by Jean Zorn
The Tlingit, Kwakiutl and other indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest developed gift giving (and receiving) into a lavish and elaborate ceremony they called potlatch. Potlatches were held to celebrate births, deaths, weddings, good harvests, the launching of a new ocean-going canoe, and just about every other major occasion, and were usually convened by the leaders of powerful clans. At the potlatch, amidst the feasting and drinking and dancing, the leader would stand up and, with great ceremony, give away everything he owned, or so, as the profligate giving continued through the night, it would seem. He would give away baskets, woven mats, weapons, tools, furs and hides, masks and other ritual objects, foods, even chiefly titles – until all the storerooms were bare, dawn was breaking, and most of the guests were sleeping, some of them wrapped in the furs and blankets they had just received.
To the white men who stumbled upon these indigenous cultures, potlatches seemed like crazy, wasteful extravagance. “What? You’re giving away everything? You’re not keeping it, hoarding it, making two talents grow into ten?” At one time, both the Canadian and U.S. governments banned potlatches.
But potlatches were the very opposite of crazy. They were the glue that held society together, that maintained and gave meaning to the social order. In giving it all away, a clan leader did prove that it is better to give than to receive, because by generously giving away material goods, he earned the continued support and respect of his people. Potlatches were the great leveler, a redistribution system masquerading as a party; potlatches made sure no one in the clan would go cold or hungry through the long winter months. They ensured productivity; from the moment a leader announced he was planning a potlatch, until the event finally took place months later, all the members of the lineages closest to him caught and smoked extra fish, hunted for more furry mammals, sewed and wove extra blankets and baskets and mats, all so they could share in the grandeur of the event. This great swell of effort, carried out by strong and able men and women, produced healthy and well-fed children.
A secret of gifting societies is that everyone, always, both gives and receives. The leader and his supporters did not wake up destitute in the cold, gray daylight of the morning after their potlatch. They woke to a day in which they would sit in the great lodge and entertain, one after another, members of the families who’d been recipients the night before. Each family came with thanks on their lips and a gift in their hands, a small return for the largesse they had received. But once all the families had come and gone, there would be enough furs and clothes and food for the leader and his kinsmen. Enough to last through the winter, or until they were invited to be guests at a potlatch thrown by a leader of even greater stature, or until they began the great and noble task of hunting and fishing and planting and sewing, of stuffing their storerooms with the goods they would give away at their next potlatch.
Capitalism, with its insistent demand that everything be a commodity – even our homes, even our labor – and that everything be valued only for how much it will fetch when we buy it or sell it, or how much it can grow when we invest it, is the enemy of the potlatch, indeed of gifting and receiving of every kind. But gifting survives in snatches, like bright green shoots in early spring poking here and there above the bare ground. And, as the writers of these short takes will tell you, so does the spirit that animates gifting. Each of these stories proves that, like a potlatch, the best gifts are more than the giver thought she could give because they are repaid with more than she ever dreamed she’d receive.
The Christmas Prayer
Santa, grant me the temerity
To accept the things I did not choose,
Courage to exchange the things I can;
And wisdom to re-gift the difference.
Living on the edge each Christmas Eve;
Enjoying the fragrance of pine;
Accepting ugly sweaters as the pathway to peace:
Taking, as many do, the synthetic substitutes,
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting Amazon® will make all things right
If I surrender to making a list;
That I may be reasonably happy shopping online,
And supremely happy with retail sales,
Forever, till the next time.
The new grandmother had been proud of the gift check she had been able to give to the new baby. But then her daughter, the new mother, said she was spending the gift on a doula, the kind who comes after the baby is home. They were speaking in low tones. The baby boy lay near them, half in, half out of sleep, in the way of the newly arrived.
The grandmother, hurt, said, “Why pay a stranger when I am right here? Will she love you and the baby as I do?”
“This isn’t about love,” the mother said. “It’s about knowledge.”
