A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

On Villaging: THE GIFT SPIRAL

By Helen Zuman

Is it possible to generate cash without pain? Without flouting the soul’s purpose, or ripping the web of life?

Five years ago, having answered these questions with a resounding “no,” I set out to meet more of my needs without money—in part, by starting the Brooklyn Gift Circle: a monthly gathering at which a varying cast of characters, arrayed in a ring, took turns making offers and requests, and expressing gratitude for boons received through previous Circles (witnessing generosity helps it grow).

I’d read about Gift Circles in a YES! magazine piece by Charles Eisenstein (author of Sacred Economics, the book that had shown me, back in 2012, how debt-based currency can’t help but shred the living web); he’d gotten the idea from Alpha Lo, who’d started the first Gift Circle in Fairfax, California in 2009.

“Community is woven from gifts,” Eisenstein said.

“Amen!” I replied.

The Brooklyn Gift Circle met for a year and a half, from January 2014 to June 2015. In that time, in that ring, friendships budded and blossomed; magic happened; lives changed. A request for a blind date morphed into a months-long relationship. A young transplant from Texas who loved green beings got a job as an arborist. A couple raised the $5,000 they needed to save their apartment by renting it out on Airbnb while staying with fellow Circle members. Tripping on a gift dose of psychedelic mushrooms, I learned that I couldn’t take a wrong turn, in quest of my highest purpose, since I was traveling not a severely forked road but a generously branching mycelial net.

Does that sound weird? Good. It gets weirder.

Through the Gift Circle, I got to know Kyle and Alexis, a young couple who’d recently moved to Brooklyn from Cincinnati, where they’d helped build a thriving network for barter and mutual aid. Upon settling into a one-bedroom apartment in an eight-unit building, they introduced themselves—bearing gifts of home brew—to every one of their neighbors.

Having spent most of my life in New York City, I reflexively avoided the neighbors in my own eight-unit building, even going so far as to wait till the coast was clear to dart into the lobby for the mail. Hence, I found their boldness shocking. Transgressive, even. Yet it also inspired me…to invite the couple across the hall over for dinner with me and my husband.

During our dinner party, Gregg and I got to bemoaning the woeful inefficiency of our newfangled electric heating and cooling systems: though I’d shivered through the last three winters, and Gregg and I had both sweated through the last three summers, we’d seen our monthly charges skyrocket, at times, past $400.

Our neighbors expressed surprise. They’d never skimped on heat or air conditioning, yet their electric bills had remained refreshingly modest.

Thanks to the Gift Circle, Gregg and I discovered that we’d been paying the wrong electric bill for the past three years—and that, by law, we were entitled to a refund, with interest, of the amount we’d overpaid.

This windfall—totaling over $6,000—made it financially possible for us to move, a few months later, to Beacon.

After arriving in Beacon, in late March 2015, I considered starting another Gift Circle. But I barely knew anyone, didn’t have ready access to an appropriate venue, and figured that Facebook groups like Beacon Buy Sell Trade and Beacon Works were already serving the Gift Circle’s basic functions, without the hassle of convening and facilitating regular meetings.

More than four years later, however, I’m inclined to reconsider: I see now that gathering in person—and sharing tales of wishes fulfilled, as well as the stories behind both offers and requests—allowed the Gift Circle to provide forms of nourishment unavailable online. If you choose, as I do, to see relationships as the product of any endeavor, and everything else as a by-product, the Gift Circle worked beautifully—because it was slow, and required its members to show up, and share space, and look each other in the eye.

I no longer believe that I can’t bring in cash without insulting my soul, or quickening extraction; for the past year or so, I’ve been on a mission to generate abundance, financial and otherwise, through sharing my gifts. So I’m less driven than I once was to cut money out of my life, even as I continue to honor generosity as a fertile source of miracles. Perhaps the Beacon Gift Spiral’s time has come.

Helen Zuman—author, chocolatier, reweaver, walker, wife, daughter, sister, and witch—details her first (ill-starred) attempt at villaging in her memoir, Mating in Captivity (She Writes Press 2018). Get in touch via email (madgelma@hotmail.com); read more at helenzuman.com.