Listen to this blog on SoundCloud here
“The only essential is this: the gift must always move. There are other forms of property that stand still, that mark a boundary or resist momentum, but the gift keeps going. “
The Gift, Lewis Hyde
I had a Gifting Day yesterday. Gifting in the broad sense; as you no doubt suspect, I am not about to give anyone advice on the specifics. Gifting just happens to be one of those human activities that I have worked with for a while, because my society is kinda ignoring what’s going on behind the gifting scene. And there’s a ton going on.
Gifting Day consisted mostly of thrift store shopping for gifts. Anyone who knows me, also knows I am a big fan of thrift stores. I get my clothes almost exclusively from there. Here’s one good reason; one never knows what they will find. Pair that with the element of super-cheap, and we automatically edge our way into gifting territory. Oh gosh! I just found a Russian lacquerware jewelry box for 25 cents! Oh man! I just got an Irish wool cableknit sweater for $2! And etc. That kind of action feels like my birthday!
So when I find gifts for others at a thrift store I get a double layer effect; I am gifted gifts. We can add the fact that the items I found were gifted to the store, and that most of my thrift stores are charity organizations, like Catholic St. Vincent de Paul stores. The money I exchange for the gifts will then be gifted in some form to the needy.
The surprise aspect, that never-know-what one-will-find, is very much why we wrap presents, keep them secret, hide them; so there will be this revelation, this moment when the universe has seen fit to express itself as “I know you, I love you, and I want to feel your delight.” Surprises, like a magic trick or a good joke, hit us on the soul level, before the mind can step in and analyze the situation and figure out how maybe it’s not so great, after all. This lovely dramatic moment is a space where the heart and soul are tricked into receiving on a deeper level, below the level of “stuff”, of the mundane or materialistic, the level where the Divine doesn’t know we are here.
Life is ideally full of these little surprises. Gaia is good at them. The gifts of beauty and bounty and knowledge facilitated by loving relationship with Erda’s realm are perhaps the epitome of gifting; a dynamic, ongoing exchange of creative resources that serves, and signifies, loving connection. In that regard, gifting is alchemically and therefore archetypally, feminine. Its framework and its raison d’etre is connection; the archetypal feminine is connecting. The masculine steps away and observes, separates, and so can watch, learn, and objectify. In my society, so malecentric and air element dominant, my cohort of liberal white middle class Christianized Americans often believe that Christmas, that season of gifting, is really just a materialistic shit show.
I feel very strongly on this matter, for this materialistic interp of gifting is actually an example of how we have been conditioned into inhabiting archetypal masculine disconnect. If you think it’s awesome to be disconnected, read no further. I can no wise address all of the tangents and ramifications of gifting in a blog. Our conditioning has complicated this subject to the point where I could write a book about it- or maybe two! I do hope to get you thinking about it, though, because frankly I am PTSD (in the colloquial definition) about my society’s dysfunction over gifting, though obviously I survive and thrive in general. This is dedicated to those who have lost the spirit, for gifting is not a mundane experience- unless you say it is.
Before I continue, since I mentioned that gifting is archetypally feminine, I present a caveat. As is always the case for archetypes, gifting skills are not at all reserved for those who self identify as female. One of the most awesome gifters I know is a man; my son-in-law, in fact.
My journey to understanding gifting is largely due to more familial luck: I encountered the work of Lewis Hyde thanks to my second son, David. Lewis Hyde, Wikipedia: “(born 1945) is a scholar, essayist, translator, cultural critic and writer whose scholarly work focuses on the nature of imagination, creativity, and property.” Sounds like my jams, right? Hyde’s perspective has been as transformative in my life as anything information-based has been. These three: imagination, creativity, and property- are erotic forums, for the ways in which we use them determine our experience of loving connections. That’s why Hyde’s book is titled The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property.
