an excerpt from Trebbe Johnson's Radical Joy for Hard Times: Finding Meaning and Making Beauty in Earth's Broken Places
(North Atlantic Books, 2018)
When I am given a gift,
I feel moved, maybe a bit undeserving, as if I have inadvertently stepped beneath a stream of beneficence not specifically intended for me, but pouring all over me. My consciousness fills with awareness both of the gift and the giver, and gratitude spreads through me. This gratitude coalesces into a wish to give something back. I long to please my giver, endow that generous benefactor with something that will offer comfort, nourishment, and delight equal in measure to the bounty I have received from her or him, from God or grace. But when my benefactor is a place rather than a person, although I may be regularly aware of my delight or gratitude, it probably never occurs to me to offer thanks. A place does not choose me as its recipient, after all. And even if I did want to offer thanks, to whom would I direct it, and how? Does a place have consciousness; ? Can it can receive gratitude for what it has given just by virtue of being itself?
People of traditional cultures would say yes, indisputably, and moreover, that the expression of gratitude is not a single act in response to a single instance of bounty, but an essential part of an ongoing cycle of giving and taking, taking and giving. The Navajo people I used to visit would speak to the plants they wished to harvest, the sheep they were about to butcher, and explain that they intended to take from them. They assured that living being that what they were doing was for the good of their people and commended its own people to continue to flourish as well. Only then would they harvest the plant, draw the knife across the throat of the sheep. A mutual commitment to reciprocity is implicit: we take from you, honored creature. Yet with our prayers of request and acknowledgment of gratitude we assure your continued thriving, and hence our own.
Ultimately, such cycles of gift-giving and gratitude extend beyond the individual plants and animals asked to serve at a particular time and encompass the holy beings who created the whole fabric of existence in the first place, most especially by fashioning a blessed land and a people to care for it, and who continue to move through life on that land and in those people in countless felt ways.
Most contemporary non--native people would consider such practices touching but arcane, quite irrelevant to their own lives. Pause in gratitude for each item you place in your cart as you rush through the supermarket after work, inventing as you go the meal you’ll put together for the family dinner? Bow in gratitude to the rare earth minerals welded into your smartphone every time you open an app? Nice, but not likely. Most of us are far removed from the perpetual wheel of giving and taking that indigenous people continue to turn.
If offering gratitude to nature’s fruitful givers may be a challenge to those for whom such gifts tend to come wrapped in plastic or tucked invisibly into an electronic device, more vexing still is the prospect of offering gratitude in places that no longer offer the bounty and beauty they once bestowed. There, the cycle of giving between nature and people seems to have been irrevocably broken. Discovering beauty in a place of waste evokes gratitude, but that rush of feeling tends to be focused on the revelation of a particular thing revealed, rather than the whole out of which it arises—which is exactly what makes it extraordinary. To ferret out a broader gratitude, it’s necessary to slip for a moment out of the present and edge back to the past, when a forest was green, a river ran clear, a mountain peaked in the sky. The place has given abundantly and, now that it has fallen on hard times, it can’t do what it could do before. Your gratitude, then, extends back to what was offered in the past. Or maybe it lands squarely in the present, focusing on the fact that this place has taken on a burden that other places do not have to bear: it has given its trees, it holds a landfill, it repeatedly yields as machines and explosives violate it for its minerals. Either way, the beautiful has become unbeautiful, the generous is taken advantage of, the giver exploited until it can give no more. Still the place remains, it endures, showing its persistence in those small examples of beauty that tear into your awareness and fill you with delight. So, in gratitude for what once was or what is or for what may be, you who were gifted give back.
There is another reason to give a gift to a place, and that is out of compassion. Gratitude is hard to come by in a neighborhood flattened by a tornado, a factory farm where animals suffer because their lives have no more value than raw minerals to be mined and processed for consumption. In this case, the gift is not an expression of gratitude for bounty received, but, as Lewis Hyde writes, one that “move[s] from plenty to emptiness. It seeks the barren, the arid, the stuck, the poor.” As my dawning awareness of the intricate and constantly changing essence of a place emboldens me to sit there with curiosity and patience, so this deepening sense of compassion pierces me with a yearning to make things better. I wish to stanch—if I can’t actually heal—the wound in some way that is more direct than gazing or even touching allows.
And one gift I can give to this warrior of a place is a little beauty I make right then and there on the spot. Beauty is a gift that does not require that I spend or raise money, be an expert on anything, mobilize people, or haul in a lot of supplies. I don’t even have to decide in advance what I’ll offer, because the place itself already possesses all the materials I need for the providing the gift, and I have all the skills required to reshape them. A gift of beauty from person to a place comes from the inside out. It grows with the conviction that my relationship with this place, no matter what it is or who I am, has an impact, and that I am not only capable of articulating that impact, but enhancing it through the form of my expression. My gift is whimsical, wild, temporary, imperfect, and impractical. It bespeaks what I, the giver, discover both in the place and in myself as I engage with it, remembering what it was and coming to terms with what it is.
