I begged my father to take me to the store. It was the day before Christmas, and I had nothing to give to my mother except an art project I had brought home from school. It was a picture made with painted macaroni. How embarrassing. Even in kindergarten I knew that it wasn’t a real gift. It wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t the kind of thing anyone wants. Remembering it, I can still feel the full extent of a five-year-old’s self-criticism and shame. Dad took me to a convenience store and I emptied my piggy bank for a set of plastic drink coasters.
One day my mom cleaned under my bed and pulled out the macaroni picture from its hiding place. She showed it to me with questioning eyes. Now I know what she felt inside, her heart breaking with a sudden rush of tenderness for an injured child.
The most profound gifts are the ones that don’t measure up to any standard. They are not excellent or grand, but unexciting and ordinary. They may not look like gifts at all, but like failures. No matter how they look, they carry the precious essence of life’s true nature, which is love.
“Between the giver, the recipient, and the gift there is no separation.” This Zen teaching tells us that generosity goes beyond appearances. There is really nothing that divides us—nothing that defines the substance of a gift. All is empty and perfect as it is. We practice this truth by giving what we can whenever it is called for and by taking what is given whenever it is offered. When we give and take wholeheartedly, without judgment, separation is transcended. Stinginess is overcome and greed vanishes. We come to see that everything is already a gift that we have already been given. All that remains is to share it.
“I love it,” my mother said. And it was true.