Friday, December 21, 2012

Dec 21: Lia Purpura on Emerson's "Gifts"

I have trouble with gifts. Gifts are not easy. “Gifting” as a verb doesn’t help matters. I love giving, but resent prescribed occasions. Let me roam, and find and bestow at will. Let Parisian shops, farmer’s markets, forest walks suggest -- for you and you and you. When? Not on your birthday, but when come-upon by chance. In January, post-holiday. Chocolates in July (sure to melt, impractical) not on Valentine’s Day. I abide by the free-form. Once, a friend who has a collection of creamers admired one at a restaurant -- and I asked the waiter, secretly, if I could purchase it as a surprise. He just slipped me one and said, "it’s yours." There was the bartender, also a wiring whiz, who suggested -- when we told him of a stubborn lamp we had, always blowing out -- that our toaster might be shorting the line and we should move it. We did. It worked. What a gift that was. My husband returned with a big box of chocolates. And recently, a friend asked me to keep an eye out for a Big Mouth Billy Bass, for a project he was working on. Within a week, I had found the singing fish plaque, not too beat up, at a yard sale. The act of giving expands, surprises, and revises routes of exchange when methods and time and a sense of occasion loosen up a little. Shopping in actual stores is painful; but the salvage mission, the surprise find, the bartered, the baked, the sewn, the hand-colored? Perfect. Perfectly doable.
    Receiving is complicated, too. I seem to want nothing much, making it impossible to buy for me. Twice yearly (birthday, Christmas) I apologize to the family. I don’t keep a list or have secret desires (ok, there’s a $3000 watch I visit now and then) and there’s nothing I hope my dear ones might figure out. I drop no hints. I leave no catalogs suggestively open.
    Emerson is complicated and strict and demanding about gifts. We would pass a quiet, happy Christmas together. Among the issues I recognize in his short essay, “Gifts”:
    --Flowers assert the existence beauty over utility
    --Fruit is always an acceptable gift – flower-like, yet the result of labor.
    --“The only gift is a portion of the self.” (I remembered, one late Friday afternoon, upset student in office, abundant tissues, bowl of chocolate, listening, listening –  my own senior year melt-down, sobbing in my professor’s office as he sat, just sat, and took it in. His dusty tissues. His awkward shoulder pats.) What goes around, does indeed, come around.; regifting of the highest order.
    --The best gifts are made, and observe the talents of the giver as well as the personality of the receiver.
    --Gift anxiety: “Some violence, I think, is done, some degradation borne, when I rejoice or grieve at a gift. I am sorry when my independence is invaded, or when a gift comes from such as do not know my spirit.” The sadness of the misaligned gift!  And “ . . . if the gift pleases me overmuch, then I should be ashamed that the donor should read my heart, and see that I love his commodity, and not him.” The desolation of the well-intentioned giver!
    “Gifts” makes clear to me how deeply I align with some basic transcendental tenets: discomfort with conventional expressions of the sacred; a belief in the actual existence of the soul; an active bent towards self-improvement. Comfort at the margins of gatherings. A tinge of orneriness.
    I love Emerson’s essay for its inner strictness. And I’m amazed by its relevance to our current moment, our own personal balancing acts, our private generosities teetering at the edge of, and compromised by public fiscal cliffs. The first paragraph reads: “It is said the world is in a state of bankruptcy, that the world owes the world more than the world can pay, and ought to go into chancery, and be sold. I do not think this general insolvency, which involves in some sort all the population, to be the reason of the difficulty experienced at Christmas and New Year, and other times, in bestowing gifts; since it is always so pleasant to be generous, though very vexatious to pay debts.”
    I recommend “Gifts” as a holiday reading. Perhaps before the frenzied opening of presents. Or after dinner as a brisk tonic. A digestivo. It’ll cut right through the egg nog and glitz.


Lia Purpura is the author of seven collections of essays, poems and translations, most recently, Rough Likeness (essays). Her awards include a 2012 Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, NEA and Fulbright Fellowships, three Pushcart prizes, work in Best American Essays 2011, the AWP Award in Nonfiction, and the Beatrice Hawley, and Ohio State University Press awards in poetry. Recent work appears in Agni, Field, The Georgia Review, Orion, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. She is Writer in Residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and teaches at the Rainier Writing Workshop. 

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