Mary Oliver writes about “the light that can shine out of a life.” I’ve been resting in that phrase over the holiday weekend.
When I think of “life” the first things that come to mind are not human lives, but those rooted in the green world, the world that sustains me. I thought of light shining out of lives as I deadheaded and watered velvety purple petunias in their hanging basket, leggy now but still blooming richly, as though the first frost is not around the corner. I thought of it as I diced fresh sage, thyme, parsley, and garlic chives from my garden with our sharpest knife to make herbed bread. On my low-carb diet I eat a half a piece a day and these two loaves will last me for weeks. The scent of baking bread with herbs and onion fills the house like late summer incense.
I think of human life, too — strangers, friends and family, all kinds of people, a great tidal wave of humanity straining the planet’s resources to the uttermost limits, but each individual a soul with hopes, dreams, history, wounds, and memories. Each with potential to be a light. Each with equal potential to be darkness.
The thing about light is it’s meaningless unless we know darkness.
I want to be a source of light in the world. More than that, I want to be a specific kind and intensity of light for specific people in specific ways. I’m pleased if my light illuminates a step or two for others, or provides some comfort, but the light I’m choosing to shine is really directed at a small handful of people.
Appreciate my light, dammit! Open your eyes! I’m shining for you!
I’m coming to the reluctant conclusion that allowing light to shine from my life is where my power ends. The intensity and quality of my particular light is not in my power. I can’t control the eyes seeing it or the steps it guides or companions.
This morning I took an early walk at dawn. The sky was orange and pink, and as I was heading home with the sun rising behind me light glowed in the trees, which are just beginning to turn the same colors. It was so lovely my eyes burned with tears.
That light wasn’t for me. It wasn’t mine. Birds and animals and yes, people too, all had their being under that morning sky. The trees bathed in it as though they loved it. I just happened to be one of many awake and about, and I saw. I saw and I was blessed.
Another thing about light is we can’t see it if we don’t look.
I wonder sometimes if we’re losing our ability to see lights shining from lives. Are our eyes too weary and distracted by a world full of visual noise and endless screens to find starlight or firefly light? If we light a candle in our soul can we find our way back to it when we’re lost in darkness? Are we able to value only the glaring light of sun or spotlight?
We were cleaning out a storage area under the attic eaves this weekend, and I crawled on my hands and knees with a flashlight, noting wiring that needs attention, dust, the desiccated bodies of wasps, and signs of mice. It struck me holding a flashlight in a dark place provides illumination in the direction it’s pointed, but the holder can’t actually see the light source itself. Can we ever know the quality and brightness of our own light? Are we able to judge its value or where it’s most needed? Can we control which direction it shines in?
“The light that can shine out of a life.” Nourishing light. Guiding light. Light connecting us to the web of life that is community. Inspiring light. Yet the value and outcomes of allowing our light to shine is beyond our control, beyond our knowledge.
Letting light shine out of our lives is an offering we can choose to make, and then we’re done. Perhaps the rest is none of our business.
When I went through emotional intelligence training, I learned about three basic human needs: Contribution, connection and authenticity. If these primary needs are not adequately met, our lives don’t work well. I’ve written about my wary relationship with my own needs before. As I explore emotional intelligence, I’m struck by the simplicity of the three basic needs, the paradoxical complexity of each one, and the unique ways, often unconsciously, we each approach getting these needs met. I also notice the way these needs are inextricably woven into each other.
In these first couple of weeks of a new job, it’s been necessary to build a new schedule, which felt overwhelming until I remembered the three basic needs. I’m a creature of habit and I quickly stop assessing how I spend my time once I have a workable schedule. I engage with activities I’m accustomed to engage with and that’s that.
Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash
When I trained as a medical transcriptionist and started working from home, I was motivated by the necessity of earning a living and managing my then-teenage sons as a single mother. Medical transcription was a perfect solution. Gradually, without me really noticing, I allowed the job to become a prison. The boys grew up and moved out. I was promoted twice, but never earned a comfortable living. The job came with intense pressure that triggered my stress and perfectionism. It was isolating. It was difficult physically and keyboarding began to give me overuse injury.
I depended on my inadequate paycheck. It was the only income I had.
