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Christmas Gifts of Experience

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Is a Christmas without gifts still a holiday?

Given my parent’s penchant for bestowing gifts on each other during the Christmas season, it came as quite a surprise to me, upon arriving home for the holidays, that this year they would refrain from buying gifts for one another.

And to learn that after I had wrapped up all my holiday shopping, buying all my gifts on my drive home through Canada. I even thought I had outdone myself this year with thoughtful, unique presents. Now, no gifts at Christmas?

In the end, it wasn’t a giftless Christmas at the Bleeker household after all. Instead, the reduction on presents was targeted at mandatory giving—the kind of gifting one does because one feels obliged to at least buy something for another. My parents, after years and years of buying similar items for each other every Christmas (shirts, kitchen gadgets, gift cards, cashews), finally decided it was time to put an end to the convention. During the rest of the year, they could just as easily buy anything they needed for themselves or each other. And, the pattern of gifts given at Christmas had become standard and predictable. No need, then, to buy and consume more just because the culture around the holidays dictates it. This year, no to the stress of shopping crowds, no to obligatory gift-giving, and no to mandatory consumerism.

Except that for me, I had already purchased all my gifts. Darn.

As much as my parents’ new perspective on gift-giving surprised me, I was delighted by the change in practice. I for one actively decry materialism and bemoan consumerism. I have, at more than one Christmas, broken the heart of my well-intentioned mother by rejecting gifts and returning them instead. I can be a quite the difficult gift-receiver. Though I do love the joy and surprise at receiving a gift, the holidays are held in a strange tension for me because I don’t really like owning that much stuff. Is there a way to practice the meaningful expression of gift-giving while avoiding the downfalls of becoming bogged down in excess material extravagance?

Reflecting on the gifts I gave this past Christmas, I think that’s where my own shopping tendencies have been taking me. Seventy-five percent of what I bought was food or drink items—things that can easily be wrapped up and handled, but magically disappear after a few months. Consumable items like these provide the benefit of the gift, but one without the long-term conundrum of storing more stuff for perpetuity.

What’s more, behind the gifts I gave, there was something more I wanted to say with them. I had done all my holiday shopping while traveling by myself for three weeks in Canada, visiting some pretty spectacular places along the way. When I purchased each present, it was a way of saying to the intended receiver ‘I wish you could have been here with me.’ The bottle of cider I gave to my sister was a way of saying ‘it would have been fun sharing in the taste-tasting at the cider mill with you.’ The maple sugar candies from Quebec which I gave my friends were small tokens of physically sharing my trip with them too. In the absence of actually traveling and spending time with each other, sometimes a small gift with meaning behind it can say ‘I wish we could have done this together.’

In the end, the notion that gifts have to be material and given primarily at Christmastime misses a lot of the larger points behind gift-giving. For me, the best gifts I have received have often been immaterial and have come at many different times of the year, often unexpectedly. At Christmas, gifts of experiences are often the best gifts you’ll receive. Spending time with those you love in a shared activity can beat any pair of socks.

It’s challenging to wrap up a Christmas gift of experience in a box. Until then, I’ll keep wrapping up small tokens of my experience as my gifts.

Stuffed

What Was Once the Largest Shopping Center in
Northern Ohio Was Built Where There Had Been
a Pond I Used To Visit Every Summer Afternoon

Loving the earth, seeing what has been done to it,
I grow sharp, I grow cold.

Where will the trilliums go, and the coltsfoot?
Where will the pond lilies go to continue living
their simple, penniless lives, lifting
their faces of gold?

Impossible to believe we need so much
as the world wants us to buy.
I have more clothes, lamps, dishes, paper clips
than I could possibly use before I die.

Oh, I would like to live in an empty house,
with vines for walls, and a carpet of grass.
No planks, no plastic, no fiberglass.

And I suppose sometime I will.
Old and cold I will lie apart
from all this buying and selling, with only
the beautiful earth in my heart.

—Mary Oliver

 

 

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With Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and all the other cleverly-named days which promote consumer spending behind us, the holiday shopping season is well on its way once again. The lure of irresistible deals and the culture of acquiring the latest fads spur us to accumulate endlessly more and more stuff. I myself have had stuff on my mind lately, though it’s not because of an inclination towards holiday shopping. Rather, ending one out-of-state job recently and preparing to re-locate to another has got me sorting through all my stuff in preparation. And with my parents moving houses in the past few months as well, I’m coming home to all my possessions haphazardly boxed up and scattered about. It’s been a time to re-analyze all that I consider ‘mine.’

