Happy Holiday Season! I remember when my kids were young and my parents would show up at our house for Christmas. My dad would still be turning off the engine and my mom would already be up on our front porch lugging several lawn-sized garbage bags filled with presents. She truly looked like Santa Claus when she arrived at our house, with full arms and a huge excited smile. I was never sure who enjoyed her arrival more, my mom or my kids!
As soon as she arrived, my mom would run out to Safeway to “get a few things,” and come back with bags and bags of groceries, many of them things that we wouldn’t normally choose, like bacon, sweet cereal, non-organic produce, and non-fat everything. I remember how I felt when she would arrive with so many things, so much stuff, and I would get irritated at her, wishing that she wouldn’t bring so much stuff into our lives. I considered my ideas about holidays, gifts, and food to be so much superior to hers. I scoffed at the diet margarine she ate (too many chemicals) as well as the plastic Barbie houses she gave my girls (not eco-friendly). I thought her purchases were too big, too gender specific, too expensive, and just too much.
On the last year that she came to visit before she passed away, my mom was filled to brim with gifts as usual. That year, my son and I were getting ready for a January trip to Viet Nam with Thich Nhat Hanh for three weeks. For my mom, it seems a trip to Buddhist temples in Viet Nam necessitated an L.L. Bean khaki fishing vest with about 45 pockets all around, because that’s what she gave me. I don’t know whether she thought I would need to catch my own seafood, or whether she believed I had been hired as the photojournalist for the trip. But needless to say, I did not appreciate the gift. What was she thinking?
Sitting here now seven years later, I definitely know what she was thinking. When she bought that fishing vest, she was thinking about how to show me her love. When she filled the refrigerator with food, she was thinking about how much she loved our family. She was always trying to give me things that I would appreciate, and I was unable or unwilling to appreciate them. She simply wanted me to know that she loved me. It’s what we all really want to tell each other all the time. At the holidays we give each other gifts to express that love. It may be cliché, but I think it’s true that it’s the “thought that counts.” The thought behind the gift is love. No matter what the gift, the act of giving is the gift. Though some of us are more skilled at choosing the “right” gift than others, the giving is all there is.
As the gift giver, our practice is to try to truly understand our loved ones. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “understanding is love.” When we are present with our loved ones, we are more able to intuit what they want and need. As the gift receiver, our practice is to look beyond bizarre gifts and see into the heart of the giver. While we may not appreciate the gift, we can appreciate the giving with a full and open heart. And when we give something that the receiver doesn’t appreciate, we can see that we just didn’t understand them enough and aspire to understand them even more.
The poet Hafiz says this in his poem, “With that Moon Language”:
Admit something: Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.” Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise someone would call the cops. Still though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect. Why not become the one who lives with a full moon in each eye that is always saying, with that sweet moon language, What every other eye in this world is dying to hear?
So all these years later, when my Mom no longer arrives at my front door, I am slowly, slowly beginning to appreciate the diet margarine, the garbage bags full of plastic toys, and even the fishing vest. There really is no gift, there is only the act of giving. In the same way, there is no life, there is only the act of living. I regret that I wasn’t able to understand this when my Mom was still alive, as I could have given her the gift of my gratitude, rather than my irritation.
This practice leads us into gratitude by allowing us the ability to settle our minds and bodies. Settling into the moment, we can start to see beyond the surface of material gifts, and notice the energy behind each act of giving. And we can celebrate the giving rather than the gift. Thich Nhat Hanh says that the miracle isn’t to walk on water, the miracle is simply to walk on the earth. In the same way, the miracle isn’t that we received the perfect present, the miracle is that someone cared enough to give us a present at all.
I wish you the happiest of holidays, and may we all give and receive with Love and Gratitude.
so much love,