on gifts

Emerson wrote:

Rings and other jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts.  The only gift is a portion of thyself.  Thou must bleed for me.  Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a gem; the sailor, coral and shells; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing. This is right and pleasing, for it restores society in so far to the primary basis, when a man’s biography is conveyed in his gift, and every man’s wealth is an index of his merit.  But  it is a cold, lifeless business when you go to the shops to buy me something, which does not represent your life and talent, but a goldsmith’s.

(Emerson, Essays, XIII Gifts)

To Emerson, a gift carries symbolic meaning:  a flower reminds of the beauty nestled among nature’s shadows, a basket of fruit recalls the labor of harvest.  A gift is one’s attempt to harness an emotional debt between giver and receiver, contextualizing it in a way physically familiar to both.  A man gives his wife a pair of earrings, that in them she may see his love for her; a boy gives his best friend a pack of baseball cards wherein lie mutual memories of past summers spent by the radio, living and dying by those immortal heroes; a mother gives to her daughter a favorite book, hoping it sparks in her little girl’s heart the love of learning it once lit in her own.  Within a true gift lies deep meaning, a portion of oneself embodied in a physical token of affection.

I am fortunate in my lifetime to have received many gifts.  I do not wish to trivialize any of them; for each I am grateful to a generous giver. However, one gift in particular comes to mind.  It came at a time of personal uncertainty.

At a white-elephant Christmas party in college, my roommate received a strange-looking doll.  Made of dirty pearl-colored cloth, coarse and gritty, it was about three feet long with no clothes and few details other than two eyes, a nose, and a mouth painted delicately on its otherwise featureless face.  Thick black-yarn hair spread wide behind its head, reaching midway down its shoulders.  It was the kind of awkward doll nobody actually wants, an ideal white-elephant gift.  He kept that doll in our apartment for the rest of the year.  It took up permanent residence on the corner windowsill behind the couch, its awkwardly floppy limbs quietly gracing the living room for months.  With time it became part of the room, an unofficial apartment mascot, an extension of ourselves.

When springtime came and classes finished, he and I stood in the empty living room.  He looked at me, and I at him.  He grabbed the doll and tossed it to me, jokingly saying “It’s all yours, man, a nice reminder of this place.”  I decided to send it home to my parents’ house, and wrap it up for him as a wedding present later that summer.  I pictured it becoming a sort of back-and-forth inside joke between us over the years, exchanged every so often at weddings, holidays, birthdays, etc.

But somewhere along the way, the doll got lost in transit.  I never saw it again.  It never became the long-lasting inside joke I imagined it would.  But to me, it still represented something more than a doll – it was a metaphor for our friendship, for the meaningful bond between us.

To Emerson, a gift evokes an emotional bond between giver and receiver.  Love, friendship, happiness, empathy – the best gifts are symbols of thoughtfulness and caring.  After all, things are just material ingredients writ large: cloth rearranged into an expensive blouse, plastic and steel reshaped to make a car.  The price and the brand matter less; what matters more is what it means to giver and receiver.

This is not to say I should never buy any gift from a store – of course not!  Obviously many if not most gifts will come from a store.  But put some thought into it; make it mean something.

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