Take some time this morning to ponder with poet and Verse Wisconsin co-editor, Sarah Busse, the value of the gift, of giving. Then, today, make it a point to give something to someone. It is all about moving the gift, readers. Try it, you'll like it.
A was an apple pie.
Homemade, given to me by a small group of Fort Atkinson residents who meet once a month to discuss the poems of Lorine Niedecker. They invited me to come lead a conversation around Niedecker’s newly discovered (and as yet uncollected) variant poem, “marriage,” (http://versewisconsin.org/backprint/vw103July2010.pdf). At the end, as I was stacking my papers getting ready to leave, the pie was their way of thanking me for two hours of my time on a sunny February afternoon.
“They paid me with a pie,” I told my husband when I got home. Later, I shared the story with friends, always to the same reaction: surprise, then laughter. Not of derision, but delight, that such a thing could happen in 2013.
Really “paid” is the wrong verb. The pie was a gift. I know that.
And maybe it wouldn’t have resonated quite so deeply if I hadn’t just arrived back from a week-long solitary artist’s retreat, itself a gift of the Council for Wisconsin Writers (http://www.wiswriters.org/) and Shake Rag Alley (http://www.shakeragalley.com/) in Mineral Point. And if I hadn’t, during that quiet week, read a “contemplative biography” of Julian of Norwich, by Amy Frykholm, where I came across this passage, among others:
While large gifts did not come, small ones came every day. Women brought baskets of plums or picked up an extra loaf of bread for her….They brought her nuts and fruit from their trees or dropped pennies in her alms box. During canning time, they brought jam. The women of the church knew that it was their duty to care for her, and her duty to pray for them, so they were careful to provide her with what she needed. It was a relationship, not exactly of obligation, but of intricate mutual support. They believed that Julian’s prayer provided a blanket for them as solid, as necessary, as tangible as their own woolen weavings that hung on her walls to keep her warm.
What I provided that day in Fort Atkinson: attention, thought, experience, enthusiasm, must have been in some way tangible to those sitting in that neighborly living room.
Here is my list of the work I have to do today:
read submissions for Verse Wisconsin, the (small) magazine I edit and publish
email my children’s teachers regarding various subjects
help organize a school bake sale
start bread for tomorrow’s supper
clean the kitchen
go through the stacks of paper on the homework table
help with homework
take son to choir rehearsal and pick up
buy pants for orchestra concert
Not all of these tasks will get done. For one thing, starting this essay will take more of the day than I anticipated—a flexibility a writer must allow for, to the sometimes detriment of her house and other relationships. But the point: none of these tasks will earn me any pay. At 40 years old, every aspect of my life exists outside of the economy. What I do with my life, with my days, has no monetary worth or value, as evidenced by all those zeroes running across the page in my Social Security statement. This is not an easy truth to come to peace with.
But, that apple pie has me reconsidering.
A was an apple pie.
The apple pie was a gift in exchange for the gift I made of my time, which in turn was my gift to them, in response both to the appreciation I have for any group of townsfolk who gather to discuss poetry (a poet is heartened to find such a group anywhere), and also I acted out of gratitude for Lorine Niedecker’s poetry. The poetry group meets because they too feel they have been gifted by Lorine and her poetry. In turn, I drove my pie home, shared it with my appreciative family, and now I share it in a new way here with you, by turning it into this essay. In a gift economy, gifts multiply and there is a sense of plenty, rather than scarcity.
A is the first letter of the alphabet, first step on a writer’s journey. What if I asked you to bring a gift to my next presentation or reading, as exchange, as appreciation? Would it be a homemade blanket, a seashell found on the beach, a bag of rice...what would you bring? And what would your gift tell us about you? What if we became a little vulnerable again to each other?
What if wealth was determined, not by what you could buy or how much you owned, but by what you gave away? By how freely gifts flowed into and out of your life, by your own largesse?
My ideas around these issues are in their earliest stages, but surely this is as good a moment as any for us to begin to restore this idea of gifting each other, as opposed to paying some amount printed across a “money owed” receipt? Now, when we have reduced every resource of the natural world and the human to a bottom line, when we see even water being treated as something one can buy the “rights” to, perhaps this is the right time to look for ways large and (especially) small to restore that sense of “intricate mutual support.” We’re all in this together. What if we woke up each morning and remembered each day is a gift? And what if we listened to Lewis Hyde’s instruction, “the gift must always move.” Meaning, if you receive a gift, you must find a way to pass it, or something comparable, on.
What have you been gifted with today? Which of your gifts will you share?
A was an apple pie, and was delicious. I ate the last piece for breakfast, straight out of the aluminum pie plate, making sure at the end to get every last flake of the pastry with my fork.
Julian: A Contemplative Biography, by Amy Frykholm
The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, by Lewis Hyde
Sarah Busse is one of two Poets Laureate of Madison, Wisconsin (2012-2016). She co-edits Verse Wisconsin and her first full-length collection, Somewhere Piano, was published in fall 2012 by Mayapple Press (
). She has been awarded an Edenfred Day Fellow Arts Residency, the WFOP Chapbook Award, the Council for Wisconsin Writers’ Lorine Niedecker Prize and a Pushcart Prize. She teaches at the Woodstock, NY . While Sarah does not keep a blog (yet), you can see the fruits of her many labors at www.versewisconsin.org University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival