My daughters decided last week they wanted to switch bedrooms. It seemed like a good New Year’s change for both of them, in different ways: One wanted a change of scene and space for a bigger bed; the other needed incentive to sort and purge—to make a fresh start.
I dreaded the process—you can’t begin to imagine how much STUFF they have—but I said “yes,” so they got to work last Friday, packing things up.
My two girls are very different. For Q (14), sorting and organizing is a game, a hobby, a sport she excels at. Q dives into the challenge, relishing in how many bags of useless clutter she can line up in the hallway to take to Goodwill or the garbage can. For S, the process is an overwhelming journey, following multiple rabbit trails into lands of distraction and revelry.
By Saturday I was in the thick of it with them, first helping Q who had abandoned her own work to coach S along, then sorting through the boxes of clothes and books and treasures they no longer wanted in their rooms. Some things were clearly destined for the garbage, while others were clearly destined for the thrift store. Then there were those in-between items—books and toys with sentimental value, that I couldn’t quite bear to part with. Should we keep them, packed away for future grandchildren? Should we give them to friends with kids who can use and enjoy them now?
In some cases, the sentimental value had more to do with who had given the girls these gifts than with the objects themselves. What should we do, for instance, with the life-sized Golden Retriever stuffed animal my parents bought for dog-crazy Q years ago, to hold her over until we were ready for a real dog? What about the embroidered fairy purse sent from a friend in England? Or the children’s microscope, carefully chosen for S by relatives who knew exactly what fascinated her—when she was seven? I love the gifts, I love what they represent—the stories they tell about my children—and I love the givers. But does that love require holding on to the objects?
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“The Writing Life and the Gift Economy”
Just the title of the talk, with its intriguing combination of so many important words, made my mind buzz.
The speaker was Amy Hassinger, a novelist and acquaintance of mine who was basing much of her talk on a book by Lewis Hyde: The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.
“Gift economies are marked by circulation and connectivity,” Amy said, as I settled into a chair in the library’s community room. “They create important bonds.”
She showed diagrams of “gift cycles” between island tribes in the Massim region (which includes New Guinea). Givers traveled great distances by canoe to present gifts to neighboring tribes—not as a trade or barter, but as a true gift. The gifts were always eventually passed on, in the form of a gift to the next tribe, the next island, in the cycle. While European and American culture thinks of a gift as something permanent—once it’s given to you, it’s your property—these aboriginal cultures see gifts in an entirely opposite way: If you claim something as yours, to keep indefinitely, it looses all value. The only value is in the giving and sharing cycle—in that connectivity.
And “Where there is no gift, there is no art,” Hyde writes. That’s why writing is a gift cycle.
As soon as I started thinking through the idea of writing and reading—and blogging and idea sharing and even love!—as parts of a gift cycle, I began to feel a sense of freedom and lightness where I had often felt pressure and frustration. We are given so many gifts: the gift of knowing how to put words or notes or flavors together; gifts of friendship and conversation, of ideas spoken and written by others; gifts of creativity and time, love and grace. In many ways, those gifts are not so different from the tangible gifts we may have received at Christmas—this year or years ago, like my daughter’s life-sized stuffed dog. They are all gifts that say something about the giver and the receiver, that tell stories of relationships, priorities, and what matters to us most.
But the gifts do not gain value the longer and tighter we cling to them. They only grow in worth when we send them back out into the world. Does that sound as freeing to you as it does to me?
How will you participate in the gift economy this year?