“You give all your brightness away and it only makes you brighter.”
- Incredible String Band
I found the perfect gift for my nephew recently—The Gift by Lewis Hyde. But it was more than just cute to give The Gift as a gift—it fulfilled the premise of the book. Subtitled Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, this classic study looks at the role of art and imagination in a consumer society. It flips the shallow notion of the antipathy of art and money by looking at economics from a large perspective that includes Spirit and generosity. Drawing from sources as diverse as the potlatch of the Kwakiutl Indians, folk tales from around the world, the teachings of Meister Eckhart, the poetry of Ezra Pound and Walt Whitman, it considers the role of art in the energy exchange between people that all money economies begin from.
The central premise is that work that dips below the line of mere commerce, goes out of sight into the world of spirit and mystery and returns again, is work that perpetually refreshes. Despite the pressure at Christmas to deliver the goods and all the stress and anxiety it causes until people (like my wife) throw up their hands and proclaim, “I’m done with giving gifts!”, I still take a great pleasure in trying to imagine each person and either give them something they desire or, better yet, something I loved that I think they might too and might not have encountered without my gift. My nephew is deep into mythology and Joseph Campbell and such and I remembered this sleeper of a book from the 1980’s that I thought would intrigue him. If it catches, then the ideas are charged with new energy being received by a new reader and their spirit is re-charged—a gift that keeps on giving.
Here’s how Lewis Hyde describes it:
If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery then our labor satisfies. We are lightened when our gifts rise from pools we cannot fathom. Then we know they are not a solitary egotism and they are inexhaustible. Anything contained within a boundary must contain as well its own exhaustion. The most perfectly balanced gyroscope eventually winds down. But when the gift passes out of sigh and then returns, we are enlivened. …when the gift circles into mystery the liveliness stays. (p. 20)
Yesterday I moved through my always-intense Friday schedule at school. 6th grade, 8th grade, 8th grade, 10 minute break, 5-year olds, 5-year olds, 30 minute lunch, Elementary Singing Time, 4th grade, 4th grade, carpool. 45 minute classes where I’m front and center directing the group energy of 12-16 kids (100 in Singing Time) of all ages, inviting the chaos of kids moving and chanting and singing and playing drums and xylophones and going off into groups to create things. That’s a lot of energy released and non-stop for seven hours. And I’m no spring chicken—not the kind of work we imagined for our fledgling senior citizens.
But when it’s over, I drive straight to the Jewish Home for the Aged and play piano and sing for another hour. Yesterday a friend of my daughter’s came with her 1-year old to join in the singing. And after a few songs, I paused for a moment to find a song in a book and the 1-year old made the sign-language sign for “More.” Her mother was amazed. This was used mostly to communicate her child’s desire for more food and was the first time she ever used it for something else. I don’t need more affirmation that music is “food for the spirit,” but I’m happy to receive it and especially from a 1-year old!!! And I also received it from the 107-year old who awoke from a sleep and smiled ear-to-ear held by the comforting arms of exquisite music.
Music is the gift that, when done well and with the proper spirit, constantly dives below the surface and emerges renewed and refreshed, the gift that must be given away to realize itself, the brightness that increases its light with each new person it is gifted to. I can make jokes about how little money I make for the immense amount of work it takes to meet music’s demands, but the fact that I fell into this work and kept at it all these years is a gift beyond measure that is its own reward a thousand times over.
Today is Saturday and what will I do? Why, go teach a 6-hour workshop, of course!