Creating beauty in a wounded place may not be the first response in times of emergency, especially when lives are lost and homes destroyed. Then, as Mills’s skeptic insisted, it is blankets and clean water and schoolbooks that must head the list of emergency care items. Simple acts of human generosity offer another kind of comfort, no less important than material aid. For example, after Hurricane Sandy threw a blackout over a large section of New York City in 2013, restaurant owners cooked the food that was spoiling in their kitchens and served it free on the streets, and people in neighborhoods that still had electricity snaked circuit boardspower strips out the windows of their homes and onto the sidewalks, so those living in darkness could recharge their phones and computers. But after a while, as coping with the emergency becomes a way of life, acts of human ingenuity can take a different tone, focusing, as Jean Mills’s project did, less on rescuing people from the wreckage and getting them resettled, and more on finding and making beauty amidst
the wreckage. Then, simply seeing the elements of destruction reconfigured can be inspiring and meaningful. Actually taking part in the rearrangement is even better.
In the hours and days following the September 11 attacks, people throughout New York City began setting up spontaneous, collective memorials to those who had died. In parks, along the esplanade of the East River in Brooklyn Heights, in front of neighborhood shops, at the entrances to subway stations, and at apartment buildings where those who were lost had lived, the memorials sprouted and then grew with photos, candles, notes, flowers, subway tokens, stuffed animals—all manner of things. United by the terrible circumstance of their deaths, people who had never known each other in life smiled out side by side from these makeshift shrines. The shrines, in turn, united those who grieved the missing and collectively made something to honor them. Candles burned there throughout the night and were replaced by day. New Yorkers, always in a hurry, stepped reverently around them or paused before them to consider. The missing belonged to everyone and were mourned by everyone, because their absence was everywhere. The effect of these small islands of focus, part altar, part art, part memorial, was beauty. As art critic Arthur C. Danto remarked, they were “evidence for me that the need for beauty in the extreme moments of life is deeply ingrained in the human framework.” The act of making beauty awakens compassion, resilience, and creativity in the maker. It begins as a gesture for another and ennobles and empowers the maker.
These are all meaningful and impressive acts of beauty. But the kind of beauty I’m talking about here is guerrilla beauty.
That means it’s covert. Oh, it’s not as if, by making it, you’re doing anything illegal, unethical, or harmful. Far from it; guerrilla acts of beauty are meant to be legal, safe, ethical, and beneficial. I call it “guerrilla”
because it’s a way of making this beauty on the sly—spontaneously, unofficially, and impractically, the way guerrilla warriors, small bands of independent fighters, combat much larger and more organized militias. You are doing it because you are compelled to give a gift back to a place that has given much to you. You may also be motivated to do this thing in order to rebuild a community, encourage creativity in a local population, motivate people to stay true to a struggle to save or repair a place they love, raise awareness, or any one of a number of other reasons. All of them are secondary. The primary reason that you are giving beauty to a place is out of gratitude or consolation. You are a crusader who responds to a need without hesitation. You are a change-maker who needs no tools other than what you find before you. You are an artist, but, like a militant guerrilla, you do your work in an impromptu, unauthorized way. Your action may influence none or many, but you are doing it simply because you feel it has to be done.
The idea of making an anonymous act of beauty for a place came to me when I offered a ceremony for New Yorkers two months after the September 11 attacks. The event, called Attending the City, was held at Battery Park, just south of the wreckage of the World Trade Center towers. It featured songs, the reading of a poem, and tributes to both the grief and vitality of the city. Toward the end I asked each person present to choose an act of beauty they would make to the city within one week. Then I passed the microphone around, so that a few of them could share with the entire group what they planned to do. One couple said that they would go out to dinner at an Afghani restaurant in their Upper West Side neighborhood and let the owners know that they and their establishment were a valued part of the community. A woman who had written a poem about the attack on the city vowed to make copies and post the poem on walls, streetlights, and the impromptu memorials that were still being tended weeks after the calamity. Another woman would seek out an ad hoc group she had heard of that was trying to find homes for pets whose owners had been killed and would adopt a dog or cat. A man would make lasagna and deliver it to his district fire department, which had lost several men when the tower collapsed.
These were all acts of guerrilla beauty, done not for acclaim but out of compassion. They were contributions from the heart, each one different and arising from what moved the donors, what they loved, and what their own individual gifts were. They spread good will where it was needed and quite possibly inspired others, including the recipients of the gifts, to offer something of their own as a way of “paying it forward.”
