The Gift Circle: A Space for Weaving Relationship

[I gave this talk on November 16, 2014, at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture. From October 2013 through June 2015, Brooklyn Ethical hosted the Brooklyn Gift Circle. Thanks to Dror Kahn for creating and posting a video of parts of this speech. You can watch the video here.]

It seems to me that we Americans are stuck in an abusive relationship with our economy. When it hits us with homelessness, hunger, poverty – when it clocks us with debt, exhaustion, wage slavery – we don’t whirl on it and yell, “Cut that out! You can’t do that!” We don’t grab our neighbor and say, “Hey – the economy just punched me in the face – did it punch you too?” Instead, cowed, we bow our heads in shame, keep our mouths shut, and vow to work harder. If only we were smarter, better educated, better networked, more driven, more skilled, more talented – the economy would love us again, and the hitting would stop.

Why do we stay in this relationship? Why do we put up with an economy that scorns our needs and spurns our gifts?

Part of the answer is that we’re trapped in a story that pretends it will end our troubles. I call it The Infinite Growth Myth. Here it is:

Economic growth creates jobs and swells wealth, along with health and happiness. It advances technology, promotes security, and drives investment in luxuries like art and culture, environmental protection, and renewable energy. When it slows or stops, we suffer. Someday we’ll figure out how to keep the economy growing steadily, forever and ever, and life for all of us, in the United States and throughout the world, will improve exponentially. In the meantime, given a choice between growth and another good, we must choose growth, since it is the spring from which all good flows.

In real life, the economy grows when we start wars, clearcut forests, and pay corporations to do and make more and more of what we once did and made for each other and ourselves. These activities shift wealth to the one percent. The economy shrinks when we make peace, save forests, and learn to rely on ourselves and each other for our wants and needs. These activities boost access to essentials – clean air and water, healthy soil, strong relationships – while giving the web of life a desperately needed rest. Finally, and most elementally, infinite growth dependent on infinitely accelerating “resource” extraction cannot persist on a finite planet.

But it can die trying, while killing its host.

How would it be to join with an economy that serves life? An economy that nourishes the ecosphere – the Earth and all its creatures – while cultivating abundance? An economy that loves each of us for who we are?

The Gift Circle offers some clues.

What is a Gift Circle? It’s a ritual for restoring and honoring our sacred web of relationships. For relearning how to need each other, and accept each other’s help. It rests on a couple premises, and follows a simple format, with room for variation.

These are the premises: First, life itself is a gift. So all of us already have much to be grateful for, much to pay forward. Second, we all have needs and gifts to share, regardless of financial standing. Much of what we need, money can’t buy. There are many forms of wealth.

And this is the process: Each member of the Circle states a few wants or needs – for things, skills, services, space, time, work, connections – and makes a few offers. Others in the Circle pipe up – during her turn or later on – to claim her gifts and fill her requests. This isn’t barter, so I can receive from you whether or not I have something you need. We trust that as we give freely, the flow of gifts swells to benefit all of us. Each member also states a few things she’s grateful for – in particular, gifts received through the Circle. Witnessing to generosity helps it grow.

I received the seed for the Gift Circle in early 2012, while reading Charles Eisenstein’s book, Sacred Economics. But it didn’t germinate till the summer of 2013, when – inspired by Eisenstein’s writing – I embarked on a quixotic crusade to elicit a gift from the Park Slope Food Coop.

That spring, Cayuga Pure Organics, a linchpin of upstate organic bean and grain production, had launched a crowdfunding campaign to restore infrastructure destroyed in a devastating fire. Around the same time, I learned that the Coop had a large budgetary surplus and was looking for projects to spend it on. Clearly, the Coop – with support for sustainable agriculture written into its mission – should help Cayuga out with a big donation. This would mean reversing the usual alchemy – life into cash – by investing in social, living, and spiritual wealth. I composed a proposal to this effect, and submitted it for a vote at a Coop General Meeting.

In the run-up to the meeting, I felt exposed as a hopeless idealist. That was when I came to the Ethical Living Committee to suggest starting a Gift Circle. Like many a gambler before me, I upped the ante to reassure myself that my initial bet wasn’t crazy.

