Gifting Ashes, Gifting Oil

The Olive Harvest

Lately, I have been attending a series of talks about the Maternal Gift Economy. It’s an interesting concept that challenges our preconceptions of how the exchange of services and products must take place.

Some might say we have an exchange economy, but the reality is (and has been) that the global economy is an exploitive economy. As Assagioli wrote we are driven by Original Fear – fear of not having enough food, fear of hunger – and by Original Greed, which fundamentally is the desire for unlimited growth. Hence our tendency to consume and purchase, possess, save and hoard.

In contrast, a gift-based economy is grounded in the values of nurturing and care rather than competition and greed. To begin with, we might change how we talk about our services rendered. For example, when speaking about the medical staff who are having to deal with the onslaught of Covid-19 patients, we say they are ‘sacrificing’ themselves. But what changes inside us when we exchange the word ‘sacrifice’ for ‘gift’? Try saying: “Our doctors and nurses are gifting their expertise, care, time, and lives” and see how that feels.

A Story from the Penobscot Nation

One of the speakers on the Maternal Gift Economy was Sherry Mitchell, a Native American lawyer, author, teacher and activist from the Penobscot Nation in Maine. Her Native American name is Weh’na Ha’mu Kwasset and she told a story about when she was five years old. Her grandmother, a very wise woman, would wake her up very early on winter mornings to deliver food to poor tribal families. But there was a catch. Sherry was not allowed to be seen, not by anyone! She even had to take a branch to brush over her tracks in the snow.

One day she asked her grandmother, “Why don’t you just give the people this food?”

And her grandmother said, “Because I want them to be able to look me in the eye when we meet.”

What goes into a Spiritual Diary?

This story sparked my imagination. Could I try doing something similar in the Umbrian countryside?

Teresa is one of my neighbors who lives alone. She has a number of difficult subpersonalities and we have had our differences, but we have also made our peace. Conversation revolves mostly around her 200 olive trees and the weather. Years ago Teresa sliced her foot open with a grass-cutter, so she uses two walking sticks to hobble around. She lives simply, heating her house with a wood fire over which she cooks her food. On warmer summer evenings, she will sit outside in the sunshine and we will chat whenever I pass by with my dog. But these days the shutters are down by six o’clock in the evening when she is getting ready for bed.

I had noticed that everyday Teresa was leaving a frying pan full of ashes outside her front door.  These ashes were destined to be dumped on a pile in her garden and latter spread and worked into the soil in the spring. In the spirit of Sherry and her grandmother, I decided to empty this pan of ashes for Teresa without her knowing.

The problem is that Teresa used to be a policewoman. This means she has eyes on the back of her head and doesn’t miss a thing. So, despite my best sleuthing efforts while dumping her ashes, she was soon standing at her door yelling down the street after me. “Did you just empty my ash pan?”

Caught red-handed, I turned and confessed, “Yes, I saw it and I did it!” (Please note that this sounds much better in Italian! “Si! L’ho visto e l’ho fatto!”)

Teresa just looked at me and went inside, empty pan in hand.

So I did it again the next day. And the next. And the next. And whenever the pan sat full in front of her door, I emptied it.

The Nespola Confession

And now my confession. (Big sigh…)

I wasn’t doing this small act of kindness just to practice the Maternal Gift Economy. I also had an ulterior motive. I knew that Teresa had a nespola (medlar) tree heavy with fruit. This brown fruit is the last of the year, mushy when ripe, with 5 small pits. The taste is particular – sweet and acidic at the same time. And they are best right off the tree.

Now I know that Teresa doesn’t like to eat this fruit. And I knew that the medlar were just dropping off her tree to rot in the wet grass. And I know that the tree is below a bank where she cannot see…

The main reason I was trying to focus on doing her this kindness and not getting caught was to swing myself away from stealing her fruit and not getting caught.

And it seemed to be working… Until one late evening… I was passing her house at dusk… And well, I just wanted to go down and take a photo of the tree for this blog… But really Catherine? Was that really all?

Taking advantage of the darkening sky, I snuck down to the tree and sure enough, after three days of hard wind and rain, hundreds of medlar lay strewn on the ground. Each one seemed to be calling my name. I took the photos. I took a bag full of fruit.

Before going home, I double-snuck over to Teresa’s front door and emptied her frying pan of ashes.

Assagioli’s Suggestions for Spiritual Diary Topics

When I returned home, I saw that Teresa had called (she almost never calls!) and left a message on my voice mail at exactly the same time I was stealing her fruit! Oh God! She wanted me to call her back. I started to pray. Everything went wrong over my greed for medlar! What a disaster! By the time I saw the message, it was too late to call her back since I knew she’d be in bed. I would have to face the music the next day.

Ripe (in center) and unripe medlar fruit. (Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 01 October 2005.)

What suffering I endured that night! And all because of my own stupid stealing of stupid fruit!

The next day I went over to Teresa’s. “I’ve been waiting for you,” she said. “Wait right there. Don’t go away.”

The Surprise Gift

She disappeared into her house and soon returned with five liters of her freshly milled olive oil.

“This is for you. I don’t know how you snuck by me last night. It was dark! And still you emptied my ashes. I want you to have this olive oil.”

A million feelings raced through my heart. Relief, gratitude, wonder, amusement at God’s sense of humor, joy. “Grazie Teresa. This is too much. You are too kind. We will enjoy delicious bruschetta tonight.”

Then I asked, “Does it bother you if I empty your ashes?”

“No, no.” she said, rather startled that I would ask such a question.

And so the pan sits full most days, waiting for me to walk by and empty it. And the medlar tree? I haven’t been back since.


May your holidays and every day in 2021 be full of gifting!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s