Eros in the ancient Greek cosmology is the connecting function between gifts, imagination and property- between everything, actually. Eros, in the contemporary American imagination, is a god of infatuated love, and sexuality in the sense of corporeal activities. However, Eros in the ancient sense is also the alchemical magnetic force between the sexes; the glue between opposites. We tend to define eros as desire, and that’s true. But desire is not a thing; it’s a relationship. In order for there to be desire there must also be the desired, and wanting is a huge part of the human experience in nowise restricted to romance or sex. Desire is Shiva and Shakti’s dance. It’s the yin-yang game. “Stuff”, the material world, is actually feminine. ‘Material’ is the holy mother, the Mater, the earth element, Shakti. When we desire things, we are just acting out Shiva’s love of Shakti.
Hyde’s thesis reveals the truth that gifting material objects, far from being about “stuff”, is a physical representation of this cosmic dance of connection. Though there is a physical level to gifting, relationships are formed in our human imaginations; we create them one by one, and thus we also destroy them. Invisibly, through thoughts, feelings and actions, we weave, we strengthen, we maintain, we repair, our human families and tribes and our very species, through gifting practices.
Hyde begins The Gift with a reference to Indian giving. The term comes from 18th C. encounters between Native Americans and Europeans. Tradition in short: a NA fellow gifted a honky a nice pipe. At some point the NA got nervous about the fact that the white dude was holding on to said pipe. The white guy displayed it on his mantle or something, as a treasured possession, expressing the Caucasian love of artifacts and museums. As though he “owned” it. Normal and therefore unquestioned operating procedure for my society.
The NA guy, concerned, asked for this pipe back, and the white guy wrote about it in a book, I think. There weren’t so many books then. The honky was obviously unenlightened about the nature of tribal gifting. Please reference the heading quote; gifts are in their essence always moving, though you may need to look at the big picture to get that.
Thus Hyde’s thesis is partly based on comparing the Euro-Western experience with that of indigenous societies. I quote next from Franz Boas’s account of a ceremonial gifting of a copper. The quote refers to a Kwakiutl tribe. The group called their ceremonial copper Maxtsolem; “All Other Coppers Are Ashamed To Look At.” The ceremony is a drama in which a copper effigy is gifted from one side to another, but like Christmas, it’s an exchange of gifts. Hundreds of blankets have already been brought by the receivers of the copper, as gift of equal value to the copper:
“This is only the beginning, however, and in a sense the true gift has not yet appeared. The chiefs who are giving the copper away seem to feel that the return gift is not adequate, for instead of accepting it they slowly retell the entire history of this copper’s previous passages, first one man recalling a time when two hundred more blankets had been given for it, then another man saying that an additional eight hundred would seem appropriate- and all the while the recipient of the copper responds to them, saying, “Yes, it pleases my heart,” or else begging for mercy as he brings out more and more blankets. Five times the chiefs ask for more blankets and five times they are brought out until thirty seven hundred are stacked in a row along the beach…It is here that the recipient of the copper shows his generosity, and it is here that the copper increases in worth. “
Does this aspect of valuation sound familiar in the gifting practices of Euro-Western culture? We often endeavor to somehow match the value of each other’s gifts. We strive to open our hearts and hands in synch with others. In the alchemical sense, copper is a feminine metal; it is the metal of Venus, of Eros, of partnering and loving connection. It is highly conductive, used for electrical wire. Like all gifts that hold positive intent, these Northwest Coast coppers are effigies that represent imaginative loving connection. They hold the history of gifting between these people; history is, of course, only imagination. The coppers, fashioned to look like a head on a torso, are a metaphor; whatever is done in the copper’s name, whatever the copper hears, witnesses, and learns of its own worthiness, is extended by proxy to the people. Just as copper is the metal of feminine connectivity , the point to the ceremony is an opening of the heart and soul and spirit. It asks questions, offers a test. How much are we willing to give? How does giving affect us and our relationships? I am sure such questions arise in our Westernized minds as well, when we engage in the gifting game.