I was aware during the last couple of years I worked as a transcriptionist that the job was no longer meeting any of my needs, aside from the paycheck, but a paycheck is kind of essential. In fact, in my mind it was the essential priority in my life, and I labored away in spite of migraine headaches and increasing pain in my upper extremities and shoulders until the day came when I could no longer keyboard without sobbing and I developed a frozen shoulder. I couldn’t take off my shirt without feeling faint from pain.
Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash
The hardest thing about that job was not the poor pay, but feeling my contribution didn’t matter. The medical professionals were dictating into a piece of equipment and rarely, if ever, considered the human being trying to transcribe their dictation, unless it was to complain and criticize errors. The company I worked for is a huge global conglomerate on the cutting edge of speech recognition technology and a whole host of other businesses. I was nameless and faceless. All training and in-services were done remotely. Management had a high turnover. Changes happened without notice, like getting transferred to a new book of business. Overtime, when needed, was mandatory. Transcriptionists were expected to work 24/7 and weekend shifts were required.
Many people can type quickly and accurately. It’s mostly a matter of practice. I was a pair of hands and ears racing the clock, along with hundreds of others like me, both here and overseas. The job wanted no authenticity from me or anyone else. It’s a job for robots.
Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash
I am not a robot.
I’ve been seeking a new job because I want to start earning income again, but this time I promised myself I wouldn’t take a job that didn’t feel meaningful to me, and I knew exactly what I meant by meaningful. A meaningful job is not about the paycheck. Yes, obviously, I need money in today’s world. Not a lot, but some. Enough to justify my time, travel and commitment. However, the work I do in exchange for a paycheck of any size is only meaningful if it makes a positive difference in the lives of others. I don’t want to be paid for being a robot impersonator. I want to be paid because I contribute something wanted or needed out of my own authenticity.
Working as a member of a team in order to keep people safe, assist patients in rehabilitation, and teaching swimming feels meaningful and allows me to work from the heart. In my little corner of the world I can be part of something healthy and healing for myself and others.
As an ex-people-pleaser, I endeavored for most of my life to make a positive difference in the lives of my family and immediate connections. I worked as hard as I could at it, and making a meaningful contribution was my top priority. In spite of all my efforts, I failed. In fact, it seemed the harder I tried the more obnoxious I was to those around me. Naturally, I concluded that I was nothing. I had nothing to offer that anyone wanted. It would be better for everyone if I disappeared and relieved them of the burden of my presence.
Two important things I’ve learned from those years are people pleasing doesn’t work, and some people are determined never to be pleased. I learned to define for myself what a “good” job is. I began to seek paid work I enjoyed as much as volunteer work and kept my focus on the feeling of making a positive contribution.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
I see and hear a lot of discussion about the increasing problems of loneliness and depression, and I suspect many of those affected feel unable to make a meaningful, authentic contribution in their families and/or communities. Somewhere along the way we decided a paycheck is more important than the quality of our contribution, but ultimately, as human beings, no paycheck is an adequate substitute for feeling our contribution matters. Our culture does not necessarily reward authentic contribution. We like our infallible robots and good soldiers, those who do and say exactly what they’re programmed to do and say. Loose cannons like me are a problem nobody wants in the classroom or the boardroom.
I’m sorry I believed for so long I had nothing to contribute. It made me miserable and was the root of many destructive choices. Now I believe we all have a great deal to offer, and someone out there needs exactly what we can contribute. What would the world be like if every man, woman and child truly felt they had something unique to give that made a positive difference in just one other life? What if contributing and receiving contributions were not tied to money? What if we all woke up in the morning knowing the world is a better place because of our presence?
What would it take to make that a reality for everyone?
I’m fortunate to have found a way to make an authentic, meaningful contribution combined with a paycheck. Not everyone is able to do that. But everyone is able to do something. Plant a tree. Walk dogs living in animal shelters. Visit hospital patients. Assist in schools, day care facilities or retirement homes. Volunteer to answer a hotline. Buy a cup of coffee for a homeless person. Teach literacy.
Someone out there needs what we can give. Someone is waiting for us. All we have to do is go find them.
