This post grew from a long reflection on identity which makes one, primary assertion: who we are is inherently relational and founded upon an interplay of reciprocity. As a means of extending this idea and honoring some of the roots from which it grew, we turn to Robin Wall Kimmerer and her earth-shifting work Braiding Sweetgrass.
Our most honest sense of self arises first from a recognition of our need, and the most beautiful way of understanding our deepest needs is always through what seems to be other:
We need each other, to take a song, a word, a story, a tool, a ceremony and put it in our bundles. Not for ourselves, but for the ones yet to be born, for all our relations. Collectively, we assemble from the wisdom of the past a vision for the future, a worldview shaped by mutual flourishing.
This is the vision of the economy of the commons, wherein resources fundamental to our well-being, like water and land and forests, are commonly held rather than commodified [...] Yet, it is not just changes in policy we need, but also changes to the heart. Scarcity and plenty are as much qualities of mind and spirit as they are of the economy. Gratitude plants the seed for abundance.
Gratitude helps us celebrate cultures of regenerative reciprocity, where wealth is understood as having enough to share and riches are counted in mutually beneficial relationship. Besides, it makes us happy.
Though the context is slightly different, the yearning in her work and on this site has exactly the same scent:
It was an architecture of relationships, of connections that I yearned to understand. I wanted to see the shimmering threads that hold it all together. And I wanted to know why we love the world.
Robin touches on the very heart of our shared work:
If we want to grow good citizens then let us teach reciprocity.
She notes that, "In reciprocity, we fill our spirits as well as our bellies" and makes the point, much like Lewis Hyde, that
Reciprocity is a matter of keeping the gift in motion through self-perpetuating cycles of giving and receiving.
After all, stories are the tools by which we shape human perception, and so the task before each one of us is to find old stories anew. As Robin says, "If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow. When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become." This may seem abstract if you did not grow up in a culture of gratitude, but Robin provides many different examples of what reciprocity and being grateful can look like in different contexts:
Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving the gift with open eyes and open heart.
Doing science with awe and humility is a powerful act of reciprocity with the more-than-human world. After all, what good is knowing, unless it is coupled with caring?
Sometimes, however, this bias toward to paying or doing of fixing or solving itself must be let go. The deepest moments of thanksgiving are not about any action we can take, they simply indicate an open state of being, that empty field Rumi spoke of, or the rain Suzuki remembers:
Listening, standing witness, creates an openness to the world in which the boundaries between us can dissolve in a raindrop.
It is in this state that we can come to know fully how "sacred" is the ground on which our responsibility is enacted.
It is a whole human being who finds the beautiful path.
That's what we have always been taught. The work of being a human is finding balance.
Robin goes to great lengths to illustrate that the gift is not free: it creates a reciprocal obligation in the form of an ongoing relationship. This relationship also engenders self-restraint, which is a critical and often-overlooked part of cultures of gratitude. Linked to this is the indigenous notion that humans are not the height nor centre of the universe: we are the youngest siblings, here to learn from many different kinds of elders in ongoing dialogue. As the Indigenous Protocol repeatedly highlights, "Our responsibility is in the relationship". As Robin says,
Nanabozho's teachings remind us that one half of the truth is that the earth endows us with great gifts, the other half is that the gift is not enough. The responsibility does not lie with the maples alone. The other half belongs to us; we participate in its transformation. It is our work, and our gratitude, that distill the sweetness.
Gifts have a dual nature: to carry a gift is also to carry a responsibility. If the bird's gift is song, then it has a responsibility to greet the day with music. It is the duty of birds to sing and the rest of us receive the song as a gift.
Both the honor of giving and the humility of receiving are necessary parts of the equation. The grass in the ring is trodden down in a path from gratitude to reciprocity. We dance in a circle, not a line.
A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved toward you without your beckoning. It is not a reward; you cannot earn it, or call it to you, or even deserve it. And yet it appears. Your only role is to be open-eyed and present. Gifts exists on a realm of humility and mystery - as with random acts of kindness, we do not know their source.
The moral covenant of reciprocity calls us to honor our responsibilities for all we have been given, for all we have taken. Whatever our gift, we are called to give it and to dance for the renewal of the world. In return for the privilege of breath.
Gifts, and cultures of gratitude in general, do not repress or deny the material realities of the world in which we are embedded. After all, they are premised upon, and deeply grounded in, close observation of the world around us. Woven into the very structure of any act of reciprocity, any moment of give and take, any breath in and its mirror breath out is an understanding that the interplay of life and death itself is the ultimate stage for gratitude and reciprocity.
