Sunday, July 29, 2012

On Birthdays, Presents, and Presence

Tomorrow (Monday) is my thirty-ninth birthday.  I don't feel thirty-nine, but I don't know how thirty-nine is supposed to feel, so maybe I do feel it?

People ask me if I'm afraid of 40.  I'm not sure what it's supposed to do, so I'm not, but perhaps that will change in the next year.  I can never know.  So far, the thirties have been much better than the twenties, so the forties should be even more wonderful.

The other big question is "What do you want for your birthday?"  In my family, much is made of giving people things they will both use and enjoy.  My mother and sister usually give me new clothes, and my father gives me giftcards to places he knows I will use them.  Most of my friends give me weird things they thought of me when they saw.  All of this is much appreciated.  But none of it is required.

Now, Miss Manners has much to say on the subject of receiving gifts, asking for gifts, and telling people you do not require gifts.  And while I tend to agree that there's really no way to word "No gifts, please" in a way that does not sound like "I assume you want to buy me things," in our culture that assumption *is* the expectation.  Also?  I do really like to get presents.  I almost never fail to be delighted by the simple fact that someone thought of me and spent time or money to give me something they thought would make me happy.  My nephew colored me a card yesterday, and it made me unreasonably happy because it was just so nifty and unexpected.

But I'm never hurt or upset when I don't get a present from someone.  It just means that nothing leaped up and said, "Hey, she needs one of these!"  However, I've been told by several people that I should give better guidance than "Well, sure, if you want, then something nifty?"

The problem is that I so do not need stuff.  I need less stuff, not more stuff.  I have a one-bedroom apartment that is already full to bursting with stuff, and this year's project is to significantly reduce my stuff (I have already thrown out five gallons of unused bath products, for example).  So, there's a pretty small space in my world for physical things as gifts.  I have, instead, come up with a short list of things that would make good gifts.  Some of them are 'things for me' and some of them are 'things it would make me happy to have happen':

1.  Give me a moment of your life's beauty.  Tell me a story about when you were happy, show me a picture of someplace you went that fed your soul, talk to me about the things that you really love.

2.  Tell someone, not necessarily me, how much they mean to you.  If there's a person in your life that you rely on, that you trust absolutely, that you love more than you can possibly describe, then *try* to describe it, and give that description to them.  You don't have to tell me who, or what you said, but let me know you did it and that will make me smile.

3.  Do an anonymous kindness for someone who doesn't expect it.  Pay a restaurant tab, send someone a card with a note that says "I admire how kind you are," quietly slip a twenty in the tip jar at your favorite coffeehouse.  Again, you don't have to tell me who or what, just that you did something nice and made someone else smile.

4.  Surprise birthday coffee.  Sometime in the next year, but not actually on my birthday, call me up and say, "Surprise!  I would like to take you out for a long birthday coffee chat!"

5.  Create something for me.  Draw me a picture or tell me a story or write me a poem.  They don't have to be elaborate; a silly limerick about badgers or a picture you drew on the bus one day would delight me.

6.  Livestock.  Specifically, Heifer International.  You can get shares for as little as $10, and the idea that somewhere in the world exist "Badger's Birthday Bees" or a "Badger's Birthday Ducks" would please me greatly.

7.  If you really wish to get me a thing I can use, then a gift certificate for a deep apartment cleaning or one of those services that helps you organise your life would be greatly appreciated.  I'm making headway, but it's slooooow.  Friends have offered to help, but strangers would be easier for me to manage right now.

Now, this doesn't mean that if you saw the perfect t-shirt or book or whatever for me, and have been saving it for my birthday, I don't want it.  I'll be happy to make flaily squeeing noises and love it forever.  But our culture is such that "It's a birthday, I have to find a present" is pervasive even when no present is needed or required to communicate "I love you and am glad to have you in my life."

Every year I wrestle with how to say, "If you want to give me something for my birthday, give me a better, kinder, more loving world, where people take a little more time for each other, and where wonderful things happen to people who don't know they deserve them."

This, I think, is the best I can do.

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