field notes, personal history

Surprise bread, or, how to accept a gift

Last Sunday in the early evening, I was hanging out at home in my apartment in Istanbul, as one does during the weekend lockdowns that have been in effect here in Turkey, when I heard my host call my name through the door. He said, “Do you want me to buy you some special Ramadan bread?” I said, “Yes! That would be amazing.” This is Ramazan pide, a kind of flatbread (I learned later) that people eat during Ramadan when they break their fast at dusk. (People who aren’t fasting can just eat it anytime.) A mobile bread seller must have arrived on our street, though I hadn’t noticed them calling as I usually do, so my host went downstairs to buy from them, and was thoughtful enough to get some for me. “This is the only Muslim thing that I do,” he joked.

Reader, no lie, it was some of the best bread I’ve ever tasted: fluffy, gluteny, and just the teeny-tiniest bit sweet, just enough that I could keep eating it all day without putting anything on it. I wished I were hungrier at that moment, because it was still warm and fresh from the oven, and would never again be as good as it was right then.

That little surprise made my day, but it was significant for another reason. On my preceding grocery run to prepare for the lockdown, the store was out of the kind of bread I wanted, so instead of getting a different kind of bread, I got a little loaf cake and ate that for a few days. I had just eaten my last slice of that cake Sunday afternoon, and it was just two hours after that that the surprise bread showed up to hold me over until my next grocery run. My host couldn’t have known, but the timing of his gift was such as to make me believe, just for a little while, that whenever I am lacking, enough will be given to me. And not just “enough,” but really more and better than I would even know to ask for. For if I’d had the chance that day, I would’ve just wished for more cake, or the kind of bread I already knew. Instead, I got something totally new to me that was even better.

Events in life have a way of rhyming with each other, and as I was eating more of my pide the next morning, I remembered that one year before, almost to the exact day, I was walking out of a cafe in Ghent, Belgium, that was closing for the day, when one of the baristas said something to me. “Sorry, what was that?” She said, “Do you want this loaf of bread? If you don’t take it, we have to throw it out.” “Sure!” I said, and they were happy I took it off their hands. There again, I went home pleased about the little gifts that come when you’re open to them but not expecting them.

Long ago, I don’t remember when or on what occasion, I had made the resolution that anytime anybody was genuinely offering me a gift or favor that would be helpful, if it cost me little to nothing to accept it, then I would always accept. Because the potential benefit could be a new experience, a momentary human connection, or just making someone else’s day because people tend to be happy when they have a chance to do something for someone else.

It’s worth noting that I calculate “cost” in my own particular way. I almost never accept pieces of paper from strangers–advertising is not a gift. I also don’t accept branded swag, for the same reason. I prefer not to receive non-perishable gifts from friends (if they give me a choice) because of the cost (both personal and environmental) of having more possessions to keep around. If a gift involves me consuming food or drink, there might be a cost there that causes me to decline. Finally, I value my time highly and take that into account whenever accepting something that commits me to some sort of time expenditure or social engagement.

Things I do easily accept based on my policy: bread, from trusted sources. If I like someone’s company, and they offer to e.g. walk farther out of their way to accompany me. Introductions to people I should meet. Offers to let me borrow things I need to use, or to come over and help with something I can’t do by myself. Offers to have me over for a meal or put me up for the night–again, I never accept these out of obligation, but if I like spending time with someone, then I let them provide for me without the fear that I’m imposing on them, which used to get in the way. Neighborly things, mostly.

It really can be hard, as it was for my past self, to say yes to an offer of any kind, even for something you already know you need, and even when someone point-blank asks if they can give it to you. For me, I think it was less about admitting weakness and it wasn’t about feeling undeserving, but it was more about being afraid to admit a desire for something I didn’t already have: “Oh, no, I don’t want something, why do you think I would want something, do I look like I would want something? What a silly thought.” Seemingly from childhood I’ve had this belief, deep deep down: that to want is embarassing. Simple as that.

Accepting a point-blank offer is one thing, and then there is the “soft offer,” often in a form like, “I can do X for you sometime, just let me know,” which requires that you ask for the thing if and when you want it to happen. “I can introduce you to someone.” “I can send your work over to so-and-so.” “I can give you a tour of the space.” “I can accompany you when you go to do X.”

Accepting such an offer is a level up in difficulty from accepting a point-blank offer, and I have only been able to do it without cringing in shame ever since I got used to using a standard “script” of sorts to accept: “Yes, that would be great / awesome / super helpful. Please introduce me.” Or, “I would love a tour. When would be a good time for you?” Always with lots and lots of thank-yous. For responding to an offer to do something later, in the moment I respond, “I might take you up on that,” and when the time comes I would say, “Could you still do X for me?” with a little bit about why I’m asking now.

(Regarding “I might take you up on that,” I should mention that it’s not a recommended response if you’re being asked out on a date, unless you know what you’re doing. Saying no is hard too, but be a decent human being and don’t string them along.)

As you level up, there are more advanced kinds of saying yes, like the change-your-mind offer (when you say “No, thanks,” and they say, “Are you sure?” with some new information that changes your mind, and you say, “Okay, then yes”; or when some time passes and you change your mind for any reason and then you have to go back and say that you do want that thing after all), or the second-degree offer (“So-and-so said you could help me with X?”). Of course, at the top of the ladder, there’s asking for something that hasn’t been offered, which is a whole ‘nother beast of its own that we won’t get to here.

The more often I accept gifts, the easier it gets, and the more often they appear. Nothing mystical about it: it’s a matter of where you direct your attention. What I refer to as “the universe” is just the 99.999% of the world that we’re NOT paying attention to. You see what you learn to see. And whether or not it’s sentient, functionally when it comes to gifts, the universe works like any friend: if you decline its gifts every time, eventually you won’t be getting a whole lot of them. While you’re busy feeling sorry for yourself, people are bending over backwards to give you bread, keep you company, introduce you to like-minded people, read your work, cook for you, give you a place to stay, take you on adventures, and show you something new. Open your eyes and say yes.


As I was writing this post, the universe gave me two more gifts. One is the word pronoia, which refers to the feeling that the universe is conspiring to do you good (opposite of paranoia), thanks to Kevin Kelly. The other is these lines from the poem Everything is Waiting for You by David Whyte (via On Being):

…The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.