There are thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one striking at the root.
~Henry David Thoreau
I just spent a long day deconstructing our backyard. EJ sold his alpacas, and so our fenced in pasture and barn can now return to its suburban origins as a shed and a yard. The good fence posts and wire we saved to give to another kid’s dreams or another man or woman’s backyard farm. Some friends stopped by and said I could probably get “good money” for those posts and wire, but I gather I’d get a better bargain giving them away and practice a poor man’s philanthropy. Maybe someone will etch my name in a cedar fencepost like they might a school lobby or a hospital wing, and someday those posts will get thrown in some early spring fire and a warm soul might think, “Who the hell is John Fitz?” and maybe someone will remember the backyard farmer in Maynard who gave away a few fence posts and a couple hundred feet of livestock fencing.
I guess you go to give what you got and not make a big deal of it. The other day I drove up to New Hampshire to move our old bus out of the camp. I didn’t quite trust it to make the 100 mile trip back home, so I planned to store it at a campground up the road and deal with it in the spring. I wasn’t eager though to pay the three hundred dollar storage fee. As I pulled out of the tote road and on to the main road, a local logger, Pat Hines, stopped and asked me what was up. After I told him, he barely hesitated and said, “Hell, don’t pay three hundred. Park it at my place and spend the three hundred a better way.” So I eased the 1978 Wanderlodge into his side yard about thirty seconds down the road. He smiled and said, “Looks good to me. See you in the spring.”
There is a fallacy surrounding philanthropy. Few people would venture that Pat Hines is a noted philanthropist. We might mistake Pat’s magnanimity as being simply a good deed, kind gesture, or a random act of kindness–but we don’t call it philanthropy. It made me wonder at what point in giving is something philanthropic? It made me think of the hoopla surrounding the benefactor of our new school library. I know him well enough to know that I doubt he really cared that his name was going on the new library, but we put on quite a show to show our thankfulness. In my mind, Pat’s gesture was an equal if not greater act of philanthropy because the gift was as spontaneous and real as any I’ve ever seen. His extra space on the side of the yard is really no different than the extra block of stock some financier might own.
Working in a private school my very living is, in many ways, dependent on the large scale giving of donors to the school, and I do appreciate when the wealthy share their wealth, but there is a part of me that wants the words of the Gospel to ring true in practice and have us not let the right hand know what the left hand is doing. Hardly a day goes by in school where we are not recognizing some group or individual for their gifts of charity, money, time, or donations as if goodness can or should be measured on such a scale.
When our son Pipo first came from Haiti, he joined me at a benefit concert at Gaining Ground, a small farm that grows food for the poor. When I explained to him the purpose of the farm, he simply asked, “Why don’t they just give the farm to the poor?” and that is the problem: we simply cannot and will not strike at the root of our problems. As along as we love our “stuff,” there is going to be great disparity, which requires philanthropy to right the ship of society lest it capsize and sink. In that sense, philanthropy is the antithesis of its intent. It is a means to survival and perpetuation of the status quo.
As often happens, I digress….I started out just wanting to thank Pat for letting me put the bus in his yard for the winter, and I just want to be sure that somehow, in some way, the small gifts of everyday philanthropy can somehow gain an equal rank and an equal praise in a common time and be recognized as benefactors and philanthropists.
I barely know Pat Hines, save to wave at him when he’s skidding timber out of his woodlot, but we have mutual friends and I know his kids and that was good enough for him. It is a simple formula.
And good enough for me.