the garden, you are in debt to no one and no one is in debt to you.”

This simple declaration was one of many pivotal experiences this summer that significantly shaped how I understand the world and our place in it as human beings. When most people ask what I’ve been doing this summer, I do a rapid mental fumbling for the most accurate description until I revert back to “community development in Three Rivers, Michigan,” a statement too broad and feel-goody to mean anything, at least to me. The truth is I can’t give a simple description of my experiences and work this summer with *cino; it would be like trying to recreate a Picasso using only the primary colors, and not being allowed to mix them. I am reminded, however, that there is great virtue in trying despite the knowledge that what one is undertaking will inevitably fail to achieve the expectations set for it.

Perhaps the most transformative lesson this summer for me has been experiencing the power of storytelling to change and shape us. To tell a story, especially a personal one, is to place oneself in a defenseless, vulnerable state. It is to bare a piece of oneself and open it up to criticism or comfort from another. Also, to listen intently and openly to stories of others also means to make oneself vulnerable, in this way by being transformed by the experiences — joyful and devastating — of the storytellers. Honest storytelling and compassionate listening are like flames that burn away our prejudice and fear, creating newly vacant space for empathy, understanding and love to foster.

My friends at *cino believe in the power of storytelling. I know this because they practice storytelling often, both formally and in the mundane of the everyday. They tell their own stories: of where they come from; of their fears, ambitions, desires, heartaches and joys. They tell the stories of others: those that have inspired them; those that have confronted and convicted their spirits; stories that make them laugh, cry or sit in devastated silence. And just as much as they tell stories, my friends intently and earnestly listen to the stories of others. They listen to kids’ stories of triumphs, failures, love and rejection. They listen to the stories of those outside of their supposed tribes: those who live in a different neighborhood or come from a different tradition; those who have more or less money than they do; and those who drink different beer than they do. Additionally, they make it a regular practice to listen to the stories of those they are closest to; as they have found, there is always more to a person than what we already know or think we know. They even go so far as to hold events during which they tell such stories, which always include good food, as is their style.

After three and a half months working with *cino, I hold many stories of Three Rives, MI and the people there I now call friends. The best summary I can give of these experiences is they have deeply rooted themselves in me and transformed how I live in ways I am tremendously thankful for. Because of my time with *cino, I find myself quicker to forgive and slower to hold tight-fisted grudges, both with others and myself. I have experienced good work as a joy in itself and have seen with my own eyes alternatives to consumerism, capitalism and monetized relationships. I forever will cherish the pure joy of good food grown on healthy land that has felt the care and attention of one’s own hands and is shared in the company of good friends.

Rather than delve further into how *culture is not optional and the community of Three Rivers, Michigan, have changed me, I instead extend an invitation to you that my friends at *cino have adopted as a type of pedagogy for inviting others to experience a life of abundance and peace: Come and see.

Above: Seth plays soccer with neighbors at Community Fun Night.

Last modified: March 4, 2020