The copper ritual reminds us that giving and receiving are a constant consideration in our human lives. Do we constantly weigh what we owe, what is owed us? Do we give only out of obligation? Do we recognize the subtler gifts in our lives, the way everything is actually a gift? Can we drop below that mundane, logical vision and move into the heart and soul, to imagine that all are one and there is no-body giving, but only an ongoing circulation of love and connection? Winged god Eros teaches that wanting stuff does not make me materialistic. Owning stuff does not make me materialistic. Buying stuff does not make me materialistic. What makes me materialistic is only this; remaining ignorant of the magical, metaphorical, non-material levels of gifting and property.
Being an anthropologist, Hyde also addresses that most fundamental of Anthro 101 studies; that of the Trobriand Islanders. They are famous for a specific gifting practice. It’s the Kula ring, linked here.
Trobriand dudes paddle around the islands passing along shell and seed objects; necklaces and ornamental arm bands. I think maybe the necklaces are female, the armbands male. Armbands go left, necklaces go right. They are kept in circulation; for “the gift must always move.” From the latter linked site; “The objects exchanged in Kula are not particularly valuable in themselves, but rather serve to help forge social connections which are depended upon at various times throughout an individual’s life.”
As in the Kwakiutl coppers, the shell gifts are metaphors that stand in for imaginative levels of human society and experience, as well as more mundane forms of status. For example, it’s considered dangerous for a person who lacks prestige to receive the gift of a very awesome kula object. It would be like gifting a child a diamond ring. Or maybe like someone who is really insecure gets overnight famous, and they end up seriously substance addicted and/or dead. They would lose or otherwise ruin the gift.
So kula gifting is no mindless shuffle; it warps the fabric of the people’s relationships. I have no idea if the kula is more or less regimented than Westernized Christmas or birthday customs. But as anyone who struggles with gifting knows, there are definitely rules. The rules are not always obvious, and Hyde gets busy revealing subtle rules that proceed from the very nature of the erotic or soul level. Here’s a good one: “When either the donor or the recipient begins to treat a gift in terms of obligation, it ceases to be a gift, and though many in such a situation will be hurt by the revealed lack of affection, the emotional bond, along with its power, evaporates immediately.” (p. 70)
Huh! Isn’t that interesting. That is, in short, why a lot of Americans shy and humbug their way through the Christmas gifting season; this level confusion between gift and obligation. This trouble can be healed when we know that the gifting experience is completely personal, in the sense of, it is what I say it is; I decide the meaning of what shows up in my reality. Let’s say my sister feels obliged to give me a gift, and therefore, she is experiencing the gift in some state of disconnection from me.
Imagined and therefore experienced as an obligation, it’s only an exchange, Scrooge’s specialty. Within her imagination it’s now like our everyday Westernized exchanges, as in buying a prepriced item in a retail store. It’s all business; no heart. You pony up the exact amount, and it’s yours- but not until the exact amount is exchanged. This is even more the case now with internet sales; in a store we can add a side dish of connection to our transactions by relating warmly to the people in the store.
However, though my theoretical sister feels obligated, I don’t have to receive the gift thus, with its imagined tag of obligation. In MY imagination, I can eliminate the obligation factor entirely, though I cannot do this for her. Once I step out of the cultural cage, I can make the most mundane of gifts as miraculous as I like. It’s like a toddler presenting you with a dandelion they picked; it’s the “thought” that counts. The intent to connect in a positive mode, in other words. Through the manner in which I receive, I can shift the ritual. We all know what it’s like when a person is a crabby receiver. They can sour the whole game.
Some people have been conditioned to connect through negative behaviors though, right? Negative commentary, what could go wrong or what IS wrong, fears and worries, you-shouldn’t-have-spent-so-much, I-don’t-deserve-it, etc. And then they are Oh-so-surprised when others aren’t enjoying their negative vibe. So it’s a vital point; loving connection and gifting work best devoid of fears and insecurities. To the point that the old alchemical enlightenment stories will use the ability to give and receive simply, without complication, as marker of advanced human development. We learn to return to the toddler’s dandelion, and feel the connection under the gift.
