Sunday, December 16, 2007

These Gifts

"Julian" (not his real name) delicately placed five items on the table in front of me and carefully chose the paper for each gift. Gold foil for his sister. Cream with golden musical instruments for his mother. Gold with pictures of candy for his grandfather. Each gift wrapped in gold.

Last Thursday I wrapped Christmas presents picked out by young people in the residential treatment program where I work. Each year, items are donated by the local community and churches around the state, to help make Christmas special. People are incredibly generous, donating toys, journals, clothes, make-up kits, hand-knit blankets, books... anything a child or teenager might want. Many of these things are given to the children, but a variety of items are set aside to create a "store" where the children can "shop" by picking out gifts to give their family and loved ones.

Some of our kids don't have anyone to give a Christmas present to. Their staff work as a team to create a special Christmas for them; and these children are allowed to shop for 1-2 staff, to experience the act of giving and receiving. Other kids have parents or foster parents, cousins and siblings. Some have very complicated families, with siblings they don't know very well because they've never lived with them.

Many of our kids approach the task of gift-giving with nonchalance and bravado. It's just something they're doing because everyone is doing it and it's Christmas, and whatever. They aren't thoughtless, just self-protective and afraid of making an effort that might result in rejection. Other kids are deliberate, thoughtful, and precise in their choice of gifts and gift wrapping. You can tell that they are holding their loved ones in their thoughts and allowing themselves to want each gift to be appreciated.

Here is what I want to say about Christmas and commercialism: it's not about things. But that doesn't mean that gifts don't matter. Christmas presents are a symbol--a vessel through which something is communicated. If you start to get caught up in caring about the price tag attached, or believing what other people think is signified by a particular item... well then you are misunderstanding the nature of symbols.

An expensive watch does not communicate more than a matchbox car chosen for a dad who likes racing. Yet jewelry is a wonderful gift for someone known and loved for their sparkle.

I'm trying to keep this in mind as I finish my Christmas shopping and wrap everything up in bright, store-bought paper. As I wrap each present, I will think of the love of my family and friends and the blessings they bring into my life.

I would like to live more simply--to be able to hand-knit an organic cotton shawl for my mother, compose a love song for my partner, take seaglass and scavenged wire to fashion a necklace for my sister, and whittle toys for my kids. I know that there is an unseen cost that comes with factory-printed wrapping paper and toys manufactured in china.

Imperfect and store-bought, expensive or bargain-bin: these gifts that I give and those I will receive are a sign of love and appreciation. Just a sign. Nothing more, but also nothing less.

These gifts point to the gifts that my loved ones are to me. I don't particularly deserve them, yet here they are.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


A guy I went to graduate school with, Kurt Shaw, was recently honored by the school with a "First Decade Award" for his work with homeless children in Latin America. His organization, Shine a Light, links NGOs doing grassroots work while also bringing attention to programs that use the arts to give homeless Latin American children a voice.

In an article in our alumni magazine, Kurt describes and reflects on his work. He begins by describing giving a videocamera to a boy who lives on the streets of Cordoba, Argentina and the film the child created. The boy experienced the act of creating a film about his experiences as a way to give back. Kurt writes:
We have this idea that the poor are, well, poor. Children, blacks, any oppressed group: they are defined by their lack, by what they are missing. The more time I spend on the streets and favelas of Brazil, Argentina and Colombia, the more I realize what a completely wrong that idea is. In fact, the poor are immensely rich: in art, in culture, in kindness and laughter and solidaritiy. And like anyone else, they become richer when they have a chance to give this wealth, instead of feeling like they must always be the victims of charity.
Later, he writes:
In church when I was a kid, we learned how to give gifts: the offering for the Heifer Project, the CROP walk, door-to-door collections for Church World Service and UNICEF. All of that was great, of course, and I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now without it. But now that I know the kids who get the donations I gave, I'm more concerned about it: when their gift comes from no-place and they have no way to give a return gift, they end up in an eternal debt. Charity without relationship, without love--to use the Christian word--becomes not only paradoxical, but damaging. Without a way to pay in the same currency, they pay with their dignity and autonomy; it's not chance that debt and guilt are the same word in Greek.

What I'm saying, I guess, is this: charity and sacrifice and altruism are the wrong metaphor. We have to come to see social change movements as an opportunity for relationships. And in that exchange of gifts, we all become richer.
I was so moved and inspired by Kurt's essay that I wanted to write to thank him, but haven't yet. His words spoke to me about the work I do as a fundraiser for an organization working with marginalized children--challenging me to be thoughtful about what I do and how I go about it.

It's a complicated thing because I'm on the side of the process where I solicit acts of charity. I feel very good about the fact that the kids my organization serves are encouraged and supported to use their voices and to give back. We talk a lot about the difference between taking and receiving--we teach our children and young adults about the power and connection you can experience by allowing someone to reach out to you with the understanding that you also will give to others.

Many--probably most--of our donors see their gifts as building a relationship with our kids. But there are those who are throwing money at a problem that troubles them but they really don't want to think about too much. Then charity really does feel like a wall dividing a donor from a seemingly-passive recipient. I imagine that this is why some people feel their lives are enriched through giving, while others feel anxious about being asked to give--each charitable contribution leaves them feeling more impoverished.

