Monday, June 27, 2022

"A Gift Creates An Ongoing Relationship"

A colleague's mom recently moved from her house into a more manageable apartment. Over the years, as one does, her mother had collected a lot of stuff in her closets, garage, cellar, and attic, most of which couldn't move with her. "Mom didn't want to throw anything away, so now my siblings and I have her stuff in our attics," she complained. She was particularly frustrated by her mother's good china. "Mom never used it. I'm never going to use it, but it's so special to her. I think it was a wedding present."

So, she was torn about what to do. For her, it was something that would just be stored away in a dusty corner somewhere to be, as she said, thrown out by her son when it was his turn to inherit it. On the other hand, she figured she could sell it or donate it, to at least get it out there in the world where someone would appreciate it. This same set of china that meant so much to her mother, meant nothing to her, except for the nagging fact that her mother had cherished it.

"It's funny how the nature of an object . . . is so changed by the way it has come into our hands, as a gift or a commodity," writes Robin Wall Kimmerer in her stunning book Braiding Sweetgrass. "A gift creates ongoing relationship."

To insult someone as "childish" is, in part, to call them selfish, but I've never found children to be any more or less selfish than the adults I know. In truth, I count young children among the most generous and thoughtful people I've ever known. They haven't yet learned our culture's lessons about consumerism, so nothing to them is a mere commodity. I wrote last week about a girl who gave me a picture she had been drawing simply because I admired it. Over the course of my decades in the classroom I could have filled a dozen garages with the gifts I've been given by children, these young humans who are emphatically unselfish, who know in their hearts the connecting power of a gift.

I realized long ago that these gifts of artwork, of nature, of found objects, and of thoughtfulness, contained, as Kimmerer writes, a "bundle of responsibilities," and that by accepting these gifts I was creating a "feeling-bond" between children and myself. That, of course, is the real value of things. 

One of the first things a baby does upon learning to grasp hold of objects, is to offer them to us, holding them out as gifts. They, in turn, take them from us, only to immediately offer them back in a cycle of gift giving that weaves our lives together. Mere objects simply don't do that. Kimmerer writes, "That is the fundamental nature of gifts: they move, and their value increases with their passage."

Many Indigenous cultures see this dynamic throughout all of nature. "Wild strawberries," writes Kimmerer, "fit the definition of gift, but grocery store berries do not." As our children grow older, more and more of their world becomes commodified, they learn the harsh lessons of consumerism, which creates no bonds other than through the tit-for-tat exchange of money. It's easy to see how this separates us from our natural impulses, which is to connect through sharing.

I don't know what my colleague will finally decide about her mother's china. She still feels, through her connection with her mother, the value of this gift, but the longer it remains boxed up in the attic, as the feeling-bond becomes lost, the more it is becoming a soulless commodity. By the time it gets to her son, it will no longer be a gift at all. I hope, for everyone's sake, that she decides to transform it back into a gift.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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