The Practical Presents of Presence

by Christina Baldwin, Island Senior Resources Board member

Presence is a giftWhat year did you do it? Look in all the closets, under the beds, feel around in the bottom of the clothes hamper, looking for what was hidden there in the weeks before Christmas or the days of Hanukkah? I was eleven, oldest of four children, and my brother, two years younger, had taunted me that he’d already found the stash and wouldn’t tell me what I was getting. Not to be outdone, I waited until I was alone in the house—a rare occurrence with a homemaker mother and a bunch of younger kids—and headed into my treasure hunt. In the rafters of the garage, I found a tall shiny box—the planetarium I had begged for after a month of astronomy classes at the downtown library. A round, pin-holed ball, about the size of a basketball, promised me a black plastic universe of tiny stars on my bedroom ceiling. 

Immediately I was both thrilled and disappointed. Thrilled that my parents had taken my request seriously: disappointed to have used my curiosity to ruin my nervous excitement about what would happen on December 25.  Through that experience, I learned how much I value anticipation. Never again have I looked to spoil a surprise, or wanted to know ahead of time what might show up on my birthday or for holidays.

Only by now I have accumulated more than enough stuff over the years to hope only for gifts that can be used up and do not need shelf space anywhere except in my heart. Gifts of practicality, like soap, candles, favorite food or drink, hand lotion, tea or coffee, are my favorite items to both give and receive. Well, that and a good pair of socks: one can always use (and use up) socks.

I hated when my mother wrapped up such practical things. We didn’t have much money during my childhood years, but she liked to make a festive tree, so every pair socks, new underwear, even a can of peanuts or piece of fruit, was wrapped and ribboned. We looked like prince and princesses with all those gifts… until they all disappeared into daily use, except for one “something special.” That planetarium lasted until I left for college.

More and more I think of the holidays as a time to offer presence.

 Earlier this fall, at a particularly stressful time, a sister-in-law sent me a “meal-in-a-box,” with a card saying, “You must be exhausted. Love you.” The dinner was delicious and made me think: I could do this locally—create a dinner in a box and leave it as a surprise on the doorstep for someone else who might appreciate a little support. Or I could arrive with my apron and volunteer to cook it myself while they hand me the pots and I pour them a glass of wine or cup of tea.

Holidays, from Thanksgiving to New Years, are a busy time of year for many, and a lonely time of year for many. I want to walk the middle road between stressed with busyness and feeling left out of festivities. I want to have time to be present and to give “presence.”

What are the needs for “presence” that we could help meet in one another?

First of all, we need to notice: to engage and listen to how people are and imagine what they might need as my sister-in-law did for me.

Secondly, we need time to get creative. What would delight them? What’s the budget? How simple can we make this for all parties? What time can we commit—now and later?

Then, how can I present this offering, so it is easily received?

Here are some ideas so far:

The gift of time: a cup of Christmas tea with an older neighbor who rarely gets out anymore.

Texting with a teenage grandson: passing along interesting articles, photos, brief check-ins between his day and ours.

Helping a neighbor finish weeding the flowerbeds that face our street and listening to his stories while we work.

Making a pot of harvest soup, dividing it into quarts and depositing containers on various doorsteps with a secret admirer note.

Remembering my mother’s trick, wrapping up little practical gifts and being ready to hand them out.

Playing it forward: paying for the next driver on the ferry, paying for the next latte in the coffee stand line, or paying five dollars for the next person at the Thrift Store.

Just as once I discovered I loved the anticipation of the gift as much as receiving the gift itself, I have discovered I love the anticipation of giving, of looking around, and noticing how I might offer a gift. Presence is a present. Have fun this holiday season.