PARK WEST PAPER
NATURE IS A LANGUAGE
“Sometimes, people be in a deep, deep thought, in their own little world, in their own depression,” Ms. Shirley observes, taking a careful sip of peppermint tea. “And if you said to that person, ‘Hey, Good Morning! How you doing?’ They’d say, ‘Oh, you caught me off guard!’”
At first, I had heard ‘dark,’ instead of ‘thought,’ imagining Ms. Shirley—how she prefers to be addressed and a name that many affectionately know her as—as a grand sunbeam pulling people out of the isolation of a ‘deep, deep dark.’
This scene is not hard to imagine if you have ever observed her on Saturdays at the Legion Park Farmers’ Market, where she volunteers for the not-for-profit Urban Oasis Project. People come to life at her offerings: a bright hello, a warm how-are-you, a tender tug at the arm, a juicy piece of starfruit or sapodilla. When she’s not perched at the Urban Oasis booth, people stop left and right to hug and greet her as she makes her way through the market.
The sun shines squarely on Ms. Shirley’s face like a spotlight as we situate ourselves at a cafe close to her home in Little Haiti. Throughout our morning together, she often pauses to greet passersby. Though this catches them off guard, most people can’t seem to help but smile and return the gesture.
Ms. Shirley sees you. There is a certain flow in how the 70-year-old Bahamian American relates to those around her. Observing the ease with which she addresses others with dignity and, in return, the good grace with which people reciprocate her acknowledgment hints at a greater consciousness. Through bits of wisdom crystallized in Christian Bible verses, maxims learned in childhood, and personal memory, Ms. Shirley shares her inexplicable faith in the interconnectedness and interdependence of all living things.
Ms. Shirley’s sense of spirituality feels urgent in today’s social climate of disconnection, isolation, political polarization, and what author, activist, and teacher Starhawk calls “estrangement.” A recent Cigna survey reveals that three in five Americans reported feeling chronic loneliness. A Gallup survey on political affiliation and community attachment cites that “a more significant drop in a sense of belonging occurs among respondents who perceive a large ideological gap” between their political affiliation and the perceived politics of where they live. The degree to which people feel they belong in their community has important civic and political engagement implications.
In her book, Dreaming the Dark, Starhawk calls for “another form of consciousness...immanence—the awareness of the world and everything in it as alive, dynamic, interdependent, interacting, and infused with moving energies: A living being.”
“People make the world. We can never be by ourselves. If you want to be in your own little bubble, you’re still not going to be alone because somebody’s still there outside your bubble. And if it’s not people, it’s animals, birds, trees,” says Ms. Shirley.
Acknowledging this greater consciousness, in part, involves recognizing the connection with other(s) as an active exchange. Ms. Shirley credits her aunt, who raised her and her five siblings in Overtown, for instilling this ethic of reciprocity in her from a young age.
“She always taught us this: treat people the way you want to be treated.”
This axiom also guided her throughout her 40-year career at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute as a surgical technician.
“I’d tell [the doctors]: if you’re going to do it, do it the right way...be mindful. Think it was you or someone you love under that sheet when you’re doing surgery.”
While Ms. Shirley describes herself as having always looked for ways to give to her community, operating on a belief that “what you put in, you get back,” she felt especially compelled to find opportunities to do so once she retired.
While accompanying her cousin’s daughter to a dental appointment one afternoon, she noticed the Urban Oasis food stand. Enchanted by the fresh fruits and vegetables on display, she spoke to the organization’s founder Melissa Contreras about getting involved. She then directed Ms. Shirley to Urban Oasis’ president Art Friedrich.
“One of the people that I really know and really love from my heart is Art. He’s a lovable person, so willing to help you. He’s inspired me to the point that I could actually take him for my son.”
She then became Urban Oasis’ “dedicated
volunteer fruit pusher.” However, in the eight
years spent with the organization, she has
become an integral part of the team, which
she describes as non-hierarchical by nature.
“Everyone's on the same level. There’s no big
‘I,’ little ‘you,’” Ms. Shirley explains. “No, I won’t
let it happen that way. As long as I’m there, we
are going to love each other.”
The value in this communal, rather than
hierarchical approach is in harnessing each
member’s personal power for a greater
“The body has many members, but [we have]
one body. You've got the nose, the mouth, the
ears, the hands. It's just like people...
everybody got their own function,” says
Ms. Shirley, referencing a part of 1 Corinthians
from the Christian Bible.
Her role, as she sees it, is bigger than herself
and beyond assisting Urban Oasis at the
market, involves a genuine connection with
others. To embody interdependence and
acknowledge that we are parts of a greater,
living whole is to accept responsibility for one
another through action. This, according to
Ms. Shirley, can be as simple as a kind word.
“I like dealing with people because people are
going through something these days and it's a
kind word that can make a difference in
somebody's life. We are all here for a purpose
and for a reason, which is to love and help each other. Don't hog it up to yourself. Your love is contagious.”
In highlighting the importance of giving, she also emphasizes receiving.
“At the farmer’s market, Art knows when you run short. I know when you run short,” she says, her tears hinting at a sentimental memory. “It's a shame to admit, but we all run short...that’s why we have people here to help you. I cannot read your mind. In the Book of James, the Bible says, ‘You have not because you ask not.’”
After citing the Book of James, Ms. Shirley seems tickled when I tell her that the photographer she is meeting after our conversation is named James. The ease with which she laughs hints at her deeper trust in consciousness beyond herself and an acceptance that as mighty as a kind word may be, she may also be limited in her role as an individual. I ask her if she feels she is making a difference in her community.
“I think I am. If not, that's fine, but I am...I found out that as long as I put it out there, [someone] will catch it. I'm just putting the seed down. Somebody coming behind me is going to water the seed. Once the seed gets watered, the plant’s going to grow.”
Written by Kristen Soller
Nature is a Language is an ongoing series that profiles people who are helping Miami’s community to restore our connection with nature and our bodies.