Many years ago as a nineteen year old bored to death in Indiana, I signed up for a food swap. The idea intrigued me. You make food and trade it for other homemade food, what’s not to love? The day quickly came, and I hadn’t made anything. What do I have to offer? Nothing came to mind. My skills in the kitchen were lackluster. I had no business attending a food swap other than I loved food. I was mixing lavender buds and crushed pineapple for some sort of drink an hour before the swap.
I showed up, ashamed of my creation, setting out mason jars of this sad “juice”. I had walked into a community of makers and I felt very out of place. These were people who knew what they had to offer. Fresh produce they grew from their garden. A family pie recipe. Preservation and canning masters showing off their pickling skills. The packaging, the details, the intricacy of it all…I was intimidated. I was excited.
At the end of the event, swappers made quick announcements. Someone mentioned a project they were starting called Trade School Indy. This idea also intrigued me. You attend classes and trade goods and services with your teacher rather than pay money? What? I went home with most of my “juice” that day, but also a promise to myself that I would follow this newfound curiosity.
The idea of bartering for knowledge stayed with me. I connected with Blaire, the organizer, and asked if I could volunteer for Trade School. She said she needed people to teach a class. Anyone could teach a class. What do I have to offer? Nothing came to mind. She said I could help organize classes instead.
On my twentieth birthday, I celebrated at Trade School. Blaire had organized a class on making natural cordage. We learned how to make rope with hair by a survivalist expert that now has a show called “Fat Guys in the Woods”. People brought him large yucca plant stalks in exchange for his knowledge. It was one of the best birthdays I’ve had.
I spent the next five years organizing Trade School and asking myself that same question…“What do I have to offer?”. When we take money away, what’s left? Barter allowed me to explore that question in a unique way because it focused on what I already had. It also allowed me room to grow. “What do I have to offer?”, turned into, “What do I WANT to offer?”.
Thinking about our offerings, what we have and what we want to be able to give, sets us on a path of generosity. I wanted to be able to offer others knowledge, good food, hospitality, and a helping handy hand. What I never realized was I already had enough to offer. That we all have so much more to offer one another than we realize. That our most important offerings exist outside of the traditional economy. Time, skills, knowledge, connections, resources, friendship, support.
I have attended over 200 Trade School classes on topics from cheese making to jazz music, creative writing to building computers, constitutional law to cuddling. A lot of teachers asked for nothing more than a hug or a joke. While they often left with more – food, beer, small gifts – the desire to connect was what brought many of us in a room to learn from one another.
So…what do I have to offer? Too much comes to mind now. I can teach you how to unclog your sink, change a bike tire, or hang just about anything. I can make you a home-cooked meal or bake you a three layer cake. I can help you organize an event or declutter a room. I can share my passion of letter writing and homesteading. If none of that appeals, I can always offer you friendship, a hug, or a listening ear.
I often wonder how many lives would be changed if more people were told they had something to offer. That they mattered. That they had something valuable to contribute to their community and relationships.
I know it changed mine.