What do I have to give? How can I create and offer a meaningful response to all that this life has given me? How do I do the work that is mine to do, convey the depth of my caring, and contribute actively to the well-being of this world, my own community, and my loved ones?
These questions become more urgent as I get older. Urgent, because I no longer assume that I will somehow begin to “give back” at some indeterminate time in the future… I know from experience that loved ones may die before I have given as much as I wanted to give; that the world around me and my own life keep rapidly changing all the time, and opportunities to make a difference might not be available when I think I’m ready. I know how easy it is to put off doing and being what I would like to do and be, and I know that I’m often too tired, or too busy, or too distracted to notice that the things I care about most are getting left out. I know that the years go by, and there’s so much I want to offer in gratitude and love… But, maybe this evening my back hurts, and I’ve already had several appointments, worked hard, run lots of errands, and I just feel like watching television with Holly or playing spider solitaire on my cell phone.
Because I have a degenerative disease that adds to my exhaustion and will probably shorten my life, I’m both more urgently aware of the need to give what I have to give now, and more easily spellbound by the need to rest, recover, and cope with immediate concerns rather than extending myself to make a creative effort. So, how to reconcile this paradox? I know I’m not alone in the dilemma. Most of my clients and friends, especially those who are over fifty, are wrestling with similar challenges in their own ways.
An example that will be familiar to many is my desire to get some writing done (articles, blog posts, a book) along with an equally compelling desire to do something—anything!—else. I’ve written and published all my life (usually wrestling with the process the whole way), and now that my health is problematic, writing is one of the primary ways that I can engage with others and make a contribution to the world. So, I really do want to do this work. But, when the time comes to do it, I’d almost always rather not. I’m easily drained, and concentration is difficult; there’s usually a good reason to give myself a break.
After years of experimentation, I’ve learned not to force myself into long writing sessions with high expectations, but also not to indulge in excuses that would allow me to avoid the issue entirely. Instead, I make a gesture toward writing every day: I write at least a sentence or a paragraph, or whatever I can do in twenty minutes, just to remind myself that this is important to me, that I care about doing it, and that it’s easier than I think. Of course, once I get started, I often keep going and work for hours, and whatever I have to offer in a particular piece of writing begins to take shape based on something truly heartfelt, rather than based on something that I think I “should” express.
Dreams have helped me develop this practice. In dreams, the possibilities aren’t limited by our expectations or excuses. Dreams invite the art of the gesture. Often, a dream situation will give me a new insight or direction, but I don’t know how to follow it up with concrete action in the waking world. Yes, that crazy dream was really important, but how the heck am I supposed to apply it to my waking life? The dream has given me a gift, but what do I do with it? I’ve found that any simple gesture (even just a pause for intentional thought or prayer) in response to the dream’s offering can be tremendously meaningful, because the dream points toward the vital essence of my experience, which is ready to be conveyed at this particular moment. Almost any expression of that dream-essence will resonate outward as a meaningful gesture, and will be in keeping with my own capacity to give and others’ availability to receive. It doesn’t have to look like a purposeful or important demonstration of anything.
Making a gesture in the direction of the dream, or in the direction of my own deepest intention, doesn’t require me to plunge right into a big enterprise when I’m not sure what to do or whether I have the energy to do it. When I make a gesture, I stand where I am (in my uncertainty) and tentatively reach out, allowing myself to experience just a little bit of my gratitude, longing, gifts and hopes, as well as my authentic desire to connect with others.
This kind of gesture engages the intrinsic human capacity for gentleness, genuineness and generosity. Like most dreamworkers and dreamers, I have a penchant for wordplay: the root “gen-” that these words share means that they are all connected in some way with creativity.
Gentleness is probably pretty self-explanatory: Whatever it is that I want to bring into the world and give to others cannot be forced—neither forced out of me, nor forced onto them. Genuineness is also fairly obvious: Giving cannot be contrived—ulterior motives just get in the way. Generosity may seem redundant—if I’m giving then I’m being generous, right? Well, not really, no. So often we give because we need something. Maybe we need others’ gratitude or recognition, or maybe we just need to feel that we have accomplished something or contributed something. These needs are completely natural, and not “wrong” in themselves, but any need comes from a sense of lack, a sense of deficiency, whereas the true joy of generosity is that it comes from abundance. We are all so gifted, so blessed—with our own unique creative potential, our love and caring and gratitude toward others—that giving can just spill over. As Rilke wrote: “May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, as it is with children…” And this doesn’t mean I have to move mountains to make way—all it takes is a gesture, a small act of gentleness, genuineness and generosity, to release the flow.
The best metaphor for the profound gifts we have to offer the world might be the tangible gifts—like birthday presents—we might give to our loved ones. Though I often want to give something special to those I love, the usual forms of giving don’t seem to fit. The expectation of a gift exchange around holidays has become so commercialized, and most everyone I know has enough “stuff” already—to give a present can seem to create an obligation for reciprocation. Also, trying to figure out what someone else might want can cause me agonies of indecision, and can seem wasteful and disappointing when I suspect I’ve gotten the wrong thing. On the other hand, an authentic gesture of love and acknowledgement can be wonderful.
I always felt a genuine desire to give my mother presents, yet I had a difficult time coming up with an uncontrived offering for each special occasion (Christmas, birthday, Mother’s Day). So on holidays, I just made a gesture by sending a card, and the the rest of the year I made a deeper gesture by holding her dear, complicated, unique self in my heart, waiting for the right gift to come along. Out of the abundance of my own pleasure in the process, I recognized when something would truly delight her—and then sent it as a surprise, for no particular occasion. This became a gesture of spontaneous appreciation and affection between us.