I came up fifty-fifty: The Coop’s membership voted no on my proposal; the Ethical Living Committee endorsed the Gift Circle.

I include the Cayuga story here not to chide the Coop – Coop, trust me, I love you for who you are – but to assure other champions of gift culture that it can take time to match your enthusiasm with an appropriate form and venue – and that your first attempts may drop fruit in your lap even as they flop.

We held a trial Gift Circle here at Brooklyn Ethical in October 2013. Two weeks later, while failing at holding a one-off Gift Circle at the New York City Permaculture Festival, I met Alexis, who partnered with me, Rebecca, and the Ethical Living Committee to launch a monthly Gift Circle series, upstairs in the Library. We started off with an introductory session last January.

So far, we’ve held eight Circles, ranging in size from two to sixteen participants. A total of thirty-two people have joined at least one Circle. But, as we learn in permaculture, it’s not the number of elements in your system that matters, but the functional relationships among them.

So let’s look at what’s flowed through the Circle, and how it’s affected relationships.

Here’s a sample of gifts delivered: basil plants, use of a saw and planer, a phone cord, a Kindle, an iPod, counseling, a handpainted poster, healing bodywork, gardening and career advice, help avoiding eviction, help with moving and household chores, cat-sitting, housecleaning, a job as an arborist. One gift – a backpack originally used for a trip through Europe twenty years ago – has made two stops within the Circle. It was passed first to a couple going on an anniversary hike, then to a man traveling to South Africa. The stories it’s accrued, with each change of hands, have made it all the more precious.

Some gifts have reached beyond the Circle to friends, families, and organizations we care about. Inspired by the Circle, one member helped a friend secure an apartment; two other members not only welcomed newcomers to their block with a note of introduction and homebrew but also accomplished the astounding feat of giving a gift to – and thereby establishing a relationship with – every other tenant in their apartment building. Can you believe it? In New York! I wait till the vestibule’s clear to check my mailbox! When we come together for any given Circle, we bring not only our own needs and resources, but those of everyone we’re connected to. Access to each other’s networks is itself a gift.

The Gift Circle has also yielded a half dozen Craft Nights – gatherings to work with our hands at whittling, sewing, painting, and such. It’s much easier to tackle that forbidding pile of mending when gabbing with friends.

A Gift Circle, at its best, is friendship in reverse. Friends request and offer help within a pre-existing matrix of knowledge and regard; Gift Circlers come to know and care for each other by requesting and offering help.

Some gifts given through the Circle have been big; they’ve changed lives. Others have been small – maybe you could have gotten that phone cord with one click on Amazon. But receiving it as a gift, from someone you know, transforms a commodity object into the bearer of a sacred tie that reweaves the web of life. Using the cord, you’ll remember the person who gave it to you. You’ll feel the pulse of generosity beneath the scaly hide of commerce. You’ll add to what Eisenstein calls our “reservoir of gratitude.” A brimming reservoir is the best asset a community can have when the zombies come, or the next superstorm. Linked to your neighbors by gift ties, you’ll share your store of beans and sardines, not guard it with a gun. All gifts, no matter how small, help replenish the reservoir.

Yet I do hope the Gift Circle will become a channel for bigger gifts and deeper needs. I’ve noticed that when I consider what to offer and ask for, in advance of a Circle, I screen out whatever seems too big or too personal. I don’t want to seem greedy or unrealistic, offer something I wouldn’t be willing to give just anyone, or elicit well-meaning but misdirected advice. I stick to sharing what seems safe.

I’m not saying I ought to do otherwise; I honor fear and caution for guarding my boundaries. I am saying I see a conflict between continually welcoming new faces into the Circle and building the trust needed to go deep. Keeping the Circle open invites fresh flows of energy; closing it would most likely invite greater revelation and intimacy. Is there a way to do both?

How to rework the Circle to serve us better is an ongoing question. Maybe “Gift Spiral” is a truer name.

I’ve called the Brooklyn Gift Circle “an experiment in sacred economics” both because it needs frequent re-design and because it’s a low-risk way to try out, right now, aspects of an economy that serves life and spurs regeneration.

What are some of these aspects?

