Tunes for a Monday Morning
Trusting the gift, trusting the way

Gracious acceptance

Ceremony by William Bailey

The other side of the coin from "the art of giving" (which we were discussing last week) is, of course, the "art of receiving" -- and to live a balanced, creatively fecund life we must learn to practice both with equal skill. But as Alexander McCall Smith points out (in his novel Love Over Scotland), the act that he calls "gracious acceptance" is "an art which most never bother to cultivate. We think that we have to learn how to give, but we forget about accepting things, which can be much harder than giving."

"Until we can receive with an open heart," notes psychologist Brené Brown astutely, "we're never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help."

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her acclaimed TED Talk on nurturing creativity, describes how, to the early Romans, an artist's "genius" was a spirit or daemon believed to be attached to that particular artist, and not a personal attribute. The divine spark of inspiration came from the daemon; the artist's job was to be a worthy vessel, to recognize the gift, and to use it well. Lewis Hyde echoes and expands on this idea throughout the text of his brilliant (and daemon aided?)  book, The Gift: "Part of the work cannot be made, it must be received; and we cannot have this gift except, perhaps, by supplication, by courting, by creating within ourselves that 'begging bowl' to which the gift is drawn."

"Human life runs its course in the metamorphosis between receiving and giving," the German Romantic poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote; and art-making, too, thrives in the space where giving and receiving dance in partnership. We take in the gifts of inspiration, shape them to our purposes, and then pass those gifts along through our stories, paintings, and other creative works. 

White Tower by William Bailey

To be skilled in the art of "gracious acceptance" is to be wide-open and receptive to the gifts the muses bring, and this skill, it seems to me, is helped or hindered by one's perception of the emotion of gratitude. There are those for whom gratitude is an uncomfortable, weakening, even shameful feeling; while others of us experience gratitude in a warm and positive manner, perceiving its ties as chords of connection, not heavy chains of obligation.

The narrator of Elizabeth Berg's novel Open House is clearly in the latter camp: "I made cranberry sauce," she tells us, "and when it was done put it into a dark blue bowl for the beautiful contrast. I was thinking, doing this, about the old ways of gratitude: Indians thanking the deer they'd slain, grace before supper, kneeling before bed. I was thinking that gratitude is too much absent in our lives now, and we need it back, even if it only takes the form of acknowledging the blue of a bowl against the red of cranberries."

Still Life by William Bailey

Mary Oliver, too, is a writer who seems to follow Meister Erkhart's dictum that "if the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough" -- for every poem she writes is a hymn of gratitude for the commonplace marvels of daily living. Take her 1992 poem "The Kitchen," for example:

Salt shining behind its glass cylinder.
Milk in a blue bowl. The yellow linoleum.
The cat stretching her black body from the pillow.
The way she makes her curvaceous response to the small, kind gesture.
Then laps the bowl clean.
Then wants to go out into the world
where she leaps lightly and for no apparent reason across the lawn,
then sits, perfectly still, in the grass.
I watch her a little while, thinking:
what more could I do with wild words?
I stand in the cold kitchen, bowing down to her.
I stand in the cold kitchen, everything wonderful around me.


"The reality of all life is interdependence," notes cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson. "We need to compose our lives in such a way that we both give and receive, learning to do both with grace, seeing both as parts of a single pattern rather than as antithetical alternatives."

"For so many centuries, the exchange of gifts has held us together," adds Barry Lopez (in his luminous memoir, About This Life). "It has made it possible to bridge the abyss where language struggles."

Art-making, like gift giving, requires two separate actions: giving and receiving, both of them equally important. We breathe in the world and push it out again: inhaling, exhaling; the cycle kept in motion; never resting for too long on one side and not the other. The perpetual giver, like the perpetual receiver, is an artist (and a person) out of balance, in danger of draining the creative well dry. It's hard work, and it's humbling work, to master both roles equally, including whichever one we find the hardest -- but that's precisely the task that art (and life) demands of us.