I’ve wanted to make a similar kind of gesture toward my sisters, Jill and Didi, too—especially since our parents both died in 2015. I hold my sisters in my heart all the time, and often feel a longing to give them something meaningful that would make their lives easier and bring them joy. So far, I haven’t found literal gifts for them like those I gave my mother. But a recent dream reminded me of the feelings of gentleness, genuineness, and generosity that flow through me when I think of them:
Gifts for the Family: I’m traveling with a group (walking the Camino?) and we stop for supplies at a huge supermarket. I must find everything I’ll need for the remainder of the journey, and it’s very stressful and rushed. Mostly I’m looking for groceries I can carry and prepare easily, but I also pass through a bookshop within the larger store. Can I find a lightweight book? There are too many options, and I’m feeling frustrated when I notice a display of beautifully-bound blank journals. Immediately, I think of my family—these would be perfect gifts for my parents and sisters. I know that Mom and Dad are dead, but it doesn’t matter, I can still give them something precious and personal. And I’ll find exactly the right journal to suit Jill, exactly the right one for Didi. My sense is that these blank books will represent all the love I feel for each of my family members. The books I choose for them will recognize the individuality and “wide open” potential of each of their lives. I’m not able to complete my choices yet, but I know that I’ll come back here after I’ve finished the rest of my shopping. The shopping task is no longer overwhelming. Now that I’m thinking about the gifts for my loved ones rather than concerned with my own urgency, finding what I need for the journey comes naturally. Choosing the journals will be effortless, too. I am happy and at peace.
Yes, this is a dream about “gifts for my family,” but it’s also about any form of giving, any original, essential gifts that a person might offer in gratitude and blessing to others. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of a lifetime, we struggle to meet our own immediate needs, carried away by the tasks at hand… and then, an opening appears, a way of making a meaningful gesture that guides us toward the true tasks of our lives, the work/play of giving and loving. Whether that work/play takes the form of art or music or writing, building, cleaning, planning, social activism, counseling, healing, teaching, gardening, discovering, collaborating… or just being fully present (pun intended!) to whatever task we have at hand—we all have something to give (gently, genuinely, generously) that requires “no forcing and no holding back.”
I considered making a tangible, obvious gesture in response to the dream—looking for nicely-bound blank journals to send to Didi and Jill. But, like holiday gift-giving, this seemed to have implications that weren’t in keeping with the feeling of the dream, or my own feelings for my sisters. In the waking world, a gift of a blank book might imply that the receiver ought to fill it up with something. My sisters have full lives of their own, and keeping a diary or making sketches in a journal might not be meaningful to them at all. Those blank pages could easily seem like an obligation, or a reproach. So a different, less literal, gesture seems to be in order.
I’m following the spirit of the dream itself, since in the dream I don’t actually purchase those journals, I just let them directly influence my state of mind. Instead of being preoccupied with my “shopping” (my day-to-day self-absorption) as a stressful and frustrating chore, I can let my enthusiasm for giving and loving pervade everything I do, until the time is right to take the practical steps of choosing “blank journals” (open-ended offerings) for “my family” (or anyone/everyone who might be blessed by such gifts).
I pause to imagine my parents, Philip and Shirley, and my sisters, Jill and Didi, and how the “covers” of these gifts could represent the particular, unique sense I have of each of them. I imagine the “blank pages” within those covers as offering each of them the space to be who they are at the deepest level. And in imagining and feeling my authentic desire for their well-being and happiness, I give myself an experience of meaningful participation in their lives, which, I hope, in some way, they might receive. This is enough of a gesture for the time being.
The last present I gave my mom (about a year before she died) was another kind of gesture, and I’m grateful that I was able to give it, and that it could be fully received. She always loved the ocean, and, in fact, had given the whole Atlantic to me when I was a child by showing me how to love it, too. We shared our wonder at the vastness of the living water; the in-breath of rattling pebbles as each surge was sucked back; the momentous rise, roll and break of the great waves; the fizzing fragrance of the spray; and the reciprocally reflective changes of open sea and sky. But toward the end of her life she wasn’t able to get to the ocean, since she lived inland. On the opposite coast, every time I had the opportunity to walk on a Pacific beach, I would call her on the phone and try to share it with her, but that never really worked. So I’d just think of her with love.
Then, spontaneously inspired, Holly and I began to gather offerings from the ocean, with my mother in mind. We picked up agates, tiny shells, rounded pebbles, and fragments of driftwood softened and shaped by the sea, placing them in matchboxes or wrapping them in cloth to be opened one by one. We recorded the sounds of waves and gulls. We collected a small jar of clean beach sand, and a little bottle of seawater. We sent her a package full of the moments we’d spent collecting detritus, collecting gifts for her. It was just a gesture, but it was enough to spark her imagination and allow her to experience the ocean in her own way.
When I wonder what my life is all about, what I have to give and how it might be given, I remind myself that there’s no one to impress, nothing to prove, no obligation or reproach. When I sit down to write, I listen for the love and longing that makes me want to communicate in a meaningful way with others. I hear it, like the sound of pebbles tumbling after the withdrawing waves, and I follow. Maybe just fifteen minutes of writing… maybe just the warm memory a dream… maybe just a matchbox full of beach agates… maybe just a gesture is enough.