When I make a gift to a place, whether it’s aural, visual, prayerful, or musical, I am only the first artist. Wind, waves, rain, sun, animals, traffic, or other humans will take over where I leave off. This gift is not meant for posterity or to boost my career. It is not about making something perfect, taking credit, signing my name, or restoring the place to its original state. It is a way, as Galway Kinnell puts it in one of his poems, to “reteach a thing its loveliness.” The practice of giving a gift of beauty to a wounded place subtly, yet fundamentally, changes my relationship with the place. How could such a seemingly simple act make such a difference? For one thing, I have tested the mettle of my own courage and found it to be strong. I have dared to touch the monster. I have realized that not only am I not dragged down into some loathsome circumstance from which I cannot escape, but that just the reverse occurs: I see the place transform, like a character in a fairy tale, from a deficient and debilitated thing to a presence that impels an expression of love that I myself am uniquely qualified to give. I discover that everything surrounding me is a potential component of the gift I’ll make. I feel empowered to act and know my act needs approval from no higher authority. I discover a sense of purpose and beauty under difficult circumstances. I cease to be an observer and become absorbed in what is before me. I say Yes
to the vulnerability and need of the other and affirm my willingness to close the distance between us. I choose to get involved.
And with my attentive presence to this encounter, I join together myself, this place, the reality of the circumstances, and my longing for renewal or reinvigoration. It is when I’ve given beauty to another that I move past what keeps me separate. To give beauty is to marry the world, outside and within.
In the Inuit tale of Skeleton Woman, a woman in the relentless pursuit of an impossible love drowns in the icy ocean. Her bones twist and drift beneath the waves. One day a fisherman feels a tug on his line and pulls it up to find not the big fish he’s anticipating but the remains of a woman. Appalled by this horrifying catch, he is first inclined to drop her back into the ocean and get rid of her. But his own pity gets the better of him and he hauls the bones into his boat, then takes them back to his snowhouse, where he carefully lays them out aright. By and by the skeleton begins to transform. Flesh swathes the bones, the features emerge. Now the fisherman undergoes a shape-shifting himself. He becomes a shaman. He takes up his drum and begins to beat it and commands the skeleton to dance. As she does so, she becomes a whole woman again, fleshy, warm-blooded, sensual. The two of them clasp hands, leap into his drum, and run off together.
The actions of the fisherman are a reminder that the beauty of the other is revealed only when we stop wishing for ugliness to disappear and accept the other for what he or she or it is. But acceptance alone is not enough. Loving the ugly back to its original beauty is a task that cannot be accomplished passively. Active
loving is necessary. It is so not only in the bones of myth but in the places where we live and love to spend time in but find torn up by industry, pollution, development, storms, and other agents. Beauty redefines the shape of what is and makes it anew. Dumping Skeleton Woman’s bones in a landfill would not do the job; it is only reconstituting her out of her own broken, scattered parts that brings her back to life—and to love. The giving of a gift of beauty completes the act.
Research shows that giving to others improves the psychological well-being of the giver at least as much as that of the recipient. “When you’re a helper, your self-concept improves,” writes Yale professor Lowell Lewin. “You are somebody. You are worthwhile. And there’s nothing more exhilarating than that.” Nipun Mehta founded Service Space, a non-profit organization devoted to the principle that people are inherently generous and that small acts of generosity can change old, addictive patterns of consumerism into new impulses to contribute. The organization’s website invites people around the world to submit stories about the effect of generosity in their lives. Mehta explains: “Giving changes the deep habit of my mind from everything being me-centered. In that brief moment, there is this other-centeredness. That other-centeredness kind of relaxes the patterns of the ego. Over time, all of those small acts, those small moments, lead to a different state of being where, ultimately, presumably, it just becomes effortless. It becomes who you are.”
When I give to a wounded place, I, the giver, recognize myself as someone capable of providing a boon for another and, at the same time, I see my recipient as one worthy of receiving that gift. The value of each rises, in my perception. And, as Hyde notes, it becomes harder to ignore, trash, shun, or otherwise treat carelessly that with which I have formed such a compact.
Something miraculous happens when I dare to love the unbeautiful: it becomes beautiful. The miracle happens again and again in fairy tales: the girl kisses the frog, the shaman lays out a dead woman’s bones and carefully puts them right, the good daughter offers water to the toothless old woman she meets at the well. Through this act of generosity, not only is the ugly itself transformed, but the giver of the beauty also undergoes a change. She falls in love, he wins the kingdom, pearls and jewels pour from her lips. The message is timeless. Kinde Nebeker of Salt Lake City has experimented with the practice of making gifts to several locations. On one occasion she and four friends sought out a vacant lot at the edge of the city, where they made a large heart out of stones. A few days later, driving past the quarry on her way home, Kinde wrote, “I saw
this place that I’d never seen before, and waved a loving ‘hello.’”