The emotional surge of the charity splurge.

Back in September, as I was experiencing my first tentative steps into relative debt-free-ness, I received an email from a friend about a concert her husband was co-producing in Manhattan to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, called “Music After.”   Anything you can send, she said, would help.  I gave a small amount that I wished could have been more, but it still made me feel like a part of this event, so far away, just a short distance from Ground Zero itself.

This is the power of action: to make you feel connected.  I do believe, no matter what, that generous and gentle action is always worth it, somehow.  It opens emotional and spiritual doors that widen and expand our lives, creating ways for other energy to flow in and out, connecting us to others in our community and thousands of miles away.  Not for nothing is charitable giving a key to the Dave Ramsey method, which, with a couple tweaks, is what’s gotten me out of debt.  It keeps you from becoming a miser: only the open hand is free to receive as well as to give. And that open hand literally embodies, as so many spiritual leaders preach, the process of being the change we want to see in the world.

So this fall I got started giving, always wishing it could be more. I set up regular checking-account withdrawals every month for Oxfam America and Minnesota Public Radio.  I tucked an anonymous bill into the basket at our regional Peace and Justice Center, which does so much unsung good in our community.  As winter tightens down, our Occupy group will be moving into work on concrete measures to strengthen our local economy and make it more independent.  It’ll mean giving time, which is even rarer than money in my life these days.  But in twenty years, I will be more sorry if I did nothing.   In a recent lecture, I heard Paul Loeb define the “perfection fallacy,” the belief that before we can act we need to be perfectly on top of every single bit of information associated with an issue.  Life just moves too fast for that.  We’ve got to educate ourselves as thoroughly as we can.  But we’ve also got to move.

Even if – and I am always trying to stay aware of this – that motion leads to another Loeb fallacy, “the power of the click,” or, rather, the belief that the click alone is enough.  I’m a compulsive petition-signer and “awareness raiser,” as my Facebook friends (perhaps wearily) can testify, a perhaps-too-shrill shill for every Good Liberal Cause that comes down the pike.  Every day, alas for our world, there’s something new.  Tell Shell to clean up its shameful mess in the Niger Delta. Urge Linda Katehi to resign.  Call Pelosi and Reid to urge them to hold firm against any deal-cutting that would help Keystone XL get built after all. (The staffers I spoke with, although harried and hurried, were very nice. Alas, I did not get to speak with the senators themselves.)  If I do not call, I argued with myself, it won’t matter whether I saved that 5 or 10 minutes to spend on the mountain of grading and other Very Important Work through which I have been desperately making my way.  If Keystone goes through…..  Following that good and decent Methodist man, Bill McKibben, I have come to believe, too, that Keystone XL may very well be “game over for the environment.”

It feels good to speak, and even better to be heard.  I’m haunted by my former voicelessness, against which my late twenties and my thirties have been one long and increasingly intense struggle.  My students are genuinely shocked – and the shy ones emboldened – to learn that as a teenager I had a soft, fadey voice with a deep country accent (which still comes back when I get worked up) and a lisp that was, I believe now, largely psychosomatic.  Mercilessly mocked by other kids (and even by teachers) long before anyone had ever thought of anti-bullying laws, I moved in a patriarchal world that insisted in a million subtle ways that men’s and boys’ voices were the only ones that mattered.  It took me till college to believe someone might want to listen to what I had to say, and to realize the truth: that at least some people did.  Now, I’m writing a lecture for an upcoming conference about finding my voice as a Southerner and a woman to speak out politically: more Southerners,  I argue, need to find our voices and get together on environmental causes, working toward the land we say we love, that has defined us historically and culturally in so many ways.  I follow Naomi Klein in believing that if we can’t get this right, then little else will matter.

There are things about which I may never speak.  But more and more, I fight all the fears and do it anyway.  My favorite philosopher, Hannah Arendt, wrote that the real difference between those ordinary citizens who collaborated with Nazis and those who resisted was that the resisters had decided that they literally could not live with themselves, could not “be in dialogue” with themselves, if they went along with what they knew to be wrong.  We’ve all got different ways of knowing the torment of being shut inside your own head with a self you cannot respect.  The Furies in ancient Greek myth tormented their victims to death by turning up the volume on all their mistakes and weaknesses and shameful acts in their own memories.  We must, Arendt says, give reality, even if it’s halfway across the world in a place we’ll never see, a “claim on our thinking attention.”  Let the lives and the sufferings of others be real in your own imagination.  And start there.  You never know who’s watching you.  You never know who you might inspire, as well.

And yet what can lie on the other side of action, if we are honest?  Self-aggrandizement or white-girl soft liberalism (at worst), or, only slightly less worrisome, a nest of hungers and needs and guilts that are uncomfortable to face.  Last Christmas, I sent a donation to Heifer International for a flock of chicks in my niece’s and nephew’s name.  This Christmas, I’m sending a flock of chicks, a mixed flock of chicks and ducks, and a flock of honeybees in the names of different family members.  (A camel’s out of my price range.)  Honeybees….. A family friend has pastured his bees in my family’s hayfields, and when I taste that honey, even in midwinter a thousand miles away, I taste summer days of my childhood, sliding down the flanks of a round bale, running my fingers through the fringe of uncut grass at the fencerow.  Even though my family insists on fewer and fewer gifts every year, I have been unable to stop myself buying even more than this.  Where I haven’t bought gifts, I have sent them: my apple butter has gone to North Carolina and South Carolina and Singapore.  Like many Southern women, I communicate in food.  Yet something about my motivations troubles me.  It’s an urge to use money to make, or remake, a connection with my geographically distant family that is literally irresistible. It’s a surge of connection and love I feel missing in other ways, apart from them.  But I know, and should know better than anyone, given all my confident pronouncements about it, that money is not a substitute for this.

And I felt stung when I spotted, again, on my dining room table, an appeal from our regional food bank.  Yet by now I have given my money away.  I don’t have any left.  The upsurge of emotion associated with giving rises, crashes.  How could I have forgotten the needy in my own back yard?  Why be like Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens’ Bleak House, all worked up over the poor in Africa while her own children run wild, neglected and barely fed?  How can I do more? Why haven’t I?  Why have I let the general emotional bipolarity of the holidays jerk me around and blind me to the neediness right under my nose?  So many friends have the same feelings: there is always one more needy case, always one more person to help.  Especially the person right next to us, who seems to be doing just fine.  How can we give everyone a “claim on our thinking attention” without – as Arendt also notes – “soon becom[ing] exhausted?”

As I was putting the finishing touches on these thoughts this week, I read this essay by Jesse Kornbluth at Head Butler, responding to a similar holiday-time stirring of brain and heart.  It moved me and heartened me.  There are good people out there, doing all we can do, which is try.  And we are not alone.

And I read this piece on the current state of things in Postville, Iowa, not so far from where I live, which was turned upside down by an ICE raid on the kosher meatpacking plant there and has never recovered.  (I wrote about it a little while back in more detail.)  Four former workers who were arrested at the plant are returning, with their families, under a U-VISA program.  They need sheets and blankets and towels.  They need warm clothes.  It’s December in Iowa.  It’s cold.

So I’m going into my closet and taking out some sheets and blankets and towels to give, reminding myself to plan a little better next time so I will have more to give.  We can only do our flawed and human best, as we can, trying always to do better, to be and to give a little more.  And if we can keep our hearts open, keep giving the whole breathing world a claim on our thinking attention, we can do what is right, and vote, with our actions, for the things that matter most.

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