When I worked with the Quakers, there was a written policy that images used in publicizing programs would be respectful, positive, and humane. For instance a program working in an area experiencing hunger would depict people farming or milling grain; not flies crawling across a baby's eyelids. In my own work, we sometimes show kids receiving a gift but mostly we show them being the interesting, creative, strong individuals that they are. I take a lot of photos and share a lot of their words about their own volunteering and work giving back to the community.

There's a lot more to say, but last night I wrote about Kurt's article in my diary, and his words became connected in my mind to the bedtime story I read to Kinnell about Gossie the Goose.

Gossie is a gosling who loves to wear red boots every day. One day she can't find her boots...until she finds them on the feet of another gosling! "Nice boots!" says Gertie, clomping around in Gossie's favorite boots. Does Gossie feel robbed, angry, and poor? No, the last page of the book shows the two goslings playing together, each wearing one red boot.

It's such a simple childhood lesson--if you share, you will make friends. Or as my mother and grandmother used to say, "Share and share alike."

I like that phrase. We each give what we can, and in the process not only our possessions are shared, but also our common humanity.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Absence and Presence

Today a poem from Mary Oliver was on Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, and I'm going to copy and paste it here and then say a few things.

The Summer Day
by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

I heard this poem on my way to therapy today. I love my therapist. She is a Gestalt therapist and the wife of a retired Presbyterian minister, so it's the closest I've come to spiritual direction. She leaves a lot of space for questions about meaning and purpose and death and God.

So today I asked my therapist if she believes in God, and then quickly told her I wasn't sure I want to know. I had been telling her how difficult and painful it is not to believe in God and yet to care so much about the pain and suffering of others. I had received an email about legislation to help grandparents who raise their grandchildren, and a second about the lack of access to basic healthcare services if you are on Medicaid and live in our community. And doing the work that I do, it's hard not to feel despair about the ways we fail to invest in families and in children in the interest of building healthier and more just communities.

She asked me what it feels like not to believe in God. "Empty?" she asked. "Dark," I replied. I told her that I imagine death as being like a light goes out. It is difficult and sad to realize how hard life can be--to witness the pain of others and then imagine a person suffering... and then the light goes out.

Then I remembered reading about the new biography of Mother Theresa, which apparently describes a "dark night of the soul" that she experienced for most of her life. According to this article, Mother Theresa felt abandoned by God and spent most of her life doubting that God even exists. But she apparently also felt that this feeling of abandonment helped her experience a greater sense of connection to the despair of the people she served.

My therapist responded, "Isn't that amazing that she felt abandoned, when she brought God into the world?"

"I KNEW you believed in God," I said, and then laughed and thanked her for saying that, because it meant a lot to me.

Maybe we don't get to know God's presence all the time. Maybe it would make us too secure or fanatical. Maybe feeling abandoned teaches us compassion. Maybe it would be like when you think too much about breathing and begin to feel like you are suffocating--if you felt God's presence all the time and really concentrated on it, how could you get anything else done?

I love the poem by Mary Oliver and the question she asks at the end. I am also very far from a place in my life where I could spend the day walking through a field and examining grasshoppers. If I had that time, I think I would feel God's presence, or the presence of whatever "God" represents.

But for now I'm raising my children and doing my work. Maybe that is enough.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Binding

When I was in college, my family and I attended a reception where a Jewish Studies professor gave a lecture. At the time I found the talk interesting but it quickly faded from memory. Some years later, I remember my dad asking me about that lecture and reminding me what it had been about.

The subject was the Akedah -- The Binding of Isaac. Abraham is called by God to climb a mountain and sacrifice his son Isaac. Isaac walks with his father to the top of the mountain, where Abraham binds him to an altar and is ready to kill him when an angel appears telling him he does not need to perform the sacrifice. Abraham discovers a ram in the bushes nearby, sacrifices a ram, and returns home with his son.

This is a gripping, perplexing story. Dr. Jon Levenson, my graduate school Hebrew Bible professor, argued that Isaac is a grown man when this occurs, and that he accompanies Abraham to the top of the mountain -- walks with him spiritually as well as literally -- and is therefore not a victim but willing participant in doing as God commanded. Other interpretations say that God was testing Abraham and never intended for him to go through with the sacrifice. What kind of God would do this is hard to comprehend.

The talk that day, as my father remembered it, focused on the chilling image of a father agreeing to kill his child. The central question this professor asked was, if God tells you to do something, how do you know it's really God?

This was a question dad found very interesting, and which I've been puzzling over lately. Even if you are a believer and know that God exists, how can you be sure it's God talking to you, especially if you are being told to do something painful or difficult? It could be insanity. It could be the devil. It could actually be God. Even healing experiences, moments of powerful insight, connectedness and love -- how do you know they are from God and not just some useful psychological reaction or other self-delusion?

Thinking about the Akedah today, I'm struck by how powerfully it works a metaphor for the everyday gift of life. Let's say there is a God, and that God is all-powerful. When a person is hurt or dies, God has chosen for that to happen. And when a person is saved from the brink of devastation, that is also God's doing. The truth is, whether or not you believe in God as an active agent who runs the show, we don't get to decide when we will die.

Now imagine Abraham not as a father who gives in to the insane idea that he should kill his son, but as a man who has come to terms with this reality. The idea of killing your own child could be imagined as killing the idea that you are able to keep your child alive. In other words, Abraham in the story is submitting to the reality that he is not in control of his or his child's destiny.

"Ok, it's Isaac's time to die," he thinks. "It's not up to me to decide." And then at the top of the mountain, blessing of blessings, Isaac's destiny is revealed: life!