The seed for this post was a podcast by Pat McCabe, also known as Woman Stands Shining, who is a Diné (Navajo) mother, grandmother, activist, artist, writer, ceremonial leader and international speaker. In the podcast, she speaks about the idea of making an offering as part of our spiritual work.
Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash
That idea started me thinking about offerings, what it means to make one, to whom we make them, and why. Spiritual and sacred practices are a strong theme in my Webbd Wheel series. Mother’s Day has come and gone and Father’s Day is ahead. Many of us mark these days with offerings of some kind. For Earth Day, I joined a small neighborhood group and picked up trash, and I framed that activity as an offering. Yesterday I cleaned up my summer-only dance space and danced there for the first time this season. As so often happens, during that hour of dance this week’s post crystallized.
An offering is “a thing offered as a gift or a contribution” according to a quick Internet search. A gift is “a thing given willingly to someone without payment.”
The act of making an offering is ancient, a practice we began long before we could go out and buy a gift. Various cultures have historically engaged in ritual sacrifice (an act of slaughtering an animal or person or surrendering a possession as an offering to God or to a divine or supernatural figure), an altogether different degree of gift from a cute coffee mug.
I’ve long struggled personally with gift giving. There’s something in me that resents and resists the cultural mandates we’ve created to give gifts of a particular kind on certain occasions or days of the year. It seems to me modern-day gift giving has moved away from making an offering and into a demonstration of possessing money and spending it on some new piece of something, just for the look of the thing. We may feel real love, or gratitude, or whatever, but the only way we know how to express it is by buying a card (never mind the trees) and some kind of a gift.
I know that’s how we do things, but what does it accomplish, aside from contributing to our capitalist economy? Is that what we most want from the people in our lives — more stuff — or is that what we take because we can’t get what we really want? Is a coffee mug all we think we have to offer? Is a coffee mug all we think the other will accept? Are we unable to recognize and cherish an offering unless it comes gift-wrapped?
Photo by Chris Ensey on Unsplash
I’m thinking a lot about Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, because I’m writing about her in my second book. Traditional offerings to Pele included tobacco, brandy, silk, crystals, tropical flowers and food. Offerings to Pele and other divine figures around the world involved ritual, prayer, music, song, dance and sometimes a sacrifice. Things, yes, although many were consumables or objects from the natural world, but also time. Presence. Creative, sensual and/or erotic expression. Community celebration, guided by spiritual leaders. Reverence. Appreciation. Gratitude. Acknowledgement of the Divine’s connection to the people and the natural world they inhabited.
Making an offering on this level is a demonstration of commitment and willingness to participate in the complex web of connection between people and nature. It’s a practice, not a one-time event. It’s flexible and not limited to the calendar or the clock. If there’s a community or individual need to speak to the Divine, time is set aside to do so. No money or commerce need be involved, because the offering is of self.
The offering of self, however, is often invisible, especially to our nearest and dearest. It’s so fatally easy to take one another for granted. The very act of feeding those we love is an offering we’ve been making and accepting since humans began. The acts of growing, harvesting, gathering, hunting, sharing and preparing food, absolutely necessary for survival, are almost obscured now by money and time constraints, ecological concerns, health issues, ideology and who does the dishes. Whether we recognize it or not, feeding another person is an offering of life. Parents know making that single offering to just one child, let alone other family members, is a colossal, exhausting, unending task. Yet it’s so often completely invisible, and who has time to enjoy the act of offering food to another (or ourselves, for that matter), or incorporate ritual, play or creativity into our eating? It’s just another chore in our busy days.
So, if our offering is invisible, unrecognized, unappreciated or even rejected in favor of something like a coffee mug, does it mean we’re worth nothing, we are nothing?
Of course not, but it feels that way sometimes, doesn’t it?
Making an offering means letting it go into the world and having faith in its worth. An offering is a gift, and a gift is a thing given willingly, without payment, remember? There isn’t a scorecard. It’s the practice of offering that enriches our spirit, not the outcome. Unfortunately, everything about our modern culture trains us to depend on immediate reinforcement. We’re hooked on likes, claps and our stats. We gloat over the number of our friends, subscribers, comments and shares. Deadliest of all, we compare our popularity and performance with the popularity and performance of others.
