Since the holidays, I’ve been thinking of gifts and their multiple natures. Some gifts feel free of being purchased out of duty—not bought for a particular occasion like a birthday or a religious holiday. They’re just simple, natural expressions of affection and friendship. The sweet peas my friend Solace brought me some time ago with the used book on my hometown Calgary that she came across book while browsing in a used bookstore for something for herself. Spontaneous. The flowers were for my then 93-year old mother, an acknowledgment of her age and person.
But certain gifts that I don’t want to receive feel laden with weight. At first, the gift my husband gave me one night had this quality. When I walked in the door from my afternoon of teaching, he told me to close my eyes and put a small box in one of my hands. I opened my eyes and looked. The label on the outside said Oak’s Jewelers. Now I know my reaction will seem strange, but my first impulse was to bolt. I didn’t want to open the box. Why? I didn’t feel it was a free and open expression of his love, especially when he said it was to thank me for putting up with his son, who had moved back in with us and had been making our lives miserable for some time.
Gifts can be coercive. They can obligate us to feel thankful when that might not be our true response. And that’s what happened with the Oaks Jewelers’ box. I felt awful rather than uplifted mainly because in the past few weeks, until he finally found his own place, I hadn’t been particularly welcoming of my adult stepson. Rather, I’d wanted him out of our house and into his own pad and was very vocal about my feelings. So, I didn’t feel I deserved my husband’s gift of gratitude.
It wasn’t until he said he meant it to symbolize having our honeymoon cottage back that I was able to receive it graciously. What was the gift? A small opal pendant on a gold chain—my birthstone, a wonderful reminder of his caring and of our relationship. It can sustain us through difficult times.
Still, gifts don’t often come without having strings attached. That’s one of the problems with them. They either insist that you like the giver, or they grant the giver power over you. As a recipient, you feel beholden. Obligated. And sometimes you’re left waiting for the other shoe to drop. But when they are heart felt, gifts really are offerings with no strings attached. I believe the opal pendant belongs in this category.
This reflection leads me to the heart of this piece: if we’re writers, how do we receive the gift of writing, an innate talent that we ignore at our peril? What if we have chosen not to accept the offering? I’m thinking of a student I recently had at the Fromm Institute of Lifelong Learning who took my flash nonfiction class. She had produced something that I felt deserved a wider audience, and I urged her to publish it. She frowned and then laughed nervously: “I couldn’t do that. I’m not the writer in the family. I have two older siblings who are professional writers. I’m not.”
It pained me to hear she assumed that because her siblings had taken on the writer’s mantel that she couldn’t also. Her interest and pleasure in creating with words had to be hidden and not shared. But perhaps my emphasis on publishing was wrong in her circumstance. Writing itself gave her immense pleasure. There’s no rule that what we compose needs to find its place in the external world. It can be enough just to wallow in words and the worlds they create. I experience this gratification myself, especially when I write poetry. Though I like having readers and discovering how my work resonates with them, I write because of the pleasure it gives me, and I feel no obligation to publish everything I produce.
But I do believe that some writers have a responsibility to exercise their skills in ways that enlarge not only their way of experiencing the world but also to enrich their readers’ lives—the gift that keeps giving. Some might feel this expectation as coercive. But if it’s in the service of a larger good and an organic process, then it seems born more out of necessity than from duress.