Sunday, April 8, 2012

G is for Gift

Imagine this door flung open with nothing
beyond it but the sea: that's the feeling of an
open heart. From The Intrigue of Passageways
(holy cow, it's got so many beautiful arches),
a profile of Sarka-Trager Photography
Gratitude and generosity are motivating forces in my life, and I believe staunchly that it is these two things, alongside compassion, that lead human beings most directly to a sense of joy. I'm not a practicing member of any religion, but I'm a  big sucker for a lot of modern Buddhist teaching; however, gratitude, generosity, and compassion are pretty much the tenets of most of the major spiritual leaders of, um, ever. The reason for this, if you ask me, is simple: that's the shit that makes life worth living. Period. And I don't mean gratitude in the sense of being self-abasingly thankful for every scarp that comes your way; I don't mean generous in the sense of giving away everything you have to the point of self-depletion; I don't mean some kind of gooey compassion that makes you excuse anybody's bad behavior. I'm not talking about going around pretending to be a saint, or expecting anybody to be a kinder, warmer, more giving, or more forgiving person than they really are. I'm talking about something a little easier and a lot more powerful: an approach to the world that treats the universe like a gift that we get to have. We don't deserve it, in the sense that we haven't done anything to earn it, but we don't not deserve it, either, in the sense that we're not unworthy of receiving it. This kind of gift is a very important one, no matter who you are, but if you consider yourself a creative person it might be most important of all.

It's also Easter today, and although I'm what would probably be best termed a Taoist secular Jew, I went with my boyfriend's mother to a Catholic mass this morning. I went a couple years ago, as well, and wept through the whole service because it was a beautiful spring day and I was having a deeply spiritual experience connecting the story of the Resurrection to the cycles of Nature and the human need to celebrate rebirth, etc etc, very pagan and whatnot. This year I wept through the whole service again, but had a different set of revelations -- and yes, they were about gifts.

The subtitle of this amazing book used to be
"Imagination & the Erotic Life of Property."
Now it's "Creativity & the Artist in the Modern
World." Either way, you should read it now.
Gift has a meaning beyond the stuff we give each other on special occasions - several meanings, in fact, many of which are beautifully & brilliantly elucidated in Lewis Hyde's classic The Gift, which you should just read, already. He starts the book by examining "gift cultures" in which the giving of gifts is a highly complex and elegant dance - not an exchange, a this-for-that, but rather a passing on of things of value, with one central tenet: the gift must move. What he means by that, as far as I can figure, is that when you receive something of worth, you give it away, and the act of giving creates an empty space towards which more gifts flow. In essence, hoarding creates a blockage in the flow of gifts, but giving ensures the flowing of a stream, in which each participant in the act of giving becomes a kind of conduit through which gifts flow, become transformed, and pour onward and outward. The second part of the book looks at precisely the same act in the realm of art and the act of creativity, positioning the artist as the recipient of gifts - from above, from the muse, from community and culture - and the sense that many artists have of a need to create as the impetus to give the gift away again. (The book is also about the economics of the gift, and if you've ever felt like selling art present artists with a peculiar conundrum, you are extra encouraged to give it a read.)

There are things that we earn, by hard work or perseverance or whatever. But a number of the most spectacular, wonderful, delicious, delightful and marvelous things in life come towards us no matter who we are or what we have done, and these are the things that I would call gifts: sunlight is a gift, and apple blossoms, and the wonder that is consciousness; an innate affinity or talent for something, whether it be math or music or plumbing, that of course needs nurturing and practice and refinement but still, on some level, just got given to us; a family that cares for us, a moment of inspiration, a healthy body, all the things that we did nothing to deserve but get to have anyway: in a way, a gift is related to delight. And like delight, if we treat a gift like something we've earned, something tragic happens to it. The wonder is lost, but so, too, is something else: both a sense of gratitude and a sense of generosity.

