Whether it be birthdays, baptisms, holidays, or anniversaries, gift-giving is an inherently present aspect of our lives. One does not need much, if anything at all, to offer a gift to someone else. It can come in the form of a token, a compliment, a favor, or even something as simple as a smile.
A few years ago, I received what became a particularly special gift. It was a small, brown moleskine journal. My brother had given it to me as a parting gift before I set off for two years as a literacy instructor with the Peace Corps.
At first, I didn’t know exactly what to do with it. I already had a hardcover journal I had been using to document the musings and happenings of my life (a habit that has admittedly declined over the years). Yet, on the warm, humid afternoons after a long school day in my host country of Grenada, I began the process of integrating a once-familiar activity back into my life.
Burdened by the stresses of textbooks, exams, and word counts as a young Professional Writing major, my college years saw me take a step back from reading leisurely. When all of my working hours consisted of reading and writing, it’s not surprising that the last thing I wanted to do was the very same thing in the little spare time I had.
But after graduating college and joining the professional workforce as a literacy instructor, I began revisiting reading as a hobby. As I’m sure many people would agree, reading is unique in the variety of purposes it can serve; whether it be as a form of entertainment, information, or instruction, reading can suit just about any and every need one might have.
So what started as a steady series of beaten and worn books found on the shelves of a small island library, has now blossomed into a borderline addiction to hardcovers, paperbacks, e-readers, and audiobooks. As the number of books I read began to climb, the floodgates that is the pursuit of knowledge and perspectives became reopened. With this, I discovered a purpose for my moleskine journal.
Each time an author I’m reading shares something particularly insightful – I write it down.
By jotting down a simple phrase or statement, it allows me to revisit an especially thought-provoking moment upon which I can invite my future self to reflect on further. In the years since I’ve implemented this practice, I’ve realized that some books are chock-full of these nuggets of wisdom, others not so much.
Recently, I just finished a book that left me opening my moleskine again and again. The author’s writing style was strikingly visual as much as it was beautiful. Her insights were tremendously deep, deriving from the love for the world that she so clearly carries in the depths of her soul.
A part of me firmly believes I was meant to have read this book at this particular moment in my life. I was recently laid off from my job in Columbus, the one for which I left my previous position in Washington, D.C. While I’m not quite ready to unpack this recent development just yet, I am excited about the prospects of what might come next in both my life and my career.
In light of this, I’d like to share some of the insights offered by Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass. An avid botanist and university professor, she’s also a member of the Potawatomi tribe traditionally based in the Great Lakes region. Part-memoir, part educational text, her book is a beautiful tribute to the living world around us. It reflects on what’s been lost, what’s been gained, and all that is truly important in between.
A significant theme, I found, throughout her book is the concept of gifts and what it means to both give and receive them.
Gift-giving has become so ingrained in our life, traditions, and culture that it’s become easy to take for granted. So as I reflected more and more upon this theme throughout Braiding Sweetgrass, I felt compelled to share some of Kimmerer’s insights, as well as some of my responses to them, with you today.
“A gift creates an ongoing relationship…The more it is shared, the greater its value becomes.”
My reaction to this quote is two-fold.
On one hand, this statement seems entirely contrary to how we’ve internalized what it means to receive a gift. In many ways we’ve come to think of giving and receiving gifts as more transactional in nature.
As a child, I remember begrudgingly writing ‘thank you’ notes after birthdays and special occasions during which I received a gift. I was always sure to say “thank you,” upon receiving the gift, but my young mind didn’t grasp the relevance of repeating my thanks through the gesture of a card. This may stem from the idea that after a gift is given and an expression of gratitude is returned by the recipient, that serves as the end of the transaction. The score is settled and all party contributions are considered final.
But what if the true meaning of gifts goes beyond this initial transaction, much like Kimmerer suggests? This is the other side of gift-giving, often demonstrated in the traditions and tokens passed down through generations. These keepsakes serve as a modern day reminder that not only have there been others before us, but also that they, too, lived and loved. The act of living and loving will carry on throughout posterity. In this way, Kimmerer is right in that the more a gift is shared, the greater its value truly becomes.
“We are showered every day with gifts, but they are not meant for us to keep. Their life is in their movement – the inhale and the exhale of one shared breath. Our work and our joy is to pass along the gift and to trust that what we put out into the universe will always come back.”
A little anecdote:
It was a sunny but brisk, early spring day the other week when I parked on a quiet little side street. As I turned off the ignition and stepped out of the car, something unusual caught my attention.
Cast askew on the grassy tree lawn was an off-white teddy bear, complete with a red and blue checkered bow tie. I glanced around curiously to see where it could have come from, when I noticed I was parked in front of a daycare center. Evidently a child, excited about the prospect of returning home with their parent or caretaker after an engaging day at school, unknowingly must have dropped their bear when getting into the vehicle.
I knew it was forecasted to rain overnight, so I walked over and picked up the small bear. It bore the evidence of love, its nose worn down and bow tie beginning to tatter. Looking around and seeing no one in sight, I decided to walk it to the front door of the daycare center and set it under its overhanging canopy. At least there, with a soft smile as it sat propped up against the door, it would remain dry and ready as it patiently waited for its child to return the next day.