When gifts are more relationship than material value, we can always imagine them from this childish perspective. This below-the-radar perception is featured in the humble gifts of Tazewell’s Littlest Angel to baby Jesus, a box holding treasures of the heart; a butterfly, a blue bird’s egg, a couple river stones, and the dog collar once belonging to the boy’s deceased pet.
Simple gifting is also in the old story of the famous juggler of Notre Dame. A juggler joins a monastic group and is mocked by his cohort because he offers his performance skill as gift. He juggles before the statue of Our Mother. While he juggles his best, the statue comes alive, and lovingly blesses the juggler. Interestingly, Anatole France’s version features juggling of copper knives and balls. In this story, we find the nonmaterial gifting that goes on in the performance arts.
We can broaden this idea of performance as gift, to the larger category of folks expressing their personal gifts of any kind. The fulfilled and joyful human is the one who has found the nature of gifting through discovering, developing, and re gifting, the gifts that they were born with. Those gifts are blessings of Divine origin, and could never be bought. However, they can be given, and in a sense, that is their only purpose. Those who accomplish the expression of their innate gifts keep the gift circulating; the gift must always move.
Living in a society that uses a commercial exchange system is troubling to some who desire to express their more or less artistic gifts fully, for the disconnect of archetypally masculine commerce can disrupt the flow of the gift. Hyde: “It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, while the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection.” (p. 56) Of course this discord between commerce and gifting is not impossible to navigate; it can be very challenging, though. Back in the day the quintessential artist, as in a painter, shall we say, required patronage. When the economic system changed and paintings were commodified, things got a little weird, because the nature of the artistic gift began to adjust to the market. Or vice versa. There are many ways to define the word ‘art’.
Now we have lots of high profile Euro-Western art that is commercial gift; art that adjusts itself to the disconnected masculine vibration of commerce, so the artist can make a living. Just as the Kwakiutl copper effigy represents feminine copper-connectivity, now we are gifted with art that is masculine; masculine in its obsession with individuality or being the first to do something, with flat, with hard, with intellect and concept, with size. It’s designed for the competitive market, because artists are now expected to be merchants. It’s hard to juggle for the Blessed Virgin with your eye on the bottom line, but I’m sure she understands.
Back to my own less esoteric matters, at the end of Gifting Day I had several bags of fun goodies to pass on to their next station. A few jewelry items, no shells. It was the best gift treasure hunt I could recall. I was definitely in a strong gift-current. I felt so abundantly gifted with gifts that, when I went on line in the evening, I donated to a few charities; the river of abundance overflowed. Gazing at a lighted screen, transferring imaginary love and connection to God knows who and for what, really; it didn’t matter. It wasn’t much, just enough to keep things moving. Maybe my gift is used in some way that I approve of; maybe it’s not. I trust it will land somewhere, mold itself, and then one day, move and transform again. Like the river, it will always know where to go.
Maybe the gifts I wrap and present will be treasured, maybe they will be used; maybe they will be regifted, or even thrown out. Or perhaps, like the pipe on the old colonists’s mantel, they will lie, and wait. Some day, someone else to claim them, for nobody lives forever. Or maybe load them into the car one spring morning and take them back to Vinnie’s, where they will lie, and wait again for the river’s flow to carry them. Since I know something about navigating the river of gifting, I won’t worry about materialism. I won’t fear the socialized rules and regulations on the subject. I am, after all, just celebrating the connected nature of the universe; I am keeping the gift moving.
Two more books I love on the subject: The Gift of Thanks, by Margaret Visser. For-Giving: A Feminist Criticism of Exchange, by Genevieve Vaughan.
And here’s a fun song that uses some nice feminine connectivity metaphor, from Roseanne Cash. Notice the reference to the highway being too fast to foster deep connection. The long way home, the slow and winding river-way, is the way of deeper experience; of love. Her negative comparisons (a feather’s not a bird, etc.) are a high class poetic way of referring to levels; the connection between the individual and the collective, between the part and the whole, the personal and the cosmic. The river that runs through her could be interpreted several ways. I’ll let you do that: