I remember the first time I got a “gift” on Facebook. It was a cyber cup of coffee, probably a Grande, maybe a Tall. I couldn’t tell, because it looked so pixilated. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, but it was an ideal gift at the moment. Nothing to throw away. No thank you card to write. Just a mild sense of satisfaction that I mattered enough to someone that they would click a button on a busy day.
In real-life, people don’t typically give presents to one another at random times. We usually wait for an accomplishment like graduations, promotions or making a baby. So, I’m a little nervous about going Facebook style and sending a few friends some random gifts.
The first one is easy. I give a few copies of my novel to co-workers and friends. Books don’t really count, especially when it’s your own book. At that point, it almost feels like I’m asking people a favor and I secretly wonder if they now feel obligated to read it.
And that’s the thing about gifts. Before I give them, it stirs up all these insecurities about the value attached to relationships. The anxiety is strongest when a gift is creative. If I pick up a can opener from Target and a friend hates it, I’m mildly embarrassed. (Perhaps the little kids in underdeveloped countries might have their feelings hurt at the rejection of their craftsmanship and maybe Michael Graves experiences a little wounded pride, but for me it’s simply a bad decision.) However, if someone rejects a creative gift, it feels deeply personal.
Maybe that’s why we let Hallmark speak for us and why the cheapskates among us don’t even bother with Hallmark, but instead let the e-card company turn out something with just enough flashing .gifs and tinny music to distract us from having to share the depths of our thoughts.
So, Quinn the Business Bohemian once told me that he wanted me to paint something for him for his birthday. I take this as an opportunity to turn a blank canvas into a record player with “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” on vinyl. It’s one part creativity and another part wink to his trendy-hipsterhood.
The insecurities subside after a few brush strokes. As I fill in the space with various textures, my mind wanders to friendship and space and the fact that I rarely tell people how much their friendship matters to me because it will feel “weird.” Which is kind-of crazy, because it’s nowhere near as strange as holding a friend at arm’s length out of a misguided cultural norm.
* * *
The gift-giving concept is easier for Christy. She’s thoughtful. She’s practical. She understands that when a friend is going through a tough divorce, it’s okay to abandon social norms and buy that person flowers for Valentine’s Day. However, she has a hard time with this challenge. After all, she already had a list of who she wanted to give flowers to before we ever started the experiment.
“I’m worried that people will think I’m just doing this for the experiment. I don’t want them to feel used. I don’t want them to think they’re some kind of a project.”
“People know you. They know that this is the type of thing you would do even if it weren’t for this experiment,” I assure her.
As we peruse the flower arrangements, I realize that her gifts are just as creative and thoughtful as mine. She’s thinking through who would like what type of flowers and then adding a thank you note to accompany it.
For years, I never understood why people gave flowers to each other. Why would someone kill something beautiful just to let it die in your kitchen three days later? Might as well filet a dolphin or slaughter a peacock. I didn’t understand how flowers worked on both a literal and figurative level.
But I get it now. We give flowers or paintings or jewelry, because we need a physical manifestation of the beauty of relationships. Perhaps in a digital age, where everything is vaporized and coded into ones and zeroes, we yearn even more for the tactile, tangible representations of the ideas we hold dear. Perhaps we’re more animistic than we’d like to admit.
And the thing is that relationships occur in the imperfect tense.
Our words and actions are often inadequate in expressing the value of friendship. So, we find totems and talismans to convey the depth our connection to one another.