Generally speaking, I find gifts (giving and receiving) a pain in the butt. On scheduled, prescribed, mandatory occasions your family and/or friends desperately try to think of something they can buy at the mall that you will really like. On the appointed day they bring you a Chia pet or the moral equivalent thereof, grinning while you rip the paper off and try to look pleased. You give your new green-haired sheep a place of honor in the back of the closet. On the top shelf you have to stand on a step-stool to reach. When it is your turn to do the gifting, you wander disconsolately from one store to the next, knowing full well that if your loved one wanted any of that stuff, he or she surely would already have it.
Years ago my husband and I decided to buy a new teapot together for every anniversary. We did so not because we are so very fond of tea (though we are) but because it eliminated one of the most fraught of the mandatory gift days. I highly recommend the teapot dodge.
An unexpected gift, now, that’s a different thing altogether. A spontaneous present, however small, apropos of nothing, carries a little piece of the gift-giver’s soul and places it in the recipient’s hands—an act of trust as well as generosity.
On July 4 we spent the evening on a friend’s boat, perfectly situated to watch the fireworks display on Lake Union. I climbed aboard and immediately became the audience for a discourse on turquoise and other minerals obtained on trips to the southwest, delivered by the guy who lives on the boat in the next slip. I’ll call him Captain Stoner.
I’d met Captain Stoner once before. We’d been out on the boat in choppy water, and I’d been horribly seasick. When we returned to the marina, I sat on the dock and tried to put my inner ear back together. The captain kindly brought me a dish of yogurt to settle my stomach. So he already had a good guy badge, as far as I was concerned.
He showed me a bag full of pieces he’d picked up on his last trip—mostly in raw form. He explained, in a rambling monologue, his philosophy of collecting, his follow-your-bliss lifestyle, his art, his music, his probably illegal studio in the marina storage locker, art, stones, jewelry, art, and…
I found him charming in his garrulous way. I admired the contents of the bag and the slides he showed me of his sculptures. I sipped my drink and let it sink in while he regaled me with his tales. And then he gave me an unexpected gift.
Amber, a small, polished triangle, with some kind of white stone on the other side. I should wire-wrap it, he told me, and make a necklace. I like the way it feels, smooth on one side, textured on the other. I like to rub it between my fingers.
Spontaneous, small, apropos of nothing. He gave similar stones to other people on the boat that day. Still. I was truly pleased. It’s not going in the closet.
After the fireworks, before we left, Captain Stoner grabbed my arm. He leaned close and held my gaze, as if he had something important to say. “Next time you write,” he said, “pretend you are writing to yourself. Write to yourself, or to your best friend. You have to write to somebody.”
“I’ll write to you,” I told him. And I walked away with his soul in my pocket.