I’ve always loved the idea of gifts and reciprocity. The circular pattern of that process. What you give, you receive. This time of year I fill our pantry shelves with preserves, more than we can ever use. But when we are invited to dinner with friends, we take wine, yes, and often a jar of jam or pickled beans or a herbal jelly. I remember the time I spent living on Crete in the 1970s and how I would accompany my love interest of the time, Agamemnon (yes, that was his name!), to dinners with friends of his family. At the door we would be greeted with a small tray holding a glass of water and a jar of quince or cherry preserves. A long spoon. We would take a spoon of the preserve, called “spoon-sweets”, followed by a drink of water. Sometimes a tiny cup of coffee. This practice was part of an ancient code called Xenia. The guest was treated well in part because he or she might be a god or goddess in disguise. And if that didn’t prove to be the case? Well, no matter. The host had done the right thing. And a guest treated well was unlikely to behave badly.
“When the gift moves in a circle its motion is beyond the control of the personal ego, and so each bearer must be a part of the group and each donation is an act of social faith.”– Lewis Hyde, from The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property
When people come to us, they bring flowers or books or wine; I feed them; John keeps our glasses replenished; they tell us stories and we share our own. Sometimes they leave with a bag of kale or a rooted cutting of wisteria or scented geranium. It’s the world I want to live in so I do my part.
Someone who does not know the Tigris River exists
brings the caliph who lives near the river
a jar of fresh water. The caliph accepts, thanks him,
and gives in return a jar filled with gold coins.
— Rumi, from “The Gift of Water”, trans. Coleman Barks
Someone once said as she arrived for dinner and put a jar of beautiful raspberry jam on the counter, “It’s like bringing coals to Newcastle.” But it wasn’t. Not at all. We grow wonderful raspberries but I never make jam of them. I don’t know why, quite. It seems there are always other things happening when the raspberries (cherished, for sure, but also called “the frigging raspberries” late in their season when they have to be picked, yet again, almost always by John, and arranged on trays for the freezer. In peak season, there’s a bucket a day….), anyway, when the raspberries are ripe so I never make jam of them. And hot buttered toast, with raspberry jam, in January? Oh, man.
So this isn’t entirely about jam. It’s about exchange. John printed these keepsakes on our Chandler and Price platen press to give out at my book launch and yes, we did that. Or Bev Shaw did. She owns Talewind Books and is the gracious bookseller at so many literary events on our coast. (Those who attend the Festival of the Written Arts in Sechelt will recognize her name!) She is a true friend to writers and readers. We have copies of the keepsake left. I’ll take some to Munro’s in Victoria for the reading I’m doing there on October 4th with Bill Gaston. But in the meantime, send me a photo or maybe just a confirmation that you’ve bought a copy of Euclid’s Orchard (my contact info is in the menu on the right-hand side of my home page) and I’ll mail you a copy of this lovely little letterpress keepsake. I can’t offer you a spoon of jam at the door and a glass of our delicious well water, not unless you visit us here, but I can offer something else. And I’m very happy to do that.