When I was a little girl, somebody gave me a book called “Tasha Tudor’s Christmas”. That book became one of my most treasured possessions. I remember pouring over the illustrations and reading every single detail within. I was enchanted with a time when simple, handmade things were held with such reverence. Even at such a young age, I think I was around seven or eight years old at the time, I dreamed of living in a world where a Christmas orange could be relished with such joy. Imagine that! A regular old orange transformed into something wondrous because it arrived in your stocking having taken a voyage over tumultuous seas from a mythical land far away. All we had were regular old oranges from the grocery store. How could I ever get my hands on one of those oranges, the ones that Laura Ingalls and Tasha Tudor knew?
Of course, I know how today. It’s simply perspective. Perspective and the decision to see the ho-hum as extraordinary. It’s been a revelation to me as I have moved into this place in my life over the last many years, that the value I place on what can be seen as ordinary transforms any exchange, any interaction, any gift into something altogether more meaningful.
I was thinking about this the other day after we had some dear friends over to share a meal together. They are farmer friends. What others may not know about fellow country folk is that the desire to offer gifts or meals is often accompanied by consideration of offering something that they may not have. It is farming custom, or maybe just good neighbourly custom, to bring a small gift with you when you arrive to one’s house for dinner or a shared cup of tea. Not mandatory of course, but good practice. In the city a bottle of wine or maybe some flowers are often given as a gift to the host. It’s different in the country.
What to bring? And what to cook?
For our meal, I wanted to make something that I knew they didn’t regularly eat, but the challenge there is that they raise their own beef and milk and chickens and pigs and vegetables and everything else they eat. But they don’t raise lamb and so lamb we had. Lamb encrusted with foraged and dried summer herbs and plants, roasted potatoes with foraged sumac rolled around in duck fat, raita made with the beautiful salt preserved lemons I received as a gift from California, and a whole host of ferments and pickles - everything from julienned pink radishes, slivered helios radishes, asparagus and carrots pickled whole. For dessert there was summer made buttermilk that I infused with foraged Labrador tea and day lilies and made into a panna cotta that was topped with a wild rose syrup and summer sun cooked brandied cherries and black currants.
It sounds lovely, yes? But here’s what we simply ate: lamb with potatoes and some preserved vegetables with custard and fruit for dessert. Why the need to explain and distinguish? Why does my detailed explanation of our menu evoke a different feel and response to the simple, clear and succinct facts? Because within those former sentences lies the stuff that matters - the hidden gifts within. And it’s in the story of those gifts that we are linked to that which connects us. I can give of my time and efforts. I can transform my adoration into action that can be offered with joy. A connecting tether between us. And isn’t connection truly the antidote to the great maladies of our time?
When my farmer friends arrived, they brought with them gifts for us. A jar of beautiful milk from a beautiful cow with a name and a face that I know. There was preserved plums from a kitchen and hands that I know. And a beautiful jar of their own chicken liver paté given to me in a jar that I last used to give her some delights. Each one of those things an expression of affection and thought.
How many gifts do we receive in a lifetime? How many do we give? If you live long enough, you’ll forget most of them. But the ones that stick with us are always the ones made by the hands of people we love or purchased with thought and intention. Over Christmas my son-in-law gave me a vintage locket and put a picture of his infant daughter, our new baby granddaughter in it - something to keep close when we are far. I still think about the tenderness behind that gesture. Sometimes I open our mailbox and find beautiful, handwritten letters from people I have never met, likely will never meet. Letters expressing such kindness that they often bring me to tears. Presents, too, from readers here. A silk printed picture of a fancy lady with a cow. Handmade artwork and books. Pottery shaped by hands and precious salts. And while I may not have that rare and exotic Christmas orange, I have been sent something even better - California lemons plucked from a tree and sent to little ole’ me.
