Do Gifts Own Us? Possessiveness, Generosity and Other Considerations On Gifts and Giving


“Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know.” John Keats

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There is a gift fairy in my London neighborhood. Of this I am certain.

She’s cheerfully engineered a few birdhouses, colored scrap-paper snowflakes, and recently wind chimes. It reminds me of the “art fairy,” Jenny Sanderson a Bristol artist who delights in small, whimsical urban interventions: doors in trees, knitted cobwebs—the kind of visual surprises that echo the magic of Boo Radley’s secret gifts to Scout and Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird. Gifts Scout finally comes to appreciate for the intimate community they nurture:

“Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives.”

Gifts are to be enjoyed, they are to enlighten moods and elevate souls. And in the case of this gift fairy, to extend a brightness, a mystery, and a care in an otherwise overcast and sullen London solstice.

Penelope Lively, an author whose inviting, and thoughtful books I often gift, also believes gifts can possess. In Moon Tiger, a fiction story about giving and receiving, she writes:

“Giving presents is one of the most possessive things we do, did you realize that? It’s the way we keep a hold on other people. Plant ourselves in their lives.”

I was curious about this notion, so I set out to explore the concept in my own fiction, creating a situation where the gift was not only possessive but also mortally binding and thus destructive, entitled “The Gift.” The fiction worked conceptually, though it made me question whether it was the gift itself that possesses, or rather the memories and thoughts it releases in us. Either way, it seemed obvious that gifts can, in their way, carry an aspect of possessiveness.

The pressure to bring gifts, send gifts, provide gifts for every conceivable interaction or even with the absence of one. The act of giving assumes a mandatory, impersonal tone. No wonder givers resort to giving things they’d want, items that are more emotionally and mentally accessible. Which results in some awful domestic gift so saturated by the essence and preferences of the giver it invades the space of the recipient.

Gifts can be like a poltergeist: something paradoxically there, not there, and all together overpowering.

It’s the kind of alienating presence that saturates the tone of American writer and Pulitzer-Prize winner Alison Lurie’s gripping short story “Ilse’s House” where a homeowner is haunted by a force that alienates the beleaguered woman from all concept of home and comfort. Have you ever received a gift that made you feel alienated in your own home? I find that disposable gifts reduce the poltergeist effect—namely, things liquid: hand soap, local honey, good olive oil, candles, and, of course, the recipient’s preferred beverage. All enjoyable, appreciative, and ephemeral.

Although, now that I consider, in a way, perhaps giving should be possessive. It’s needed as a core part of kinship: an extension of ourselves to one another. I hold this out to you in hopes that you will hold it—part of me—around you, near you. The nature of that giving is self-centered, yes, but mostly harmless. And when done reciprocally, as Scout found, it reinforces community.

I love to send people things from my vast collections of naturalia, each holding a journey and memory, a part of me. Things like small pebbles and rocks, and lately, owing to a plentiful harvest, chestnuts. Chestnuts are so utterly beautiful when they emerge from their pith, and even more so when you rub them with the genetic code in hand oil. An extension of myself through a diminutive object.

A fine horse chestnut.

Gifts can be lonely, too, in their absence. They carve out a space between us and then leave it empty, unfilled.

A friend recently confessed to me that he hated his birthday. Upon discussion, it became clear what he hated was the expectation of gifts that didn’t come. He felt guilty about materialism, but I suggested it was more; a relationship that had been built through action and needed to be renewed through action. I suggested he be the bearer instead, to extend his love into that empty space into which he expected others to step. That is what gifts are about, right? Filling that space between us? Holding us together?

Gifts also hold memories—and more than hold them, they resuscitate them to a living, breathing present.

This year, my mother brought me a reading primer from the late 1920s, my grandmother’s. The most prepossessing aspect is Grandma’s name written at the front. It’s her exact hand, the hand that signed our birthday cards year after year. The hand that wrote a note to me, dictated by my favorite bear, whom I had inadvertently left behind during a visit, promising me she was being helpful and obedient in my absence. A hand I haven’t seen since Grandma lost her sight more than a decade ago and Grandpa began signing her name to things. The binder of the reader is broken and taped, the pages worn and aged, and Grandma’s name legible as it always was.

In our house, we rarely give gifts, unless the gifts present themselves. This year, my husband found such a wonderful Christmas gift for me I received it in October. He couldn’t wait.

The gift is a book, a copy of William Robinson’s The Wild Garden, one of the seminal books that refined and popularized what we today consider the English Garden. It was written by Robinson at his beloved estate, Gravetye, a site to which I’ve retreated, and in the gardens of which I’ve found my creative fortune many times. Most special, however, is the inscription. It is the very copy that Robinson gave to his good friend and fellow author/gardener Gertrude Jekyll whose own writings on colour and gardening as art elevated Robinson’s even further. To his dear friend, his deliberate pen wrote:

“Gertrude Jekyll, From the Author, Gravetye, New Year 1931.”

Robinson died the following year. The gift parcels together so many aspects of my self and my life it honestly felt like a celebration of me. More importantly, however, it is a tie to the past, my mother and my husband, by giving me ownership of these books (perhaps stewardship is a better word) they threaded me into something bigger, larger. I have a specific place,  however minuscule, in the collective memory of these people and events, a place I recall each time I delicately touch the rough spines. I might possess the books, but their significance possesses me, completely.

Such special gifts, the kind that give stewardship, are also safe from the Diderot Effect, a predicament French critic and philosopher Denis Diderot endured—and conveyed in prose—when gifted a beautiful dressing gown and found it precipitated a renovation of his home in similar fine style;

“No my friend, no, I have not been corrupted. My door is always open to the needy who address themselves to me; they find me as affable as ever. I listen to them, I give them advice, I assist them, I feel for them. My soul has not been hardened, my head has not gotten too big. My back is good and round, just as before. There’s the same honesty, the same sensitivity. My luxury is brand new and the poison has not yet acted. But who knows what will happen with time?”

As Diderot slips into penury, the possessiveness of his gift is two-fold: it owned him, his decisions and second, it literally possessed him, forcing out rational thought. At times, I think there should be a Diderot Effect akin to gift-giving itself:one-upmanship, and the sludgy, moving line of what’s appropriate.

Gifts are not difficult if you consider the person, not the gift. People want to be seen, noticed, remembered. To matter. They want you to step into that space surrounding them, to fill it with love and thoughtfulness. I’ve always loved the expression “give with two hands.” I imagine both extended, outreached in joy, neither waiting for a gift in return, the full force of gifts in the giving. Possessiveness that melts into generosity.

Perhaps it is true what they say, the thought behind the action does count the most.

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There are many wonderful essays this season about gifts and giving. One of my favorites is an essay from Robert MacFarlane, a British author who is inadequately defined as a landscape historian, called The Gifts of Reading are Many, on the consequences of generosity. It is written in MacFarlane’s characteristic reverent, lingering, and precise prose, a gift in and of itself. In addition, pick a book to give with two hands from Maria Popova’s thorough and vital 16 Favorite Books of 2016. 



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