I’m throwing myself a party this weekend, complete with birthday cake, party hats, balloons and presents! I love presents. I love to get them, and I love to give them. I’m really good at both.
But there’s a rule for this birthday party—in bold print right there on the invitation—No gifts please, unless you made it yourself, grew it yourself, wrote it yourself, or will sing, recite or play it yourself. Draw me a picture or sing me a song. Write me a limerick or grow me a flower. Make me a macaroni necklace or a popsicle stick picture frame…
I’ve never been more excited to “open” presents. Even folks who claim not to have “a creative bone in their body” are digging deep (perhaps in their garden), having some fun (like a kindergartner), and thinking outside the box (or gift bag). Picasso wrote, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
And an artist, according to Webster, is anyone who “professes and practices an imaginative art,” and gift-giving, in my opinion can be among the most imaginative of arts.
In preparation for this little story, I “polled the audience,” on social media asking this question: What is the best present you’ve ever received, and what is the worst (or weirdest)?
Of course, part B of this question was the most heartily answered. We tend to remember the ridiculous much better than the sensible. But a common denominator among many of the “worst” gifts, seemed to be an often ludicrous lack of creative thought.
The aunt who, year after year, stuffed an orange in an old sock to give to her each of her nieces and nephews. Or maybe the grandma who boxed up obsolete household items—an old tv remote, a salt or pepper shaker, food that needed to be eaten—and put them under the tree.
Or what about the plastic bidet that my friend (as a teenager) got from her mom’s boyfriend? Or another great present for a 16-year-old girl: a gift bag brimming with three pairs of enormous boxer shorts, Care Bear slippers, and a wedding planner. Ha!
My personal weirdest was a birthday gift, beautifully presented in a gift bag fluffy with coordinating tissue paper: bathroom spray. Granted it was in an elegant frosted glass bottle—it wasn’t an aerosol can of Glade Evergreen—but still. (Truthfully, I ended up really liking it; it smelled great and lasted about three years!)
Gifts that seem to have come from the Sterilite bin under the bed—that odd stockpile of generic “just in case” gifts (and I have two such boxes myself)—rarely hit the mark. And “regifts”—those “treasures” you’ve received and loathed—are way risky unless you’ve got a really great memory and your friends have awful taste.
It seems, from my “research,” that what all the worst/weirdest gifts lack is a personal touch. The giver isn’t really thinking about the give-ee—who the recipient really is. They are fulfilling an obligation. (Or worse, a vendetta, but the less said about that, the better. Ha!)
Even home-made gifts, the ones I usually tend to enjoy the most (hence my birthday party theme) can bomb big time: the candle holder made from a cardboard Pringles can; the letter from “Santa,” in Dad’s handwriting that would’ve caused even Virginia to stop believing (for good this time); the home-canned rutabagas that smelled even worse than rutabagas normally smell.
So what makes for a really good gift—whether it’s home-made or store bought? What will keep the gifts you give to others out of the Sterilite box?
I’ve got some great ideas about that.
When I polled my friends on social media about the best and worst gifts, I specified that I was curious about tangible gifts. And while I got many responses in the “worst/weirdest” category that were indeed material items (like appliances, démodé clothing and regifts), a majority of “best” gift responses, were, despite my instructions, gifts that were not nouns at all—but verbs. The most memorable “good” gifts were activities, experiences, things to do.
Not surprisingly, travel topped many lists of best gifts—to Napa Valley, Egypt, New Zealand, Scandinavia, and Belize. But if it’s not in your budget to take your bestie on an all-expense paid trip to Bali, don’t dismiss the travel idea altogether.
A “trip” a few miles down Highway 98 to Fairhope, is among my favorite all-time gifts. And it’s not because travel to Alabama is burning a hole in my bucket (list). No, it’s because my girlfriends kinda kidnapped me a month-and-a-half before my actual birthday (since it’s so close to Christmas and rarely celebrated) to take me to “lunch.” A very long lunch, it turned out to be. They had booked the Carriage House at the Fairhope Inn for the weekend and solicited Ted’s help in packing some clothes for me—which was actually unnecessary because, before we left the house, the girls did a complete “makeover” on me; hair, makeup, nails, and even a new outfit, which I wore for two days straight.
Whod’ve thunk that with my background, as an International Pan Am flight attendant, an all-expense paid trip to western Alabama, would stand out in my memory as one of the best gifts I’ve ever received? But it does—and it’s because of all the creativity, personal affection and whimsy that went into the planning of this little adventure. I felt utterly cherished—and that feeling endures every time I think about “babyhead,” “deadly nasalomas,” and “fine-five-ninety-nine-wine,” all inside jokes that still crack us all up some fifteen years later.
Maya Angelou is quoted as saying, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” The giving of gifts is such an opportunity to make loved ones feel treasured.
