– for Dale Behnke –

By J.S. Porter

The Incredible String Band, Jan Garbarek, Nightnoise, Penguin Café Orchestra, Miles Davis, Being There, The Alexandria Quartet, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel García Márquez, Malcolm Lowry –Dale Behnke

Some people give extravagantly, with both hands, sometimes when they don’t even consider what they’re giving you is a gift. My friend Dale gives unselfconsciously, without thought of recompense.  He gives me literature and music – and has for many years. “Have you read this, John? Have you listened to this?”

Rabindranath Tagore, The Complete Poems – Bob Rego

Bob’s gift was my introduction to India. From Tagore’s poems, I selected blessings for my children and hung them on their bedroom walls.  It’s not likely that I will ever visit India, but Tagore’s writing and Satyajit Ray’s films, especially “The Apu Trilogy,” have transported me there for a time.

Bill Evans – Rick Guscott

There are other jazz pianists I enjoy, Keith Jarrett among them, but no one touches the piano keys as deftly and delicately for me as Evans. I have fond memories of living room conversations with Rick, and “You Must Believe in Spring” wafting into my ears.

Larry McMurtry’s Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen – David Cohen

David’s gift showed me that works of the intellect can be fun. I found myself riffing on McMurtry’s title:

Susan Sontag at Burger King
Simone Weil in Tim Hortons
Harold Bloom at Swiss Chalet

When you read McMurtry’s Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, an amalgam of history, sociology, memoir, literary criticism, biography, and autobiography, you breathe in “the aura of reading” (Walter Benjamin’s phrase).

Hemingway’s Paris by Robert E. Gajdusek – Cheryl

My wife has given me many memorable gifts, but this one after our honeymoon in Paris stays with me, partly for the beauty of the photographs and partly for the beauty of her inscription.

Yeats and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” – my mother

Shakespeare, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Russell’s Outline of Philosophy, Paul Tillich’s The Shaking of the Foundations, Blake, Keats, Wordsworth – my father

My parents brought poetry into my life.  My mother brought it onto her tongue in her ability to recite Yeats’ poem, which she learned as an eight-year-old and to this day, with a little prompting at 101, can still recite. My father spurred my interest in poetry by playing records of great English language poems read by English actors (Burton, Gielgud, Redgrave, Guinness).  He took me to the English Lake District to walk through the ferns where Wordsworth and Coleridge once walked.  Annual summer trips to Stratford put Shakespeare in my ear, a sound that seems close to love for me because Shakespeare’s soundings invoke my father’s presence, even to this day.

Soseki’s Kokoro, Mishima, Tanizaki, Inoue, Kawabata – Bronwyn Best

Bronwyn introduced Japan to me.  Every month or so when I worked in Zambia, she’d parcel up a Japanese novel and send it to me.  I lived in a state of expectancy.

Carl Becker’s The Denial of Death – Sean Malone

Sean was a student of mine, and I think he gave me the book in the first year of my knowing him. We’ve developed a friendship over the years, and I can always count on him to introduce something interesting to me.  For the longest time, I was reluctant to read Becker’s book, but when I finally did, it bit me hard. This line in particular still resonates:

“Whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation… the rumble of panic underneath everything.”

Emmylou Harris – Karyn Callaghan

There are some voices you want to have near, always.  Emmylou’s is such a voice for me.  Karyn introduced her to me in the early years of my teaching.  I’m still listening.


These are a few of my favourite gifts. And favourite givers. That’s me. What about you?

Dredge your memory and recall significant gifts that were given to you by specific persons.

Gifts have a great impact on our lives. When Bill Evans or Emmylou Harris enters your life, you tend not to forget it. When the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek blows his horn, you remember it.

I fondly remember a Ukrainian man, Mr. Karpiak, a school principal and math teacher, walking into my eighth-grade classroom and reading portions of Victor Hugo’s great novel that we sometimes shorten to Les Miz. He read a little every Friday afternoon, stopping in all the right places. I kept attending class for a full year because of his readings. I wanted to know what was going to happen next.

What gifts do you remember? Make a list. What and from whom? Remembering gifts and givers may be a good start to the new year.