By Carolyn Wallace
They’re here again: the holidays. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the question: How can I make my holiday gift giving traditions both simpler, and more meaningful and fun for me and my intimate circle? I decided to reflect on the most memorable gifts I have received since I was 20 or 25 years old, by noticing the very first gifts that came to mind.
I invite you to do the same thing right now. What are the gifts that first come across your screen?
When I tried this, for a couple of seconds I couldn’t remember any particular gifts at all, except one: A three-paragraph piece my friend Peggy wrote for my birthday in January of 2005. It reads in part:
My Friend’s Kitchen
My friend’s kitchen mirrors her heart—a passionate accumulation of what matters to her. The table … is stacked with books on spiritual and personal growth, solicitations from non-profits she …supports, and photos of family and friends…At the center of the kitchen hums a refrigerator, stuffed beyond the needs of her single life. From it’s abundance, she can always pull a wide variety of green, yellow, and red vegetables to slice into a colorful salad or succulent soup, that delights…guests with aromatic surprises.
The kitchen melts into the living room along a wall, lined floor to ceiling with books … Plants thrive near a large glass door through which you can see the birds at the feeder …
Visiting her is like entering a small boat where you’re repeatedly moving things from one place to the next to free the right surface for sitting or eating. Yet I never mind. We bend over turquoise cups of sweet fragrant tea and speak of our dreams, fears, failings, and successes, or sit in silence with the honey of acceptance on our tongues.
I have read this piece several times a year over the past eight years. Why so often? Because it makes me feel good that my friend sees my heart and focuses on my positive qualities, rather than on what many would see as, shall we say, a less than pristine home landscape. (Isn’t that one of the best gifts—to know that we are truly seen by our loved ones?)
After a moment, two other gifts simultaneously appeared on my internal movie screen. The first was a month-long trip to Spain and Portugal that my partner Jay’s parents gave to us three months before he died, in 1991. It’s not possible to articulate how important that trip was. We both knew what lay ahead and we really did “live in the now.” We loved where we were; we were present to all that we saw and experienced; we cherished moments alone and moments together.
The second gift was a trip to the United Nations Fourth World Forum on the Status of Women in Beijing, China, in 1995. This singular gift was initiated by a friend who was Executive Director of The Human Lactation Center and included support from many WNC women whom I also represented through the local chapter of the League of Women Voters. Of the three gifts, materially speaking, one was an 8 ½ x 11inch piece of paper, and the other two were life-changing experiences, not things. These days, I think more and more about lessening the weight of stuff in my life, things that take up both physical and mental space, and concentrating more on experiences.
And you? What gifts did you come up with? What about your gifts made them particularly memorable for you?
With simplifying on my mind, I have begun to ask myself when considering a purchase: Will this object make the 1/3-1/2-of-my-possessions-cut when I downsize my living space some year soon? Since so many friends are also contemplating a simpler material life, I hope we can help each other let go as this process unfolds, including mindfulness in the gifts we give to each other!
“Gifts from the heart are received in the heart,” some will recognize as a paraphrase of my favorite mantra these days. (The original, “words from the heart enter the heart,” is from So That your Values Live On—Ethical Wills And How To Prepare Them, edited and annotated by Jack Reimer and Nathaniel Stampher). I keep pondering the meaning of that phrase. I wonder what it can mean related to what I choose to give?
After reflection on these ponderings: simplicity, meaningful gifts, focusing on experiences more than things— I am working with the following ten criteria in gift giving this year. My gifts will embody one or more of the following criteria:
1. Offer an inspirational gift related to what the receiver loves. An example might be, rather than yet another sweater in my sister’s favorite color, I give her a book of poems by a poet whose work made her cry upon first reading.
2. Give the opportunity for a short-term shared experience. Some years I send my daughter Caitlin a book that I sense will delight us both. Then the next time I go to Oregon to visit, in the evenings, after the girls are sleeping, we curl up on the couch and read aloud to each other. We did that with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. We didn’t eat any pie, but the reading was delicious!