What others think about us and how the world perceives us is becoming more important than our own integrity and the authenticity and quality of our offerings. We’re forgetting how to trust and have faith in silence, in invisibility and in not knowing. We’re forgetting our worth is not defined by others.
What about the offerings we make to ourselves? What about our ability to meet our ownneeds, spiritual, physical, creative and emotional? Do we have any self to give ourselves? Do we tell ourselves there’s no time, no money and no point? Do we tell ourselves whatever our self-expression is, it’s not worth anything, meaning we can’t sell it to someone or no one will approve of it?
I danced yesterday in an old woodshed that was attached to a local one-room schoolhouse more than 100 years ago. It leans and tilts. The roof leaks. The windows and doors aren’t square and the wind blows through gaps. I swept out the winter’s accumulation of mouse and bat droppings, leaves and dirt. It was a warm, sunny day and as I danced I gradually peeled off my clothes until I was naked. The sun came in the west window and made a square on the floor.
I thought of trees and stones offering their bodies to moss and lichen, the earth offering itself to plants, and blossoms offering themselves to sunlight and insects.
I thought of smiling into a stranger’s eyes and complimenting a cashier on the color of her blouse.
I thought of the creators of the music I was dancing to making an offering of their talent, enabling me to offer my dance.
I thought of homes, rooms and gardens I’ve created that are long erased. I thought of people I’ve loved with my whole heart and volunteer work I’ve done. I thought of my partner, who was running an errand in town so I could eat bacon the next morning. I thought of picking up trash on Earth Day and the new trash that’s been thrown out car windows since then, and how futile that makes me feel.
I thought about words, all these words, all these stories and ideas and thoughts in my head that are here and in my books. I thought about all the words written by others I read each day and appreciate and share.
I thought about procreation, the red tide and the milky seed our bodies offer to life, to hope, to continuance. I thought about offerings of tears, of blood, of pain, of rage and of surrender.
Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash
Offering is a circle. Life offers itself to us, and we can choose to offer ourselves to Life. What better offering can we make than our fully engaged participation and presence with ourselves, our experience and others? Such a gift can’t be bought or sold. It might not feed our fame, popularity or bank account. We probably won’t get validated by statistics or Twitter. Some people may never recognize or value it.
But our self-esteem will bloom. Our joy will increase. Our words and choices will add to the positive energy in the world. We will become self-empowered and spiritually strong and resilient.
I smiled and laughed and shouted as I danced, whirled and stamped and clapped. I offered up my white, winter-tender skin to the sun and air. A mosquito bit me on a knee; a blood offering. No one saw me, except maybe an astonished spider or two. No one cared. It was an offering of self to self, a private thing. It gave me joy. It gave my body a chance to move and be grateful. It fed my creative well.
Years ago, during a conversation about men, a girlfriend of mine said, “You have to kiss a lot of frogs.” It was the first time I’d ever heard that observation, and I’ve never forgotten the way it made me smile. Now, it’s all over the Internet, but then we weren’t numbed by such a constant bombardment of memes and phrases.
One does have to kiss a lot of frogs in life. Roommates from hell, jobs we hate, the nether regions of those more powerful than we are, all require a certain amount of kissing. Then there are sticky-faced children kisses; big-hearted sloppy dog kisses; and, my personal favorite, sandpaper cat kisses that remove the top layer of skin from one’s nose.
Photo by Andreas Fidler on Unsplash
The central preoccupation of kissing, of course, is the “romantic” kiss. We quickly learn that some kisses are more romantic than others. A lot of our personal kissing history is hurriedly filed away under the label “What Was I Thinking?” and we try to forget about it.
When I really consider it, I realize we spend much more time kissing frogs than anything else. Someone should write a manual. (Poor little frogs. I’m very fond of them. I wonder if they have metaphors about kissing princes in hopes they turn into frogs. It would only be fair.)
Leaving an old, familiar place and coming to a new one reminds me how many frogs are out there, waiting to be kissed, especially in this season when the night shrills with the insistent songs of a variety of species from tiny peepers the size of a thumbnail to enormous bullfrogs. I’ve kissed a lot of frogs trying to make new friends. I’ve kissed a lot of frogs trying to find someone to cut my hair, a massage therapist, a dentist, a doctor, and a health food store.
