The Christmas holiday has passed, but it has left me in a contemplative mood.
I was fortunate this year to have several invitations. Since I live so far from my immediate family, I often spend the holidays with close friends in the area. These are always enjoyable affairs, and I don’t think I am alone in saying a Christmas spent with friends (rather than family) can often involve less emotional baggage and mental scarring. I do, however, recognize that there is an ancient power inherent in family bonds that cannot be replicated anywhere else.
“Pie Fight” by Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie, 2011.
This year, I spent Christmas Eve with a couple who are very dear friends of mine, and Christmas afternoon with a co-worker with whom I share a love for poetry, history, and off-beat relationship wisdom. Both events were wonderful and my hosts provided me with a delightful combination of sustenance and memories. However, I left both feeling somewhat sad and disappointed in myself. Although it may have been but a footnote in the program, I completely failed to bring a gift to any of my entertainers. They all opened their beautiful homes to me. They fed me and filled my brain with enlightening conversation, and all of them had set a side a present for me. The thought did cross my mind earlier in the week that these generous folk might get me something to open – being it’s Christmas and all – so perhaps I should be prepared with something to give them? Well, apparently in my old age, I discarded that thoughtful notion and when the moment came, I was receiving objects of their kindness – but had nothing to give in return.
None of my hosts seemed bothered by it, but I was bothered.
I was bothered very much.
“I didn’t use to be this way,” I said to myself on the drive home. I used to be that very intuitive person who could go out and find a gift that was perfectly reflective of its recipient. I used to have an excellent memory for details about my friends. I would inventory comments they made about music or fashion all year long and when the time came for a birthday or wedding, I would unleash the fruits of my intuition to an amazed friend. And more importantly, I felt great joy in those moments. What happened to that guy? I actually did a full-on dissection of my decision-making process. It was like a mechanic pulling apart an engine to find out why all the pistons aren’t working. Although it is no excuse, I think I found the explanation: More and more, I am becoming a selfish-thinker.
There is a certain side effect to being single for a very long time, at least in my case. I am used to only caring for myself. Getting groceries for myself. Doing everything in my life with me as the primary focus. I am sure there are lots of people who live alone who are still thoughtful people who think of others first, but apparently I am not one of them. The co-worker who hosted me lives alone and is in my same predicament as myself, but he had the fore-thought to make me a beautiful CD of Christmas music and put my picture on the cover. A gesture of kindness that crushed me when I had nothing to offer in return. Certainly many people expect nothing for their good deeds, but I am not always someone who (when conscious of it) accepts things greedily and does not reciprocate. Had my long spells of loneliness baked me into a crust? Have the scabs of my life-hardening experiences grown like a second skin over my intuition? Good lord, I hope not.
I once read in the Talmud of the concept called “bread of shame”. Mind you, I am not Jewish or a religious person by any stretch, but the text was quite profound to me. The “bread of shame” is basically accepting gratuity when you have not earned it. These friends of mine could very well say, “These are gifts. This is our generosity to you, and you do not owe us anything.” But I would still feel as though I did not earn any special gifts. Maybe I was Jewish in a former life? Who knows.
It’s possible I made this more of a deal than I should have. However, I fear growing such a selfish skin; a thick alligator hide that will eventually relegate me to the swamps of humanity.