When I was younger I thought of gifts only as things that were exchanged on holidays and birthdays: toys, money, anything that could be bought or sold but that I received “for free.”
Now, when I think of gifts, what comes to mind are the less tangible things: time, thought, effort. The things that can’t be purchased in a store, or that can’t be quantified, or that people might not even know they’re giving to you. I have also come to think of gifts not as things that you receive on Christmas – or other times when people might expect to give and receive gifts – but as the things that arrive when you least expect it.
But I also believe there is truth in the common wisdom that you have to be open to receiving gifts; that you have to adopt a certain mindset that allows you to be receptive to, and aware of, the gifts you may be being given. This article in particular, I thought, summed up well my experience with gift-giving and gift-receiving:
“No one ever taught me how to receive. Not a compliment; I am a master at countering any comment with insight about all my faults. Not a gift; I immediately feel the need to give something in return, preferably bigger. Not a kindness; I wave people away from helping me in a grocery line, no matter that I am dropping bread as I speak.
How could I have gone through so much life and have no experience with such a fundamental act as the ability to receive?
As I begin to examine this, I realize for me receiving involves vulnerability. When I give, I feel in charge. When I receive, I feel less.
Give feels like an action word; receive feels like something passive. Yet I can see how mistaken I am. Giving and receiving are yin and yang, the equivalent of the infinity symbol—looping back and forth, neither side larger than the other, both integral to the larger whole.
But I am becoming more open to receiving gifts: a few weeks ago I wrote about the gift of free lemons I found on the sidewalk, and just yesterday I experienced a similar moment on my walk around the neighborhood. I came across a plum tree that I only noticed because the over-ripen fruit that had fallen from its branches made splashes of bright reds and purples on the road. I looked up and saw, camouflaged in the tree’s purpley-red leaves, a few small, cherry-sized plum fruits that remained clinging to its branches. I reached up and picked two of the fruits and was shocked to discover their sweetness upon putting them in my mouth.
As I sucked the juices from the plum, rolling the pit around in my mouth once its flesh was gone, I noticed how I savored its flavor: first full and sweet as I bit into the skin, then a bit of sour as I reached a piece of its unripened flesh.
I noticed how my experience of eating this fruit – that I had received as an unexpected gift – was so different from how I might have eaten a plum that I purchased at the grocery store. Something about the way I had come across the plum – as a gift from nature, rather than a store-bought object – fundamentally changed how I interacted with it.
I think of a book I read recently (thanks, Dana, for the recommendation!) called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. In it, its author, Robin Wall Kimmerer, discusses nature through the lens of both modern science and indigenous wisdom. When I get home from my encounter with the plum tree I go to my bookshelf and find the passages from her book that I’d highlighted:
Perhaps it was because I’d read this book that I had this momentary awareness of my relationship to the plum, and I’m grateful for it. And I think about how, if we truly receive and appreciate nature’s gifts, we also cultivate a relationship with nature that is inherent with respect, gratitude, and reciprocity – in essence, the one native people have always had. It’s the same notion that’s described in the blog article: when we receive a gift, we are allowing ourselves to partake in a cycle that relies on both giving and receiving, and that both parts of the process are made more full as a result.
Hi Maddy, I also enjoyed Braiding Sweetgrass and this there is so much to learn about the gift economy as Kimmerer talks about in the Wild Strawberries chapter. Thanks for sharing this!
Agreed. So much to learn, and to appreciate in ways we might not have before. Thank you for reading!