Photo by henry fournier on Unsplash
Kissing frogs takes time, and I get discouraged. I’ve never been comfortable socially. I hate trying to make a connection with strangers. I know intellectually that for every ten times I reach out to another, nine times it will be another dead end, but the tenth time something wonderful will happen. Persistence and patience do pay off.
I’ve spent my life with books. I was reading before Kindergarten (thank you, Richard Scarry, Mom and Dad). Our home was always filled with books. I have a library degree and I’ve worked in a public library and an elementary school library. In my old place, I did volunteer work for a used bookstore run by the local Friends of the Library.
I came to Maine with more than 30 boxes of books, and that was after a severe culling. My partner has at least as many books in his own library. This old farmhouse is positively groaning with our combined libraries, and we’re in desperate need of more shelving. I was disappointed to find a less robust library program than I was used to in the nearest town, and no bookstore of any kind. My first year here, I did hear of a used bookstore in a college town about 30 minutes away, and my partner and I agreed we’d go check it out.
Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash
Three and a half years later, I finally made up my mind to stop shillyshallying around and go find that bookstore. I made a date with myself, pulled out maps, informed my partner I was going, dammit!, and we went.
Heaven. Bliss. Home. Shelves and boxes and unstable stacks of books on every surface. Hundreds of books. Thousands of books. Chairs and stepstools and round stools. Old encyclopedias. Children’s books. A huge table covered in a tornado of books.
I headed for the farthest back corner and started working my way forward through nonfiction hardback, plays, poetry, and then fiction.
A long time later, I went in search of the store owner, who was talking with my much more gregarious and extroverted partner in the casual fashion of men getting to know one another. Without preamble, I asked the owner if he had any use for a volunteer experienced in library and bookstore work. We were standing in a room I hadn’t explored yet that looked as though it had been the site of an explosion. Later, I found out a pipe had burst and flooded the place.
He thought this was a fine idea, and said I could start that minute. He also said he’d pay me in books (I made a valiant effort not to drool in front of him). I didn’t want to start that minute, so I declined, and I could tell he thought I didn’t mean it, not really. I said we’d talk. I went back to browsing, smiling to myself.
A couple hours, a heavy box and $145 later, we emerged, happy and grubby. I’d made a date to return, but the owner didn’t think I really would.
On Monday, as promised, I returned precisely on the dot of 12:15 p.m., the time he requested.
He’d hurriedly emptied several bookcases at the time of the flood, and disassembled shelves to get them out of the way. He’d been working to get the shelves back up and wanted me to load them. I asked if I could wipe down the shelves first. A raised eyebrow and surprised agreement. He found a bucket and a rag and I got to work while he searched among towering piles of heavy boxes for the books that belonged on the shelves. This was the general fiction mass market paperback section. He wanted me to weed out science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery for other sections. He also wanted me to weed out duplicates, choosing the best copy for the shelf.
Photo by Syd Wachs on Unsplash
So began four glorious hours of squatting, bending, kneeling, sorting and alphabetizing. A bookstore invariably reflects the place it’s in. In Colorado, we had a Colorado section, naturally, featuring Colorado authors and artists. We also had a big Western section featuring Louis L’Amour and other Western writers. In Maine, there’s a Maine section and history and biography focused on the founding of the colonies, mills and seafaring. Also, a lot of political nonfiction.
The fiction is heavy on Richard Russo, Bill Roorbach, Annie Proulx and other Maine writers, as well as, of course, shelves of Stephen King.
I emptied box after box. I filled one of the empty boxes with duplicates and started another. I made leaning piles of mystery, fantasy and science fiction for other sections. Customers came and went, stepping around my boxes, bucket and piles, browsing with the quiet intensity of true booklovers. Robert, the owner, moved boxes around, answered the phone and hummed under his breath. I put aside a few books I wanted to take home.
Four hours passed like a happy dream. I asked if I could come again. He said yes, he’d be delighted. We made a date. He’s still not entirely convinced I’ll be there, but that’s okay. He’ll learn to trust me.
Coming out of the door into the spring afternoon, I was exhausted, my back ached, my hands were filthy and I was absolutely happy. I’ve found a way to volunteer again, to make a contribution doing something I love and believe in. I’ve found a place to belong with people I have something in common with.
