The Three Gifts That One Remembers

So the other day, for Ms Amy's collection of ideas for meaningful gifts, I gave practical ideas. Today, I shlal be esoteric and useless. I wouldn't want you all getting used to that other extreme, and start expecting to get value from my suggestions - I don't know that I could live up to that.

I have been thinking about gifts for the last little while a great deal (it is that time of year, after all), and about what makes a memorable gift. I've gotten many over the years, from many people, of many sorts, and so I've been picking them apart in my mind to see why I remember them. In the grand tradition of classical rhetoric, I seem to think in the Rule of Three when I categorize, and so I believe I can seperate them into three basic categories.

Now, let it be said that I am leaving a few simple categories of memorable gift out, simply because of the constraints of Ms Amy's original prompt. The gift one truly needs, for example - say, an anonymous box of food when one is in a period of hard times. Or, the gift one couldn't afford on one's own. Both of these are wonderful gifts, but the first is very specialized, and the second the terrain of those with greater resources than me, in general. So, these I will not spend much time on. But, if you're rich, and want to pay off my mortgage for a Christmas gift, believe me, my friend, when I say that it will without doubt be a highly memorable gift...

In addition to this, I think its important to approach a category that I have skipped on purpose, perhaps with some debate to be made: the gift one wants. This may sound a bit stupid when I say it, but the gifts one asks for, I think, are the ones one remembers most seldom. This is particularly true when the giver is on a limited budget. If you have 5 or 10 dollars to spend, then its simply a fact of life that the gift ITSELF is going to be small and incidental. I'm not deriding the listed gift. I think that the gift one wants is a wonderful thing - but it is not filled with meaning. The act of GIVING the gift might be filled with meaning, as giving almost always is, and so I do not mean to say that giving a requested gift is meaningless. Just, the gift ITSELF is seldom memorable or meaningful, if that makes sense. It says 'I listen to you', and that's good. But, the gifts I have gotten for people that they explicitly requested have been used and useful sometimes, but I do not connect them with myself.

Which brings up another point that might engender disagreement: when I talk about a gift being meaningful, I believe there are two sides to this: the meaningful gift must mean something to the recipient, but it must also mean something to the giver. I don't mea that gift giving is a selfish act, that one must give simply in order to puff one's self up, not by any means. But in my mind, the best gifts I've received have been conversational transactions rather than declaratory. A rule of thumb - a meaningful gift, in retrospect, should be associated with a memory, instead of a fact. It should be more than simply 'In 1994, I got my mom a bowl." That's a declaration, not a conversation. Hopefully that becomes clearer as I go through the examples of types.

So, then, something tangible - or less intangible, anyway. The first type of gift, and I think the simplest to attempt when one is trying to give something meaningful - the gift one did not know existed. The unique gift, is how this is often advertised. Art is a prime example. A friend of mine who knows I love fairy tales, for example, once got me a beautiful postcard of Little Red Riding Hood that I still have hung above my desk. It does not HAVE to be art, per se, however. In fact, one of the wonderful things about this category is that it shows not only that one listens, but that one understands - just as the first friend understood my love of fairy tales, and given the artwork, clearly my aesthetic sensibilities as well.

Here's the trick with the unique gift - you have to have taste. ITs horrible, that. But in getting someone something they did not know existed, one is, presumably getting something that one knows that the other will ebt hrilled to LEARN that it exists. And that's tricky. I've mucked this one up MORE than once with Amanda, and one always knows, EVEN if the recipient is ever so polite. There is a particular energy in opening a gift one is delighted with that one can see when it is lacking. Taste is a very, very tricky thing. Some people are very good at it. I applaud and wonder at these people.

The second type of gift is subtler, and requires a different skill-set: the gift one would not buy for one's self. I will warn you ahead of time, I have NEVER mastered this one. But the basic idea of it is simple - there are some desires we each have that we feel we cannot fulfill for ourselves. There are many reasons for this - the gift that is too expensive to buy for one's self is a simple example, after all. But it can be different. Sometimes it is a logistical difference. For example, I cannot buy Shreddies or Mackintosh Toffee even though they they are both delicious, memorable parts of my childhood, because I live in the United STates (And Old Dutch Ketchup or Dill Pickle Chips... Mmm....). Other times, we each have out own reasons. Sometimes one cannot accept something because it seems so frivolous - real silk stockings, when one really ought to buy regular hose, perhaps. Or it is something one is  too old for - Adults are horrible about this one, many of us refusing to buy toys for ourselves. Particularly, this is wonderful if one can understand the nostalgia of a desired recipient. There is a power in that, because it connects you with your friends, not only in their present, but in their past. IT is a way of saying that you are friends with their whole life, not just with the moment you are exposed to. Then, there are gifts one simply feels one cannot buy, for personal or social reasons, things which are forbidden to one, but which, if they're a GIFT after all, one can accept.

