The art of giving, large and small

It's not just an action but a process, as big as a sea lion and as small as a salmonberry

The act of giving can be so simple and yet so complex. Giving in a sense that is not just good cheer, but something deeper and nuanced and more layered. It’s not just a word, but an entire etiquette. It’s not just a formality, but a way of life.

It’s a matter of respect, a shared experience, an exchange of goodwill, a nod to humility, a deference, a show of appreciation, a payback, a responsibility, a form of courage, an act of selflessness. It’s what matters most and gives meaning. Go deeper. Go higher. A language unto itself. A conversation.

All these words are important, and each is different.

Sara Siestreem (Hanis Coos), aretha franklin (1942-2018) reins supreme dance cap, yellow cedar bark (Kodiak, AK): Vickie Era; black berry and beet dye (Columbia River, OR); red cedar bark (Kingcome, British Columbia): Marianne Nicolson; salmon vertebrae (Kingcome, B.C.); sweet grass: Theresa Secord; spruce root (North Spit of Jordan Cove, Coos Bay, OR); glass and shell beads: Amazon, the world.
Sara Siestreem (Hanis Coos), aretha franklin (1942-2018) reins supreme dance cap, yellow cedar bark (Kodiak, AK): Vickie Era; black berry and beet dye (Columbia River, OR); red cedar bark (Kingcome, British Columbia): Marianne Nicolson; salmon vertebrae (Kingcome, B.C.); sweet grass: Theresa Secord; spruce root (North Spit of Jordan Cove, Coos Bay, OR); glass and shell beads: Amazon, the world.

A trip to the Oregon Coast a while back got me thinking about all that, and has stayed with me for more than a year. What does it mean “to give?” It’s all about a balance in the universe, but it’s not simply to balance out “to get,” and certainly not “to take.” But what does it mean to give in a sense that achieves an equilibrium?

In a lecture in Coos Bay on a sunny afternoon, Sara Siestreem, Hanis Coos, explained how she obtained natural materials to create traditional Native weavings. When she extracted a plant, she left an offering in the soil. A salmonberry, perhaps.

In all its glorious beauty, that act of giving, of giving back, should seem so simple. But it’s much more than that.  

First it starts with scouting where the plants grow. A scouting mission is just that: Siestreem surveys and takes note; she never harvests plants when she first sees them. No. She studies who owns the land, figures out how to contact them, and seeks permission. Whether it’s federal, state, or private property, she reaches out and explains her purpose and waits to be granted access. She requires an invitation.

It’s about having a conversation. It’s an exchange, if you will, but it’s even more than that. It’s a relationship. A bond. A matter of trust. And so it begins and continues every step of the way. A respectful nod.

When Siestreem harvests plants, she talks to them, telling them her plans and all she hopes for them. How important they are. She handles them, imbues them with her energy, and they hold that and give back. It’s an exchange. And she leaves an offering. A salmonberry, perhaps.

The plants are gathered up and tied and then they must season over time, which becomes their own exchange. Wherever they hang the plants take their beauty and their sense of place, their smells and touch of earth. And in return, they absorb the knowledge of what happens in that place, the chatterings and wisdoms. They intermingle these experiences, the organic and inorganic, the undefinable, and carry all their history with them as they go forward into weavings, into futures, into more conversations.

***

Last year I had the benefit of being part of a panel discussion at the Newport Visual Arts Center, where several students and instructors from Oregon State University were in the audience after they had taken part in an artist reception that evening. Close to the end of the discussion, when it was getting late, the energy was quickly draining from the room, and most people had left, a young woman raised her hand straight up, seemingly eager and determined to ask something. “How can we write about anything without first acknowledging the horrific history that has been done to people in this country?”

It wasn’t a polite question but an obvious challenge, a hijacking of sorts, and you could feel, rather than hear, the collective groan in the room. Whatever air was still left went flat. I knew the reaction wasn’t out of disagreement, but more about the method and the timing, and an understanding that with something at once elemental and so giant and daunting, it would mean total paralysis and an inability to move in any direction: whether to repair harm, to heal, to make even a tiny amount of progress. There’s that old adage, or a semblance of one: The way forward begins with one step. Where to begin in the face of such a monstrous task?

The question that wasn’t a question had the effect of killing the discussion rather than charging it. Yet in that young, brazen woman I recognized something of myself in my own college days (perhaps not the brazen part, which would require much too much courage for me): the early stages of trying to make sense of the world and challenge its ill-begotten order. Right on.

I see you. I hear you.

Shanna Roast's digital photo and plastic sculpture Swell.
Shanna Roast’s digital photo and plastic sculpture Swell, at the Newport Visual Arts Center in Fall 2018.

It made me remember the time that a small group of students and I walked into the college president’s office unannounced to demand more diversity on campus. (OK, so maybe I was a little brazen, now that I think about it.) The president graciously listened to our concerns. Later, when I accepted my diploma and shook the president’s hand, I whispered in his ear, “I bet you’re happy to see me go.”

“Not at all,” he said.

How do we right the takings and acknowledge the wrongs? How do we go about finding an equilibrium when a brutal history has woefully tipped the scale? How do we find trust and a way forward? What is a good first step?

At that moment, downstairs in the Newport Visual Arts Center, right underneath where the panel discussion was happening, a life-size mermaid was hoisted upside-down from the ceiling. The graphic sculpture hung in front of a large photo of it on a real fishing boat, and the whole installation resembled something more than a fresh catch … like a trophy to shamelessly parade for all to see. Shanna Roast, a student at OSU, had explained just moments before how she had collected trash on the beach and stuffed it into this shape. She wanted to shed light on how people commonly treat the earth as a minority, something to be conquered and owned, instead of co-existing with it as a life form.

