Today as part of my personal rune studies I was considering the rune Gebo/Gyfu. This rune represents gifts given and obligations incurred. Among other things, it can symbolize the reciprocal nature of gifts. It seems the Norse believed that a gift calls for a gift. So if one is given a gift or done a favor then you are expected to gift something of similar value or return the favor in some way (similar to the Northwest Native peoples tradition of potlatch). Thinking about the nature of reciprocity and gifts made me wonder about past gifts and how they obligate me as an adult.
I’m not referring exclusively to presents given for special occasions such as birthdays. I’m talking about other, sometimes more intangible, gifts. For example I had a teacher for third and fourth grade, Sister Esther, who made a huge impact on me. She forced to try harder as a student. I was (and still am) a lazy student. I do what I need to in order to pass the course. I regularly wait until the last minute to complete assignments (unless I’m working with partners). Luckily for me this behavior had little impact on my grades. Even when I half-assed it I received good grades. However Sister Esther refused to accept any half-assing from me. She would push me and prod me to dig deeper for answers. It’s as if she knew the I had a lazy streak and would be satisfied with doing just enough work to get by. As a result of Sister Esther’s prodding, I developed skills that allowed me to half-half-ass it. I developed note taking techniques and study techniques that allowed me to remember facts and information so that I didn’t have to study very hard in order to pass tests. I learned how to read reference papers with an eye towards ignoring extraneous and non-essential (to me anyway) data. As a results I am still able to wait until the last minute to complete assignments but they’re still well done.
Another teacher who influenced me was a religion teacher I had in high school. His name was Mr. McCommiskey and I truly believe I made his life miserable. I had his religion in my freshman year and it was right after lunch. I was often sleepy and would nod off. To avoid nodding off I took to reading during class. This frustrated the poor man and he would regularly confiscate my books. He finally asked me why I continued to read during his class and I explained that reading kept me awake. If I wasn’t reading then I would fall asleep. As long as I wasn’t disrupting and participated in class discussions, he never bothered me about this again. I mention Mr. McCommiskey because despite our rocky moments, he taught me so much about spirituality and not accepting the “official” version of events. He was a liberation theologist (this was the early 1980s and as I look back I am truly amazed at how blessed I was by my Catholic high school education). He often pointed out facts left out of the official version of events such as that women used to officiate at early Christian masses. He once led us in replicating what an early Christian mass might have included, along with making unleavened honey oat cakes for us to try. He tried to enlighten our remarkably uninterested teenage minds to the hypocrisy and inequality in the world (he had spend a few years in El Salvador). I truly believe this man is one of the reasons my spiritual path has explored so many areas. When I met him again at a recent high school reunion I made a point to seek him out and than him. I think he might have been touched by my appreciation (even though I admitted I was no long Catholic).
On a deeper and different level I thought about my parents and the gifts they gave me. Despite their dysfunction, my parents did give me the gift of life and as a result dramatically changed their own lives. They taught me to think for myself (which I’m sure they had many occasions to regret) and to fight for what I believed. They taught me that family is important (something I did not appreciate during my teen years) and should be defended. They taught me that no matter how difficult and challenging things become we shouldn’t give up. From my mother’s side of the family I learned that family doesn’t walk away when things get bad. I watched as my grandmother, her eldest brother and visiting siblings cared for their mother (my great-grandmother) who was senile and unable to care for herself. They all worked together to keep her home and cared for until she passed away. My maternal grandmother survived burying two husbands (the first when she was only about 18), her 6 month old son (also when she was 18) and raising her only daughter by herself. She refused to break. She might have bent under the weight of her responsibilities on occasion but she didn’t give up. She was stubborn and strong-willed and I adored her.
So how can I honor and reciprocate such intangible gifts? The best way I can see is paying it forward. I now tend my ailing mother-in-law because of the gift my grandmother and her family gave me about understanding family obligations and responsibilities. Did they struggle? Of course they did, but they didn’t give up. Even though I was able to thank both the teachers I mentioned that doesn’t mean I can’t pay those gifts forward too. I have nieces and nephews. By teaching them to question and seek answers I hope that I am gifting them with a lifelong curiosity that will pay back the teachers who gifted it to me. There are many more instances I could mention but I think the point has been made. In so many ways we are all blessed in our lives; we are given many tangible and intangible gifts. We should be sure not to take them for granted and to reciprocate in kind in whatever way possible, or at least that what I’m going to try.