In order to live, I must consume. That's the way the world works, the exchange of a life for a life, the endless cycling between my body and the body of the world [...] If we are fully awake, a moral question arises as we extinguish the other lives around us on behalf of our own: how do we consume in a way that does justice to the lives we take?
The inescapable tension between honoring life around us and taking it in order to live is part of being human.
Acknowledging the lives that support ours and living in a way that demonstrates our gratitude is a force that keeps the world in motion.
They are destined to die as we are all destined to die, but first they have bound themselves to life in an ancient agreement to pass it on, to pass it on. In so doing, the world itself is renewed.
If grief can be a doorway to love, then let us all weep for the world we are breaking apart so we can love it back to wholeness again.
The words and the coffee called us to remember that these woods and lakes were a gift. Ceremonies large and small have the power to focus attention to a way of living awake in the world. The visible becomes invisible, merging with the soil. It may have been a secondhand ceremony, but even through my confusion I recognize that the earth drank it up as if it were right. The land knows you, even when you are lost.
That, I think, is the power of a ceremony: it marries the mundane to the sacred. The water turns to wine, the coffee to a prayer. The material and the spiritual mingle like grounds mingled with humus, transformed like steam rising from a mug into the morning mist. What else can you offer the earth, which already has everything? What else can you give but something of yourself? A homemade ceremony, a ceremony that makes a home.
To have agency in the world, ceremonies should be reciprocal cocreations, organic in nature, in which the community creates ceremony and the ceremony creates communities.
Our elders say that ceremony is how we remember to remember. In the dance of the giveaway, remember that the earth is a gift that we must pass on, just as it came to us.
It was the bees that showed me how to move between different flowers - to drink the nectar and gather pollen from both. It is this dance of cross-pollination that can produce a new species of knowledge, a new way of being in the world. After all, there aren't two worlds, there is just this one good green earth. That September pairing of purple and gold is lived reciprocity; its wisdom is that the beauty of one is illuminated by the radiance of the other. Science and art, matter and spirit, indigenous knowledge and Western science - can they be goldenrod and asters for each other? When I am in their presence, their beauty asks me for reciprocity, to be the complementary color, to make something beautiful in response.
Understanding reciprocity and mutual nature of all flourishing does not remove entirely the individual from this way of being in the world. In fact, it situates them in their true and proper place, one of right relationship and good mind:
The most important thing each of us can know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world. Individuality is cherished and nurtured, because, in order for the whole to flourish, each of us has to be strong in who we are and carry our gifts with conviction, so they can be shared with others.
I came to know that it wasn't naming the source of wonder that mattered, it was wonder itself.
E.O Wilson once wrote that, "There can be no purpose more inspiring than to begin the age of restoration, reweaving the wondrous diversity of life that still surrounds us." Robin writes:
Stories are among our most potent tools for restoring the land as well as our relationship to the land. We need to unearth the old stories that live in a place and begin to create new ones, for we are storymakers, not just storytellers. All stories are connected, new one woven from the threads of the old.
Our elders say that we live in the time of the seventh fire. We are the ones the ancestors spoke of, the ones who will bend to the task of putting things back together to rekindle the flames of the sacred fire, to begin the rebirth of a nation.
Listening to rain, time disappears. If time is measured by the period between events, alder drip time is different from maple drip. This forest is textured with different kinds of time, as the surface of the pool is dimpled with different kinds of rain [...] And we think of it simply as time, as if it were one thing, as if we understood it. Maybe there is no such thing as time; there are only moments, each with its own story.
Time is not a river running inexorably to the sea, but the sea itself - its tides that appear and disappear, the fog that rises to become rain in a different river. All things that were will come again [...] in circular time, these stories are both history and prophecy, stories for a time yet to come. If time is a turning circle, there is a place where history and prophecy converge.
Here is where our most rewarding work lies, in restoring a relationship of respect, responsibility, and reciprocity. And love.
The breath of plants gives life to animals and the breath of animals gives life to plants. My breath is your breath, your breath is mine. It's the great poem of give and take, of reciprocity that animates the world. Isn't that a story worth telling? Only when people understand the symbiotic relationships that sustain us can we become people of corn, capable of gratitude and reciprocity.
For what is corn, after all, but light transformed by relationship?
Is this not a holy thing, the kindling of this fire? So much depends upon the spark.