Sunday, April 25, 2010

Rebecca Clark Gazebo

Yesterday many members of the community gathered to remember Rebecca Clark and to dedicate the gazebo in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery to her memory. Speakers included former Town Council member Jim Merritt, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Ward, and me. I was asked to speak in my role as chair of the Council naming committee--to talk a little about that process. Here are my remarks.

The Town Council does indeed have a process for naming public structures and facilities after people. To have something named after you by the town is a great honor; it’s not something we do lightly. The first requirement is that the person be no longer living. There are good reasons for that policy, but there’s also a downside: Rebecca Clark is not here with us today to see this honor bestowed upon her.

I think of that old song by the Carter Family,

Give me the roses while I live
Trying to cheer me on.
Useless are flowers that you give
After the soul is gone.

It’s a chilling song, and there's truth in the lyrics. So I’m sorry Ms. Clark is not here to see this day. But I hope I’m not wrong to think that she was appreciated, especially in later years, like on her great community 90th birthday. And I hope I’m not wrong to think that she did recognize that the work she had done for so long, especially in the arena of political organizing and getting people to the polls, did really make a difference.

And certainly her presence is still felt and will be felt for a long time to come, through the memory established here with this gazebo but also in the hearts and minds of so many of us who can still remember vividly long phone conversations with her, in which she had something important to explain, something complicated with deep roots, going way back, are you with me? She wanted to be sure you know how some seemingly intractable problem had gotten to be that way in the first place, are you with me? Something was going on, going wrong, and it needed to be fixed.

We’re still trying to fix it all, Ms. Clark. We’re with you—and we’re grateful that you were with us and that you stuck with us and worked with us for so long.

HOPE Gardens

Yesterday it was my pleasure to speak at the dedication of the HOPE Gardens, a community garden on town-owned land sponsored by the Homeless Outreach Poverty Education arm of the UNC Campus Y. The bountiful garden serves as a transitional employment center for homeless people. At the dedication event were workshops on sustainable agriculture, a garden art project, tours and lunch with salad fresh from the garden. Here are my remarks.

Greetings on behalf of the Chapel Hill Town Council, and thanks to everyone involved, including Butch Kisiah and his Parks and Recreation staff, as well as our partners at Active Living By Design, who worked closely with the HOPE group to make this happen. Congratulations to David Baron and the whole HOPE team.
I also bring thanks and greetings from the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, for which I serve on the executive team. HOPE is one of our most important and active partners. We are grateful for all the work they do, including their publication of Talking Sidewalks, which puts a face on homelessness in our community, and the Community Empowerment Fund, which makes the crucial connection between the economic realities of the homeless and the importance of community support.
And then this fabulous community garden. As a council member and a community member I could not be more pleased.
The state of being homeless is such an unsettling, unnerving state that we don't even have a consistent word for it. “Homelessness,” the word we now use, describes a lack—it’s a description for something you don’t have. Generations ago, it was called other things: vagabond, gypsy, tramp, hobo. Sometimes it was just said that you had been put “outdoors.” A character in Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, Cholly Breedlove, does that to his whole family: he throws them out of the house, puts them “outdoors.” On this unhappy state Morrison reflects,
Outdoors . . . was the real terror of life. . . . If somebody ate too much, he could end up outdoors. If somebody used too much coal, he could end up outdoors. People could gamble themselves outdoors, drink themselves outdoors. . . .
Outdoors was the end of something, an irrevocable, physical fact, defining and complementing our metaphysical condition. [The difference between being put out and being put outdoors was] like the difference between the concept of death and being, in fact, dead. Death doesn’t change, and outdoors is here to stay.
So for me at least the very thought of even this beautiful outdoor garden space is tinged by the knowledge that for a few of those among us, the outdoors is all that is, all that is theirs.
But thankfully there are other ways to think about gardens and the outdoors and bodies in need. Wendell Berry has perhaps said it best:
One of the most important resources that a garden makes available for use, is the gardener's own body. A garden gives the body the dignity of working in its own support. It is a way of rejoining the human race.
In an essay called “The Body and the Earth,” he observes that “no matter how urban our life, our bodies live by farming; we come from the earth and return to it. . . . While we live our bodies are moving particles of the earth, joined inextricably both to the soil and to the bodies of those other living creatures.”
What Berry beautifully describes is the connectedness of body and earth: The word “health” itself, he notes, is related to the words heal, whole, wholesome, hale, hallow, and holy. “And so it is possible to give a definition to health that is positive and far more elaborate than that given to it by most medical doctors.”
And he links health and community: “Persons cannot be whole alone. . . . Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality is healing.” Connection, too, is healing: “Connection is health.”
“In gardening, “ Berry continues, “one works with the body to feed the body. The work, if it is knowledgeable, makes for excellent food. And it makes one hungry. The work thus keeps the eater from getting fat and weak. This is health, wholeness, a source of delight.”
And so this cycle of work and exercise, community and conviviality, wholeness and health and happy eating—the nourishment of the body and the earth—this is what HOPE Gardens is all about. Please join with me in thanking everyone involved in this great project and wishing them lasting success, season after season.