The oldest object in my possession not made of paper is a pewter mug with my initials engraved on the side: “PEK.” Forty years ago a friend gave it to me as a gift without an occasion, no birthday or graduation attached. Gifts have always been confusing and left me stammering. It took me decades to learn to say “Thank you” and then keep my mouth shut, and to this day I’m more comfortable giving a gift than receiving one. I used to keep change in the mug. Now it’s on my desk and holds pens and pencils. I keep it because of the initials, because it’s useful and attractive, because I’ve never owned anything else that was monogrammed (and thus I would feel cavalierly ungrateful if I got rid of it), and because it was a rare and genuine gift, gratuitous and given without obligation or expectation. In 1972, I couldn’t have guessed I would hold on to it for so long. After all, most of the books I’ve ever owned are gone, given away or sold, and I haven’t seen the person who gave me the mug in more than thirty years. In “Saints,” an essay collected in When Can I See You Again? (Pressed Wafer, 2010), W.S. Di Piero writes:
“In certain indigenous cultures, a gift can’t remain with one possessor too long. To retain its power, it has to circulate.”
Certainly this applies to material objects, where in some brute sense giving them away means losing them, but what about less tangible gifts? What about lessons, insights and tips? What about the gift of example? I once saw a friend, a fellow clerk in a Cleveland book store, take a stack of bills from his wallet and put it in the cash register. He bought nothing and rang up nothing. I asked what he was doing and he explained that like me and other employees, he’d casually shoplifted a lot of stuff from the book store over the years, amassing an inestimable bill, and he thought it was time to balance accounts. He didn’t feel guilty. He wanted to correct an unbalance. In print or from the pulpit, preached as karma, that’s a message easily ignored as goody-goody, self-righteous or a species of inverted pride, but seeing sometimes is believing. That’s a gift I reluctantly accepted and have enthusiastically given away. Most of my best teachers never knew I was their student, some I’ve never met and many died before I was born. One of my teachers is Helen Pinkerton, whose poem “The Gift” is collected in Taken in Faith: Poems (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2002):
“I had a gift once that I then refused.
Now, when I take it, though I be accused
Of softness, cant, self-weariness at best,
Of failure, fear, neurosis, and the rest.
Still, I am here and I shall not remove.
I know my need. And this reluctant love,
This little that I have, is something true,
Sign of the unrevealed that lies in you.
Grace is the gift. To take it my concern—
Itself the only possible return.”
Grace, from the Old French gracier, “to thank.”