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On Gifting

My little country church has a lovely quirk. Like all quirks, for some it is akin to an annoying bird that won't stop pecking at the window, for others it is bird song in the morning--gratitude for an abundant supply of Good Things.

The quirk is our list-serve. We have the Mother of All List-Serves. People ask to borrow crutches, to redeem turkey carcasses after Thanksgiving (for stewing), to gather bits of forlorn elastic at the bottom of dusty sewing kits to make COVID masks. We borrow pick-up trucks and power tools. Offer up tables and beds, an apple cider press (!), and a calendar of outhouses (which one member of the family liked and another most decidedly did not). We hire each other to help with yard work, gardening, animal care, and house-sitting. We ask and give recommendations for plumbers and electricians and jacks-of-all-trades and discover we have people in our midst gifted in plumber-ing and electrician-ing and all sorts of trades.

A day rarely goes by that someone doesn't post something. So yes--the abundance of emails could feel like an annoying bird--beautiful, but persistently demanding of attention. Or, like abundance of Good Things.

Participants in this gifting and receiving get woven together--threads of time and consumables and non-consumables and experiences that create a sense of belonging. And maybe also a sense of obligation and expectation because membership is like that.

Hold that thread.

After the fifth recommendation I'm finally reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Maybe because I greet trees and welcome and bless plants as I put them in the ground friends thought I would resonate with the Indigenous wisdom in these pages, where pecan trees and wild strawberry plants become our teachers.

Yesterday I read about the gift of wild strawberries (we are just now savoring cultivated ones in our gardens). Kimmerer says wild strawberries fit the definition of a gift but grocery strawberries do not. It's the relationship between the producer and the consumer that changes everything. A Native understanding of a gift economy does not see these gifts as actually free. The receiving of a gift creates obligations, a set of relationships, some expectation of reciprocity. So when we humans see what we take from Earth as a gift, our relationship to animals and plants changes, and we live with gratitude and respect for the gift giver. In a market economy we pay for what we take, and since we have paid, we have met our obligation. No relationship gets forged. Something is broken, Kimmerer says, when food comes on a Styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic, a carcass of a being whose only chance at life was a cramped cage. That is not a gift of life; it is a theft.

She goes on to compare a market economy based on personal property and ownership with a gift economy and says:

"One of these stories sustains the living systems on which we depend. One of these stories opens the way to living in gratitude and amazement at the richness and generosity of the world. One of these stories asks us to bestow our own gifts in kind, to celebrate our kinship with the world. We can choose. If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow. When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become."

How can we find our way back, Kimmerer asks, to understanding the earth as a gift again, and to make our relations with it sacred again? Her encouragement is to refuse to participate in a personal property market economy by not buying things taken disrespectfully. For instance, to refuse to buy food when grown in ways that deplete and poison the soil, or eggs, milk and the flesh of animals treated like a commodity rather than fellow creatures with desires like ours to flourish.

Pick up that first thread again now, and wonder with me if there might be ways to weave a conversation about personal choices we make in the grocery store with choices we make about forging giving communities. What happens when we are willing to borrow instead of buy, to loan what is asked for, and offer up what we no long needed? What comes of stretching ourselves (those of us inclined to go it alone), to ask for help, to take what is offered?

Before COVID a table outside our church held people's extras from their gardens--plants, fruits, vegetables, and bread someone picked up as day old excess from a bakery. Because these gifts are offered as such, people take only some, seemingly not tempted to hoard or take more than needed just because "the price is right." We treat gifts that way--taking what we can use, leaving plenty for others.

What would shift if we always took--in all our habits of consumption--only what we needed, and that with deep gratitude and respect as though it were a gift? What would shift if we saw in the taking an obligation to find a way to give something back?

Yesterday Paul came and picked up a patio set that we were ready to re-home. As a result of that, on Saturday he and Miriam are coming over to sit outside to visit after wandering around to see what grows at Fern Creek. We hired Miriam years ago to create a plan for landscaping Fern Creek. Her plan gave us the oomph we needed to create a haven that welcomes all sorts of creatures--tiny ones and human ones, some anchored to the ground, many flitting about.

We've not had Miriam back in the dozen years since we gave her plans life. It's time. Who knows what else might emerge from weaving gifts given and received?


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