Sunday, September 04, 2011
Gifting is an odd phenomenon. I try to keep a list of gift ideas, things that occur to me over the year, so that when a birthday or Christmas pops up, I have the perfect thing to buy someone in my life. Sometimes I’ll wake in the middle of the night (as I did the other day for my sister) with the perfect idea for Christmas, and by the morning it’ll dissolve into the ether along with my dreams. Other times I spend years knitting gifts, losing and finding errant projects, inventing new patterns after I’ve lost the old, until I’m finally left with something misshapen and out of style.
Not only is exchanging gifts a universal cultural phenomenon, but it’s also one of the languages of love, one of the ways that people communicate love to each other. I’ve been given some extraordinary gifts in my life—things that met me at exactly the right moment in time, when I desperately needed them. Yet the practice confounds me. I rebel against alleged materialism, or I’m merely ashamed at what my starving artist’s budget can afford. I hate to break it to you, if you’re one of the people expecting a gift from me this holiday season, but you may end up with canned turnip greens beneath the tree.
In case you’re worried, I’m not really obsessing about the holidays already. I’m more thinking about the various ways we love each other. I do my best when it comes to gifts, tracking the things that I think will bring people in my life joy. Long phone calls sometimes, or shared afternoons, or loaves of bread. I love cooking for people, and I’m beginning to arrive at a place here where I can invite guests into my kitchen to share food and wine.
One thing I’m concluding, in my ongoing quest to save the world, is that I can’t do it alone. The only way anything changes is through building community, and communities are built on love, and kindness, and ritual. In the idealistic utopian village of my dreams, the village that it takes, we have massive celebrations. We eat and drink and make art and play music together. We tell each other stories and dance around bonfires and pray for rain or sun. We cook and eat and give and receive gifts. We argue and fight and come to consensus. We celebrate the first harvest, and the full moon, and the summer solstice, and the New Year.
There are much more practical ways to save the world, but unless we can find a way to come together, to build actual community, in the sense of the commune, or communion, or communication, or even commerce, we’re never going to be able to find creative solutions to what ails us. I read a story about an anthropologist who traveled from island to island in the Pacific, where the chief of each tribe would give as an unmerited gift a bracelet made of shells to the chief of the next tribe. On and on it went, each chief giving and receiving bracelets that were treasured, but worthless, with no monetary value, even in the currency of the archipelago. It was a practice for which the anthropologist had no reference point.
I don’t get it either. As Mr. Spock would say, it isn’t logical. But I keep my list.