3. Enable the receiver to begin or expand a hobby or other strong interest. I may have one friend who loves to write, but does not create the time or lacks confidence in her abilities. And another’s bucket list may include learning Spanish or to cook Indian food. She could receive a Great Smokies Writing Program class, and he, a class at AB Tech. (We have so many resources here in WNC for learning new things!)
4. Offer a shared experience to occur over time, exploring or learning something both the giver and the receiver want to do, that neither are doing now. Hike regularly, learn to play chess or tennis, or …
My mother-in-law is an excellent writer, and she “means” to write stories from her unusual life, but like many busy women, she finds it can be difficult to get those “around to its.” One December, I gave her the offer of three months of writing together, long distance, once a week, for one to one and a half hours. I was not leading writing workshops at that time. I simply wanted to be writing my life stories and I wasn’t. She accepted, perhaps with a bit of trepidation. Would we really take the time to do this?
We did. I called her and suggested a writing prompt; then we both hung up and wrote. We might write about “the supper table” or “afternoons in summer,” or “my grandmother” or “if I had known then what I know now.” I phoned her in twenty minutes or so and we read our pieces aloud.
While we didn’t continue for three months, we did write by phone over a couple of months. At the end, after three or four vignettes per week, we each had twenty-five or thirty stories to work with! A bonus was that we learned things about each other, and ourselves, that we had not known before. This gift deepened the intimacy of an already lovely relationship.
5. Prepare something to eat or smell or wear made with my own hands, in whole or in part. In mid-December my friend Catherine always brings our family a vintage vase filled with paper whites on the verge of blooming. Their fragrance fills the dining room as their petite blooms bend toward the sunny window. And every year I think, Catherine was thinking about us weeks ago, placing the bulbs in their watery wee garden of pebbles to ensure our pleasure to come.
6. Write a true story in which the receiver is the main character or a sweet or silly poem or prose piece that conveys admiration or highlights some lovely aspect of who they are and read it to them.
7. Honor a friend or family member with a gift of support for important work in the world. A few years ago my partner Jay’s parents, and their children and spouses, shifted from an annual holiday tradition of picking a name out of a hat and giving that person a gift, to sending a check to a cause dear to one’s “pick” that year in their honor.
While it may have contained a twinge of secret disappointment the first year, this new family tradition has been a lovely change for all of us. (I mention the initial twinge possibility because as we refine our giving traditions, it may take a bit of time for us to grow into fully embracing them.)
8. Share a possession that has special significance or value. A few years ago, my mother asked me to divide her silver cutlery and send half each to her two granddaughters. She took pleasure knowing of their enjoyment while she was still alive.
9. In gift giving that includes things, consider the “triple bottom line”—the economic, environmental and human costs. Were workers involved in producing the object paid a fair wage? Was the item made in China and shipped across the earth to get here? Was child labor likely involved in its creation? Does the item and / or its manufacturing processes involve toxic material? Was it made from quality materials that will last and eventually decompose, when the time comes?
10. Add a dash of levity, as one of the tastiest ingredients in holiday (just) desserts. Find a way to bring some humor and fun into gift giving scenarios whenever possible.
I hope you give and receive many gifts from the heart this season. May we all experience and celebrate deep connection, peace and gratitude. And may we laugh out loud a minimum of twice a day this month!
Happiest of holidays!
Carolyn Wallace has lived in WNC since 1977. She was a member of the Stone Soup Restaurant collective and spent many years developing various nonprofits and organizing with others for social and environmental justice. She served as the first Executive Director of MANNA FoodBank, and more recently as Dean of Service at Warren Wilson College.
Carolyn is having a lot of fun these days with her business, Life Story Catcher. She wants everybody to tell their stories. She leads workshops in writing legacy letters and life stories; and she records life stories for folks who want to tell rather than write them, creating CD’s and legacy books with photos and other memorabilia. She can be reached at email@example.com or 828-337-3738.