Sermon: The Portable Gift Economy

2018 September 23
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

Over the summer my family and I spent a week on a little island off the coast of Maine called Cranberry Island – the same one I talked about a couple years ago, for those of you who were here. We went back to this same island because we had loved it the first time we went. As a vacationer, there is blissfully nothing to do there but go on very short hikes to very small beaches. There’s one road that goes down the length of the island. The locals call it I-95. Everything is so small and slow you feel kind of like the Little Prince on his planet.


But 45 people live on this little planet year round and we wondered how they make a living. There’s one little general store and one lunch restaurant that’s open a few hours a day during the summer. There’s a small library and a one-room schoolhouse. Each of these offers part-time work to probably no more than a couple people. There’s also a boatyard and lobstering that generate maybe a couple fulltime jobs. People rent their cabins to outsiders like us, but that’s only if they don’t live there. And the locals really don’t look like the type to be all telecommuting to Silicon Valley. It didn’t seem to add up to an economy that can fully support 45 people.


We posed the question to some of the residents we met – how do you make a living here? – and the answer was always sometime vague like, “well, you know, a little of this, a little of that.” What does that mean? Coming from a culture where you really need to have an actual job or sometimes two or three actual jobs to make a living, I was curious. I do realize that in our culture there is an alternative these days – we call it the “gig economy.” Basically everyone is an independent contractor. Driving an Uber, doing repairs for TaskRabbit, having your own production company that produces whatever, being a freelance designer or chef or dogwalker. There are a million things you can get paid to do. And so a lot of us piece it together like that these days as opposed to having a job job.


But when the locals on Cranberry Island said “a little of this, a little of that,” I don’t think that’s exactly what they meant. Finally, we met a man named Gary Allen who was eager to talk with us about it. He was very reflective about the nature of the economy on the island. He identified it, not as a “gig economy,” but as a “gift economy.”


Gary was born on the island and grew up on the island. He attended the one-room schoolhouse with five other children of all different ages – six kids total in the whole school. Then a family moved to the island that had six kids of their own, bringing the school population up to twelve kids. (Incidentally that family with the six kids had lived in the house that we were renting that week. The house was bigger than our New York City apartment, but it was still a small house. Most middle class American families wouldn’t be happy raising six kids in a house like that… or at least they wouldn’t think they’d be happy.)


But Gary grew up on this island and loved it. He described the twelve kids as basically feral. They had the run of the whole island; they would invent games, build forts, jump off the dock into the ice cold ocean every day at high tide – these kids were tough. There was no such thing as paid childcare. The parents all looked out for all the kids and kept them safe and fed them if they happened to come by the house at mealtime. The kids were allowed to grow and learn about the world on their own terms. In fact, they were expected to. There was no other choice.


There were no kids’ programs outside of school. And even if a parent had wanted to coach a sports team, there were too few kids to even make a team. And so Gary – and the other kids who wanted to do an athletic activity – became runners. Running was something anybody could do with no gear except a pair of running shoes. They did their workouts on I-95, up and down the two-mile length of the road, sprints, distance, and everything in between. They worked hard and got really fast.


Gary grew up and became a homesteader on the island. He built his own small house out of the trees he had cut down to make room for the house. He raised his own family there. He described how he and his neighbors leaned on each other, brought each other food from their gardens, fixed each other’s things when they broke. At potlucks, everyone participated and everyone was fed. They all did a little lobstering, a little carpentry, a little farming, a little of this, a little of that, and shared what they had. There was no talk of payment or payoff, it was all gift. That’s how they did it and that’s how they still do it. They have little or nothing in the way of material wealth. Relationships are the only currency.


I’m sure it wasn’t always as idyllic as he made it sound, but Gary and many others who he grew up with valued that life so much, they stayed. Gary has traveled and lived in other places briefly, including New York City where he spent a season working as a bike messenger (talk about culture shock). But he always came back to the island – the little planet with the gift economy.


Humans evolved to live in small self-sustaining communities – people who lived together and collectively did the work of supporting the group. Incidentally, anthropologists say that early peoples had lots of free time – way more than we do now, which is basically none. Hunter-gatherers would work four hours a day or less hunting and gathering, and spend the rest of their time hanging out. And most of the Cranberry Island locals, when we encountered them, weren’t even doing “a little of this, a little of that.” They were just hanging out… in the middle of a weekday.


So, okay, fine. Good for them. But we wouldn’t want a life like that. Life for early humans was, in the words of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short.” And even if we did want it, it’s not possible any more. When we go too far down this dreamy train of thought, the logic of capitalism pushes back and says to us: “What are you going to do? Reverse engineer the entirety of our society and go back to pre-industrial times? We’ve long ago blown by any chance to have that kind of culture. You can’t go back. The best you can do is dip your toe in now and then where it still lives, suspended in amber, in little bubbles of time and space like Cranberry Island. And then you gotta return to the “real world.” Where grownups live. Where you have to pay for everything you get and get paid for everything you do. Economic life is real life, kid.”


