Love at a distance
It is quite hard to love someone who gives you practical presents. Bad presents are actually slightly easier, because it means they’ve gone and thought about you. In fact, if you love them very much – or have known them a long time, which is sort of the same thing – you can see the space between their intention and the outcome. You can love that space. That space is where the hoped-for meets the real; where you are reminded that the person looking eagerly at you while you unwrap a book about stars (because you mentioned that you like to lie under them and wonder what their names are) is a person who is real and distinct from you. Their internal world is not the same as yours, and they probably don’t intersect in the same plane.
And yet they have thought hard about you, albeit at a different angle, and from that same starting place have come to this conclusion. It’s the same reason that the door that used to only have one cat flap has had two ever since you brought home a stray, because if one cat needs one catflap then two cats is simply a case of multiplying the solution to a previously solved problem.
Even a practical present isn’t terrible, although sometimes the problem you want solving is the problem underneath the problem you’re expressing. Almost nobody wants a new iron for their birthday: almost everybody wants to not have to do ironing. But maybe they do want a fancy drinking bottle, because drinking water is fantastic and keeping tea warm is universally recognised as a Good Thing. Practical, sure. But it solves a problem they have perhaps expressed.
Perhaps the gravest error, and the sentiment I’m growing out of, is that presents are not – fundamentally – for me. You can overthink a gift and imbue it with the spirit of a relationship, turning it into a Christmas tree on which you hang every bauble of emotion you wish you’d expressed throughout the year. Such an approach is surely doomed to fail. No mere object can bear the weight of all that you’ve left unsaid.
So finding the gift becomes impossible, because it stands in for all the times you wish you’d said “I love you” and “I’m sorry” and “I am grateful for you” and “I’m proud of you” and “Sometimes when I kiss you I feel sad, and I don’t know why” and “I’m upset that you ignored me”. And I hate to bring work into this but, well, I’m a one-trick pony and this is my show so this is how it goes. In my line of work, you de-risk things by doing them more often.
You can make your gift-giving less risky, less fraught, if you do it more often.
And we know that the gift isn’t really about the material thing but the sentiment it means so start there. Deploy love to production as frequently as you can. It means you can course-correct. It means you can identify where you’re going wrong and it signals that you’re willing to fail and still try again.
And having the security of frequent communication, frequent love, means that when it comes to big set pieces you have a better sense of what this person likes and, even better, you’re not balancing your whole relationship on it. You’re not spending huge amounts of cash on something you’re not sure they’ll like, which is better for you because now you’re less anxious about dropping that much cash on a guess and advice from a couple of lads from your Wednesday 5-a-side.
And when you’re secure, you can start having fun. And realising that giving gifts can be fun changes the game, my friends, because having fun by yourself isn’t nearly as good as having fun with other people.
Inspired by a friend who throws out gorgeous prose like this without thinking about it twice:
They symbolise that he tries. And that even though he gets it wrong every year and she laughs at him every year, he’s never frustrated he just tries again. and she sees where he’s coming from, so where he falls short she feels love for the space in between because she loves how he thinks.one of my splendid friends
for my mother
“So proud of you” it reads. It’s stamped in metal and has a note that suggests I keep it in my pocket so that I’m always aware of it. I wonder over it. It’s solid and irresistible. The metal is dirty and pitted. When I put it in my pocket it jabs me and reminds me that it’s there.
At first I hate it. When I feel proud of people I tell them. It only takes a moment, a little bit of energy, to fire off a text or give someone a call and say hey, I saw this thing you did. I’m proud of you. This is just a cold piece of metal. It doesn’t notice when I do something good. It doesn’t shine more when I’m successful. I put it in a box and I put it on my desk and I went to bed.
The next morning, when I wake up, it’s still there. It’s still proud of me.
When I struggle through half an hour of exercise – more injurious to my ego than my body, thanks to the sprightly seventy year old doing multiples of whatever number of push-ups I can do – it’s still proud of me.
I wonder about this.
I think about the friend whom I rarely see because she’s working every hour possible to achieve her dream. I think about the friend who left his toxic boss and now gets to work on something he really enjoys in a healthy environment. I think about my family: difficult and frustrating and brilliant.
I know that if someone asked me if I were proud of any one of them I’d say yes in a heartbeat.
I wouldn’t know what they were doing at that moment in time, but nonetheless I’m proud of my friends and my family. So – so then maybe being proud of someone includes highs and lows, except the lows are always pretty high. Maybe the lowest level of pride is so sure, so steadfast, that the only way to express it is to do so continuously.
And perhaps, so that we don’t spend every waking minute talking to each other, a shorthand for this truth – that you are always proud of me – is to stamp it on metal with points so that I feel it whenever I move.
Love is the emotion that gets all the attention, and we’ve got gorgeous symbols for its everlasting nature. But pride is rightfully spiky; it tickles the throat and prickles the eyes and stings the feet so they dance.
And still it’s there, whenever you need it.