I kissed a frog and this time it turned into a prince.
I drove home along the Kennebec River, watching the water birds and enjoying the budding trees, pools of blue hyacinths and banks of daffodils. It’s strange, the things that give our lives the greatest meaning. I thought of the frogs in every pool, pond and puddle right now, in every river and stream, singing, peeping, croaking and chuckling. How many women would look at a disordered, slightly down-at-heel used bookstore and see a prince?
I don’t know. I don’t care. I’m happy. I have that excited feeling of anticipation we get when a new door opens. Through books and volunteer work I’ve found dear friends, great jobs, meaning and purpose. Dreams I didn’t know I had have come true.
Not every kiss is a new beginning. Not every frog is a prince. Every book, though, opens onto a world, and a building full of new worlds can’t help but be overflowing with magic, power and possibility. I’m glad I didn’t give up on kissing frogs. Maybe that bookstore has been waiting for me as persistently as I’ve been searching for it.
I’ve been trying to frame a post around generosity for several months. Interestingly and unexpectedly, the idea of generosity has remained a Gordian knot in spite of word webs, notes and lengthy simmering in the back of my mind. Since I began chewing on the idea of generosity, I’ve discovered Unsplash, a site offering free use of photographs for things like this blog, and now I finally feel I’m getting a grip on the subject.
Unsplash features more than 300,000 photos from more than 50,000 contributors. It’s free to use and free to join. Users may upload photographs for whatever they want as frequently as they want.
If generosity is unconditional readiness or liberality in giving, Unsplash is surely a fine illustration of the concept. The Internet is filled with people practicing their art. Some are trying to make a living. Many, like me, provide free content. Others start out contributing freely and then uplevel in order to earn a little bit of money with advertising, an Amazon affiliate program, a subscription fee, etc. In my view, some of the content out there is worth paying for, and other content is not.
Unsplash is worth paying for. Many of the photographers who contribute are professionals with content to sell, yet they continue to share some of their work freely with others.
Up to this point, I haven’t made a dime on this blog. It wasn’t about the money, but exercising my voice, my writing skills and my courage. I had no idea where it would go or what would happen with it. I had no idea if anyone would read what I wanted to write or how much I would grow to value the weekly practice of posting and maintaining a blog. I do want, however, to publish and sell my books in the future.
I think part of my struggle to get my head around generosity has been my own damaged sense of value. Those of us who feel we’re worthless assume we’ve nothing to give. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve declined attending a pot luck, a fundraiser, a party or even a funeral. I tell myself I have nothing to contribute, I was invited out of obligation or kindness, and nobody will even notice my absence.
Photo by photo-nic.co.uk nic on Unsplash
I am not Cinderella, and I do not possess a fairy godmother who will make me socially acceptable or worthy.
I wonder, looking back, if others have experienced me as being ungenerous or mean because of my lack of social contribution, when what was really at work was introversion, social anxiety and an abysmal sense of self-worth. I have no way of knowing.
On the other hand, I’ve volunteered my whole life. I’ve spent years working with children as a librarian, tutor, child development clinician, teacher’s aide, swim teacher and parent. I’ve participated in fire and rescue work as a volunteer EMT, as well as with animal rescue organizations. I’ve volunteered in libraries and as an oral storyteller, and I’ve volunteered as a dancer. I’ve worked in hospitals, nursing homes, public schools and libraries.
See? Nothing to contribute.
I earned a paycheck for some of that work, but one doesn’t get rich doing the kind of jobs I love to do, and the paycheck was never my motivation. I just loved the work. I felt as though I was making a difference in every one of those roles.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
I’ve always limited the idea of generosity to financial resource. Part of my shame about my poverty is that I’m unable to be financially generous, which I’ve believed automatically makes me stingy and uncharitable. If my generosity is measured by what I spend, it’s so small as to be negligible. I’m a rotten capitalist consumer.
In thinking deeply about generosity, I can see how my beliefs have distorted my view. I wrote some time ago about the failure of money, and that peeled away some of my limiting beliefs, but only the first layer or two. If I make generosity about money, I can never be generous, and I block the financial generosity of others toward me because I can’t reciprocate in kind. My desire to give is greater than my desire to receive. I desperately want to make a contribution. I feel disempowered when I can’t reciprocate someone’s generosity in a way that feels equal, and then I disconnect.
