Generosity

At Edwards Gardens in Toronto, there is a gazebo or ha-ha or folly, a very nice covered area with wood ceiling and stone floor and seating, with some wood benches besides. When I step down from this, situated at the top of a former pit, toward the beautiful gardens below, I am greeted with several stopping points, large enough to gather several people, not just one-only routes.

In the first photo, see that I can step off directly onto the lawn (right); or step to the left and take a stair down, from which I can turn right onto the lawn, or left toward a patio; or more sharply left onto another stone from which I can step down to the patio. If I do the last, I can step toward the stone wall/seat, or to the left around it, to the patio.

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This second photo shows the patio, and I note that people can approach it from steps opposite; also that I can remain on the patio, or exit on the other side of the wall/seat toward the lawn.

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The next photo shows the view from the patio, demonstrating all the possible entrances other than the one behind.

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This final photo shows the rest of the patio. I often think of this when situations seem very tight, choices too limited, and life seems constricted. The sheer number of choices in this structure inspire me with their generosity.

Not for this structure the limited choice, the most direct route, the confined route, nor anything else to suggest that I must take one route only and have one destination only, nor even that I must depart quickly. There are places to hang around.

The very image of generosity! I call it to mind often, because the image helps me remember all the qualities of generosity.

One wonders why this was constructed this way. The seat/wall I see while descending is a question in itself. Why is it there at all? In case more seating is needed? As a deliberate marker to indicate the choices, emphasizing the generosity? Both? It would easy to regard it as unnecessary, or inefficient, or even superfluous. But it emphasizes the generosity in the plan in that it adds to the choices. Think about that – adding to the choices to emphasize the generosity, while at the same time inviting me to pause and consider the possible directions and actions – find a destination and head that way? Consider and reconsider whether to go anywhere just at this moment? The extra decision encourages pause, loitering rather than or in addition to bimbling (wandering aimlessly but joyfully, which is quite different from bumbling which suggests confused wandering).

It cannot possibly be that all these qualities were not intended in the layout. Building it required much more work than if fewer choices were intended. But that makes sense, doesn’t it – generosity requires work; it is not easily provided. But the benefits accrue to untold numbers of people; and because it is constructed well, they accrue for a long time.

Here, then, is a guiding quality for purpose in one’s life: be generous in a way that requires great planning and work on your part, so that it may benefit many people, and last a long time.

While not expressed in terms of generosity as such, these may also be the lessons of David Edwards’ Creating Things that Matter, David Brooks’ The Second Mountain, and Alexander Langlands’ Craeft: an Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Craft.

This last book, additionally, brings a very singular understanding of resilience, perhaps a bit impractical for our times, but a principle to be kept in one’s thoughts. He advocates that we understand how things were done in earlier times, particularly because so many of them – making pottery from clays, digging salt-based water pits where rain cannot be expected, keeping oxen around to plow. His thesis is: what if we no longer had cement, exhausted our supply of fuel for tractors, could not import grass seeds from other places, did not know how to build stone fences, how to make leather implements, how to gather and benefit from wool, etc.? It would be good to maintain the knowledge of how these things have been done in the past so that, should our technology fail and computers fail, we would still know how to do necessary things, including constructing needed tools. That kind of resilience. Keeping the knowledge needed for resilience, would be a supreme act of generosity, even though it would seem inefficient and not particularly purposeful.

We may think that such questions of resilience are too remote, but consider the movement to eliminate kitchen stoves from domiciles https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-are-kitchen-stoves-going-the-way-of-the-sewing-machine/. If people become unaccustomed to cooking, what to do during a disaster, when commercial establishments may be out of order, or delivery services incapacitated? There are some skills which are so basic to survival that they should be preserved.

The same article mentions the near total absence of sewing machines. If none of us knows how to sew, even the most rudimentary things such as repairing a tear, or sewing on buttons, we have no resilience in the face of some of the most common domestic problems.

Very practical and important skills, even though thought of as art, will be lost. As pastor of a church, I recognized that the women’s group had many proficient crafters and quilters, but they were getting on. I encouraged them to try to attract younger women, to be able to pass on these artistic and practical skills to the next generations. No takers. That loss will be felt.

A conversation among grand-parent age people last night included much lamenting about their progenies’ lack of interest in even fine furniture. What if we came to a time when mass-produced furniture was no longer available? We need the resilience of not only appreciating fine crafted furniture, but even the more simple crafts of mission furniture. I don’t know that we need go nuts over the loss of the sense of quality, because some of that is as much mythological as actual – Chippendale was not necessarily as distinct a style as many suppose. People could order furniture assembled from pre-made pieces, and it could even be shipped for assembly in the home (see Witold Rybczinski’s Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History). Who knew? But to not know how to make the basics, could be quite devastating.

What is the connection between generosity and resilience in this case? As one who uses only hand tools in wood working, I now that one must be generous in estimates of wood needed, and estimates of time needed. Patience for glues to work, stains to get to just the right level, preservatives and paints to dry sufficiently, is needed in generous portions. Likewise the time needed for proper smoothing of the pieces, and also time to sharpen and otherwise care for the tools. One must be generous with time, which is patience, in order to be resilient.

This connection between generosity of time and resilience can be seen also in physical and emotional healing – often it takes time and avoiding some activities and worries, to heal – sometime generosity with time is the only form of resilience.

One other aspect of generosity, which is so unexpected, is surprise. As a parish clergy, I kept around the church a steady supply of food. People were asked to donate packages of food sufficient for a healthy meal for a family of four. These were left by the front door. People in need would stop in the office to ask for help, and were directed to the piles. We explained how things were bagged together. We did not usually accompany them – sometimes people felt ashamed of their circumstance and really wanted just to get some stuff and leave with as little contact as possible. (Others, of course, needed to talk with someone who could bear witness to their lives and their stories, and we would do that.)

Sometimes they would come back to my office to ask if were OK to select from things in the bags rather than take everything there because of allergies or personal preferences. Of course that was OK. At the end of the day we would inventory and repackage if necessary.

But sometimes they would come back to the office, holding far fewer things than were in a package, to ask whether they could two cans of something, not realizing yet that the entire package (or more) was available. I answered that they should take however much and whatever would be useful, because their ability to carry much might be limited, or their wherewithal to cook some things might be limited. I could see on their faces that it was difficult to accept, to realize, that we were being generous – this was a surprising experience for them. We were not editing their choices; we were not supervising them. We did not treat them as untrustworthy people. The only time one of us would accompany them to the deposits was if we suspected they had cognitive limitations, and might actually need help in making selections, and in deciding whether they could prepare or these foods at “home,” whatever that might be.

So also with money handouts. We never gave cash, because I didn’t want the secretary fearful that if someone came asking for cash and she hadn’t any, she might be disbelieved and threatened. Word gets around, and if you’re consistently not giving cash, the people who come to your door know that. We gave out cheques, and instructed people that they go to our bank because they would not be charged for the service. They needed only an ID (although sometimes the bank would phone to confirm. (We had a wonderful bank – I never heard anyone complain that they had been treated with condescension or prejudice, no matter how smelly or dirty they might be.) When they asked for money, I would ask how much would be useful, and sometimes had to recommend they accept more than they were asking, because they might not have correctly estimated the cost of getting somewhere. People frequently declined the suggested amount – couldn’t be comfortable with the apparent generosity.

Generosity is not always accepted, perhaps because of disbelief, or pride. The theological qualities of this, whether people can accept or believe in divine generosity are obvious, and worth reconsidering.

You can see where informed consent comes in. It is the judgement we exercise when deciding whether to believe that generosity is being extended, and in whether to accept it.

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