Delights

May begins with its usual pleasures of redbud, dogwood, cherry blossoms, camassia, mayflower, lily-of-the-valley, jack-in-the-pulpit…spinach in the garden, peas starting to send out tendrils, swallows and orioles returning, bees and other insects waking to the work of pollination and feeding the birds.

And yes, a time of anxious confusion and maybe a little more rain in April than necessary and adapting to working conditions that aren’t entirely satisfactory due to a situation beyond our control–though human beings like to pretend we have control. It’s a belief that keeps us from despair, probably.

In a time of pandemic, I sustain my sanity the usual ways. Garden. Poetry. Walks. Family. Reading. Tai chi. Going, most of all, for balance and observation. On the lookout for the things that delight me, though those things may seem “small” or easily overlooked.

Which brings me to the book I’ve been savoring, Ross Gay‘s The Book of Delights. 41ZEJWNt9CL._SX360_BO1,204,203,200_Nicole Rudick, in The New York Review of Books, has already composed a wonderful write-up about The Book of Delights–so I don’t need to. (Do read it: here). But, back to last month’s posts about responses to poetry collections, Gay’s latest–not-poetry, mini-prose, essayettes–evoked from me the response I suppose the author sought from his readers: delight. Delights, plural. Gay’s close observations and slightly goofy sense of what is funny (fallible, silly, skewed but not skewered) feel kin to my own, though my perspective differs from his due to how we are differently embodied and differently socialized, or non-conformist as to said socialization. For any human being, perspective’s inherently lodged in the body; and other people’s perspectives about us, or assumptions about us, are socially based upon the bodies in which we dwell.

Which is to say that he is a Black man in his 40s and I am a White woman in her 60s; yet Ross Gay and I have overlapping backgrounds and interests. Hoosierism and Philadelphia-dwelling, for a time. Poetry. Students, whom we love. Gardening. Passion for figs, awareness of pawpaw fruit and hickory trees. Observers, the sort of people who want to learn more about animal scat and bee species. “Jenky” gardeners. [My term is jury-rigged, but it means about the same thing, without the urban/ghetto connotations: adapting to one’s immediate need without overmuch consumerism…which is to say, making do with a crappy substitute. I learned that from my folks, too.]

And the urge to recognize, and celebrate, delights.

 

Giving in secret

“All the poems I have written were written for love.” ~ W.H. Auden

But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret…” Matthew 6:3-4

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Acts of compassion, great or small, are good for us. I state this not because of ancient Greek philosophers’ concepts about the Good, nor out of any religious dogma, but because psycho-neurological studies almost definitively align with this aspect of received wisdom. Hanson writes, “Compassion draws on the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and insula,” which help us observe (or “read”) the reactions of others, an action critical to the survival of a social species. It turns out that when we pay attention to others, we are more likely to help them; that’s how the average human brain works.

Unfortunately, human beings often stop paying attention once we think we have ascertained another person’s intentions and have passed an internal judgment upon them. We tend not to attend past that initial observation. Thus, we may miss actual intentions. Usually this miscommunication of intent leads to problems, but not always. Some people desire to hide their deeper intentions, and not because those intentions are “evil” or even merely narcissistic.

Viz: W.H. Auden, as portrayed in this quietly-written, reflective essay by Edward Mendelson in The New York Review of Books (March 2014). Mendelson begins:

W.H. Auden had a secret life that his closest friends knew little or nothing about. Everything about it was generous and honorable. He kept it secret because he would have been ashamed to have been praised for it.

Auden was a Christian who had an often challenging relationship with his religion (being homosexual did not help with the dogmatic wrestling match). In this essay, Mendelson says that “Auden had many motives for portraying himself as rigid or uncaring when he was making unobtrusive gifts of time, money, and sympathy. In part he was reacting against his own early fame as the literary hero of the English left.” The author also looks at Auden’s era: Fascists, Nazis, dictators, and how they managed to sway so many potentially and otherwise “good folks” to bad causes, the use of “good/evil” in the literature and intellectualism of those times and the writers who used celebrity to lionize their causes–a posture Auden found distasteful.

Yet Auden was willing to make himself distasteful, socially awkward, arrogant, in the service of a hidden compassion. There’s no good word for this in English. “Modesty” does not suffice. “Humility” does not quite hit the mark, either.

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It seems to me that Auden, and others like him (there are others, many undiscovered), chose to follow Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:3.

A contemporary person may ask why all the modesty. After all–a good deed is a good deed. Does keeping it “hidden” increase the inherent goodness? Are anonymous philanthropists somehow more authentic to the concept of compassionate giving than those who allow their names to grace buildings and organizations? Those people who benefit by good works and kind acts–surely they feel a desire to thank whoever is responsible, so why disguise the giver?

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One possible answer: compassion does not need a specific object, though that is generally how we learn compassion in the first place.

The gratitude a human being feels when he or she is the receiver of a kind, anonymous act has no immediate object. We do not know whom to thank. Although the receiver’s response may initially be one of suspicion, in most cases the sense of gratitude will be directed more widely into society; the receiver of a kindness is more likely to be kind to others, to perceive others as potentially benefactors or at least to view other people with less suspicion and envy–because the secret donor is somewhere among all of us.

The secret gift works to spread compassion to all sentient beings.

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It turns out that, as far as the brain is concerned, doing good sets up a kind of feedback loop. Doing good for others improves how good we feel in general. Not how good we feel about ourselves in an egotistical way but how good we feel mentally, emotionally, and even physically.

Love is all you need

Love is all you need

We not only write for love. We live for love.

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