Living & writing in a gift economy

by Kristin on January 10, 2013

in Love, family & community

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?

* * * * *

“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?

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  • Bethany Suckrow

    This sort of reminds me of the Parable of the Talents, which our pastor preached on this past weekend. If we keep what is given to us for ourselves and hide it from the world, what good does it do us, our community, or the Master that gave it to us? I think it applies to our finances and physical possessions, but it also to our gifts and skills, too.

    Thanks for this, Kristin. It was so thought provoking!

    • kt_writes

      Yes! It’s very much about that, although too often I think we tend to only consider that parable in terms of money, which really limits its meaning. And too often I categorize my work in terms of money—the writing that pays and the writing that doesn’t. I guess that’s why this “gift economy” concept is so important for me. :)

  • Robert Hays

    Thanks for filling us in on what we missed! I had hoped to attend this discussion, but wasn’t able to. This is an intriguing philosophy and one that I’ll give a great deal of thought to.

    • kt_writes

      I’m glad I was able to share the gift Amy shared with me! I’ll be giving it a great deal more thought, too. It isn’t one of those things that you just *get*—it’s a paradigm shift, so it requires some practice and testing and experimenting along the way.

  • Addie Zierman

    Beautiful reflection.

    • kt_writes

      Thank you, Addie!

  • Jennifer Luitwieler

    Oh, this is lovely and challenging. Gift economies. Here in America, we are about clutching tightly to that which has been given, like Golam in LOTR. Precious. We laugh about re gifting. But these islands seem to understand something we don’t. We don’t own anything, and we can’t hold a memory. Still, I do love a few little worn items that belonged to my babies when they were babies.

    • kt_writes

      Ahhh, yes we are like Golam! What a good reference to pull into this discussion.

      I have definitely kept some of our favorite toys and books, though, to someday “gift them along” to potential grandchildren. I really loved watching my girls play with my dolls and other favorite toys during visits to my parents. That seems to be a type of nostalgia that’s going somewhere, moving forward.

  • Lisa Colon DeLay

    Loved reading this.

    It reminds me of how writing, and really creating any art, is so much like gestation and birth, followed by giving up…for a greater and better purpose…the mature individual that came from you.

    My son is almost 13 and I’m starting to see how the process works, the down fluff changing to functional feathers to fly off one day to seek his own adventures and vocation.

    Writing “being pregnant with book” as C.S. Lewis called it…is this long something painful process to birth and that giving it as a gift, and separating ourselves from it too, as you properly would with genuine giving.

    Great stuff to ponder.
    thank you for this gift, Kristin.

  • Ed_Cyzewski

    My mind is blown apart by that concept of a gift. That’s so helpful and it undermines our cultures individual obsession with accumulation that I can’t help but find so compelling at times. Ack!

  • Pratik Patel

    i think this will be useful to you!!