It began many years ago. I was hosting a late November edition of The Jefferson Exchange on Jefferson Public Radio when I heard myself doing the very last thing I like to do on the air. I was whining. That morning's news was about the frantic interest starting to develop about the pending day after Thanksgiving, traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year. Would it trigger a holiday season hearty enough to kick-start a listless U.S. economy? It just might; the national news story I was reading said thousands, maybe millions, of excited Americans were planning to camp overnight at the entrances of malls and big-box stores to elbow their way to the best bargains when the doors opened at 5:00 or 6:00 a.m.
Quite an image. It fueled a ten-minute Exchange monologue on holiday values and the modern trance of American consumption and the President's post-9/11 urgings to go out and buy stuff So The Terrorists Don't Win. Buying more stuff? I asked. As if stuff is what we're lacking right now? As if $6000+ per American family in credit card debt isn't enough? And if Jesus could see the pre-dawn cultural ritual we've developed to kick off his season, he'd say, what? As Exchange monologues go, I suppose it was okay; nothing too predictable or boring. But it was whining. It was Ain't It Awful Radio, which already dominates talk radio just fine without needing more from the Exchange.
But then I added a story of a few people who were doing what they could do about it. For something like the twelfth year in a row, they were declaring the day after Thanksgiving as Buy Nothing Day, an invitation for Americans to say no to the commercial frenzy, and if they could, yes to more creative options.
What could we do with Buy Nothing Day? I wondered into the mike. Is there a way to challenge the red-hot treadmill of American consumerism while preserving, maybe encouraging, the instinct to give that is still a fine part of the holiday season?
Three weeks later, on a gray Sunday afternoon in December, a couple of adventurous friends and I opened the doors of the Oak Street Dance Studio, loaded the CD player with holiday music, plugged in a crock pot full of apple cider and cinnamon sticks, and set up the room for the First Annual Ashland Abundance Swap. We had emailed an announcement to a few hundred that said:
Come help Create a new holiday gift tradition for our community:
The First Annual Ashland ABUNDANCE SWAP.
First consider that:
- At 6:00 on the morning after Thanksgiving, millions of Americans were lined up in the dark outside big-box chain stores to be the first to swarm over billions of dollars of stuff - brand new stuff, created with new resources from the Earth and additional expenditures of energy.
-One nation accounts for 5% of the population and 40-50% of the resource consumption of the planet. Guess which.
- Some of the good stuff we already have isn't being well used or fully enjoyed.
- Giving gifts for the holidays is fun. Most of us want to keep doing it.
Let's swap some abundance. This is simple.
** Find 3-5 quality items in your home, shop or office that someone would enjoy as a gift... fun, useful, interesting or beautiful items in really good shape that aren't important to you anymore. ("Quality" doesn't mean "expensive". It means well-made, worthwhile, likely to be valued. If a price guideline is helpful, think of items that might have cost $5-$100. Or less. Or more.)
** Bring them to [last year's meeting place]. Don't just drop your stuff off. We're doing more than that. Bring the present of your presence. Stick around to visit, tell a story or two about what you brought, and find some things that you'd like to take away to give as gifts to others (a gift to yourself is ok, too). There won't be any bargaining; you just bring what you're ready to give away and take away whatever you'd like.
** Use the gifts you take home to reduce your new gift purchases.
Those are all the rules. This will be our own Holiday shopping event, a round of giving and receiving that includes no money and no new demands on resources. For some of us it may also be a stretching exercise - a chance to let go of stuff, or let go of worries that we might not get back "our fair share", or more fully let go of commercially-planted ideas that it's not a real gift if it's not shiny & new from the store.
Bring kids! Let them bring abundance to swap. Let's show our kids something different.
I received emails back from a few people who were sure we'd left out important information. What will happen, they asked if (some said "when") somebody shows up and scoops up the most valuable stuff and runs? I don't know, I said; let's find out together. My hunch was that laying down greed-regulating rules up front would drain the event of the magic it could have; abundance consciousness, to update an old saying, can't be legislated. Some might say we were striving to create an energy field of abundance to swirl around and through the event, but I didn't. It was simpler for me: my own levels of generosity and openness have varied with what other people expect them to be. As I corresponded with people who seemed to want more rules. I kept thinking about unattended roadside fruit and vegetable stands, the ones with a scale and cash box and a sign that invites people to help themselves and leave the correct payment behind. The three or four roadside peddlers I've talked to have all said the same thing: as far as they know, they've never lost a nickel over the years. That's abundance.
A small steady flow of people started filling the dance studio right at 2:00 p.m. They each laid a blanket or towel down on the floor and spread out a few very nice items. Then they started moving around, kneeling or picking up an item here and there, but mostly passing without taking anything. Some turned to me with questions: If I brought three items, does that mean I should also take three? What if the person whose item I want doesn't want anything I brought? What if the value of what I brought is less than the value of what I want to take? They were the sort of questions that come up for someone entering a new culture for the first time.
I stood up on a chair in the middle of the room and asked for quiet. "Some people are wondering about the rules for today. There are only two rules, really: bring some quality things you'd like to give away, and you've already done that one, and then help yourself to some things you find here that you'd like to give away to someone else you know. That's all. This is the Abundance Swap, so if you feel abundant as you're gathering up gifts, you're doing it right." That was enough. In minutes the room was a swirl of bright movement and laughter, jewel boxes and bronze sculptures held up to the light, sweaters and capes and scarves tried on for size and color, hand tools examined for sharpness and heft.
Some moments felt less than abundant. I heard one woman from a nearby town grouse that the absence of advertising showed that Ashland just wants to hoard all the goodies, and three or four people asked where they could find a closet or locker to stash the items they'd already chosen so their arms could be free to pick up more. But those were the few. What we mostly saw was a room full of people more focused on giving than getting.
"This should go home with you," one woman said to a complete stranger about a glossy turquoise necklace.
"No, you picked it up first."
"Well, I was just curious about it, because it looks like one I already have at home. That's why you should take this one."
"Really? I can tell how much you like it."
"Really. Besides, look how it goes with your sweater. It's perfect. You have to have it."
"But if I take it I'll be giving it to my sister."
"Oh? Then I hope she has a sweater like yours."
I probably heard ten similar exchanges. Early on I came upon a good friend who was standing next to the items he brought while his wife and two boys circulated the room. "Nice stuff, D. Hard to actually let go of some of it, huh?"
"No," he said. "That's no problem for me. What's a problem is actually picking up and walking off with the nice stuff that other people brought."
I put my hand solemnly on his shoulder. "Then that's your stretch. I want to see you stretch today, D." An hour later I caught D's eye as he and his family were leaving, their holiday shopping done. His kids struggled under armloads of gifts. D, carrying a framed painting and heavy starburst ceramic platter, was wearing a classy new windbreaker and a smile as big as the one he probably wore 40 Christmases ago. "Nice stretch, D!" I yelled. He laughed and nodded and disappeared into the frosty December afternoon.
We called it the First Annual Abundance Swap for a reason. Now it's time for another reprise that makes it clear what we've created together: a new holiday tradition of abundant giving for the State of Jefferson. If you read this in time, join us. If you didn’t, you can always create your own.