Wednesday, November 26, 2008

On Giving

“The spirit of a gift is kept alive by its constant donation,” Lewis Hyde, The Gift (NY: Random House, 1979), p. xix.

I’m reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift with great interest these days, and thinking about the application of his insights to organized religion. When religions lose sight of the giftedness of everything—of all existence, which comes to us without our reckoning or beckoning—they depart from the root that gives life to the religious impulse.

Who we are, what we have, comes to us despite ourselves, from beyond ourselves. How we name the giver of the gift of existence, or whether we even think the giver should be personalized, is not my interest here. What attracts my attention instead is how everything we have, including “our”selves, is gift, something passing through our hands to be crafted into gifts for others, and then handed on.

Glimpsing this makes life profoundly different. It’s what communities of faith claim to glimpse when they induct people into their various mysteries, train them to live lives normed by faith, hope and love.

And yet how profoundly alien these insights about our inability to own or control anything, including “our”selves—ultimately to own or control anything—seem, from the religious vantage point of many churches in 21st-century America. We devote a single day a year to a maudlin, sentimental “remembrance” of our need to give thanks.

In the very act of giving thanks, we drive the wedge deeper between ourselves and those we imagine as the ungifted. We remind ourselves to give a turkey, a few cans of cranberry sauce.

And then we forget. For a year. We forget that we are implicated in the lives these others live. We are implicated in their homelessness, their lack of healthcare, their inability to find good educations and fulfilling, productive jobs.

We talk about being thankful and about giving, but we do not view our lives and all that passes through our hands as gift. And so we lose sight of our connectedness to others, and our responsibility for what others lack. Until we “remember” again the following Thanksgiving.

Only to forget as quickly as we have remembered.

+ + + + +

And a Thanksgiving poem:

I watch the philodendron leaf
As my heart
Lightgreedy and hungrylove.

What I really want to say
Is not my heart
But you, and you, and you.

Look for springing forth
As irontight buds disband
And fistclosed leaves let loose their clutch.

Yet not release from heartroot.

I gaze in as lightest lashes of a catseye
Because I tend to my own garden
Hoping that you may grow.

Look for my soil's greening.
Take my ferns' fronds,
And heartsease,

For your pallets,
Dear ones.