Even material gifts, creatively presented, can have that effect. A while back, I found myself troubled that a good friend and I had grown apart during the last couple of years. There were no hard feelings between us—just life and careers and kids and a few extra miles since her move. But I missed her and found myself thinking about her all the time. I’d be out shopping and think, oh, she would love this. Or I’d be reading a book and want to discuss it with her. I’d hear a song that reminded me of her.
So, I started collecting those things—a small bottle of Argan oil, a novel I couldn’t put down, a Jack Johnson CD. And even really little things: a chapstick flavor that I loved, a three-dollar pair of ear-rings, a seashell I found while thinking of her.
And I wrapped each little gift, no matter how small in “brown paper packages tied up with strings.” For these little items, that year, were “a few of my favorite things.” For one of my favorite friends.
And the point is this—these gifts were inexpensive and easily attainable; she could have gone out and bought almost every one of them at Target. But the message, “I have thought about you all year, and collected these things just for you,” makes even a pair of toenail clippers (really sharp), a gift that conjures lovely memories.
And the conjuring of memories, or of positive vibes, may be what it’s all about anyway. I would have to say one of my all-time favorite gifts is still giving on a daily basis.
A couple of years ago, on my birthday, I came home from Christmas shopping to find the kids busy in the family room with scissors, construction paper and markers—which was notable because they weren’t preschoolers, but 20-somethings. Just the sight of them happily snipping bright shards of colored paper, laughing, writing (what looked like) notes—was gift enough.
(It took me back to their childhood playroom—that room, my favorite room in every house we’ve lived in—cluttered with shelves and bins and boxes of beads and baubles, and paints and playdough, and shrinky dinks and pipe cleaners, and colored papers and pencils and pens, and everything my little “Picassos” and their friends might need to create and conjure.)
They were back at it, it seemed—creating and conjuring—and that, in itself, made me smile. I went upstairs to shower and when I came back down, the makeshift playroom had been tidied up, and there in the middle of the table was a fish.
No, not a real fish, but a clear glass vase, shaped like a fat guppy, loaded to the gills (literally) with hundreds of strips of folded colored paper. I reached in and picked one out, a fuschia one, and carefully printed in black sharpie were these words: “Love will find its way through all languages on its own.” Rumi
On a dark purple slip I read: “You and I are all as much continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean.” Alan Watts
On a lemon yellow one: “There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.” Bernard William
And on and on and on—there were 362 more, one for every day of the year. I cried—and laughed at the same time; some of the quotes were really funny: “If you’re gonna be crazy, you have to get paid for it or else you’re going to be locked up.” Hunter S. Thompson
And my personal favorite; I keep it taped to the wall in my office where I write: “I want to create something I can look back on in five years and say ‘f*!@yeah! I did that!’” Sean Platt
This little fish face filled with wise words, though compiled for me years ago, still gives and gives. Just this morning, I drew this song lyric from the fish’s face, “…gather and create, be of service, be a sensible person, use your words and don’t be nervous. You can do this—you’ve got purpose.” Nahko
Oh, my—I just taped it to my monitor—the perfect encouragement for my current project, the writing of my next book—I can do this; I’ve got purpose. Wow. Talk about the perfect gift. On so many levels: I love words. I love color. I love home-made things. I love my kids.
But the deepest level might be easy to overlook. To me, this gift was irrefutable evidence that not only do my kids love me—as children do their parents—but they KNOW me. Theologian, Timothy Keller, writes: To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”
And I think that is the secret ingredient in the special sauce when it comes to choosing a gift for someone you care about—this implied message: I know you, and I love you (anyway?) and that is why I chose this gift for you.
This gift of five twenty-dollar bills—with strings attached. Yes, I once gave my best friend a box o’ bucks. Ha! And when I say it was a gift with strings attached, I mean that literally. I taped kitchen twine to every bill with a little tag giving explicit instructions as to how the money was to be spent.
Now, if you, like me, think that money is among the least personal gifts imaginable, you haven’t read the instructions. You see, I know my friend, and she knows me. For the past 20 years or so Anna and I have gone away together for a night or two in December or January to celebrate our birthdays.
She, like me, is at a stage in life where she can pretty much buy—or perhaps save up to buy—whatever she needs or wants. But knowing Anna—one of the funniest and most fun-loving friends I’ve ever had—I was sure she’d get a kick out of this box o’ bucks. She loves to shop, to laugh, and to give to others. The “strings attached” incorporated all of that into one hilarious, fun-filled day of Christmas shopping—and again, in Alabama at the Eastern Shore Centre near Mobile. (I played along with my own fistful of twenties.)
Each of the five bills had to be spent according to these specifications: We had to spend twenty on each other, twenty on our spouses (for holding down the fort for us every year when we went away) and twenty on ourselves. The fourth bill, I think, had to be spent on something that started with an “A” for Anna and an “S” for me. And the fifth bill had to be given, without preamble or explanation, to a total stranger. Santa Claus, on a break from taking gift demands from little ones, was in the right place at the right time. I think he smiled from behind that fluffy beard. And pocketed the twenty in his bright red suit.