"When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully," says Maya Angelou, "everyone is blessed.”

Still Life by William Bailey

The quietly beautiful still life paintings above are by the American artist William Bailey. Bailey was born in Iowa in 1930, educated at the University of Kansas, and is now Professor Emeritus of Art at Yale University.


Hello Terri. Wonderful, perceptive post this morning. And the artwork is truly beautiful. I've never knowingly seen the work of this artist before, though it does remind me of the paintings of the Dutch artist Henk Helmantel. His subjects range widely from sharply defined landscapes, acutely observed still life and breathless interiors, but they all have the same 'captured moment' atmosphere as the these pictures by William Bailey.

Such wise words too. After years of having my work rejected (both written and painted) it took me a long time to be able to accept the compliments that began to come my way. The nastiness was easy, I was used to that, but compliments left me floundering. Now I think, and hope that I can express my thanks properly.

Love 'The Kitchen' poem too. A truly accurate portrayal of a cat. The Zen of cats is something to be admired. And - following the theme of this post - as a species they long ago learned the art of accepting that which is given. But they're gift-givers too; in the case of my creatures the presents often take the form of dead mice, but cat-gifts can also be presented as simple company on a dark night; soft fur for stroking, and the deep comforting purr.

Thank you for the gift of this post this morning, Terri.

It Will Be Enough

"If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough."—Meister Erkhart

Thank you for the days I had with him, the years,
not counting them too short, for they were filled.
Thank you for the children safe in their houses, the grands,
who have stretched both my patience and my love.
Thank you for the friends who wrap me with laughter,
their individual stories, the tales of bad knees, their noise.

Thank you for the hardboiled eggs in the fridge,
bananas browning on the counter, stalks of celery
and their exact crunch, the dried dates in the pantry,
which I eat with sticky fingers.
(Thanks for fingers, too, I guess.)

Thank you for the squirrels whose antics make me laugh,
the old fox whose last denning was in the crawlspace of the barn,
for a solitary red tail hawk couching in the fir,
and the Snowy owl that made its way down from Canada
to rest last week at our local school.

Thank you for the heat that rattles around this too-large house,
the pills and potions that keep me alive one more day,
though why you should bother, I do not know.
Thank you for the snow, which like my draped clothes,
hides the worst of the winter’s sly scarring.

Thank you for the things I have written, the ideas that leap
from the chaos of my mind onto the page,
for the ability to sort through an eternity of ideas,
for the warm bed in which I write this poem.

If this is all I get, it will be enough.

© 2013 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Another gorgeous, meditative, and rich post. I see several elements of acceptance threaded through. There is the grace of receiving, whether a compliment, help, a gift; there is also the acceptance of what life may bring, including sadness. And yet another is being a recipient, or channel, of our creative work. So many aspects to receiving and so appropriate for the season. And not just because of the tradition of Christmas, but because winter can be a season for withdrawal and hibernation.

I enjoyed the still-lifes very much. They reminded me in spirit to the work of Giorgio Morandi, though very different to the smooth brush strokes and precise outlines here.

I am grateful to receive, by visiting the blog, such lovely thoughts and writing. Thank you!

Thank you also for the poem, Jane.

Wonderful poem, Jane. A beautiful patchwork quilt of emotions: Rich, melancholy, hopeful and warm.

Thanks, Stuart.



This is a poem to reread; very rich.

This one is going on the door too, though I've got a bit of a backlog of them now!

Many thanks to all of you, too, for kindly visiting, reading, and taking part in the ongoing conversation.

such beautifully still lives!

I am catching up on my blog reading and just had to tell you how very much I enjoyed this post. As a painter, I play with composition of elements and I was just entranced by the variety of still life paintings all of the same elements. Thank you so much for introducing me to the art of William Bailey and for your selections of prose and poetry to accompany them. Have a joyous holiday and thanks for taking your time to write this inspiring blog.

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