[TI-11] dedications, gifts, odes
the things we make for the people and things we care for
I'm sitting under the warm glow of circular paper lamps that fill the ceiling. I'm at a local bakery with a vast open seating area. Because I work from home 90% of the time now, I forget how much I enjoy working with the clamor of people living (talking, eating, bustling) around me. Somehow, the noise fuels my focus, while silence can feel like too much pressure. I like the camouflage that working amidst a big crowd offers. I feel safe when I'm surrounded by the clatter of living.
I've been thinking about gifting. I have an unfinished gift guide for 2023 I started during the holiday season that I suppose is too late to send out now (but will maybe make a good spring surprise?). Likely, it was inspired by me making more gifts lately. Ceramics, as a craft, makes for a convenient medium for gift-making. You can imagine something and form a rough prototype of it relatively easily. S and I made a bunch of fortune cookies out of ceramic, and I've been giving some of them away with handwritten fortunes stuffed inside.
the array of glazes and fortunes
Each cookie has a different glaze and I chose their recipient to match. Combine that with the fact that each fortune is customized, and the gifts feel like 1/1 creations, made for their recipient.
Laurel writes that she "only makes odes," celebrations of the worth of another person or influence. I like this framing because it provides a powerful perspective of "who am I honoring?" which makes a powerful contrast to the growth-minded perspectives that have started to take over discussions of what you should focus your time on. Rather than a chart going up and to the right being the marker of success, making odes is done well when it helps people feel a new-found appreciation for your target subject.
Every couple months, discourse comes up on what you should prioritize when you work on a side project. The pendulum usually swings along a spectrum of fun-maxxing vs. utility-maxxing (clout, revenue, etc.). But another option exists. You can make something to bring it into existence for someone else. Rilke says that the best art comes out of necessity. Making something for the purpose of someone else may not be necessity exactly, but it's something close to it. When you make something for someone that they deeply appreciate, the exchange captures a similar kind of urgent resonance
Personal gifts are much like single-purpose websites and tools. They are designed for a single purpose, too—to make a specific someone feel appreciated. They have the flexibility to be uniquely beautiful because they are catering to the tastes of a single person. There is no conflict of interest. You can match their taste as closely as your ability allows you to.
When you make something for one person, you can narrow in on emotional resonance. Novels and movies convey a universal message by telling a compelling personal story. "The personal is the universal" as Carl Rogers' famous saying goes. To be general, we must be specific. To reach the universe, we must touch one person deeply.
Many general-purpose tools and projects have emerged from gifts. I'm reminded of how this expanding text library emerged from Jacky making a website as an anniversary gift for his partner and how this musicBottles project from the MIT Media Lab emerged from creating a gift to a mother. Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, an influential book for artists for many years, is a series of letters between Rilke and a student seeking his advice. Even when the specific someone you are honoring is yourself, it can translate into something that connects others. The Making of Prince of Persia is a cleaned-up collection of Jordan Mechner's mostly raw journal entries from the period he worked on the video game.
All of us are so unique in undeniable ways, yet we're also not as different as we think. Perhaps working to honor someone or something can bring us closer to the universal answers humankind has always sought.
A few months ago, I found a dead bird in my apartment's shared backyard. The night before a bird had flown into my room through an open window and got stuck inside for a while. An image of it perched atop our curtain rod lingers in my mind. I think I must have taken this as a sign that I had a duty to this passed bird. Even as my mind raced with questions like "won't it look weird for me to be carrying around a dead animal?" and "what will people think of me digging a hole in a public park?", My body seemed to move on its own to honor this bird.
I put on some gloves, wrapped its body in a plastic bag, and took it to a favorite park nearby. I found a clearing in front of a bush of purple flowers to give it a proper burial. After covering the hole and gingerly laying its body inside. I assembled an altar out of found tributes from the park: flowers, a fallen strawberry fruit, and a broken fragment of green stone.
left to right, bird stuck in room photo taken by S and the initial altar
This all happened several months ago, but I still pass by the spot regularly to check up on the shrine. The tributes are mostly gone each time, and I try to replace them with something each time to mark my coming. In an act of folk programming and platform reappropriation, I added the location of the shrine to Google Maps, so that others might contribute offerings when they pass by.
I find myself paying more attention to birds since this act. I notice them in the crevices of trees and atop distant phone lines, where I wouldn't have seen them before. My head swerves to scan the surroundings when I hear a call that I don't recognize. I look at community-made shrines and notice the traces of offerings through the weeks.
This act of dedication has changed me in ways I didn't imagine, and I'm sure it'll continue to do so.
What dedications have you made? Do you know of other stories where a broader project emerged from a gift or dedication?
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