Of Potlatchs, Presents and a Practice

After a long hiatus, I return this week with a few thoughts about the objects we surround ourselves with and the spiritual practice of gifting. If you were to visit my home you would find  me to be one who gives special consideration to the arrangements of my personal things. Over the years I have come to think of the varied grouping as  small shrines that serve to reflect my inner quests, delights, as well as invite in the spirits of Beauty and Benevolence. The sentimental value of most of my possessions far exceeds their monetary cost or, even their practicality. They mirror  the defining moments of my life and remind me of the real treasures inside of my heart.

In 1985, my grandmother, Fern, gave me several of her old cookbooks from the 1940’s. She had mended them with scotch tape and written notes inside of them like, “Pickled Beets, Good!!” I have to lay them flat on a table just to look at them, as many of the spines are broken with decades of use, but, when I do open them, Fern is standing beside me again.

We had a hellacious flood in our basement this past November. Many of my hundreds of books were damaged beyond saving, but I hand dried the cookbooks, putting paper between the pages and using a hairdryer on them, as I could not bear to throw them away. The other part of that story is, these simple treasures, along with some really elegant art pieces I own,are just things that will someday be someone elses delight or problem to deal with. The connection with my Grandmother will have lost its relevance and the books will just be musty, ancient cookbooks with faded notes in its margins. For now in my time the cookbooks remain, as the old song goes, “something to remember her by”. The beautiful and meaningful things that we surround ourselves with also serve as reminders that nothing lasts forever. Even the most exquisite  treasures can become clutter if it keeps us totally absorbed in clutching them close or putting alot of energy into preserving them, and generally distracted from the rest of our lives.

I grew up with an artist father who painted the creation legends of the indigenous  people of the Northwest. One of the festivals or ceremonies practiced historically by the the Native coastal tribes was the Potlatch. The word comes from the Chinook Jargon and means “to give away “or “gift”.

When I turned 50, I decided to begin a personal annual  potlatch practice to celebrate my birthday, help me practice letting go of my attachments, and also to learn to surrender to the impermanance of stuff. I began many months in advance of the birthday and selected one item for each year of my life. My rule was that the item to be given away had to be something that still had meaning for me and that I loved. In other words that pair of size 8 wool gaberdine slacks I was saving for when I lost the weight and could fit into them again did not count.

Over the last decade I have given away pieces of vintage jewelry, treasured books, plants, special pieces of vintage clothing, favorite cooking bowls and lovely old vases, dishes, a few pieces of art, more than a few favorite pairs of shoes, (including a killer pair of red vintage reproduction shorty cowgirl boots ), artwork I have done and poems I have written. Each item was paired with the perfect person to appreciate the treasure and the intention behind the giving.The process takes place over the entire year and, sometimes begins and ends close to the same time around my birthday.

I know that a full cup, or a full house, does not always have room to receive. To have full use of a cup, for example, you must repeatedly empty it out so that it can be filled again. Every so often, life will empty our cup, or get rid of our stuff without asking for our permission; this can be with  floods, moves, marriages, divorces, –you know, those “Hell or High Water” times. I can tell you from personal experience that it is much more enjoyable to create these new open places intentionally. So many times people try to encapsulate beauty; distressed by the thought of the ‘stuff’ disappearing, we find ourselves hanging onto it with an even tighter clasp. There is such delight in this intentional giving practice, as it leaves me more open to surprise and wonder. These gifts I give are pieces of my heart. Sending them off to new lives with dear ones allows me to be surrounded by beauty as opposed to clinging to it. I can stand before the beautiful things in my world more  freed up from needing to hold onto it forever.

I would like to include this gorgeous  poem about gifts by Pablo Neruda:

“You didn’t come into this house so that I might tear off a piece of your life. Perhaps when you leave you’ll take something of mine: chestnuts, roses or a surety of root(s…)

I wish you a generous helping of Beauty in this day–

Peace and a smile to you, Penny

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2 Responses to Of Potlatchs, Presents and a Practice

  1. Margie Hyatt says:

    I recall a FB post about those sassy red boots. How delicious to have a larger view of this annual practice. Hmmm, year-long practice is more accurate, isn’t it. Mahalo, dear sister, for making all at home in your heart, with each blog and over the years.


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