Unhooking generosity from money changes the way I look at it. Developing some trust in my own value also changes the way I think about generosity. Now I wonder if money is perhaps the least reliable indicator of generosity, not the most. Money is very visible and obvious in the world, but that doesn’t make it the most useful contribution. There have been times in my life when I’ve been in desperate need of money, but many, many more times when I’ve been in significantly more desperate need of someone to hold me, someone to believe in me, encourage me and simply love me. Money is easier to come by, believe me, than love and acceptance. Writing a check, donating a few dollars to the organization of our choice or buying a gift is easier, for many of us, than effectively communicating our love and appreciation for those around us in words or actions.
Some people give only to receive. On the face of it, it looks like generosity, but it’s not. My understanding of true generosity is it has no hidden agenda. Conditional generosity is like conditional love; control and manipulation pretending to be something else. Behavior seeking power over others, or freighted with unacknowledged expectations, is the reverse of generosity.
Another way in which people use generosity to mask control is to force a “gift” onto another. In this case, someone informs us about what we need and we understand we’d better damn well accept it and be grateful. Refusal is out of the question because of an unequal power dynamic. Acceptance of the “gift” also perpetuates an unequal power dynamic, because we’re expected to demonstrate appropriate gratitude (as defined by the gift giver) for something we didn’t want or need in the first place. We’re not allowed to express or receive what we really need, only submit to what someone else needs to give in order to get something for themselves.
A good litmus test for discerning authentic generosity is whether it occurs in anonymity. People giving to receive will never do it quietly. There’s always a camera, a video, a witness or a headline. There’s always a score card, a quid pro quo. There’s always a distorted power dynamic. Such people give to reward and withhold to punish.
You want to star in my production? Meet me on the casting couch and maybe I’ll put in a word for you.
At the end of all this excavation, I’ve finally begun to make friends with generosity. I am capable of being truly generous, and I have generous people in my life. I can discern the difference now between the real thing and a ploy to maintain or grab power. I may not have money, but I can appreciate, marvel and share. I can say thank you. I can give anonymously. I can exercise a generous compassion towards myself and others for our weaknesses and mistakes. I can recognize my desire for reciprocity and power-with as important pieces of my own integrity and freely disconnect from people and situations that don’t support what I need.
This takes me back to Unsplash. I know in this day and age it’s hard to think past the money, but as a creative person on line with free content I can assure you no amount of money outweighs the gratification of knowing I’ve made a connection, that something I write resonates with someone else. Money is important, and I wish I had more of it. If I can uplevel the blog in small ways to earn a little bit of money, I’ll do it. The real reward, though, is when someone reaches out to me and says, “Yes! Me, too! Your words made a difference in my day.” It just doesn’t get better than that.
Because of that, I’ve developed a habit of contacting a couple of photographers every week whose work appears in this blog. Behind each photograph is someone living a life, struggling with the things we all struggle with, sharing their unique vision and eye with the world just because. Unconditionally. I go to their website, if they have one. I explore their pictures and read about who they are. I contact them and briefly introduce myself. I thank them for their collaboration with me, a collaboration invisible to them unless I reach out. I express my appreciation for their contribution. It doesn’t take very long. It’s not as fast as writing a check or reciting a credit card number, but it’s a lot more fun.
So far, every single one has responded to say thank you. Thank you for acknowledging my unique creativity. Thank you for taking the time to remember the person behind the camera. Thank you for collaborating with me so we enhance one another’s contribution.
Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash
There is no exchange of money in this generosity, only of humanity. They give freely. I accept the gift and add it to my own, paying it both forward and backward.
Generosity: Unconditional readiness or liberality in giving.
I read a post on resistance lately from one of my favorite writers, Sharon Blackie, and was deeply comforted. She reminded me we all have something to offer the world. Ever since reading it, I’ve been thinking about what resistance means to me, and the different forms it takes in my life.
Then, last week, Elizabeth Warren was silenced on the Senate floor (but not elsewhere!), and Mitch McConnell made history with his justification. “She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.“
A violated rule. Heaven help us. Disobedience. Failure to comply.
