Years ago a good friend gave me a T-shirt emblazoned on the front with a frazzled figure stating “the holidays are not for sissies”. We passed it back and forth whenever one of us needed it. I still wear it (at least mentally) during some part of the holiday chaos.
So much attention is focused on the rituals of giving and receiving during this time of year. It is a surprisingly difficult and complex cycle. During the flurry of preparations, shopping, and that inescapable sound track of sentimental holiday music, I found myself unconsciously humming along to a silly familiar Christmas tune, then be unexpectedly seized by the memory of my mother’s death and how I longed for her company. There is a strange tension in those glossy holiday offerings and happy gatherings, and the shadowy handouts of discord, challenge, difficulty and doubt. All held within the same cup – a weird brew of light and dark.
The Patra vessels are intended to hold such curious concoctions. Like any gift given or received, no matter the intent, an unpredictable range of responses are evoked. There are stories told and untold as they circulate. Those I’ve read and heard represent an array of comments that range from profound interaction, to confusion with its purpose, to “I couldn’t wait to give the goddamn thing away” (as told through another participant). Giving and receiving are indeed multifaceted actions.
What makes something an enduring gift? What exchange is a deep experience, not just an acquisition? I’ve been considering the word exchange. From two years of high school Latin, which I barely remember, I recall that ex means “out of”. Ex-change could mean then, out of change, out of transformation, out of one thing and into another where something different emerges. For me this idea is at the core of meaningful giving and receiving.
Pablo Neruda, the Nobel prize-winning Chilean poet, writes an account of a transformative gift ex-change that occurred during his boyhood when he discovered a hole in the fence while playing in the lot behind his house.
I looked through the hole and saw a landscape like that behind our house, uncared for, and wild. I moved back a few steps, because I sensed vaguely that something was about to happen. All of a sudden a hand appeared—a tiny hand of a boy about my own age. By the time I came close again, the hand was gone, and in its place there was a marvelous white toy sheep.
The sheep’s wool was faded. Its wheels had escaped. All of this only made it more authentic. I had never seen such a wonderful sheep. I looked back through the hole but the boy had disappeared. I went in the house and brought out a measure of my own: a pine cone, opened, full of odor and resin, which I adored. I set it down in the same spot and went off with the sheep.
I never saw either the hand or the boy again. And I have never seen a sheep like that either. The toy I lost finally in a fire. But even now…whenever I pass a toyshop, I look furtively into the window. It’s no use. They don’t make sheep like that anymore.
This exchange of gifts—mysterious—settled deep inside me like a sedimentary deposit. I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that come from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses—that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.
That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all humanity is somehow together…It won’t surprise you then that I have attempted to give something resiny, earthlike, and fragrant in exchange for human brotherhood…
This is the great lesson I learned in my childhood, in the backyard of a lonely house. Maybe it was nothing but a game two boys played who didn’t know each other and wanted to pass to the other some good things of life. Yet maybe this small and mysterious exchange of gifts remained inside me also, deep and indestructible, giving my poetry light.
We are now into the fourth month of the Patra Passage and just weeks away from the time when all of the first recipients will have passed vessels into the hands of the next receivers. This means I’ll know few if any of the people who possess the bowls. Some have moved on quickly, some more slowly. Some have commentary; some do not. All contain narrative – secret, written or spoken – as they witness the lives of those who hold them. At this point in time the vessels are with 75 first recipients, 28 second recipients, and 5 third recipients. The Patra vessels, and the many ways they’re experienced, are all over the map.