Earlier this year, when I was writing my Lenten blog, I described a practice that some members of my family have been following this year (it’s in the post called “Nice Things Men Do“). Basically, my dad came up with this idea for my mom that they would each do two acts of kindness for the other person on alternating months. So my dad would take one month, my mom the next month, etc., and there were various rules and stipulations, like you couldn’t combine a birthday or anniversary gift with an act of kindness, etc. Martin and I liked this idea a lot so we decided to do it too.
I so very dearly wish that I had the freedom to provide the specific, juicy details on how this all worked out, but I definitely don’t. What I can tell you is that I’ve been observing how the experience unfolded over the year, and one line from the Carrie Newcomer song, “When One Door Closes,” summarizes it perfectly: “It’s not always getting what you want but wanting what you get.” And I’ve been wondering about what this means for the act of giving and receiving gifts that we all experience (sometimes endure is a better word) at this time of the year. Here are some of my thoughts.
One of my most favorite Christmas memories was coming downstairs early one year, and sitting on the stairs in the dark, staring through the railing at what seemed to me like an enormous cornucopia of gifts: my brother’s orange and yellow bicycle (at least I think it was my brother’s), a pink cardboard play kitchen for me and my sister, and lots of wrapped presents. There was not a lot of money to go around when my parents had three small kids, so we didn’t get tons of stuff, but I don’t ever remember feeling like I didn’t “get” enough. And that particular morning there was a feeling of abundance, especially in those moments when no one else was there, before everything had been ripped open, that felt like magic.
Even when I knew that my parents were Santa, I still loved lying in bed with my sister (we always slept together on Christmas Eve), and listening to them bringing the presents into the living room and putting them under the tree. Receiving gifts that you knew had been picked out just for you is a pretty powerful feeling for a kid, perhaps because it is actually less about the excitement of “getting” new stuff, but more a confirmation of the feeling that you are seen and recognized, that want you want will be provided by someone who loves you.
But as we get older, and the Santa fantasy fades, giving kids gifts has the potential to just be about expectations and negotiations: “What do you want? Have you made your list yet? How much does that cost?” It’s like closing a business deal. And then there is the enormous issue of family gift-giving: “Who are we buying presents for this year? What is the spending limit? Is everyone on the same page or is there always one family who goes completely overboard and makes everyone else feel guilty?” And of course there is always the person who is constantly complaining that they have too much stuff, that they don’t need anything, and are then mortally offended when only a small token arrives.
These are just the general issues. The specific perils lie also in the gifts themselves: is it okay to just send money? What do you do when you receive something hideously unsuitable but have to pretend that you love it? Do you have to buy presents for ALL of the teachers/daycare providers/work colleagues, and if so, what should they be? What is everyone else doing, and can you do the same so you don’t look like a cheap slacker?
How long do things take to ship? Is it okay not to pay for gift wrapping? Do people who make their own gifts look creative or cheap? How old should siblings be when they start to give each other gifts? Should young children be expected to give gifts to their parents? What are the expectations about thank you notes? Why do stockings seem always to be filled with socks and underwear? Why is it the same person every year you gets the garbage bag to clean up all the wrapping paper? Why are people back in the stores two days after Christmas, picking through the remains, looking for the even more perfect deal, running through the cycle of consumption over and over and over again?
When does it stop? And what does it even mean to give a gift, to receive a gift?
I have this chair in my bedroom upon which I throw my clothes when I take them off. There is one specific area of the chair for clothes that need to go to the dry cleaners, another area for clothes that need to be mended, one for workout clothes and pajamas that I might be able to wear again before washing them, another for out of season clothes that need to be moved to the downstairs closet, and finally one area for “clothes that don’t fit me right now but sometime in the next year might.” It’s a system.
One day this year, I came home and the chair was completely empty. EMPTY. My first thought, even though I had walked past the stereo, my computer, the television, etc., was that we had been robbed. Then I thought, “Martin has had it with the clothes on the chair and hidden them/thrown them away/put them somewhere in a big pile.” (My roommate did this to me once in college). It was like a tiny mini-trauma. Then I realized that this must be his act of kindness–he had cleaned up/put away all of the clothes on my chair. Unfortunately I had to call him and ask him where everything was, and then go through all of the drawers and closets and put everything back exactly where it had been on the chair in order to keep the system intact, but still. He meant for it to be a gift, and he did it with love.
“It’s not always getting what you want but wanting what you get.” Get it?
The terrible, terrible, disappointment about giving and receiving gifts is that there can be an enormous chasm between what the giver intended the gift to mean and what the receiver perceives the gift to mean. And this runs the full spectrum from the kid’s toy that seems exciting and filled with possibility in the box but breaks two hours later, all the way to the ring that was bought with love and good intentions and yet leaves the receiver feeling flat and unseen (did you actually think I would WEAR something like this? Do you know me AT ALL?).
The way we give and receive gifts tells us much about who we are; also, when we give gifts, we are giving some part of ourselves. This is the beauty and the dilemma, because we are only imperfect, confused human beings who want to feel loved and noticed. And that’s an awful lot to ask from a damn sweater on Christmas morning.
Although I am concerned that this is near to impossible, my gift giving & receiving attitude this year is to release myself and everyone around me from all expectations. I am going to try to remember that the gifts I gave were given with love (yes, okay, even the ones that took me five minutes to order on Amazon), because I love the people I gave them to. And, I am going to try to remember that receiving a gift with graciousness and an open heart is much more realistic that receiving it with the expectation that it will be perfect, will shower me with every ounce of love and attention I believe I deserve, will fill up all the holes inside of me that the year (years) have wrought. I will take it on faith that the gifts I receive are given with love because the people who are giving them to me love me. Anything else is just way, way too much pressure for the lovely, kind, giving, but often (and especially at this time of year) fragile, imperfect beings that we are.
I really, really LOVE getting presents. But I’ll be honest, I LOVE getting GOOD presents, like the perfect, gorgeous red purse that my sister-in-law gave me two years ago, or the gold necklace that my mother gave me once, or the perfect necklace that my husband and children picked out for me years ago and that I will wear forever. All the other stuff? I’m not sure. But what I do know for sure is that if it was given with love, it should be received with love. Even the confusing iPod that we are giving one of our sons; the Batman laptop that we can’t figure out how to work but we know Gabe will go crazy for, the books we hope will touch someone’s heart, the small tokens of love and affection that are all we can afford, but are given with more love than we can express.
I want us all to let ourselves off the hook, and to know, to really, really know, that just the act of giving is enough. Graceful, open hearted receiving is more than enough. We will all receive more than we deserve, even though I hate the word “deserving;” we all already have enough, because there are people who loved us enough to give us a gift, even though it might be something terrifyingly horrible.
Giving and receiving; these acts alone are more than enough. Carrie Newcomer’s song also contains the lyrics, “You can’t pray for what you want, or what you’d have instead. You can only offer up your heart and ask that you be led.” That’s a hugely helpful reminder for me; maybe (if I’m not being presumptuous, it may help you as well). I love you all.
Here’s today’s poem, “Enough,” by David Whyte:
Enough. These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.
This opening to the life
we have refused
again and again