***

When my college-age son was in middle school, he and his close buddies had the benefit of one of the very best librarians, one of those people he will likely carry with him for the rest of his life, whether he remembers her name or not. The lads often hung out in the library – before school, after school, their safe space. She urged them into a reading competition, and coached them for a while until they coached themselves. And I learned some years later, much to my surprise, that with her encouragement my son had been a tutor for younger students during some of that time.

This heroine librarian and I both chaperoned the special picnic at the end of the boys’ eighth-grade year, that bittersweet time when they’re saying goodbye to the school and culture they had shared since kindergarten, and are eager and anxious for what was in store in high school. While we walked and chatted she casually called out to different clusters of students that in a few minutes we all would transition to something new. In group after group, students barely glanced at her and went back to their absorbed social worlds. They didn’t nod or wave. Nothing. Just a big ignore. A silent dismiss.

I could feel my annoyance growing at each nothing response. My two teenagers and their attitudes were hard enough for me to put up with. I couldn’t imagine many multiples of them. But the heroine librarian kept casually walking and calling out, like more nothing was not happening.

When I brought up the black hole, she said, yeah, that’s what they do, and assured me they were hearing her, whether they were acknowledging it or not. It’s the eighth-grade attitude, she said, like it was … well … nothing.

And then she said, but you want a little pushback, don’t you?

Excuse me? This sounded to me like a giant invitation to turmoil, a welcome mat for middle school middle fingers everywhere. Wasn’t parenting hard enough?

Well yeah, she said, you don’t want just obedient kids following orders, do you? You want them to have backbones to stand up and challenge things.

The idea seems so obvious to me now, but I loved her even more in that aha moment, its ridiculousness to me matched only by its profoundness. The library, the safe haven, the social circle, the book competition, the tutoring, the everything, the too-muchness, and now this aha moment. She had clearly guarded and given ample space to my son when his too-bigness was fast outgrowing that too-small school. She had generously taught him well those few years, and was now sending him into the world, clichés be damned, bigger and better … and apparently ready to set-to. She had given him a miraculous gift of sorts. Permission. In a turn that seems both honorable and fitting, she will be one of those people I will likely carry with me for the rest of my life.

When the buddy boys were ready to “graduate” from that school, we parents, who had forged our own lasting bonds in nine years, chipped in to buy a new carpet for the library. It was an important and respectful nod to the boys’ all-deserving guardian and mentor, and their shared transformative history in a shared gathering space. A carpet. Necessary, but laughably practical and mundane. Looking back on it now, I see it as a worthy anchor, a blessing for safe seas in a safe place, something that can absorb the whispered chatterings of schoolchildren, take in the wonder of their book readings, and hold their secrets. A stepping stone. That carpet. A salmonberry, perhaps.

***

That afternoon in Coos Bay, Siestreem talked quickly, with so much ground to cover, easily weaving together her life and artistic journeys like one of her special baskets. She remembered, fondly, visiting the Sea Lion Caves along the Oregon Coast as a child. While she talked I imagined along with her from my own experiences visiting there: the tummy-thumping elevator ride, the waves swelling and splashing, the tangy smell of the ocean, and, most of all, that unforgettable chorus of barking sea lions cascading and ricocheting off the rock walls.

I imagined it all from when I was a child, and from the faces of my own children and grandboy, all etched from different visits over so many years.

Siestreem said her father ever so kindly allowed her that genuine experience of the sounds and smells, that wonder, a gift. And I knew what she meant. When she got older, her father told her how their people were forced on a long march to that part of the coast near what’s now the Sea Lion Caves, and were pushed over the cliffs.

While I was growing up, my family pointed out Sea Lion Caves bumper stickers for years, like a funny game. On freeways and in parking lots, we would point and smile. Look! A warm touchstone that we shared. I hadn’t thought about that in decades until I spotted one only a few months ago in my neighborhood. Look!

***

Here at ArtsWatch it’s our mission to wrestle with ideas on how arts and culture intersect, nay, intertwine or perhaps coalesce, with society. We use the word “wrestle” with all its muscle and sinew and grace.

It can be tough to tell these stories. Are these my stories to tell? Our stories? Who do stories belong to? (And don’t get me started on the whole whom thing.)

Are stories a taking of a sort, or are they a giving? I guess it depends on how they’re told.

These stories that I have been carrying with me for more than a year (and sometimes longer) have me questioning the takings that I take for granted. What do I just assume is mine to begin with, without even questioning it? Without giving it a single thought? Without being granted permission first? Sometimes I’ve been thinking back a whole lifetime to assess this. Those frog eggs I took home in the basket of my pink banana bike when I was in grade school. The shells I collect unthinkingly on beaches. And what of “bigger” things? Bigger things? Because frog eggs and shells aren’t big enough? Maybe they’re everything. What of conversations? Assumptions? Burned and rooted in my culture, I really have been doing this my whole life, haven’t I?

And what have I given in return?

That bumper sticker tradition that I had considered a jovial grounding for my family since I was wee-young and guileless has forever changed for me now, cast adrift and echoing, with now other stories necessarily mingling in and layering. I haven’t lost my story. I have dismantled and reassembled it, incorporating a many-colored, messy, complex texture.  

And I am the richer for it. This tectonic cultural shift.

In this season of giving, may we talk together and grow to understand what it truly means to give back to find an equilibrium, to honor what we beget. It’s OK to start with something small, for the many smalls translate into a way of life. And with this, I give one small story.

A salmonberry, perhaps.

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