Last night was a bit of an emotional roller coaster, one of laughter and frustration and relief and rage. At the end of it all, I was left feeling so astoundingly grateful for — you guessed it — my family, friends, and community. The compassion and love and laughter we share is the greatest gift possible, and it’s one I’m privileged to receive and honored to repay.
One of the conversations I had last night was about the very concept of the gifting cycle. Evidently, someone on the internet who proclaims themselves to be a “proud heathen” spouted off about how “gift for a gift” shouldn’t really be a thing. This baffled us, because it’s the most basic, foundational aspect of the whole damn religion. It’s how relationships are developed between human and human, human and god, and god and god: without extending and receiving the gift of hospitality, bonds cannot be forged and communities cannot be built. The concept of the gifting cycle is echoed repeatedly throughout the Havamal and sagas. It’s kind of a big deal. Telling a heathen that “gift for a gift” should be reevaluated is like telling a Christian that “love your neighbor as yourself” is one of Christ’s teachings that needs to be toned down.
The gifting cycle isn’t necessarily comprised of physical goods being exchanged. Yes, it’s usually a tangible offering, particularly when giving to the gods, but the concept goes far beyond that. Friendship is a gift, love is a gift, reaching out to check on someone is a gift, making time to be there for and with one another is a gift. Prayers, poems, art, music, a dance: these things are all gifts we create and share with the gods and with each other. The energy and intent we devote to these things is what makes these gifts valuable.
Gifts can come in highly unexpected forms, as well. Last night, I received a copy of my father’s will, a year and a half after his death, and it has stirred up an exhausting emotional overload. Longtime readers know that our relationship was nonexistent, that I’ve spent most of my life dealing with PTSD from the trauma and terror he inflicted throughout my childhood. Even as an adult, I was constantly afraid of him tracking me down, showing up on my doorstep to finish what he’d attempted all those years ago. I had vivid nightmares all the time, but since his death, I’ve been able to sleep soundly and peacefully through the night. When he died, I started to breathe easy for the first time in my life because at last, at long last, I didn’t have to worry about him hurting me any more. I was free, and it’s no coincidence that the tremendous growth and accomplishments I’ve managed in the community and for myself have happened in the last year and a half. I could start putting myself out there in the world, finally, because I didn’t have to worry about him somehow tracking me and figuring out where I lived. His death was a release for both of us: an end to his presumed suffering, and an end to my crippling terror and need to stay hidden.
The greatest gift I’ve ever received from the gods came in the form of an impossible meeting just a few months before he died. I’ve given a sparse account of it here before, and it’s something that I think about often. How can I have had a chance encounter with the daughter of the man who literally saved my life and my mom’s life in 1991? He saved us in Europe, on a small base that doesn’t exist anymore, and he did so at great personal risk. Mom and I had never forgotten him or his name, so to realize that I had run into his daughter 27 years later, in the US, in a crowd of 200 heathens at a campground in the woods was the greatest miracle I could have ever hoped for. The timing of the gift of getting to speak with him on the phone and then share a horn with his daughter was no coincidence, either: two months after this, my father was dead.
The reason this astronomically impossible encounter was such an invaluable gift? Because in speaking with the man who saved my life, my childhood memories were proved true. Of course as an anxious, overthinking adult, I wondered if things were really as bad as I remembered, if maybe my childhood perspective of what I witnessed and what I survived was accurate or blown out of proportion. Speaking with my hero assured me that not only were my memories correct, but the situation had actually been far worse than what I’d been aware of. And the events that led to my mom and I being rescued and flown back to the US out of my father’s reach had put others at tremendous risk, and haunted them all these years as well. I learned I wasn’t the only one to have suffered ongoing nightmares decades after the fact. And I learned that this man, my hero, had worried and wondered whatever became of us. He’d never forgotten us, either. It was the greatest honor to stand before the heathen community that night, holding his daughter’s hand, and shouting his praises so everyone could know his deeds and hail him for the hero that he is, and so all those gathered could marvel at what the gods had just orchestrated in this impossible meeting.
That experience gave me the strength I needed to cope with the news of his death two months later. If it hadn’t been for that conversation with him and the one that followed with his daughter sharing her memories of that time and the impact she’d witnessed on her dad, I would have been wrecked with self-doubt and regret, wondering if I had misremembered things, wondering if I should have come out of hiding as an adult. But I hadn’t misremembered; in fact, my mom had done a brilliant job of shielding me and protecting me from the worst of it. My memories are accurate. And I learned from someone whom I hadn’t spoken to in 27 years that the situation and events had actually been far worse, far more dangerous, than what I had been aware of as a child. My trauma wasn’t overblown, it was actually underreported. And that was crucial to my own healing and therapy.
I grew up with a man who told me I shouldn’t exist. I escaped a man who tried to end my existence. And if it hadn’t been for that hero 27 years ago, I wouldn’t exist any more. Being able to speak with him, telling him that my mom and I survived everything and are doing okay all these years later, being able to thank him once again: that was the greatest gift I never knew I needed. And this was a gift that gave me the tools I needed in order to process what happened two months later.
It’s also a gift that explains why my faith in the gods is so incredibly strong. It’s a story I point to when discussing why I believe the gods really and truly exist. It really is a gift that keeps on giving, and I return the gift in my dedication to the gods and to the community. I return the gift by making donations to women’s shelters. I return it by spreading kindness and joy and laughter instead of fear. It’s why I try so desperately to be calm and cheerful and provide safe space for people who need it.
“Gift for a gift” is the underlying thread in all of this and in everything we do. It’s the concept on which we build our relationships and make our decisions. It came as absolutely no surprise to me that, when I looked at the will, the section immediately following his funeral wishes was dedicated to the official disinheriting of yours truly, the only child. That in and of itself is a gift: the ties are completely, legally cut, and I’m free. I’m really free. I’m not indebted to him through any inheritance, there’s no gift to return by way of praise and thanks. The gift is pure and absolute freedom from him and his memory.
The gods are real, and they’re present in our lives. The give us gifts we don’t even realize we need, and by offering gifts in return, we learn and we develop and improve. Our community is built on and around frith and hospitality, both of which are aspects of “gift for a gift.” And even when we are excluded from family legacies, that in and of itself can be an extraordinary blessing as it releases us from spiritual debts that we never wanted in the first place.
I exist. I’ve always existed, and I’ve survived things that I shouldn’t have been able to survive. I continue to exist, and the last few years I’ve been learning to enjoy this fact. I’ve come out of hiding, I’ve become more active in my community, with my heathens, and have flourished because of it. I’m well and truly free from the past now. This is the greatest gift I could receive, and I intend to repay it by sharing this joy and this peace with everyone. Out of hiding, out in the open: I’m here for you now. The fear is gone, so let me help you through yours.
Hail the gods, I thank you for your gifts. May you find mine given in return just as worthy.