Thursday, December 23, 2010

give and take

Yesterday I passed the scene a couple of times while driving around doing errands -- yellow police tape strung around a local bank's parking lot. State and local police cars and officers could be seen behind the tape. The scene didn't take much deduction and shortly thereafter on the internet there were security camera pictures of a black man, apparently with a beard and wearing a snappy hat. He had robbed the bank of an undisclosed amount of money. How he escaped was not revealed.

Greed, giving, desperation ... Merry Christmas.

It put me in mind of a small lesson in giving-and-receiving I once got during a three-week trip to what was then called the U.S.S.R. (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) in 1968.

Before leaving the United States, the tour group had been told that the Russians were serious about gift-giving. It wasn't like Christmas in the United States where people gave gifts because they felt they should. There was no duress -- gifts came from the heart, so we were advised not to give things casually.

As part of the tour, we took a boat trip down the Volga River, and on the way we stopped at a small dock surrounded by lush green hills. We could swim or go for walks or whatever took our fancy. A fellow tourist and I walked back into the hills to a small village whose houses, with one exception, were all built of logs. The exception was a cinderblock cow collective.

The place was picturesque. Houses were neatly kept on either side of the dirt roads that provided transportation routes through the town. No cars were in evidence and I don't remember seeing any draft animals either. There were no people on the streets.

But as my friend and I sat on the grass and I changed film in my camera, a young girl of perhaps 11 approached us shyly. She was curious and I waved her closer. She came slowly until she was right next to me. She wore a flowered shapeless dress that might once have been worn by an older sister. My Russian was extremely limited, but I managed to say hello and then, on a whim, I took the pin I and all the others on the tour wore and pinned it gently on her frock. The pin said "peace and freedom" in Russian and it identified the tour. Once the pin was on her, the girl, who had been bunched with tension at her own compelling curiosity and audacity, ran away to the safety of a house we could not see.

We continued to walk through the streets.

As we started to head back towards the boat, at last there was someone else on the streets -- a man who, even from a distance, was clearly drunk. His head was down and he was clearly singing and equally clearly he did not see us approaching him. The space closed between us. He kept singing and wobbling. I could feel myself tensing up in the same way I might have tensed up in the United States -- this was a bum and he was likely to ask for money to use for more liquid drugs. I hardened myself, preparing to reject him. At perhaps 30 feet, the man caught sight of us. He raised his head, looked us over as we looked him over and then, instead of asking for money or anything else, he stopped singing and hung his head in shame.

And this one small action made me ashamed of myself. Ashamed for tensing up. Ashamed for assuming he would ask for something. Ashamed because I disliked refusing to give what I could give when someone asked. Ashamed because I had assumed something and it was not true. Ashamed to cut short his melodies, wherever they came from.

All of this happened in less than 30 seconds. We passed him and he passed us and that was the end of that. He left me with a gift, though it didn't feel that way at the time. We just walked down the dirt road between the lush hills ... back towards the boat.

About 100 yards out of the town, suddenly we heard a voice calling out behind us. We stopped and turned and saw the young girl, hell-bent-for-leather, running towards us. She ran at full tilt until she stood two or three feet away. In her hands was a small package, badly wrapped in old newspapers. She extended the package to me and, as soon as I had taken it, she took off again, running like a white-tailed deer back towards the village. When I peeled back the edges of the Russian newspaper, there, inside, were perhaps a dozen crab apples. But even as I thought I had no clue what to do with these apples, which usually require cooking in order to be tasty, it dawned on me that it didn't matter what was in my hands.

What she had given me came from her heart and touched my own.

It was beyond compare.


  1. What a beautiful story. It brought a tear of joy to my eye and smile to my tired face. When people give from the heart it doesn't matter if they give you a rock because they are literally giving you a piece of their heart. I think that's why it touches us so much. It's the sincerity that is so absent these days. Thanks for sharing.