A beautiful morning, also from
The Intrigue of Passageways
Gratitude, in the sense of a natural uplifting of thanksgiving as a spontaneous response to a gift, is an absolutely exalted sensation. There is nothing dutiful about it and nothing fearful about it; this isn't Miss Minchin making little Sarah say thank you for not turning her out on the street. This is a gratitude that cannot be leveraged by your church or your mother. It is wholly unrelated to guilt and hasn't actually got much to do with humility, either. Forget falling on your face. Gratitude, in the sense I mean, is the joyousness of receiving an unlooked-for gift. That exultant feeling when your day off was forecast as horrible and gray and rainy but you wake up with the sun pouring into your eyes and actually it's a warm blue stunner of a day? That outpouring of gladness in your chest is the kind of gratitude I mean: an almost wordless sense of oh, yes, what a blessing. And that - that's a spectacular feeling.

And so is generosity, another feeling that is suppressed when we treat gifts like things we have earned. When you are delighted by something marvelous coming to you for no reason other than that there are marvelous things flowing through the universe, it becomes easy and delightful to pass on the experience - whether that comes in the form of literally giving something, from kind words to shelter, or simply manifesting & passing on the spirit of the gift, as artists do who feel moved to make music or books or paintings that communicate something of their experience to others. If you feel like you deserve the things you get, there ceases to be any reason to pass them on: why, I earned this; this is clearly for me. And that's swell and all, and I'm not advocating for generosity because I think keeping things for yourself is awful and evil and terrible and selfish. It's just that being generous is part of the sense of participating in the flow of gifts: gratitude is how you feel when the gift comes in, generosity is how you feel when it goes out. And it feels awesome.

That being said, it is easy to be over-generous - to grow so caught up in the blissful satisfaction of giving that you actually give away things you need. I know women who will bend over backwards for others without hesitation, who never ask for anything in return, and are glad to do so. But often they cease to be able to say no, which is to say - they lose the ability to give to themselves. And it's really terrifically important not to forget to be generous with yourself, to give to yourself, to nourish yourself, to share compassion with yourself. Compassion and generosity and gratitude are not self-effacing; they don't somehow weirdly count less when you turn them inward. In fact, one of the things I like best about Buddhism is the clarity with which it states that you must have compassion for yourself first. You cannot be truly compassionate towards others if you do not not how to practice it towards your own darn self.

The famous Jewish sage Hillel has a saying that always makes me a little weepy which says exactly the same thing.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? If not now, when?

..."Buddha Bunny," however, seems to be
a safe search. Via Lola the Lovely Lop.
And both of these things remind of a story that kept playing in my head all through the Easter Mass today - a story I read, in fact, in The Gift. Lewis Hyde describes a tale in the Jatakas, (the early folktales of the Buddha, dating back to the 4th century BCE, which are a little bit like the Just So Stories), in which the Buddha, in the body of a hare, perfected the act of generosity. (Side note: I wanted to find an appropriate picture for this, but apparently the phrases "zen bunny"  and "zen rabbit" have a connotation of which I was blissfully unaware. I recommend, um, not google image searching that one if you'd like to keep your childhood intact.) The basic story is that our friend the Buddha bunny decides to be the most generous he possibly can be - and in order to do so, he says to himself, he'll literally feed himself to the next hungry stranger that comes along. As in, hop in the fire and offer himself up on toast. And that, with a few normal folktale twists, is what he does.

Well, aside from the fact of it being a bunny-centric festival, the reasons for thinking about this during an Easter service should be pretty clear. Here we've got a guy who goes around being really nice to everybody, advocating for forgiveness and love of the poor and non-judgement and open-heartedness, and just to prove to everybody that he really means all this stuff he goes ahead and gets himself killed. But before he goes he literally tells his followers to share his food and drink as if they were his body and his blood. Believe in him, he says, in what he says and in the generosity he demonstrates and the gifts that he gives, and you'll be one with the Holy Spirit. 