I share this now not in some sort of posturing of altruism or virtue signaling, but simply for the fact that over the past few years, much like many of us do, I have been consumed with my own self-preservation and financial survival in a capitalistic world. The never-ending pursuit of a career, and the promise of comfort that financial security offers, has certainly taken away from my inclination toward random acts of goodwill in this world. This particular moment, however, was one instance in recent memory that I can recall doing something kind, for someone I don’t even know, for no particular reason other than it was right thing to do.
The lesson I’ve taken away from this is that it serves as a simple example of putting goodwill out into the world. While I’m not quite sure this gesture has been or will be reciprocated, I don’t exactly expect it to – for that’s not the point. The point is that the child can cherish their relationship with their teddy bear for at least one more day, preserving the sanctity of their childhood just a little while longer.
“Leaders are the first to offer their gifts. It reminds the whole community that leadership is rooted, not in power and authority, but in service and wisdom.”
There’s a lot that I would like to share in response to this statement, particularly given today’s political climate. However, for the time being, I’ll choose instead to let this one simply speak for itself.
“It is our uniquely human gift to express thanks because we have the awareness and the collective memory to remember that the world can well be otherwise, less generous than it is.”
This brings to mind another anecdote I’d like to share.
To put it simply: a few weeks ago I had a rough day at work. Afterwards, I was on my way to a prearranged happy hour when I pulled to a stop off a freeway exit near downtown Columbus. A middle-aged woman stood on the corner, enthusiastically waving to the traffic approaching and passing through the intersection. Her enthusiasm was striking, particularly considering the desperate message of need so clearly scrawled in black marker on the cardboard sign she was holding.
A few days prior to this, I had sold a few items to a local pawn shop. I had done this in the name of ‘spring-cleaning,’ getting rid of a few things that served little use for me anymore. Consequently, that also meant that for once, I actually had some cash on-hand.
So I rolled down the windows and waved her over.
“Good afternoon! What’s your name?” I asked.
“Hi, I’m Lisa.”
“Nice to meet you Lisa, I’m Scott. And here – I hope this helps,” I responded, sliding two folded bills into her hand.
As this transaction took place, the light turned green and my attention obliged accordingly. As I turned back to wish her good luck, a flash of surprise glanced across her face as she looked up at me.
“Oh, God bless you. Have a great day!” She exclaimed, almost awestruck.
I wished her well and drove off.
Moments before meeting Lisa, I was filled with frustration and resentment about the horrible day I was having. But while I was having a bad one, her presence was a solemn reminder that it could always be worse. There’s so much support that I am fortunate to have, structures in place that enable me to be a little less burdened with the true gravity of life each and every day.
While I could always use a little extra cash on-hand, Lord knows she needed it. More importantly, however, she needed a reason to have a good day, more than I did.
The world can be a cold and callous place. It’s our obligation to do what we can to make the good outweigh the bad.
I hope she’s having a better day today, wherever she is.
“Writing is an act of reciprocity with the world. It is what I can give back in return for everything that has been given to me.”
As a fellow writer, I felt this one deeply. If life didn’t always get in the way, I truly feel like I would write every single day. But when you make a career out of a skill set that also serves as a hobby of interest, it’s hard to devote leisurely time to a working craft.
Yet, that might precisely be the point. I’m compelled to acknowledge that I’ve been given a gift: the ability to write. Throughout my life, the world has been so open and generous to me. I’ve been beyond blessed with friends, family, and seemingly endless adventure. It’s why I feel somewhat obligated to share my experiences on a platform like this blog, even if it’s frequency has become more and more intermittent over time.
Then again, maybe that’s what this recent lay-off is trying to teach me. It’s creating an opportunity to apply my gift to something more meaningful, a means through which I can provide a greater contribution to the world.
I look forward to exploring this facet of my life further.
“Isn’t this the purpose of education? To learn the nature of your own gifts and how to use them for good in the world?” / “Imagination is one of our most powerful tools…What we imagine, we can become.”
These two excerpts go out to all the teachers out there that unlock the power of dreams in students across the world each and every day.
“If there is meaning in the past, and in the imagined future, it is captured in the moment. When you have all the time in the world, you can spend it not on going somewhere, but on being where you are.”
Those of you who have followed the trajectory of this blog, know that my story has largely been about my going somewhere. As much as writing on this platform has served as an outlet and coping mechanism for me during times of stress, I also openly admit that escaping to some exotic or new destination has also served as a means of distracting myself from difficulty or times of strife. It’s also evidence of the fact that I’ve always been blessed to be in a position where I can pursue greener pastures during times like this.
In my last post, I expressed the conflicting feelings I experienced in the few months since returning home to Ohio.
There continues to be days where I still want to chase those dreams of new places, people, and experiences. But for the day I can simply remain content to be where I am, despite having all the time in the world, is the day that I truly most look forward to.
If you took the time to read this, thank you for allowing me to use a gift given to me, to pass forward my gift to you.
If you’re interested in reading Braiding Sweetgrass, I cannot recommend it enough.