When I was a little girl I made a mailbox out of construction paper that I put up with masking tape on the outside of my door. I told my parents that if any mail came for me, they should put it in there. I still have an off-cut of wood that my carpenter grandfather slipped into my mailbox when he was doing some work on our house for us. He used a pencil, likely the one that was always behind his ear when he was working, to scrawl in lovely cursive, “Tara, I think you’re special. Love Grandpa” on my wooden love letter and left it for me in my paper mailbox. He was a trickster and a joker, my beloved grandpa. That note was a rarity and filled me with such love. The pencil marks are fading away now. I suppose they should.
In every gift, beauty. Beauty of all sorts and shapes, but a contribution of beauty to the world. A call to open our hearts and receive with as much presence as possible. It’s so easy in our world to be primed and slanted to the frustrations and worries of our world. We live so much in our heads, playing out scenarios, imagining outcomes, analysing interactions and relationships. It’s such a monumental waste of time and yet I know people that live the entirety of their lives in those places. Distraction in the real world and made up universes in their minds. It’s getting harder and harder for people to be fully present, fully realised and connected in meaningful ways. Little thoughtful gifts, scattered here and there, are like throwing someone a rope.
“Hey, come here with me! I have something for you! You mean something to me and I want you to know it!”
It’s a love letter without the awkward sentiment for those that would find that too much. Or, it is the love letter with all the sentiment for those that would eat it up.
Speaking of letters, I have all of the love letters that my husband and I have written each other since we first met. Thank goodness they weren’t on a computer but just good old fashioned paper and pen. When our kids were small I used to slip short little love notes into their bags. My husband got spicier ones. Those are gifts, too. A gift, after all is simply an expression of our love in action. Mending a pair of work trousers and tucking them back into the drawer. Writing a silly poem o’ love. Polishing a pair of thirsty boots. Buying that special something they would love but never buy for themselves. Listening, always, for those off-hand, casual remarks about the things that would make their lives easier or more sweet. I recently bought some wool insoles for a pair of boots, boring and plain maybe, but I bought them for my husband who mentioned that his shoes felt a little cold. I don’t want his feet to feel cold and I cared enough to do something about it. To me, that’s what gifts are all about.
Consider this my call to arms - open and giving. Maybe when we make our summer jams and jellies, we can include an extra batch to parse out with love to our beloveds over the year. Instead of material things we can return to clay and paper. We can listen and observe the people in our lives and look for the things that would be meaningful and touching to them and then offer it without expectations. Maybe they recognise the work and love you poured into it, maybe they don’t. Maybe you’ll just never know. That part doesn’t matter. Instead, consider your gifts as the realisation of an emotion. A physical manifestation of love and beauty. Put that out into the world. The world needs gifts. People need gifts. We need to offer and we need to receive with open hearts, not suspicion. It is one of the few, instant ways we have to break through the cynicism of modernity. Receiving a gift asks us to be open and in that openness, our connection.
To give your words, your efforts, your loving intention is to transform the mundane into something of meaning. It’s powerful magic. With only our thought and care paper or thread or a plum or a piece of quartz the colour of an apricot becomes something real and alive. Consider the small, chubby fist of a child, opening to put in your palm a pinecone. That is no longer just a pinecone. That is wonder and awareness transformed by love and openly shared with the lucky human of such an innocent and honest heart. An invitation to share in the elevation of the ordinary - that’s a gift.
And when you receive a gift, stop for a moment and really receive it. When someone offers you a kind word meet that expression with your eyes and your stillness. Don’t brush away a compliment. Compliments are an egoless gift from the heart. Open yourself up to them, let the loving words of another in. Take the kindness of another whether it be in words or actions or gifts. Allow it in. Keep it. Roll it around in your heart. Let it grow inside of you so that what is right and good and loving has a chance against what is harsh and cynical. You, as the receiver of love, have work to do, too. Never diminish or weaken love that has been given. In any form. Lord knows we all need it.
An orange is still a revelation, you know. We just have to see it.
Slowdown Farmstead is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
p.s. We had some good conversations in our chat this week on everything from feeding kids to how we deal with tough situations with family members or friends that desperately need us to partake in the walmart cake to making panna cotta with wild foraged ingredients. You should join. Such a wonderful and interesting group of humans.
“Rings and jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only true gift is a portion of thyself.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson