It’s one of the first phrases I have come to understand, probably because it is asked to me all the time.
Have you eaten?
The look in their eyes is always the same: great concern. Let me feed you. Here, let me give you all that I have to offer. And then I will somehow find more to give to you. They call me by my name: stranger, friend, sister, auntie, daughter. You are most welcome here. Eat.
This morning it was a woman who works on the Farm where I currently sleep (and occaisionally work myself). She dresses in a bright yellow sari with silver flowers, her hair twisted into a tight bun at the nape of her neck, her eyes bright as if she is always laughing at the twists and turns of the world. This morning I was running late and had not eaten, figuring I’d grab something on the way, but her eyes compelled me to sit, stay, eat. She gave me rice and a bit of (spicy!) onion-gravy that passed for samba. Tonight, I ended up going to her place, a little house with three rooms and a kitchen, all painted green. She gave me dosa – fresh, hot, thick dosa - and bananas.
I am given so much here. A place to sleep: a mat and blankets on a floor that is, as my host said, always open to me. Food - in homes, in villages, in the fields, in offices, constantly people offer me food. Rice, dosa, idli.Water, chai, coffee, sweet milk, baddam-milk. Bananas. Not always ‘rich’ food. Not always food I prefer to eat (I would prefer millets to rice any day – not easy in this part of the world), but hot and fresh and served with love. Friends – a community of change-makers who seek to love one another and society so much through their actions that others are inspired. Even, at times, misquito repellent. To me are given the basics of life: food, water, shelter, friendship-belonging.
I also have what we need to make a difference: friends with connections, passion, and sharp intellects who will listen to my ideas and refine them and tease them and encourage them and test them against their own experience. And the internet. And enough money in the bank to do some traveling.
In returning to India, I enter a life filled with gifts.
Every day I walk past people who do not have even the most basics of these things. Every day I encounter more stories of injustice, corruption, violence, death, sickness, depression. Every day I smell polluted waters and severe sanitation issues and cracked pavements that flood with every rainfall and questionable drinking water and women whose wisdom is in danger of dying with them.
For whatever reason, I am given gifts here.My cup overflows. I ask myself: Do I only receive? Am I only a mere consumer – which surely must be the bottom of the pecking order of good living? Or am I also giving?
At work I wonder if I am giving anything back of real value. A friend here asked, so you are doing research. How will your research benefit society? I said, oh, I doubt it will. That was probably said too fast and without enough respect to what Im actually doing. In this particular project, it’s hard to say. Right now the impact feels, at best, minimal – an article in a semi-scholarly journal, a report, a conference that someone else will attend, a seminar in Delhi. I know all of it is cumulative. I know it is making a ‘contribution’ to the overarching literature, spreading knowledge, giving the voices and perspectives of a group largely under-heard and under-seen health service providers.
But here, surrounded by thousands of people every day, people on two-wheelers spilling dust into my eyes and people pushing coconuts and women selling fish on the side of the road….. ‘contributions to the literature’ in this particular incident feels highly insufficient.
I am restless.
What am I giving today?
We (Story of Stuff; QIF; IDS; and many progressive think tanks and action groups) speak of an economy that moves beyond consumption and production and into modes of ‘citizenship’. I am not always sure the ‘citizenship’ model is the one I must adhere to – too many people are not citizens, and the ‘rights’ of citizens - in this country at least - are poorly upheld by courts that barely function. Some people speak of pro-sumers, as ways of integrating the two. Those who take (consume) vs those who make (produce) is a sharper distinction, though of course many of us do both. But in a situation where I am being freely given all that I need, I ask not about ‘producing’ but about giving.
How am I giving?
I give my gratitude as often as possible. I give my love as freely and generously as I can. I give small gifts – pineapple and sweets to people’s homes, flowers, greens from the farm. I give connections. I write. I tell stories. I sing for people whenever I am asked. I open my address book and give whatever contact I can think of. I listen to people’s stories and their struggles. I listen to peoples dreams. I reflect these back to them. I give them the blessing of a stranger, which can, at times, be more significant than a friend. I do some farm work - weeding, hoeing, harvesting mostly - I give my mind to initiatives I see as worthwhile. Last night I sat and supported a friend on his business plan for his social enterprise. Tonight I listened to a semi-colleague think through his business plans for his social enterprise. Tomorrow I will listen to a friend who quite his job without knowing what to do next because he could no longer do it with integrity. I buy fruit for my colleagues. Tomorrow I shall bring organic greens to the office.
People tell me that I have blessed their home. People tell me that because of me they are changing certain parts of their lives. They say I don’t need to give them anything. My mere presence is enough.
In that last one, I struggle to accept. I feel I am not giving enough. This is not enough, these small things. Surely there is more, so much more, that I can be giving back to life here. I feel at times like a cat in a cage, looking for a way out. Let me do something…. Significant…. I have spent too long behind desks and books and computers. Let me use my skills and my talents; my ignorance and my broken heart to give more, more.
But too often - at least recently - the yearning leads to nothing but spinning.
I begin to consider that part of what keeps me spinning is not accepting that actually it is enough just as it is. To slow down the mind long enough to take in what is without trying to change anything, to come into full acceptance of reality and the deeper Presence that is there even though – especially! – when it does not meet my expectations. The gifts I am being given are being given without expectation. For me to give freely - also without expectation - I must fully accept what is. Only then can life move freely between us, and the webs of serendipity and love bring us closer together, so that our gifts given by a Spirit to this earth through our finite bodies may come into being.
In a world with so much to do and learn, it seems that I need to slow down just enough so that life itself can work through us and we can be like empty vessels receiving and overflowing. And may that which overflows be even sweeter than that which came in for having swirled around in our imperfect but still beautifully shaped Selves!