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Presents are best when they are acts of sharing

The Washington Post

I‘m sitting here in the parking lot outside my kids’ school. In a few moments my new mom friends will show up, and we’ll all pile into Zoe’s mom’s car and head to the outlet mall. This is going to be great. I’m reading my holiday shopping list, eager to cross off names. A scarf for my sister Claire – cross off her name. A book for my brother, John – cross off his name. Delete! Delete! Delete! I wonder if there’s any other time in my life when I feel happy about deleting loved ones. No, I believe this particular joy occurs only during holiday gift-giving time.

This, I think, might be messed up.

Gifting. Ever since “re-gifting” became a popular term, I’ve enjoyed using the word “gift” as a verb. As in, “Oh my God, I think she’s gonna gift me.” Gifting is different from simply giving. At least in my usage. Gifting is not an aggressive act, exactly. But gifting bestows upon the receiver a responsibility you may or may not have wanted. Because when someone gifts you, you have to gift back.

This, I think, is definitely messed up. This is not the spirit of giving. At some point along my path to joy-ing to the world and letting heaven and nature sing, I believe I may have gone astray.

When Zoe’s mom pulls up, I climb into the back seat. I tell the moms I’m wearing my special holiday-shopping coat: lots of pockets, lightweight, plenty of room to move my arms in jubilation upon discovering some particularly excellent sale. I show them my shopping list, carefully organized on a legal pad. “I’m really gonna do some damage on this baby today!” I say, gritting my teeth. I am a soldier going in for battle, a linebacker going in for the big tackle. Grrrrr. The moms are looking at me. The moms have already stopped at the drive-through, and they were kind enough to get me some gooey and glory-hallelujah concoction of coffee and peppermint and whipped cream.

“Thank you,” I say. “That was so sweet.”

But then Tritan’s mom does the unthinkable: She pulls out a gift for Kaitlin’s mom, whose birthday it happens to be. Now, I knew about the birthday. In fact, I thought part of the reason we picked this day to shop was because we were going to all take Kaitlin’s mom out to lunch for the birthday. Or some such. Mind you, Kaitlin’s mom did gift me for my birthday a few months ago, so really, I have no excuse. Zoe’s mom swoops in for the rescue. “You and I decided to go in together for her present. Remember?” she says, referring to a bracelet she had presented the day before.

“Right!”

See, this is tricky. With new friends, it’s crazy tricky. Are we friends who gift? Do the moms have my name on their holiday lists, and should I add their names to mine? I want to say, “No!” I want to say, “My list is long enough, so please let’s be friends who don’t gift!”

My oldest girlfriends and I decided to let go of this one long ago. Once upon a time, we agreed that the kindest gift we could give one another was: no pressure. Taking one another off our respective to-do lists was a seal of true friendship. Is that messed up? Did that little experiment spoil our friendship? No, I am here to say. No, it did not. And it’s not as if we’re anti-gift. It’s just that most of our presents, when you get this far along in a friendship, are all the intangibles – the big favors, the long talks over tall beers, the knowledge that you can call, no questions asked, at 3 a.m. with a crisis management need.

But that’s an evolution. That’s friendship that has had a chance to set and ferment and grow richer with age.

With new friends there is much to negotiate. You want them to know you like them. One way of showing that is with a gift. In fact, gifting may be an important part of the dance of any new friendship. “Shall we gift?” Of course we shall. If I’m feeling that we shouldn’t and the reason is simply that my list is too long, well, then I’m just an old grouch, and I need to be slapped upside the head.

That’s what I’m thinking, as I return to my legal pad and begin to add names to my horrible list.

Then Zoe’s mom does the unthinkable. She hands me a framed photo of Zoe and one of my daughters, the two of them in their cowgirl hats from last summer’s horse camp, and she’s written a sweet caption underneath. It’s precious. It’s … an early Christmas gift? A late birthday gift? “It’s just because I knew you’d like it,” she says.

Wow. So we’re up to that stage already. Giving as a plain old ordinary act of sharing. That is so not messed up.

“Thank you,” I say to her. Just, “Thank you.”

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