Every month, my neighbor Debbie brings me her copy of “Yoga Journal” after she’s read it. This small gesture is one of so many kindnesses that Debbie extends to me that, I’m embarrassed to admit, sometimes I don’t even remember to say “thank you.”
Among other things, Debbie entertains our dog Gracie for a few hours a day, fills our bird feeder when it’s empty, waters my houseplants when I go away, sweeps our garage, brings me inspiring quotes to read and a still-warm croissant from the bakery, just because.
Sometimes I also forget that Debbie lives with chronic pain, the debilitating after-effects of her near-fatal bout with e.coli nearly ten years ago. Debbie doesn’t talk much about her health. She’s an expert at deflecting that mundane question, “How are you?” Only when I notice that she’s walking more slowly than usual, or bending down on one knee to rest, does it occur to me–she’s not mentioning it, but physically she feels lousy.
I don’t think that I’m totally oblivious; it’s more that Debbie is so focused out, and she does such a good job of taking care of the people and animals in her life, that I don’t always notice what else is going on–namely, that she’s hurting. One thing I’ve begun to see however, is that giving to others is Debbie’s way of taking her mind off her own discomfort.
A couple of weeks ago, while paging through the most recent issue of “Yoga Journal” one night, I came across a review of a book called “29 Gifts.” Author Cami Walker had spiraled into a depression after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Two years later–angry, alone, and addicted to pain killers–she was advised by a South African healer to give something away every day for 29 days. The gifts didn’t have to be large, or even material, he explained, but they did need to be offered with love, and consciousness. For Walker, this simple practice was transformational, the first steps on her own healing journey.
The idea of giving a small unexpected gift each day during the month of December was so appealing that I decided to give it a try. The next day, December 1, I bought a couple of chocolate Santas, just so I wouldn’t go into the exercise empty-handed. And then, without much more thought than that, I began. The gifts I’ve given over the last few weeks are nothing special really — a box of treats mailed to a son at school, a vintage copy of “Heidi” sent to a friend’s nine-year-old daughter, homemade granola to neighbors, candy to a niece and nephew, a letter written to someone feeling low, a pint of Ben & Jerrry’s Strawberry Cheesecake ice cream to Debbie. . .
But being on the lookout for gift-giving opportunities has subtly changed the way I move through my days. Giving, oddly enough, creates a sense of abundance. It’s fun. And it’s also sort of magical. Taking an extra moment to make eye contact and say something kind to a shopkeeper or a waiter, I get the gift of their response in return. Calling an old friend to say hello, I get the gift of their surprise and pleasure on the other end of the line. Offering dinner to friends, I receive the gift of their appreciation. Meanwhile, I notice a fresh energy in my life. A few days ago, an odd, long-out-of-print book arrived in the mail, specially ordered for me by a friend in Minnesota because he knew that it would make me laugh. Gifts are flowing both ways.
During this Christmas season, as we choose presents for our loved ones, we’re reminded that it’s not really the gift itself, but rather the act of giving that makes the world a brighter place. Giving to others, we can’t help but be more aware of the abundance in our own lives. Gratitude bubbles up. And joy. And pretty soon we realize that we don’t need a holiday to inspire generosity. We can give just for the simple pleasure of bringing a smile to someone’s face, or bringing a little more love into the world.
Eighteen days into my month of giving, I think I’m coming to understand Debbie a bit better. Giving and doing for others is her spiritual practice. It is a decision she makes, day by day and moment by moment, to choose gratitude over self-pity, generosity over pain, light over darkness. She’s a great teacher. And I’m learning.
(By the way, although you don’t need to read a book to begin a practice of giving, Cami Walker’s book, “29 Gifts,” is a lovely gift in itself.)