Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Gift-Giving Circle

Nadya's apples and plums (village near Kostroma on the Volga)

One of the ways I enjoy my post-menopausal zest years is that I have by this time in my life, after living below the poverty line for years, and rarely above it, developed a community of people around me who help me and whom I help.  I wrote about this in my 2009 holiday letter.  This will also give  you a feeling for my daily life and the rich bounty of people and their gifts that are part of it. 

What strikes me most about 2009, which was a harder year than usual, were all the gifts I received. It’s true that, if I’d needed less, I’d have been given less. In a period when the world and our larger American society, are so focused on the ills of the market economy, I’m struck by how effectively the gift economy has worked for me this year.

I first became consciously aware of the two economies when I read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift 20 years ago. It’s primarily about the artist’s gift. His theme is that, when we have been given a creative gift–and as practicing artists and writers know, that’s mysterious–although we may sell our created works or our creative talent in the marketplace, that is not essential. What’s essential is to give that gift away. "The gift must always move." At the time I read The Gift, I was teaching the free "Roadmap to Great Literature for New Writers" program in the Durham and Burlington libraries. I had received Humanities "gifts" to teach, and the students, having received the gift of the classes, wanted to give to me. They gave me time and money for my Carolina Wren Press, a coffee pot, plants, strawberries, a lake cottage for a week, a lovely cup with a drawing of Penelope at her loom, with a whip painted on the handle, a tribute to my determination to have them read good books and write well, to "get them off their asses."

Then I realized how, all my life, beginning as a minister’s child, I have lived more in the gift than in the market economy, as most cultures in our world still do. When I visited Russia first in 1990, I was immediately struck by the intensity and extravagance of their gifts. If they had two eggs, then my son Tim and I should have them; if they succeeded in getting ahold of some candy, it was ours. We came home, heavy with gifts, tangible and intangible. That set off my desire to give back, which I did for the next ten years, writing grants, hosting Russians through the Kostroma Committee of Sister Cities of Durham, but the Russians, who had less, generally, than I did, and I lived simply, always outdid me.

Still the gifts kept moving. They still do, and my life continued as part of the gift economy, specifically in my first owned home in Moncure, in my largely African American neighborhood. I knew no one. My students came often to clean up the yard, paint and finish the house. I was given an old wood cookstove by B.D. Goolsby, my friend Elaine’s husband, who died October 12, and my student then (now published novelist), Dawn, and her husband, Jim, helped move it here, and today, as winter’s chill moves in, it is radiating heat, stocked with wood split by Gene, and more wood is outside, prepared by Terrie and Cheryl, who tell me, "Call when you need more."

I’ve had many small but frustrating challenges this year, and my friends and neighbors have rallied round. My son, Tim, visited in June. On his way back from the beach in my tried, true, but aging pickup, the fuel pump went out. We got it towed, and my faithful mechanic, Al, who sold me this truck in 2003 and has kept it running, as Al has kept all my old vehicles on the road since the late 80s, happened to have on hand a used, working fuel pump, which he installed, saving me considerable.

I asked Emma next door if she could give me a ride out to Al’s, and she said I could use their extra car, so Tim and I easily retrieved my truck, and I also got my baking done that week. Emma and Robert, my nearby neighbors, have helped me in countless ways over the last eleven years. Robert and his nephew Tutty, have killed chickens for me, mowed, weed-eaten, raked, fixed the mower, and I am always invited to come get a plate at their big family gatherings. One of their friends, Chainsaw, has brought me wood several times. At Christmas I share this holiday letter with the folks who gather on Robert’s porch to talk and laugh or to play horseshoes in the yard in good weather, and several have showed up at Christmas with gifts or to give me a hug.

Emma and Robert's dogs, Lucky and Spud, announce and inspect all my visitors. Robert and Emma have looked after my chickens and cat when I go out of town. Robert recovered slowly after several surgeries and chemotherapy, from his cancer. Now Emma is having surgery on her neck and has a long recovery ahead. I’ve offered to help in any way I can, but, just as with the Russians, I don’t expect to win in the "gift wars." The point, I’ve learned, is not exactly equal exchanges but that the gift keeps moving.

There are times in every life when people need us in ways we can’t refuse. We know we have to respond. True, too, that not all gifts are wise. They can be a subtle use of power to control or given without love, from guilt or an exaggerated sense of obligation. We can learn to tell the difference. Our best gift to someone in emotional pain may not be to rescue but to listen.

Other small crises this year--financial, car, farm--set off unexpected help. Doug replaced my computer with one he’d built and keeps up with my various computer glitches. Karl (taking time from Those Democrats) helped me prop the peach trees, heavily laden with their new crop, repaired the back door and the toilet, and would take only food in exchange.

Sharon and John up in DC area hosted me, as once they hosted Russians from Kostroma, in Alexandria, when I attended my first Malice Domestic mystery conference in Arlington in early May, and Sharon not only gave me bag lunches but initiated me into the mysteries of the Metro, which I rode to the conference each day
Again this year I baked bread in The Bread Shop, with its helpful, cheerful staff, and took my extra figs, herbs, eggs, to the Pittsboro Farmers’ Market. I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped this year, but the other farmers were generous traders, so my leftover bread helped me bring home vegetables, fruit, meat, goat cheese. My cukes gave out early, but Andrew’s made possible bread and butter pickles. Next year I hope to have other outlets for my extra produce, and already Angelina’s Kitchen wants me to make some breads for her and says she’ll always buy my zinnias and cosmos.

All these gifts create a feeling of opulence. Money can’t ever give you that degree of feeling valued and cared for that such gifts do. I already know that Angelina will give me more than I can ever give her, because every time I go into her take-out restaurant, she gives me delicious food: spanakopita (spinach pies), a lamb giro sandwich, amazing chicken soup.

I do have to think more about money now, what I can not spend, and how I can earn what I need most effectively, so that I use my abilities and don’t get exhausted. I’ve always lived simply and benefitted from the gift economy, but it strikes me now that those Americans who don’t remember when most of us had barely enough and many, not enough, in the 30s and 40s, may not realize the riches all around them, if they begin, even in their poverty, to give what they have.

All gifts don’t lift the economic burden, but all genuine, heart-whole gifts lift the spirit of those who give and those who receive. This can make all the difference. This is a truth that people all over the world, most of whom have much less than we Americans, even now, know in their bones and hearts. It is how they cope, how they find joy in straitened circumstances.  Judy Hogan


  1. Judy
    The richness of your life ... I hope it's okay. I'm saving this to pdf on my computer desktop to read and read.

  2. Yes, Kath, it's fine. I'm glad you like it. Judy Hogan

  3. Doe, I think I know who you are. I have lived the gift-giving circle more and more. It's easier to do within the African-American community and in Russia, but it's possible in the U.S., if you are bold and inventive! I'm glad you like my blog. Judy