And now let me be extremely blasphemous for a second here. Listen, I get very weirdly emotional in church. I'm pretty sure it's the music -- me, a nice hippy Bay Area Jewish girl who never got bat mitzvahed, and I literally cannot sing the word Alleluia without tears streaming down my cheeks. (Those incredible liturgical Amens get me too.) Listening is intense enough; if I go ahead and sing along, bam, floodgates, heartstrings, spiritual expansion, divine transcendent something. So I get profoundly moved in Catholic masses, even cheesy ones. (I have now been to exactly the same number of synagogue services and Catholic masses. That number would be, um, two.) So I tend to feel very sensitive to the idea of faith while in church. And also I really, really, really want to understand why it is that bajillions of people believe in this bizarre Zombie Jesus thing. Not in a flippant way, honest - look, clearly this stuff is important, and I'm just not getting it. The thing I really don't get about Christianity is this idea of redemption, this thing about Jesus coming down and erasing sin, except there's still sin, except not if you accept Jesus, except -- I find it baffling. And I had this moment during the service today. An aha moment.

Jesus wasn't a Jew. He was a Buddha.

I don't mean this literally. As far as I know, nobody in Jesus's time knew diddly squat about Asia. I mean that the completely selfless act of the death of Jesus got, well, completely misinterpreted.

Go ahead, storm out of the room now. It's fine. I'm entitled to my belief too. (Although if you're reading this blog at all without setting fire to your screen you're probably liberal-minded enough to bear with me on this one and you're not having a self-righteous hissy fit.)

Christ in Silence,  by one of my all-time
favorite artists, the Symbolist Odilon Redon
Pastel, 1895-1899. Via Pastel News.
Let me put it this way. The only way I can make sense of the life & death of Jesus in a way that makes genuine spiritual sense to me is if I think of Jesus as setting the ultimate example to his followers, and his preaching as the words of a man who was really just trying to get people to follow his example all the way. He died, in essence, to prove a point: when you are willing to give of yourself to others, you're participating in the kingdom of Heaven. When all of us are willing to be compassionate, to be generous, to experience gratitude, to make the gift move, then BAM, HEAVEN. Not we go to heaven. That's it. We're there. Paradise comes to us. I've always been so confused by the phrase "Jesus died for your sins." What the heck does that mean? I wasn't around! And if he died for everybody's sins, then wouldn't there just be, like, no more sin? He died for them? Does that mean because of them, or to cleanse them, or what? All of this makes sudden and singular sense if I look at it as the story of a man who was willing to do anything at all to show others the beauty and the meaning of compassion and forgiveness, a man who wasn't afraid of death and who felt that by giving himself as a gift he would not die, in the sense that he would be kept alive by all those through whom he move - in the same way the Buddha-bunny, in giving himself completely, was unafraid of death because Buddhists don't believe there is a separation between ourselves and others. And generosity and gratitude, the giving and receiving of gifts, are what allow us to participate in that sense that we are not closed, separate, and alone, but rather open, consubstantial, part of a flow and a cycle.

This is a thing worth having faith in.

Buddha, also by Odilon Redon. What up,
similarity. I see you there. Pastel, c. 1906.
In that sense, I do believe in Jesus as a savior of souls - in the sense that following the teachings of absolute generosity rescues one from the hell of experiencing the world as empty, meaningless, and full of inexplicable, nonsensical suffering. Heck yes. And I don't believe that I am oversimplifying the story or the theology by seeing it this way; if anything, I think that it is a way of getting past the abstractions of symbology and the crazy scaffolding of church powerplays right to the heart of the actual tenets of faith. Yeah, Jesus loved you. And he damn well wanted you to love yourself, and other people, and practice sharing. (There was a fascinating gospel passage in the reading for the Mass about how the early Christians redistributed wealth. Yes, Virgina, they really were a buncha dirty Commies.)  That stuff about Heaven? Not for tomorrow, not for the end of days; that's for right now. The son of God? In a sense, why not? Anyone who is willing to completely embody and manifest their beliefs, that wholly, that absolutely: sure, I believe that that is an incarnation of divinity. Yes.

