Midsummer. Mid-afternoon. Lounging outside under the trees. After several days of sweltering heat and humidity, cooler air fans deliciously across my skin. Cicadas zing, blue jay nestlings wheeze like an infant’s toy cushion, a squirrel slithers and leaps from branch to branch. Above, fairy tale cumulus sail across the smooth sea of sky. Our country road is quiet this afternoon, with only the occasional vehicle passing by.
Sixty-foot trees surround me – maple, oak, ash and basswood. Their branches sway gracefully in the wind; their leaves rustle and shush; dappled light plays over my notebook. I lean back in the lawn chair and give myself over to the delight of the moment.
A part of my mind harangues, “How can you bask here, in comfortable privilege, when so many are suffering?” Undeniably true. Injustice and hardship plague people and nations, even more so, it seems, in the harsh realities of the current global pandemic. I understand that the efforts I make to help others will never be enough. At the same time, my soul cannot help but glory in the overwhelming beauty of this world, and I want – no, I need – to drink it in.
In a fierce, provocative poem called A Brief for the Defense, poet Jack Gilbert straddles the horns of this dilemma. “We must risk delight,” he insists. “To make injustice the only/ measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” Strong and uncomfortable words that ask me to embrace the ‘and’ of the world; as Rilke says “Let everything into you: Beauty and Terror.” Gilbert counsels us to have “the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless/ furnace of the world” and I take that injunction seriously. Otherwise, I fall victim to the ‘either/or’ mentality that keeps me separate from my very nature, and in fact, divides me from other human beings.
Right here, right now, this exquisite afternoon blooms with grace, and my heart responds with sheer delight and immense gratitude.
A Brief for the Defense
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the important of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of the world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
~ Jack Gilbert