July happens to be my birth month, meaning I’ve been fortunate enough to spend most of my birthdays outside, and also that I share a birthday with my idol, Frida Kahlo. It also means that sometime mid-June, my mother will start calling/texting/emailing me, demanding to know what I want for my birthday. Every year I say, “nothing.” It’s a fun little game.
I love giving gifts more than receiving. Finding the perfect item or experience for someone else brings me true joy. But it’s not always easy. When stuck, I try to channel some of the best gifts I’ve received:
■ I once worked in a Chicago restaurant as a server. I’d only been there a few months, when one day I complimented my coworker, Peter, on his T-shirt. Two days later, he came in and handed me the T-shirt, washed and folded up. He said he could see how much I loved it and he wanted me to have it. I barely knew him.
■ When my dog Autumn died in January, my husband and I were devastated. Not only was she our best friend, but she wouldn’t get to meet our baby boy in February. One day after her passing, I got a package in the mail from my dear friend, who had unknowingly made us a children’s book for the baby called “This, My Dear, is Autumn.” It was illustrated with photos and written as a nursery rhyme. It became the first book I ever read to my son.
■ My friend Sheryl lost her only son a few years ago. So I was taken by surprise at my baby shower when she gave me a gorgeous hand crocheted baby blanket, along with the first book of poetry she’d ever been given by her Mom. It had been in her family since the 50s. “I was saving it for my grandchild,” she told me, “but now I think your son should have it.” Needless to say, I was overwhelmed and touched.
I try to capture the spirit of gifts like these when giving — tapping into some intangible quality at the junction of unexpected generosity, thoughtfulness, and individuality. Often, a gift reflects the person giving it as much as it does the recipient. It’s a great practice to start honing your gift style, refining it to fit your values, personality, and pocketbook. I don’t want to give on command, and I don’t think others wish to receive that way.
If you want to shift your gift game, think about the recipient, not yourself. Gift giving should be thoughtful because a careless gift ultimately becomes a burden on the recipient. We’ve all been there: what do I do with this watch/tie/robe/knickknack that I don’t want or need? A gift given willy-nilly is often re-gifted or, worse, wasted, thrown away, or dropped directly to Goodwill, another item on someone’s to-do list. When possible, include gift receipts. But perhaps the best option is to approach gift giving the way I’ve begun contemplating all of my purchases in life, which is to say I think about the entire life cycle of the gift. What’s the end result? What will happen when the battery stops working, or the person grows out of it, or they relocate? Will that gift simply become trash? Or can it be enjoyed for a long time? For this reason, I love to give plants, because they keep growing, don’t need to be thrown out, and bring color and life to any backyard or windowsill.
Some tips for thoughtful gifting: Give an experience, rather than an item; make things rather than buy them; give subscriptions to apps, magazines, or programs; make donations to worthy causes in the recipient’s name; and ensure a successful gift by writing down ideas for people in your life throughout the year. For instance, my mother-in-law once mentioned her favorite bottle of wine, and I secretly wrote it on a note in my phone. When I need the perfect anniversary gift next year, not only will the wine itself make her happy, but the fact that I remembered the conversation will add extra surprise and special value to the gift.
Most people want to feel loved and listened to, not bought. A gift does not have to cost anything to withstand the test of time. I still have Peter’s shirt in my dresser. I wear it often, partially because I still love it (it’s only gotten softer over the past 10 years) but also because the sentiment — giving freely what you have without the need for reciprocity — still brings me joy and reminds me to be generous whenever and wherever possible.