Resistance and persistence. What an unholy pair.
This morning I sat down to write this post, as is my habit on Wednesday morning before I go swimming, but I couldn’t get anywhere with it. All I could think about was this quote, and how it makes me feel, and how absolutely persistent resistance is! After a few minutes the words stopped making any sense at all.
Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash
So, I went swimming. In the pool, I began the rhythm of stroke and breath, felt myself held by the water as though it loved me, and entered into the ebb and flow of my thoughts and feelings, not struggling for wisdom, focus or creativity, not trying to problem solve, just being.
“She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.“
I thought about how hard I’ve tried to earn love all my life with my silence, and how it hasn’t worked, and how now, in my fifties, I feel overwhelmed with grief because I wanted my family to be proud of me. I wanted to be allowed to love them and feel loved and supported in return. I wanted to get held and reassured. I never wanted to be the boat-rocker, the problem child, the difficult one, the dramatic one, the disappointment. I never wanted to drain any resource, need anything, be any kind of burden or cause any harm. I wanted to be a joyful thing, not an embarrassment and a failure.
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.“
I thought of the persistence of things. Life, women, children, longing, desire, dreams, cycles and seasons, death, black flies, weeds. The persistence of grief. The persistence of loss. The persistence of love, in spite of everything, even if never returned or expressed.
I cried in the pool, as I swam one lap after another. For all you non swimmers out there, having a good cry while wearing swim goggles makes the goggles fog up, in addition to filling with salt water. On the plus side, you can make as much noise as you like underwater, and no one will ever hear you. Also, having a wet face and red eyes at the swimming pool isn’t remarkable.
I needed to cry. I needed to swim. I paused every two laps and cleaned out my goggles.
It came to me then that this is my resistance.
Photo by Travis Bozeman on Unsplash
This. My tearful swim and fogged-up goggles. My blog. This messy, painful, not-pulled-together, nonheroic experience I call my life is my resistance, and I persist in it. I cannot beat, starve or mutilate myself into someone else, not even to get loved. Believe me, I’ve tried. In the end, though, the half-wild thing I am still looks out of my eyes and lurks in my heart. Perhaps not attractive or worthy of love, but there. Wanting. Alive. Persistent.
Some people think power is the ability to shut someone up, but power and force aren’t the same thing at all. The ability to throw acid on someone, to fire someone from his/her job, to rape, to behead, to kill someone’s family, to detain someone, to torture, to murder — that’s not strength. That’s not real power. Silencing others doesn’t mean we’ve won, or that anything has changed. All it means is, for the moment, we’re not forced to hear something we’re afraid of, but the words and resistance are still there. They’ll be spoken again, in music, in writing, in action, on YouTube. Someone else will pick them up and say them, and someone after that, and someone after that.
“Nevertheless, she persisted.”
At the end of the day, the only power we have in life is to do what we can with what we have, and the one thing we all have is ourselves. The self is a persistent thing.
So much is needed in the world. So much love, so much healing, so much courage and forgiveness. We need heroes and leaders, activists and rebels. We need organizers and people to march, hold placards, make phone calls and show up in front of the cameras with hard questions.
My gifts and abilities are not these.
Photo by Miranda Wipperfurth on Unsplash
But we also need people who nourish roots. We need people who whisper to trees. We need people who gather bones and seeds. We need storytellers and lovers, dancers and shamans, intuitives and creatives. We need people who can collaborate, share power and shape self-sustaining community that’s not based on capitalism. We need people who can include, connect, learn and grow. We need people who can hold another human being in their arms while they weep.
We need persistent people who know how to resist a diseased overculture and endure tribal shaming, abuse, tyranny, injustice, poverty and loss. We need people who think for themselves, who are persistently curious, who aren’t afraid to break someone else’s rules. We need passionate people who know how to feel deeply.
These are things I do.
These are things I am.
So, today, my resistance consists of tears and laps, this week’s post, and being persistently present in my quiet, unimportant, ordinary life. My resistance is my persistent longings and desires, my refusal to give up and be silent. I don’t resist because anybody cares or notices, or because I think I can make a damn bit of difference.
I do it because that’s what I do and this is how it looks.