“For knowledge we sent you to college!” She regretted the rhyme. “Did you study anything useful? Philosophy, film, French…” First rhyme, now alliteration. “And now you don’t know the oldest rule? You have a baby, you let your mother teach you.”
The doula arrived just then. Her long gray hair was tied back with a purple paisley scarf. Her T-shirt read MOMS RULE above a picture of the earth.
The grandmother had always thought babies liked to be free to kick, but the doula was wrapping the baby as if he were a parcel to be left in the building lobby for the mail carrier.
The doula was using the baby blanket the grandmother had purchased on the day she learned she was to be a grandmother. She had gone shopping in a snowstorm, with a bad cold, so strong was her need for a physical manifestation to match the excitement in her heart.
She gazed at the packaged baby with unlimited love. She thought she saw him wink at her, but it was just the cataract her eye doctor had mentioned.
The daughter held out her arms for her infant son but the doula moved past her and put the baby into his grandmother’s embrace. His head just fit into the wrinkled curve of her neck. “There! There he will be happy!” The grandmother saw her daughter pretend she’d only been reaching for a book on the table.
The grandmother inhaled the scent of all babies. And more. She could smell a cold little boy coming in from a snowball fight, a middle school kid made of peanut butter and chalk, a tall freshman sweaty with nerves talking with a pretty classmate.
She walked over and held the boy out to his mother. For a moment they were a four-armed goddess, then the grandmother stepped back.
When the doula’s visit was over, the two mothers drank herb tea, speaking of the past and of the future.
It rained on and off all weekend, driving and cold, so we mostly stayed in the cabin. The girls in our Camp Fire Girls troop – were we 10, 12?– had run out of stories to tell and plays to perform. We’d managed a soggy stew over the fire, but no one was looking forward to the long night ahead, when Denise, my best friend, crashed through the door yelling: “The gophers are coming! The gophers are coming! We must be ready!”
We stared at her from our bunks. She, serious as a nun, cried out that we were under threat from attacking gophers; we needed to fight the invasion. She spun a tale of wild gophers, mad gopher generals. We made battle gear from bedsheets and kitchenware and composed theme songs.
As adults, mention of an impending gopher attack was code, our way of assuring each other we’d be there to help fight off any foe – a bad boyfriend, an unfair boss, the terrible twos or a marriage sagging under the weight of time. When she was 55, I promised Denise we’d beat the gopher called cancer. It was a promise I could not keep.
On the first anniversary of her death, I was still swallowed by grief. My daughter, knowing, sent a box. The adult-sized gopher costume inside threw me into spasms of laughter. I wore it, that September 12 and each one since, long enough to raise a glass of wine.
Jolly Holiday Project
Roll and cut buttery dough,
Brush on egg and decorate:
Red, green, cinnamon sugars,
Chopped nuts, sprinkles.
While two trays bake, ready two more.
Half way through, rotate trays.
Remove, put cookies off to cool;
Slide next pair into oven;
Repeat as necessary.
Dust off flour, wash cookie cutters and trays.
Done in no time.
Boom, boom, boom.
Yield: two batches of sand tarts,
Thin, crunchy, cinnamon-y sweet;
Festive stars, trees, snowmen, bells, teddy bears,
Fish (honoring the guys’ favorite pastime),
Dozens and dozens, to share with family and friends.
That was our efficiency plan.
Like most first-time endeavors,
Logistics were bumpy:
Dough stuck to rolling pin and other floured surfaces;
Shapes tore in transferring;
At one point we looked up from concurrent dithers
And decided calmer background music was in order.
Even after we settled down,
Consistent thinness and golden-brownness resisted our efforts;
Someone accidentally turned off the oven;
Someone forgot to set the timer – more than once.
No cookies got burned,
Although a batch of teddy bears sported very brown coats.
In between, we analyzed our husbands – thoroughly,
Discussed our hopes for the children, and laughed a lot.