That voice – that cynical voice – is wrong. The gift economy that Gary and others were born into on Cranberry Island is not some freak curiosity, so foreign as to be another planet. It’s an expression of universal human yearnings for connection. It’s a human-scale way of life, one that meets people where they are and gives outlets for our natural generosity and compassion. It’s one that resists isolation and counters loneliness. It’s one in which people care for one another and the ecosystem in which they live. It’s as old as humanity. Nothing exotic, nothing radical. And also certainly nothing that is completely dead today. The embers of that longing live in all of our hearts. And when we encounter the possibility of it, it’s like oxygen; those embers blaze to life.


As Gary became a young adult, he got serious about running. Still training on Cranberry Island, he started doing marathons and ultramarathons – the kind where you run for days. And through his running, he began to export the ethic of the gift economy. He started an annual 100-mile race on Cranberry Island – it’s back and forth along I-95 fifty times. Registration for the race is free (usually these kinds of races cost a couple hundred dollars) and each runner is expected to bring food to be communally prepared and shared. Runners now come from all over the country for this race and get inducted into this local gift ethic, which is so different from that of most races.


Then Gary read about a small town in Maine – Millinocket – that was in a death spiral. A mill had closed, businesses were failing, people were leaving in droves. It was becoming a ghost town. Gary decided to hold an impromptu marathon there. He measured the distance and plotted a course. He promoted it through Facebook; it was basically going to be a marathon flash mob. He made the registration for the race free and asked the runners to spend the money that they would have spent on registration at the businesses in the town. There was to be no official support provided – no water bottles, no plastic cups, no shirts, no gear, no giant sound systems with rock bands and witty announcers. Gary would be there at the starting line handing out slips of paper with the race route and that was it. People were on their own to simply run – just like they do it on Cranberry Island.


The race was a huge hit. The whole town turned out to cheer the runners. The locals provided water and directed traffic. A high school junior showed up at the starting line to sing the national anthem. The ethic of generosity spread. One group of runners celebrating at a restaurant afterwards paid not only for their own meals but for those of other diners and then tipped the server 100% which she then said would allow her to buy Christmas gifts for her kids. Other runners have gotten together and donated thousands of dollars to the town’s public library and non-profit groups. The next year, Gary was able to get the route officially measured so the Millinocket Marathon could be a qualifying event for the Boston Marathon. The idea of this race and the simple, generous ethic behind it went viral and people flocked from around the country to participate. Now Gary caps it at 1000 runners each year. Registration is still free (the only free marathon in the country) and people pour their money into the town. The boost to the economy is real and the boost to the spirit of the town is even more real. This marathon has turned the town around.


Gary also finds himself the recipient of the generosity he spreads. In 2013, he decided to run from the top of Cadillac Mountain in Maine to Washington, D.C. for Barack Obama’s second inauguration and while he was at it, raise money for disabled veterans. This was January. In Maine. Starting at the top of a snow-covered mountain and running 50 miles a day. He didn’t give a moment’s forethought to where he would sleep when he finished his 50 miles each day. But as news of his attempt spread, people came out of the woodwork – local firefighters let him crash on their couches, frat houses offered basement floors. He was never without a roof over his head and a breakfast in his belly. And by the time he had gotten to D.C., he had raised $20,000.


Gary basically walks around (and runs around) this world assuming that everywhere is like Cranberry Island and that everyone is like the people he grew up with. And rather than life slapping him in the face for his naiveté, it rewards him and everyone around him over and over again. The world transforms to meet his expectations. Because people are hungry for such generosity of spirit in themselves. When they see it, they recognize it as exactly what they’ve always wanted but have been afraid to even pray for.


When we have an experience of the gift economy deep in our bones, it doesn’t stay confined to one place and time. It’s portable. And so if we want to build a world based in love and generosity, where we take care of each other in community, we can start right here at First U. We can cultivate it. We can support one another, cook for each other, share meals, take care of each other’s children, live simply without a lot of fuss over small inconveniences and discomforts. We can make sacrifices for others and for the earth. We can take only according to our need and give abundantly according to our ability. We can invite more and more people into this gift economy. And we can carry its consciousness with us out into the world with us wherever we go.


Relationships are the only real currency. We can horde what we have, hoping this will keep us safe from the vicissitudes of life, or we can surrender to the truth that we need one another. The only real safety, and the only real joy, lies in tearing down walls, helping our neighbor with a little of this and a little of that, and putting an extra place-setting at the welcome table of our lives.

One Response
  1. Abby C Grosslein permalink
    October 1, 2018

    I missed hearing this sermon in person, but am so glad that I read it. It’s so good to hear that there are still places like this in the world. I hope that that sense of generosity and caring can spread everywhere.

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