On Gifts and the Given

It’s been ages since I’ve made time for this poor neglected blog of mine. Not that I haven’t thought about it: I have. But life, as it does, has gotten in the way. Still, I want to make space to be here every now and then, tapping out the tentative thinking that arises each day, ephemeral, and passes away again.

When I began this little experiment, I wanted to use it as a place for the ordinary gifts that arise in a day of writing, mothering, reading (and all that goes along with these–sorting through bags of apples from our neighbour’s tree, trimming beets, setting supper in the crock pot; emailing with my co-editor for How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting, the anthology we’re putting together of essays on pregnancy and/or parenthood and loss, to appear in Fall 2013 (I’ll post official news on this very soon, once the contracts have been signed!); writing; reading Several Short Sentences about Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg and a handful of popular non-fiction books (including Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul) and Marie Howe’s gorgeous poetry collection The Kingdom of Ordinary Time; and wishing to read about two dozen more books, which are piled on my writing desk, my bedside shelf, and on the bed in the guest room downstairs (soon to be converted into a guest room / writing room).

Verlyn Klinkenborg is probably rolling around in his writing chair right now at the fact of being invoked in a sentence as unwieldy as the one above. (Nb. This is one of the best books I’ve read about writing in a long time–and I read a lot of them. It’s smart, and apt, and challenging in the most productive way). But the other thing I wanted to do when I began this blog was to write things down, these minor gifts, despite the inevitability of flaw, of imperfection. And I have to say that going through bags of frost-sweetened, hail-damaged apples–sorting the best ones into paper bags to keep in a cold corner of the basement, trimming the worst ones and turning what’s salvageable into applesauce–is a slow, embodied, physical (and pleasurable) reminder of how possible it is to take what we are given and transform it. In the kitchen, this is a skill most of us, if we have it, have learned from our mothers, and probably take for granted by now (it’s “a given”). I don’t have to think about where to turn the tip of a knife to remove what’s spoiled, don’t have to consider what will spoil the rest of the apple if it isn’t removed.

Isn’t this what writing/editing are like, at their best? Rapid, intuitive work, skillful because of long practice? We work well when the components of a task have become something we take for granted, a “given.”  The physical dexterity, the capacity for quick judgement, the initiative, the desire for the finished product (and perhaps the guilt at the prospect of wasting food) increase and combine, over time, into a simple, skilled effort. What a pleasure to think about the skill required to handle a sentence in this way. Over long years of increasingly skilled labour, we learn how to make what we want, out of what we have.

I’m thinking these days about how to do this not only with apples or sentences but the day itself. There’s that classic Annie Dillard line about “choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will.” (Everyone should read the essay this line comes from, “Living like Weasels,” from her collection Teaching a Stone to Talk). For years, I’ve thought about “the given” this way, or tried to, thanks to her, and what I’m thinking about now is definitely informed by her essay, which I’ve read (and taught) often enough I think it’s become part of my limbic system. But lately I’ve been thinking more about the etymological fact of “the given.” I love that “the given,” what is, can be considered not only as necessity but as gift. Etymologically speaking, the given is a gift, isn’t it? And, a gift is both something received and something to be given away. It’s inherently reciprocal, bi-directional.

I want to cultivate this attitude toward the given. I want to think about each day as what’s “given,” therefore as a gift, and (as a result) as delimiting what I myself have to give. What I have to give = what I have, what I must give. And this tells me, too, what I don’t have to give.

This is a challenging proposition for the daily work of being oneself, and of being in relationship with others, in community. Community and relationship are always about responsibility. How do we decide what our responsibility is to ourselves, to our creative “gifts,” to others? The answers here aren’t easy. But I love how promising the language is. If something is a gift, it needs to be given.  Too much of the time all the (forgive me) apples are on one side of the scale, none or too few on the other. I want to get the balance right, as much as I can.

So: I want to take on Verlyn Klinkenborg’s challenge to make my sentences sharper, better. I want to learn to handle sentences the way I handle apples–skillfully, intuitively. But in the process I also want to accept the imperfection of apples and sentences, the caprice of hail and the poor timing of frost and the consequences of my own laziness and the rewards of my labour and and the occasional undeserved abundance of harvest. I want to get better at accepting the given. I want to expect less in particular and get better at appreciating what does in fact appear.

I want to squander fewer of the gifts that arrive in a day. Which means, in part, learning to give them away. Because the inverse of all this talk about gifts is generosity. How can we affect in a positive way what “the given” looks like for those around us? I want to remind myself, daily, that just because what happens is not entirely in our control doesn’t mean it’s entirely independent of us either. What the given looks like tomorrow is made up in no small part of what I cultivate today (skill with a sentence, with a paring knife, with gratitude, generosity).

As much as a good number of my former selves, and perhaps some of you, and (I’m sure) plenty of my future selves might squirm uncomfortably at the optimism factor here, I want to build a muscle, a skill, for gratitude–isn’t gratitude the best way to respond to a gift, even if you don’t especially like what you’ve been given?

We are all given difficult gifts. You can’t force gratitude, nor generosity either. But I want to cultivate the capacity to stand up and accept the work that needs to be done: to sort the given, to learn how to handle it, skillfully. To breathe in the smell of the apples, some of them bruised, a few rotten, to take the bags from the back entrance where they’ve been languishing and carry them to the table, even though it’s late at night, even though I’m tired. Not to give up when a bag rips and the apples tumble out. Not to be dismayed when a few of the apples roll down the steps to the basement.

Go down and retrieve them. Now they need to be used right away. Now they can’t be saved for later.

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