Homemaking as resistance
by Isaac S. Villegas
October 13, 2013
“Build houses… Plant gardens…” Jeremiah says (Jer 29:5).
James picks through a crumbling building on an abandoned lot on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, carefully selecting rubble to make a border for the deserted plot of earth he had dug into an oval pond, six inches deep. James lined the pond with plastic trash bags and filled it with water from a nearby fire hydrant. He found a chair along the street, someone’s trash — one leg was missing, so he sawed off the other three and nailed it to a wooden palette at the head of the pond, where he sits, crossing his legs, and lights a cigarette as he takes it all in. Nearby, James has a tent, and a collection of garden tools, and a vegetable garden planted with corn and tomatoes.[i]
“Build houses… Plant gardens…”
After Hector was evicted from Tompkins Square Park, he built a one-room shack on a vacant lot off East Fourth Street, with an entrance from an alley that opens up into a courtyard garden, where he sits and reads and visits with friends. He laid out a path through his courtyard, made from scavenged bricks, curving around an inflatable palm tree, around a crumbling statue of a seated child. “I carry all these things here myself,” Amezquita says, as he points to the bricks, the tree, the statute, “from the street, from everywhere, found them on Eighth Avenue, First Avenue. I find it, I take it — little by little, for more than two years now.”[ii]
“Build houses… Plant gardens…”
Diana Balmori and Margaret Mortan invite us into these worlds of makeshift houses and gardens in New York City, with their book of photographs called, Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives. They offer glimpses of worlds within our world, hidden down alleys, under highways, among urban ruins — unexpected dwellings, built by exiles, a long way from their birthplaces in South Carolina, Puerto Rico, Texas.
The photographs show the resilience of homemaking — building houses, planting flowers, assembling gardens of found objects, making space in an inhuman world for life to happen, for relationships, for work and play, for daydreaming.
“Build houses… Plant gardens…” Jeremiah writes in his letter to his friends in exile, in Babylon, a long way from their birthplaces, a long way from Jerusalem, nearly a thousand wandering miles through the desert. They are living where they do not want to be. They want to go back to the land, back to their homeland. Their dreams and prayers return their minds to Jerusalem, while their bodies are stuck in Babylon. In the morning, in the evening, they remember the words of Psalm 122: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May they prosper who love you.’ ” They pray and hope for Jerusalem.
But Jeremiah, in his letter, shifts their focus; he pulls their minds from Jerusalem; he gives them a new prayer — not for Jerusalem, not for the peace of Jerusalem, but a prayer for the peace of Babylon. “Pray for the peace of Babylon,” he tells them, “for in Babylon’s peace you will find your peace.” They are supposed to find God’s peace, not in Jerusalem, but in Babylon now, in exile, in a harsh land, in an unfamiliar culture, an unfriendly people, far away from where they want to be. “Pray to the Lord on its behalf,” Jeremiah says, “for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:7).[iii]
It’s a devastating prayer, a soul-crushing prayer, because with it their dreams of return are squelched. Instead, the Jews in Babylon are told to pray for the people who hold them captive, to pray for Babylonia to flourish, to flourish as a people — to pray for their welfare, for their peace, and somehow God’s people are supposed to find their own peace with them, with their enemies, enemies of the rest of the world. Babylon is a world power with enemies near and far, a global powerhouse whose influence stretches across the known land, conquering and displacing a multitude of peoples. The Jews were one of the many who called Babylonian empire their enemy.
And now, living in the heart of the beast, Jeremiah tells them to make a home, to make peace — as he puts it, to seek their welfare and pray to God on their behalf, for in their welfare you will find your own.
Protests are always important: to protest against war and violence, against unjust economics, against political corruption, against police brutality, against racial discrimination, against systems of sexism. There are so many reasons to protest, important reasons. For Jeremiah, homemaking becomes protest, human resilience becomes resistance — the power of life to go on, even under the most inhospitable conditions.
To build houses and plant gardens, no matter where we find ourselves, to use what we’ve got to nurture a place for hope to grow — to become scavengers, reusing whichever materials we can find to construct a habitat for life, for peace — not only for ourselves, but for our neighbors, for enemies: pray for their peace, seek their welfare, Jeremiah says.
Homemaking, to make a home in this world, a home for life — to offer the possibility of goodness, a testimony of something beautiful, a meal, a moment of healing, a conversation, an act of companionship, to turn our lives into testimonies of hope, of peace.
This has been our story from the beginning, from the book of Genesis, when we found ourselves exiled from our home, from the garden, and had to learn to build and plant, to make our way through lands and peoples, some more hospitable than others, and to learn, in each new situation, in each new environment, how to be a blessing to the nations. As God said to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred…to the land I will show you… and in you all the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3; 18:18; 22:18).
In the middle of the federal prison I visit, at the center of the compound, between the housing units, there’s a plot of lawn with sidewalks running through it. The prisoners are not allowed to spend time out there, enjoying the grass, the sun, the open space, but they have to walk those sidewalks to get from their bunks to the dinning hall or the chapel or to the garment factory where they sow uniforms for the armed forces. At the corners of the sidewalks, in the spring there patches with white and purple phloxes, baptisias, tulips and daffodils, witch hazel and forsythia alight with yellow flowers.
I got to know the gardener, a prisoner, there for over a decade. Over the years he noticed flowing plants sneaking their way through the layers of razor-wire fences, into the compound, and he’d transplant them, making a home for them in the middle of the prison, testimonies of hope, perhaps, or at least visions of bright life, glimpses of beauty that escape the gloom of concrete and fences and iron gates — beauty that, if cultivated, if nurtured, may soften hard hearts, beauty that may unmask the cold violence of that place, beauty that may expose the hidden violences of our lives in the heart of this Babylon, beauty that may spark imaginations to find other ways to be.
“Build houses… plant gardens.”
Become scavengers, using whatever you may find along the way for homemaking, for life to happen wherever you find yourself, building and planting testimonies of beauty, of goodness.
[i] This paragraph is a mashup of quotations and paraphrasing from Diana Balmori and Margaret Morton, Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives (Yale University Press, 1993): http://margaretmorton.com/artist/transitory_gardens.html
[ii] This paragraph is also a mashup of quotations and paraphrasing from Diana Balmori and Margaret Morton, Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives (Yale University Press, 1993): http://margaretmorton.com/artist/transitory_gardens.html
[iii] William L. Holladay, Jeremiah: A Fresh Reading: “For now put aside the prayer of Psalm 122:6, ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!’ Learn a new prayer, ‘Pray for the peace of Babylon!’ for in Babylon’s peace you will find your peace” (110).