To my family and friends,

As I packed up my things to move, the idea of “giving” came up more times than I could ignore:

  1. Most obviously, I was reading The Gift by Lewis Hyde, which relates giving to art (e.g. someone is “gifted” or “gives themselves” to their work). It got me to start thinking about my life in these terms.
  2. During an interview of a Zen teacher: “It’s like love to find that this nothing is producing everything, generating everything — infinite generosity.”
  3. I opened up an audiobook (Consolations) that I’d set aside for months. It resumed at a chapter called “Giving.”

This all culminated on the day before Thanksgiving, as I donated my loose ends. I watched the volunteers scurrying around, with barely enough time to look me in the eye and smile, wish me happy holidays. I drove away from each place feeling heavy with an unfamiliar emotion.

It seemed like the world was asking me, personally, “What have you been hoarding?”

Gifts need to move through you, as Hyde points out. No matter where you go, gifts are to consume (especially food, the original gift) and to inspire further giving, not to trade or to twist for your own benefit. When people sacrificed and spilt blood back into the earth, they were saying exactly this: Everything that sustains us is given by God. We use and we give back.

I never thought of good gift giving as an essential virtue. But symbolic acts are powerful, and rejecting gift giving made me prone to making things that never see the light, prone to aloofness and refusing to give myself. Everything that matters is a gift. Life itself is a gift.

My time in Hawaii is ending. In a small way, I feel deathbed syndrome. I almost couldn’t look people in the eye as I donated my things. I’ve been receiving this place’s generosity and giving nothing in return. But as on a deathbed, I can see clearly why this time in my life came into being. (The magic of writing is that you can die all the time without leaving anything on the table.)

If you’re receiving this, you’re a gift to me. And by thanking you, I mean that I promise to keep the spirit moving.



P.S. This quote from Consolations might help you think about Christmas gifts:

The perfect gift may be tiny and inexpensive, but accompanied by a note that moves the recipient; it can be enormous, extravagant and jaw dropping as a courageous act of flamboyance and devil-may-care love, but to give appropriately, always involves a tiny act of courage, a step of coming to meet, of saying I see you, and appreciate you and am also making an implicit promise for the future. Little wonder then that the holiday giving that is none of these, that is automatic, chore-based, walking round the mall-based, exhausts us, debilitates us, and in the end is quite often subtly insulting to the one whom we eventually give the random item.

Nov 2021