Of course, I'm a Jew. I might not be religious, but I throw a mean Seder, and in my blood there resonates shtetl stories and Klezmer music, candlelight and herring and neuroticism and a whole lot of argument with a God who might have chosen His people but didn't see any reason to keep them from suffering. See, all of this stuff about compassion and generosity is well, not unJewish, but it's not really the most important part of Jewishness either. I've never heard a Jew say "God is Love" with a straight face. Why bring this up and spoil my nice tidy point about compassion and all that? I suppose because it would be disingenuous of me not to. Because my own particular way of seeing the world, which is in many ways very Jewish, is a gift. It informs my art, my creative self, my sense of the numinous and the mysterious and the darkly wonderful things about the world. There's a lot of joy in it, festivity and family celebration. And the part of me that is driven to create, the part of me that feels like light welling up inside a jar until I just can't hold any more and I've got to let it pour out, to give it back, to give it up, to say my thanksgiving, to express my sense of blessing, to tell the story -- well, that part feels very Jewish.

Marc Chagall, Solitude, 1933, via Hermit's Thatch
And I suppose that comes back to the idea of compassion for the self, and of not giving away too much of one's own being: look, we're not all Buddhas. Jesus came along because most of us are very bad at giving freely; even when we are generous we often couple it with self-satisfaction, self-righteousness, or at least a secret resentment over lack of reciprocity. We have great spiritual figures not to personify perfection, I think, as much as to inspire us to practice. Thus, no need to beat yourself up for not being Buddha today; after all, Buddha's not mad at you if you fail. That's Buddha's job, just being gosh-darned compassionate to e'rybody. So what do we have to give? I don't think I'm ready to throw myself into the fire; nor do I especially think humanity would be all that well served if I did. What do I have instead? A sense of mysticism and delight, a love of joy and a profound streak of longing; an interest in hearing myself talk, a whole lot of swagger, and a fascination with stories. My job, as I see it, is to take the gifts I'm given, shake them up with the particular kaleidoscopic blend of thoughts and dreams and experiences that form the constellation-of-stuff-that-is-Jericha, and pour it back into the world to add a new shade of color or taste of spice or edge of meaning to someone else. (That's why I teach dance, too.) Why the heck else do we feel the desire to create? Because the gift is flowing through us, and we can't ignore it. The great spiritual leaders don't want anything from us but to take it in with gladness and give thanks by recycling it; to receive and to give; to be grateful and generous, with our selves and with each other.


  1. Whoa. Heavy. And I mean that in the best way possible. I was not raised with religion and so my next book is going to be about finding my religion. It's the missing component of my life and it follows "death" quite well.
    Anyway, my husband is an artist and I asked him to paint me a little picture with the words, "If not now, then when?" I had no idea where they came from, so now I know. It was just a little thing I wanted to look at to keep me on the creative path of writing, which I have a love hate relationship with because of my many insecurities. So, loved your post and I'm so glad I found you on this A to Z challenge.

    1. I would LOVE, I mean srsly love love love, to see an image of that painting when it's done.

      It's also the title of a really intense and beautiful book about a group of Jews fighting in the Resistance during the Holocaust by Primo Levi, who was an Italian chemist who was sent to Auschwitz (another of his books, The Periodic Table, which is a collection of stories from his life with each related to one of the elements, is considered to be one of the best science books ever written) but survived and made it all the way to 1987, when he may or may not have killed himself. His work is haunting, and you might love it.

      I'm glad we found each other on this A-Z thing! Thoughtful writing about death is such a rare and extraordinary thing. I know I'm going to be coming back to hear your thoughts long after the challenge is over.

    2. Oh, the painting is very tiny and has the words on it. Not fancy at all. I'll take a pic and maybe post it on one of these blog days.

      I haven't read "The Periodic Table." I'll add it to my ever expanding list.

    3. Like I said, would love to see it :)

  2. This was a lovely post. Seriously. I don't have the tears streaming down my face, but I can feel them building.

    Thanks for this.


    1. Thanks, sj. I know better than to try and be a tearjerker (I suck at it). But it is really important to me to try and convey the richness of emotion; it's one of the reasons I bother writing in the first place. So it means a lot to hear that you were affected.


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