Fun. And while this may be considered an “expensive” gift, the truth is, we were gonna spend a bunch of money anyway; we were Christmas shopping. (Besides, you could play the game with five-dollar bills, or any denomination, really.) And it took me no more than 15 minutes to put it all together.
And, guess what, dear friends—the holiday season is already sneaking up on us. Bed Bath and Beyond, last week, had Christmas door mats out on display, front and center. Never mind that it’s 97 degrees out and we haven’t even trick or treated yet. It’s coming. And whether you consider yourself a “good” gift giver, or are clueless, chances are, your naughty or nice list will need to be tended to in the next couple of months.
For me, October is the best month to start thinking about it—especially if I intend to craft any personalized gifts. I’ve got to have a plan early on so that I can actually relax and enjoy the Holidays when they are (seemingly suddenly) upon us. And I also spend way less money, not more, when I start early.
I consider at least three things when deciding what to put under the tree for loved ones.
- The “stage in life” of the recipient. Sentimental gifts, no matter how meaningful, will probably not be appreciated by a six-year-old, who like my brother at that age wanted one thing and one thing only—Horrible Hamilton (that ghastly green beetle/crustacean/monster that scuttled across the linoleum with the pull of a string). Likewise, my son, when he was away from home for the first time at college and “hungry”, might have enjoyed nothing more creative than that box o’ bucks—sans strings.
- The actual needs/wants of the recipient. This one is trickier than it may seem. So, especially when it comes to my grown kids, I ask what they want, and they send me a list—usually complete with links to where I can buy the items. Easy enough. Kinda boring, and usually expensive, but easy. It’s when I try to intuit what someone “needs,” (a gym membership, a “how-to” book of any kind, a bottle of bathroom spray…Ha!) that my gift runs the risk of coming across as some kind of judgment or mandate—and ends up in the Sterilite box under their bed.
- The personality of the recipient. Of course, this one is the most fun. I can’t hit the mark every time, but it is so much fun to try. My goal here is for my gift to say: I know you—and I cherish you. Now, every time you use this/wear this/read this/listen to this/look at this—you can think of me and our relationship, fondly.
Interestingly, a favorite gift that I have received repeatedly over the years, is the gift of ear-rings. It’s an odd preference for me—because I’m not particularly interested in jewelry (I still haven’t even replaced the wedding ring I lost 15 years ago)—but I often choose which ear-rings to wear based on whom I’d like to think about that day.
Lately I’ve been wearing the pretty silver and pearl ear-rings my friend Melendy gave me about 30 years ago for my birthday. But there are dozens of pairs in my rotation: the bright beaded chandeliers that Myles and Janna brought back from Guatemala for me, the slender silver mermaids “The Gang” gave me for my fortieth birthday, the delicate cobalt blue ones that Kelly gave me for my fiftieth, the glittery gold “leaves” that Taylor and Chau gave me for Christmas last year, the tiny flip-flops that Räna gave me when I first moved back to Florida. I just love these remembrances, and unlike clothing and books and chatchkes, ear-rings—by virtue of their small size—don’t get weeded out when I declutter.
I’m so excited to “open presents” this weekend. So many friends have volunteered to sing or play a song for me, or read a letter or poem, or tell a joke or story. Others have been busy in the “playroom” with scissors and string and construction paper and Elmer’s.
I wonder how many macaroni necklaces I can wear at once—or how many crayon drawings I can fit on my refrigerator. But most of all, I wonder if anyone has figured out how to compose a limerick using my name—there’s not a lot that rhymes with it. Still, a girl can dream.
There once was a girl named Sharla…
The first “home-made” birthday present—a little early, from my good friend Todd and his clever little girl, Ruby! A dozen customized eggs from their chickens! Too cute to eat! Ha!
Follow me on Instagram or Facebook (@sharladawnstoryteller) for images and musings from the beach at dawn. Also, pick up a copy of Island Times from any of a dozen or more Pensacola Beach shops and restaurants—enjoy my column—Sharla Dawn at Dawn.
“Vices” is now available on Kindle and other eReaders for just 5.99. You even have the option of “gifting” the digital version by clicking the “Give as a Gift” on Amazon.com and entering the email address of the recipient. Of course, the paper version (still my preference) is available at the buy-three-get-one-free rate from this website (Shop).
Books are also available from all these gracious local retailers:
At the beach:
69 Via DeLuna Dr.
Pensacola Beach, FL 32561
In Gulf Breeze:
832 Gulf Breeze Parkway
(Publix shopping center)
Gulf Breeze, FL 32561
In East Hill:
1208 N. 12th Ave.
Pensacola, FL 32503
(at the front register)
5109 Bayou Blvd.
Pensacola, FL 32503
89 Central Square
Santa Rosa Beach, FL 32549
Page and Palette
32 S. Secton Street
Fairhope, AL 36532