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The Shirt off My Back

by Joan LeofAugust 22, 2019
Practice
A gift bag

Would you give the shirt off your back? This practice has brought the author joy and challenges.

“Give something that you really love away,” it said in the article I was reading about spiritual practices. That was over 30 years ago. I was immersed in the study of Eastern thought and creating my own spiritual path—yoga, meditation, journaling.“Your blouse is very beautiful,” Monica, my nurse practitioner for women’s health, gushed when I entered her office. She studied the arty new top of colorful linen patches that I had recently purchased.

“Give something that you really love away,” floated through my mind.

I went home, washed and ironed the shirt, and mailed it to her with a note explaining the new spiritual practice that inspired this gesture. How comforting it was to have her exceptional support for so many years. There was no hesitation. Seizing the moment to apply a spiritual practice that spoke to me felt good. I didn’t dwell on it or share this with anyone except my husband. 

A couple of decades later, I rekindled a friendship with Tikva, a former high school friend. How exciting to have someone in my world who remembered my deceased parents, the home I grew up in, my siblings. And things about me that I had forgotten! “I love your blouse,” she said one day when visiting my house. This recent purchase was a flowing gauze top in a beautiful shade of purple. “Give something that you really love away,” echoed from the recesses of my mind.

“It’s yours,” I said without hesitation. I took it off right there and handed it to her. Once again, I was thrilled to apply this spiritual practice. I am not a clothes horse or someone who enjoys shopping. It is exceptionally hard for me to find apparel that I love. It must be 100% natural fabric. Unique fabric design. Perfect color. Arty. Feminine. And affordable. Rare is a piece of clothing that cries out to me, “It’s you!” But when it does, an artistic masterpiece couldn’t be more cherished.

I hadn’t thought about giving away those shirts in almost a decade, until recently. My husband and I have been volunteering at Canine Partners for Life, an organization that trains and matches service dogs for people with physical and emotional needs. Keisha works in the kennel where we pick up the dogs to take on walks. I had only met her a few times for brief interactions, but I was struck by her countenance, a soft yet strong face with glowing wide eyes, all of this more magnified by a very short afro. You could see her adoration of the dogs she was handling. 

“I love your shirt,” she said longingly one day.

The oversized t-shirt was a rainbow of greens, wide strokes going in different directions. Whenever I put it over my head, I instantly felt like I was transported to a forest, especially thrilling since my newest spiritual practice has been forest bathing. And it was so worn, like a faded pair of very old jeans. It almost felt like a security blanket when I was wearing it.

“Give something that you really love away,” whispered a voice waking up from a sleep of almost a decade. 

“I’d give you the shirt off my back,” I blurted out, “but I don’t have anything else to put on.”

Keisha looked startled and laughed.

I had lied. There was a jean shirt in the car. It troubled and confused me that I had hesitated. Was it because I didn’t have a significant relationship with her like I did with Monica and Tikva? Was it because I had come to love this top more than I had had the chance to love the others?

A dialogue went on inside me for a week, knowing I would be seeing her the next weekend.

“Just buy her the same shirt and give that to her. It’s still being generous.”

“It’s not exactly giving her the shirt off your back. That’s the real principle.”

A friend I shared this spiritual dilemma with asked, “What if she doesn’t accept it?” It had never dawned on me she could be uncomfortable. 

“I’ll tell her to just give it to someone she cares about. Pay it forward.”

Suddenly, there was no more indecision. I washed the T-shirt and placed it in a beautiful gift bag. There was a pang of loss, but also a joy of letting go and giving. I handed Keisha the gift bag and explained the spiritual principle I was practicing before she opened it.

A smile spread over her beautiful face. “It reminds me of a forest," she said. "I love to walk among the trees. There should be more gestures like this in our troubled world.” I miss my T-shirt. But I feel deeply grateful that Keisha received the gift and felt the same forest that I did. 

Now I am wondering what will happen the next time someone says to me with longing, “I love your shirt.”


Joan Leof has written a memoir titled Fatal If Swallowed: Reclaiming Creativity and Hope Along the Uncharted Path. A collection of 20 of her published personal essays appears in her book, Maytryoshka: Uncovering Your Many Selves Through Writing. As creator of Write to Heal, she facilitates journal workshops for groups and individuals. 


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