Gift exchange (and the making of art)
Secret Threads

Gracious Acceptance

White Tower by William Bailey

The other side of the coin from the art of gift-giving is the less heralded art of gift-receiving; and in order to live a balanced creative life we must practice both with equal skill. But as Alexander McCall Smith points out (in 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."

"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.

Ceremony 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."


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 "Morning," 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.

Still life by William Bailey

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.

"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."

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

Still Life by William Bailey

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

Still Life by William Bailey"Morning" by Mary Oliver is from New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press, 1992), which is highly recommended. All rights reserved by the author.


I wrote this poem this morning before I even reread your acceptance piece, Terri, and yet it's as if I anticipated it because in the end that's what this poem is about without ever using that word.


The cell’s imperative:
Stay alive,
Though it dies a bit
Each day.

The soul’s imperative:
Lift and fly,
Though it sinks
Along the way.

The skin’s imperative:
Cover and stretch,
Though gravity
Be its foe.

The mind’s imperative:
Learn and keep,
Though age
Makes it let go.

My imperative:
Remember love
In cell, soul, mind
And skin,

To keep you here
In memory safe,
Yet let a new love

©2016 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

A very beautiful and wise poem, Jane; and yes, it fits the theme perfectly.

In the context of "gracious acceptance" and gratitude, this short piece on "The Selfish Side of Gratitude" is well worth a read. It's by Barabara Ehrenreich, author of the excellent book "Nickled & Dimed (about poverty in America).

What a wonderful post. It took chronic illness and near-poverty to teach me to receive openly and without shame or guilt. As a writer and musician, the lesson, finally learned, brought the end of those hardships and the renewal of my creativity. Oh, yes. Striking the balance between gratitude and thankfulness is a sign of strength, not weakness. Thank you for this post and for the link in your comment above.

This one is divine. Truly.

Hi Terri

Yesterday's idea of "gift exchange" and today's idea of gracious reception, of seeing "art making" as a partnership of giving and receiving, provoked a few thoughts and a poem.

I love the fact that ideas are seen as dis-embodied entities to be partnered with a human or some other species. And then I think of extending this tenet further. What if the idea is courted, drawn into awareness or action by a separate thing/ being and then married to its human artist. In my case, the medium sized but burgeoning palm in my garden. The winter wind allows the desert tree to behave in such a manner, an ombudsman that spreads its leaves wide and flappable, beckoning some idea, event or dream to enter my imagination. And when that happens, I will graciously accept the gift and commit it to a poem or story, appreciating what
my surroundings and the spirit of that place has brought.


Creativity is a force of enchantment -- not entirely human in its origins....
Elizabeth Gilbert

In the desert wind,
the palm bows
flapping its wide leaves
as if they were wings,

a whooping crane
dancing to attract
a partner,

or in this garden
to court rain.

an idea
an event

to partner my mind
and pledge vows-- that

which will be given,
committed to song.
Also loved that poem by Mary Oliver and the all the hidden quotes under those marvelous pictures!

Thank you!

Hi Jane

These imperatives are incredibly beautiful and essential to living a life with meaning/feeling. Profound and underscored with the humility of spare language, this haunts echoing grace in its fullest form!

Loved it!!
Thank you

Oh how I wish I knew Elizabeth Gilbert and could send this poem to her!

Chronic illness did the same for me too. It's a hard teacher, but a teacher nonetheless.

Hi Terri

Thanks so very much for this lovely comment! I, too, wish I could know Elizabeth Gilbert, meet and talk with her about writing and literature at some small café or garden corner. From what I have read of her viewpoints and philosophy, I am in total agreement, in awe of her genius.

Thank you again!

To give a gift, you must reach out to the giftee with the gift in your hands. To accept a gift, you must reach out to the giver and take the gift in your hands. And then, there is the gift itself; it represents the point at which two people, reaching out to each other, touch. It is the bridge between them, and that is the best gift of all.

So true.

Thank you.

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