The Exchange of Gifts

The Old Man & Scythe, Bolton, Lancashire. “In this ancient hostelry James Stanley, seventh Earl of Derby, spent the last few hours of his life previous to his execution on the 15th of October, 1651” (condemned for his part in the Civil War)

As Dr Johnson put it:

Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

Even a personal health scare, when you don’t really know what’s going on, does concentrate the mind to an extent, till you decide that it’s going to be all right for a while longer, and you find yourself slipping back into the old habits of aimlessly squandering the precious moments, on the basis that they’ll keep on coming, “ad infinitum”. Or something short of such outright denial.

Anyhow one of the things I’ve been persuaded to do is take more care of my writings. Firstly, to preserve them, but also decide what part of them matters—and what is dross. My first thought was that good writing matters more than content. If the writing is good, let the content take care of itself. I don’t say this glibly. Such spontaneous thoughts, when they come, must be teased out, as with a riddle, one that stops you in your tracks and makes you ponder deeply. I’ve long made it a principle not to answer all the world’s questions, only my own, and then only from my personal point of view. I speak only of my own writing and what to do with it, not anyone else’s. How do I determine what parts are good? How can the content take care of itself?

I don’t reason from the words, as if this were a game of logic and dictionaries. I ask the question and wait for the answer to come. This way I learn that good writing is to be true to the moment. The moment, like every other, passes like an express train. So one must hold on to the thought as it arises, along with the feeling and often an encounter in the world which is midwife to its birth. Then by some alchemy, which one must practise constantly, the words must shape themselves  out of the truth of the moment. If and only if I can do that, the content will take care of itself.

And then another thing pops up, vital to this enterprise: that the writing should reach out and touch a reader, as a shared encounter with truth. What is this truth I keep mentioning? That which matters, to me and my reader. It is a recognition. This is the encounter. It’s a transaction, but not of the commercial kind, in which price must be adjusted to value. That is why I call it an “exchange of gifts”: where the giving is its own reward.

Coming to practical matters, this works fine on a blog. That’s why I’ve entrusted my complete works to this medium, this thing which for so long has been called A Wayfarer’s Notes. Though published, after a fashion, it remains ad hoc and ephemeral. Thoughts of mortality have led me to prepare a  hard copy, that is on paper, though for the moment it’s an electronic equivalent designed for printing as a manuscript. This is being selected and edited as part of the process, as a hedge against the sudden visit of the Old Man with the Scythe.

The thing to do now, or when it feels right, is find a local firm willing to act as my agent in life and literary executor thereafter.  That’s when I’ll have to stop talking about “a reader”, or “an exchange of gifts”. There’ll have to be talk of copyright, fees, percentages, expected sales, royalties to the estate. Enough of self-publishing. Time is too precious. Leave it to those who know, that is what the moment is telling me. Though I find this step daunting, the relief will be the greater, to hand over such matters to those who know what they are doing, and not concern myself with the outcome.

And this is also the case with my particular variety of lymphoma, now diagnosed, classified and granted its tailored treatment plan, which has already started, and whose biggest milestone will take place next Tuesday, when I’m to spend a night or two in Stoke Mandeville Hospital, after a bone marrow biopsy and intravenous drip. What an adventure! I was last an inpatient in January 1949, when penicillin saved my right leg from amputation above the knee—see “Incarcerated“. Medicine has moved a long way since then; so has our National Health Service.

There’s such a bond of trust with my specialist, Dr A— and his wonderful team, that I’m looking forward to it, despite the anticipated discomfort during & immediately after. I almost want to say that he is my shepherd, for he’s found a way to separate the sheep from the goats —I mean to clear out the damaged white blood cells which are blocking the living space needed for the healthy ones. This needs very strong medicine, carefully monitored. They know what they are doing, I just surrender myself to them, and go along for the ride. The blessing of it is to be clear of the worry and polluted atmosphere of commerce. No insurance policy is involved. It comes out of general taxation, and no one knows where the money will come from next year, only that this work is a national priority.

I see the staff doing it out of dedication, exactly as described in my last piece, but then it was just an investigation. Now they are knowledgeable, and able to move swiftly. At the face-to-face meeting between patients and staff, one discerns an exchange of gifts, the rewards being in the giving and the gratitude.


8 thoughts on “The Exchange of Gifts

  1. Gift economy, huh? Sounds like some kind of economic honor system.

    Of course, it’s always possible that honor systems work better than anticipated (working at all is probably better than anticipated.)

    I’m glad you’re thinking about how all this should be preserved, because you’re right, it should be. Your insights, your writing, those little vignettes of your wayfaring, there’s value in this, not just as a personal record, but also for the charm and the quality of the work. I see one of your posts and I always know the place they’re taking me to, somewhere a little worn, a little misty and grey, but always rich with meaning and importance. I always know I’m going to go away feeling a little more comfortable, as after a brief visit with an old friend. Yes, please, keep a home for that place.

  2. My first thought on seeing your post was of John Milton who was not executed for his part in the civil war. He went on to compose several notable works which he never saw in manuscript or print because of his blindness.

  3. I’m happy to hear you are putting preservation plans in place. That resonance you speak of is exactly why your writings are so engaging. You speak ‘truth’ by speaking truly of your own life. I think it’s wonderful. I hope the treatment goes well and that you will soon be restored to health!

  4. Thanks, Kathleen, especially for being among those readers with whom one feels a mutual encounter of understanding & fellow-feeling. Without which encouragement . . . I don’t know, I cannot imagine!

    I feel confident about the treatment, will post a bulletin in due course.

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