Four and a half hours later, we concluded
That baking sand tarts was complicated,
Demanded considerable concentration,
And there was no efficient way to do it!
After the flour settled,
We gazed contentedly at the yield:
Dozens and dozens of festive cookies,
Thin, crunchy, cinnamon-y sweet;
Made tastier by two invisible,
Companionship and love.
Not the Perfect Gift
You have to really know a person to find the right gift.
The little habits, the small collection of antique bottles, the love
of linen. Then you’ll stumble upon the right gift.
This morning I opened a drawer and for a moment thought
those fancy earrings were ones my mother gave me decades ago.
They weren’t, because I have to admit I gave those away.
Those earrings didn’t fit my life. She was drifting toward
suicide and we were reaching across a divide.
But she knew I had pierced my ears.
This morning I want to stretch out into the cosmos with gratitude
for those earrings. I want to put them on even though I’m wearing a
ratty pair of jeans and an old T-shirt.
I want to sing a hymn for every gift that didn’t quite match,
for every journey we humans make to touch another
who is just beyond our tender fingertips.
An Unexpected Gift
My mother, having been told by my first grade teacher that I have difficulty seeing the blackboard, takes me for an eye test. The judgment: I need glasses. Mother tries to make the purchase easier by allowing me to choose frames. I pick dark blue, a choice I regret as soon as we arrive home. I hate them. I look like a little old woman. In a masochistic rage, I can’t unglue myself from the mirror. And I hate Miss Curry for suggesting this.
The first morning at school, two friends call me Granny.
“Granny Granny has a fanny,” they chant.
Miss Curry points out the glasses to our class and announces how smart I am to wear them so I can see well. If anyone else has trouble seeing the blackboard they should tell her. Everyone stares at me.
On the way home across that field, I find a sharp rock, dig a shallow hole and lay them within, those two eyed frames. It is my first act of duplicity. It feels delicious.
When I arrive home, I am all tears and sobs. I lost my glasses. I have no idea where they are. I have searched under my desk, in my desk, in the field. I even hunted for them in the girl’s bathroom. The story takes on a life of its own.
I drop so many clues, and my stories are so full of inconsistencies, that after a brief questioning from both parents, I confess to burying them in the field.
“Where in the field?” they ask.
I have no idea – it is a complete mystery.
The punishment fits the crime. I am to go out to the field in the morning and find them. Where to even look? I dig holes in parts of the field without success. The handle of the shovel bends: the dirt is that hard.
It is a wispy spring day in May 1936. Apple blossoms grace the trees on both sides of the street ahead of me. A yellow and black butterfly dips toward me and flies away. After a bit, I stop digging. I stop crying. I sit up, cross my legs, and experience the warmth of the earth. I pluck a blade of grass and study it. I make up a story of a girl who starts following a butterfly into a land where there are no glasses. A ladybug crawls up my arm. A mosquito buzzes over my head. I find shifting faces in the clouds: a long lizard, a fat lady lounging on couch. That day I receive a gift: a stairway to another country that later I realize is called Imagination.
A Christmas Miracle
Almost sixty years ago
I stood at a second floor window
rocking a tiny baby in my arms,
not my baby – one loaned to me
for this Christmas Eve night,
watching a skim of snow
covering the cars below
and someone scurrying across
the hospital parking lot
to the entrance I couldn’t see.
Christmas carols played gaily
on a radio in the next room
and this unresponsive child
must have felt the Angel Dust
mixed with the Christmas Snow
as it whooshed throughout
the building as doors
opened and shut. Her tiny hands
grasping and clutching as though
she could catch this Christmas miracle
And she did. By morning her charts
showed she emptied each bottle offered,
her little hands danced to the radio’s Hallelujahs
A baby once doomed to lie forever
in her crib as still as the child
in the manger scene below, grabbed
Angel Dust and Christmas Snow
and was given the present
of a long, happy life.