As Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her astounding book, Braiding Sweetgrass, described her childhood relationship to wild strawberries, I felt a flicker of recognition. The strawberries offered her sweetness and pleasure as a gift, and she, in return, helped them thrive. They taught her about the gift economy, so different from the market economy around her:
For the greater part of human history, and in places in the world today, common resources were the rule. But someone invented a different story, a social construct in which everything is a commodity to be bought and sold. The market economy story has spread like wildfire, with uneven results for human well-being and devastation for the natural world. But it is just a story we have told ourselves and we are free to tell another to reclaim the old one…. If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow. When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become.
I realized that although the term gift economy was new to me, the concept behind it was not. In Japanese culture, giving and receiving gifts is an important part of social interactions. I have clear memories of me and my brother clambering over my dad when he came back from business trips, gleeful in anticipation of our omiyage. You never return from any trip in Japan without bringing back presents for your family, friends, and co-workers. And even if my mother was just popping over for a cup of coffee at a friend’s house, she always brought something—fruit, cookies, tea—for the host. An intricate set of social norms govern the giving and receiving of gifts in Japan, part of the cultural emphasis on the collective over the individual.
The gift economy prioritizes the richness of relationships over material wealth. It opens up possibilities for reciprocity and cooperation, and stands in stark contrast to capitalism’s encouragement of competitiveness, greed, and selfishness.
Many of us recognize that our capitalism-driven society has led us to societal and planetary disaster. But what do we do with that knowledge? Capitalism is the water we swim in, the air we breathe. Everything has a price, time is money, and our value is based on our production. It often feels like every single thing I do relates somehow back to producing/making money, or consuming/spending money. How is it possible to extract myself from a system that feels so pervasive, even if it is “just a story”?
My first experience with alternative ways of engaging with capitalism came when I signed up for a workshop led by Class Action in the early 2000s. There was no set fee. Instead, they had a sliding scale, and we had to choose our place on the scale. It made me deeply uncomfortable. Everything I had internalized until then was screaming at me to pay the lowest fee, to get the “best deal” out of it. After all, I didn’t have a steady income and didn’t have much in savings. And how did I know if this workshop would be “worth it”? My discomfort grew, bordering on panic as I read the instructions and looked at the sliding scale.
I wanted a simple, clear transaction: I pay a set amount of money and “get my money’s worth.” Or, I decide that I can’t afford it, and I pass on the experience. Instead, I was being asked to think critically and expansively about all the things I was supposed to avoid thinking about: where I was located in the spectrum of class and wealth, what privileges led to my economic situation, and how much autonomy I had, or didn’t, over how I spend my money. Most disruptive of all, I was being asked to engage in a relationship with the trainers that wasn’t a straightforward transaction, but an ongoing process of conversation, reflection, and accountability.
Although it freaked me out, that process taught me a lot about my relationship to money and class, even before I stepped foot in the workshop. It was the beginning of my journey in learning how to navigate capitalism in closer alignment with my values. Today, I’m getting better at approaching money not as a scary, taboo topic, but as an object that, because it has tremendous power in this society, needs to be looked at clearly and discussed explicitly.
It’s a way to begin reimagining new ways of being that don’t operate from scarcity, greed, and extraction rooted in white supremacy, but instead are grounded in abundance and reciprocity. A way to tell myself a different story, to remember older stories of how the world works.
Over the summer, I was in conversation with my partner Patti about my hopes for my new collection of poetry, Last Days, which is being published in April. The book is a poetic practice of radical imagination for our current political and environmental crises. It explores how we might transform these conditions to usher in a future that is more beautiful, more just, and more loving than we can even imagine. I wrote it inspired by the organizers around me, and I hope it inspires them and other organizers, activists, cultural workers, and healers in the movement. I fretted to Patti about navigating the literary world, which I have often felt outside of and at odds with, when really, I wanted the book to reach a whole other set of people.
“Why don’t you just give the book away to organizers?” Patti asked one day, as if it were the most reasonable answer. I scoffed: How unrealistic! How in the world could I make that happen? Whoever heard of such a thing?
Patti is not daunted by much. She can see what needs to happen—even if it’s never happened before, even if it seems impossible—and can figure out ways to get there. And so, eventually, we came up with a plan to give the book away to organizers and others working on racial, climate, and economic justice who would like a little poetry in their lives. The project would operate within a gift economy: people who believed in and were excited about the plan would give their money to it, and then we would give the books away. It would also lift up other poets of color who also had new work coming out around the same time. I didn’t want to compete; I wanted to collaborate.