In a sacred economy, as in a Gift Circle, we need and appreciate each individual’s contribution to the community. We see each person, not as a shiftless slob who must be kept busy by a job, but as the channel for a gift that needs nourishment, to flourish for the good of the whole. Freed to give our gifts within a matrix devoted to the care of humans and all beings, more energy pulses through us than we ever thought we could conduct. Even now, in a world where many bemoan resource scarcity – real or imagined – the one thing we know we have in abundance is each other. Is that a problem, or a solution? What if every being born has a unique role to play in Earth’s regeneration?

In a sacred economy, we treat each being and thing, not as a separate self or discrete object, but as a node in a web of relationships, infused – like the backpack passed around the Gift Circle – with the energies and stories of everything it’s linked to and everything it’s touched. A carrot – for example – is not just a carrot. It’s a node in a web. Maybe that web comprises tractors, gasoline, crop dusters, chemical fertilizer, water pollution, farm-worker illness, low-wage labor, asphalt, truck stops, warfrastructure, drivers confined behind the steering wheels of semis for ten-hour stretches. Or maybe the web comprises earthworms, compost, farmer tans, draft horses, spring water, centipedes, fungi, bacteria, glomalin, smallholders, apprentices, buggies, brick paths, freight trikes, farmstands, sunshine. We choose our carrots with full knowledge of the web we’re saying yes to, and what that yes means for life.

In a sacred economy, we mimic a forest, where there’s no such thing as waste. One species’ detritus becomes another species’ food. There’s also no such thing as drudgery. One purpose of the Gift Circle is to draw out dormant skills and talents that members take joy in sharing but can’t or won’t monetize. In doing precisely what suits us, we strengthen the web. Consider the earthworm: Its castings feed its plant neighbors; its tunneling aerates the soil for them. It need not exert self-discipline. Try plying it with carrot or stick and it’ll say, “Mmm…lunch.” Finally, in a forest, there’s no such thing as eternal life. Every node of the web eventually dies and decays, returning its nutrients to the soil as food for everyone else. In a sacred economy, money regains mortality. Instead of accruing interest, it decays. So those who have more money than they need treat their surplus as they would a bumper crop of tomatoes: they share it around, knowing that even money loaned at zero interest will be worth more to them, in a year’s time, than money hoarded. This money, in turn, relieved of the burden of earning interest, is freed to do more beautiful work. To restore the commons, rather than further monetize it. To grow the “ecommony.”

Does this story sound hopelessly hopeful? Do you have a hard time imagining the end of business as usual?

Let me tell you another story. It is the source of my faith that we can make our economy sacred.

Fifteen years ago, I moved to a place called Zendik Farm, in the backwoods of North Carolina, and joined what I thought was a revolutionary movement to save the planet. During the five years I lived there, I bought all the way into the Zendik myth: We were building a new culture, conceived in cooperation and honesty. The outside world – or “DeathKultur” – was destroying itself with competition and lies. Unless we took over, the world would die. Anyone who left would suffer soul-death, as payback for betraying all life.

When I did leave the Farm, in 2004, I dragged a dead weight of doom and despair behind me. Not because I’d been happy there, but because the Zendik story had drowned out other possibilities. I could hear no other call.

For the next year or so, I muddled along, fending off the DeathKultur’s criticisms of Zendik and insisting that my gloom was punishment I deserved. And then, in late 2005, I received what felt like a miracle, through a fellow ex-Zendik: a new story. In this story, Zendik was not unique. It was one of a number of collective delusions. It fit the pattern described by the word “cult.”

You might think it would be crushing to discover you’ve spent six years caged in a myth. But for me, learning I’d joined a cult was exhilarating. It released me to love my family and friends again, to find and love the man who would become my husband. It released me to rejoin my kind.

Right now, maybe, we as a culture are muddling through the analogue of my year between leaving Zendik and being released. We cling to our abusive economy, and its promise of redemption through infinite growth, despite ample proof of its ravages. Its roar is deafening. We can hear no other call.

I imagine that stepping out of The Infinite Growth Myth will also be exhilarating. It will release us to love all our relations: human, animal, plant, fungal, bacterial, mineral, ethereal. To fall madly in love with our only world.

We’ll know our new story when we hear it. Our hearts will pound with desire to make it ours.

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