As I’ve been sorting through my possessions, I’ve begun to pause and go through them more deliberately. When I’ve been away working my various seasonal jobs, I’ve always kept my possessions to a few duffle bags, or a comfortable car-load at the very most. But, I’ve realized, I have a lot more stuff that I’ve left behind—stuff I own and keep, though I don’t actively use it or even remember I own it. Actually, going through my possessions again, it surprised me the sheer amount of objects I could say are still in my possession—even though I like to think of myself as a minimalist. I always enjoy considering how light a packer I am, and how well I can improvise using the few possessions I do have. But I also know I am a collector of things, a pack-rat as some may call it, and I have acquired a considerable amount during my time on earth. Though I may decry the negative rampages of American imperial consumerism, I too am complicit in the lust and greed to acquire more. I too see things I would like to have, and take steps to ensure that I acquire them and keep them solidly in my possession. The primal urge to accrete does not leave easy.

And now, I’ve found myself in this more reflective situation, as I go through my many possessions box by box. I do tend to be quite utilitarian in my philosophy of things, viewing objects as tools to be used in life, caring mostly about function over form. But even though I concern myself with the practical value of items, I also feel strongly that things should not be treated with careless indignation, as though they were simply disposable without consequence. Utility also means looking to gain the maximum use and value out of every single object I possess, to use and wear things out until they are no more. If each object has a purpose, then each object also has a value. The things I’ve found myself to be holding on to are things that still have some sort of value left—practical, sentimental—and most likely only I could see the value in maintaining these things indefinitely.

As I open each box to rediscover what had been placed inside long ago, I take out each object and cradle it in my hands slowly, reverently. These are merely things, but they connote more than that—they have stories of mine interwoven in them. They have the stories of how I acquired them, of how I used them, and—having made the decision to keep them around—they hold some aspiration for the future as well. Holding each object, I try and recollect as much as I can about it. It may help that I have a particularly detailed memory, but I can often recall when and where I acquired each object, and the circumstances of my acquirement. Everything I find are artifacts of myself, intricately connected to my history of being. I amuse myself by speculating far off into they future, imagining that I have had a long and famous life and that upon my passing my possessions are being sorted by museum staff for a curated display of my life. So many of these objects I hold, rather than having a monetary value, have something much more priceless. Airline boarding passes, concert tickets, maps of places I’ve traveled. Yes, so many of these objects, rather than carrying a practical value, hold an emotional, sentimental value. They are relics of my past, reminding me of where I have been but also hinting at the trajectory I am going down.

Though mindless consumerism disheartens me, I remain quite ambivalent about the acquirement of stuff, on one hand cherishing what I own but on the other hand feeling the imperative to make do with less. Having been of modest means through most of my adult life, my metabolism for objects has been slower than most. Few objects, a minority I would conjecture, I have actually purchased for myself with money. The objects which I do own came from other means: trades and barters, unclaimed remnants of lost and found boxes, things pulled from the trash, participation prizes, gifts from friends. My boxes of things are filled with second-hand clothes, book-exchange finds, and rocks which I have collected during my travels. I am an opportunist in my acquiring of things, and usually it is not the object itself that is important, but the use it presents. So long as the object is useful to me, even if just for memories sake, then I will adopt it into my litany of things.

The fact that I can recall so much information about my history with these objects proves just how much emotional weight these things have on me. For now, I do not find it a burden; I have enough memory space available to justly devote to each object. But as I continue to acquire, and file more and more things into the repository boxes in my parent’s basement, I wonder how long this will still last. You see, whenever I make the decision to adopt an object, I gain the burden of seeing that object to the end of its natural life or re-homing it to another possessor. Once I acquire something too, it is incredibly difficult to part with it, to imagine no longer being in control of it. I am very glad to have avoided the worst of the lures of American consumerism with its throw-away mentality and the lust for more and more. But I also wonder: might I feel freer with less stuff, with more time to devote to this grand organic world which I love?

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Storage

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When I moved from one house to another

there were many things I had no room

for. What does one do? I rented a storage

space. And filled it. Years passed.

Occasionally I went there and looked in,

but nothing happened, not a single

twinge of the heart.

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As I grew older the things I cared

about grew fewer, but were more

important. So one day I undid the lock

and called the trash man. He took

everything.

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I felt like the little donkey when

his burden is finally lifted. Things!

Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful

fire! More room in your heart for love,

for the trees! For the birds who own

nothing — the reason they can fly.

—Mary Oliver

 

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