I’m happy to say that this plan is well under way. I’ve been able to forge new relationships or deepen connections with powerful poets, artists, and organizers. I’m collaborating with poet and performance artist Gabrielle Civil to send her forthcoming chapbook ( ghost gestures ) to organizers along with Last Days. The amazing Jess X. Snow not only created the art on the cover of the book, but also designed a poster for this project. I’m collaborating with fellow Asian American poets Muriel Leung and Tiana Nobile, who also have books coming out this spring.
On the fundraising front, we’ve raised $10,000 of the $15,000 we budgeted for, enough to hire someone to help me spread the word about this project, and we launched an online donation page to raise the final $5000. Once again, I learned that people want to help and are happy to donate if asked. If you haven’t already donated and would like to jump in, you can do so here.
And, if you are an organizer, activist, cultural worker, and/or healer, and would like to sign up to receive these books, let me know here. If you think others in your organization/movement would like to know about this, please spread the word and/or let me know! I can provide outreach resources. Please also reach out to me if you are a BIPOC poet with a new book coming out, or if you have any other ideas on ways to collaborate.
I hope and trust that at the end of 2021, we will have given away hundreds of books to people who are working to create a better world for all of us.
We all have a role to play in the work of building the future by taking small steps towards it. To tell a different story than the one we’ve been taught. To embody and live into new ways of being, even when all the structures and systems and their messages tell us that we are doing it wrong. We’ll make mistakes and learn from them. We’ll encounter possibilities that we couldn’t even dream of before. And we’ll show ourselves and others that there are so many alternative ways to be in relationship with each other and the planet.
The gift economy tarot/oracle spread and journaling prompts
Pull seven cards and arrange them in a circle, clockwise, as you ask the following:
What gifts do you have to offer right now?
Who or what needs your gifts?
How might you offer those gifts?
What gifts can you call into your life?
Where might you look for those gifts?
What aspects of your life or work could use more collaboration, less competition?
What are ways you might practice reciprocity and sharing in this moment?
Spend some time journaling, taking note, if you wish, on the cyclical or spiralic nature of the spread.
OR reflect on the questions above in your journal, through meditation, movement, or sound/song.
One of the best sliding scales I’ve seen is Hadassah Damien’s Ride Free Fearless scale. I’ve learned a ton from it and from the article in the link.
Valarie Kaur asks: Why shouldn’t each one of us living in the U.S. also take an inaugural oath to re-imagine and commit to creating a country that we could actually be proud of? I loved witnessing the People’s Inauguration, which included one of my great organizing heroes, Ai-jen Poo, and a beautiful inaugural poem by Brynn Saito.
Sisters of the Yam, Black Girls’ Guide to Surviving Menopause. A delightful and wise conversation between three Black women in three different countries about what it means to be entering the portal that is menopause. There’s so much wisdom and joy in their connection and conversation; I think people of all races, ages, and genders should listen and learn. And if podcasts aren’t your thing, check out host Omisade Burney-Scott’s zine, Messages from the Menopausal Multiverse.
I recently read Akwaeke Emezi’s first novel, Freshwater, and was captured by its beauty, spirit, and force. Many of you have probably already read it by now, but if you haven’t, I highly recommend it.
There’s a part of me that feels that I shouldn’t end this newsletter without a hot take on the inauguration, the past four years, the next four years, etc. I am doing that writing and thinking in other places, but I don’t feel called to do that here, right now. I like to think of this newsletter as a place where I practice slow internet (h/t Alexis J. Cunningfolk for the concept), ignoring all/most of the best practices on how to engage with people online (like: publish all the time! be on social media all the time! give paying subscribers more content!). There’s plenty of analysis out there re: the transition of power, what we went through, and what’s next, and lots of lists of links to the best of that analysis. So here, I’ll just say, I’m trying to make space to feel all my feelings, and I hope you are able to do the same.
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All funds raised through paid subscriptions go to Families for Justice As Healing, a grassroots prison abolition organization working to end the incarceration of women and girls in Massachusetts. Thank you!
Thank you, Tamiko, for this newsletter. I can't even remember how I found you in the first place, so seeing you at Imbolc felt like synchronous magic! Congratulations on your book of poetry, and I look forward to helping to support it being in the world.
– A fellow slow-internetter
I will be sharing this with more friends. You continue to be a bright light in a world that needs all the light it can get