Of course, wrapped up in all this is two difficulties - one is to know what one's friends yearn for but cannot ask for. This is tricky business, and requires a cautious ear, and a close relationship. And then, there is the fact that just because one wants somethign doesn't mean one woudl be glad to receive it. OFten, the things we forbid ourselves, we forbid on a very complex and deep level, and receiving them can cause complex reactions inside our minds. What this requires, tehn, is a very deep and powerful sense of empathy and emotional closeness. You have to understand, basically, what it is tat you're doing by giving a given gift, not simply discover what the gift is. And, perhaps, to understand how and when a gift should be given.

The final type of gift, and one that I think has been lost to an extent in our day, is the gift that is about the giver. Again, as when I talked about who gifts shoudl be meaningful to, this sounds perhaps odd, but if you look into the past, you see many examples of this. The medieval lady who woudl give a ribbon or garter to a knight is a good example - the knight wants, as a gift, a piece of the one he loves. Another example, one I came across entirely by accident long ago is from the Victorian period, when women would sometimes cut off long locks of their hair and braid them into watch-chains for people they loved. Handmade gifts often fit into this category - whether one has NEED of the things one's children bring home from school, whether one even LIKES them really, one is always happy to get them - and those after all usually are barely personal, being a template a teacher had each student follow. At this very moment I'm wearing one of my favorite gifts, a scarf that a friend of mine wove by hand, and its dearness, in part, is that it bears the imprint in it of the hands that made it, that I was given, as much as a piece of fabric, a story to have.

The great impediment here is that one must be confident that the other person wants a piece of you. This sounds petty, but in practice, its very difficult (at least for me) to imagine someone receiving something the message of which is basically, "I know you love me, so I wanted you to have something to remember me." There is almost an arrogance in that thought that its very frightening to face up to (hence my handmade gifts usually being a combination of this and, for example, the first type of gift). And there is the very real risk that a gift given in this way WILL come across as a bit self-indulgent, like receiving a signed copy of Gadding With Ghouls from Gilderoy Lockhart (Harry Potter reference, ftw!).  I don't know the solution for this.

Which is really, in some sense, the trick with any meaningful gift - they are fraught with risk. The commonality with any of these gifts is that one is invested, personally, in them - that, to put it crudely, the success of the gift is a reflection of one's personal character, at some level, of one's empathy, perception, skill, or wisdom. This makes meaningful gift-giving a terrifying concept. I won't deny this. I spend about a month and half after finishing Christmas gifts cowering under the weight of my own expectations. In a sense, though, I think that subconsciously, this is why we value these gifts so much, because aside from anything else they say, I love you enough to want to do something difficult for you, and I trust you enough to do something dangerous with you. There is an intimacy to this that is some ways much closer than holding hands or a kiss on the cheek - there are people I would hug that I would never make a doll for, because I do not know them well enough. So that's really the LAST warning I'd give - meaningful gift giving is a selective activity. IT is something that one must do only with those one feels one can do it with - if you try to do it with your whole Christmas list, then you'll hurt yourself.

Anyway, I sound very authoritative about all this but I'm not - really (and my gift giving history reflect this) I've no idea what I'm doing when it comes to gift giving. Its a clumsy, difficult practice. I'd love to hear remarks, rebuttals, contradictions in the comments.


Amy said...

This is the single greatest post on gift giving everrrrrrrrrrr. Thank you so much for writing this for my little meme, I'm honored!

Jason Gignac said...

Thank you, Ms Amy, I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Word Lily said...

What a great post! It verbalizes at lot of my thoughts on gift-giving (as one who makes things, and values handmade, and has pondered how boring (but easy) it is to give a gift from the list vs. how hard it is to give a really meaningful gift, especially when there's a budget involved.

Laurie C said...

For the last few years, I have been trying to give and accept Christmas gifts in a spirit of believing that we are all doing the best we can at the moment and that we all know that giving or receiving the absolutely perfect gift isn't going to happen every time. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Jason Gignac said...

Ms WordLily - Why thank you - budgets are a harsh but effective tashmistress, they teach youto be creative :)

Ms Laurie C - Exactly :) - this is definitely, for example, NOT an essay on RECEIVING gifts - we should all learn, also to accept things graciously and kindly, an entirely different skill :).