Tag Archives: gifts

Christ’s money

As you probably have noticed, the header on my blog shows three magi (mages, Wise Men) happily hustling along with their gifts for the young Christ, who is out of camera view to the right with his mom.

The traditional Christmas nativity scene or creche is a mashup of the story in the Gospel of Luke (the manger, the angels and the shepherds) and the story of the Wise Men in the Gospel of Matthew. The Wise Men probably showed up months or even years after the birth of Christ. That is why King Herod ordered all the boys in the region two years and younger to be slaughtered. It had to take some time for the rumors of Christ’s birth to travel across the land, for the Magi to do their astrological calculations, for them to travel to meet Herod, and then to find Jesus.

The gifts of the Wise Men are now considered quaint, if not actually incomprehensible. Gold famously was called a “barbarous relic” by the economist John Maynard Keynes, and relatively few people have seen it in the coin form that was probably given to Christ and his family. Myrrh comes in hard little brown chips a little paler than instant coffee crystals. Frankincense is small firm irregular blobs shaped like Nerds candies, but they are the tan, slightly translucent shade of boogers. Pure myrrh and frankincense aren’t self-lighting like incense sticks and cones; they are resins that need to be placed on burning charcoal to make fragrant smoke.

Lydian Lion One OunceHowever, like salt or peppercorns used as money in other times and places, all three of these gifts met the characteristics of money: Portable, divisible, durable, fungible, and a store of value. These substances are completely useless to a child — but extremely useful in funding the care of a child. Indeed, some have speculated that the gifts of the Magi were used to support the family during their years in Egypt. So what the mages were giving was money.

God is spirit, as St. John writes, but he also was a little kid. It’s dreadfully expensive to raise a child, even when there are no iPads to buy them, because the poorer you are, the higher the proportion of income you spend on food, so that having to feed another mouth, even a young one, can be quite a blow. The wise men may have been a little strange about astrology, but they knew about money.

Unless one belongs to a church that preaches prosperity theology, one hears among people of faith a concerted attempt to make one feel guilty about one’s comfort. One cannot be a servant to both God and money, and the love of money is a root of evil, and one should not store earthly treasures. Hermit saints like Seraphim of Sarov and Mary of Egypt who lived in destitution are held up as examples.

But this kind of preaching is as unbalanced as prosperity theology. We are called to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” It is irresponsible not to manage one’s money carefully when one has children. In this era of modern medicine where people grow old slowly and die even more slowly, it is irresponsible not to save up money for the time of disability that most people face in old age.

What is more productive than austerity preaching is to teach ascetic questioning, to challenge ourselves: Do I really need both television and internet? Do I really need clothes I do not wear? Do I need a new computer? Do I need a little gadget singing in my ear all the time? Do I need that bag of flour? Do I need that bar of soap? Do I need that pencil? Do I need those plain cotton underpants? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe we should go commando!

Some traditions call the Wise Men kings, although there is no scriptural evidence that they were kings, or even that there were exactly three of them. What is clear is that they were pretty wealthy. And this shows in the mosaic header I use on my blog: They are richly dressed in heavy, multicolored robes and red Phrygian caps; they carry fancy containers and not simple earthen pots; and they are depicted in a scene of luxury, a dreamy golden sky with delicious fruit hanging down from date trees. (If you have never eaten a whole date and not one of those crumbly pebbles, you have missed a real treat.)

Critically, above all, they are offering their gifts to God, the King of All, who normally doesn’t need anything, but as a baby desperately needs material support.

And, as Christ says, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” and “whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward.” When we look into one another’s eyes, we are seeing God in them. So in the midst of the commercialism and greed of the Christmas season, I want to affirm that in the spirit of self-questioning, the act of gift-giving, and enjoying doing so, is nothing to be ashamed of and can indeed be an expression of respect to God.

We, too, are spirit, and we, too, are flesh. We are both physical and nonphysical. As was God. So let us take an attitude neither of unrestrained materialism or unthinking renunciation, but instead follow a truer path of asceticism, which is questioning, and challenging, and taking action.


Christ was a baby who needed milk



Too snug

I started out by writing some nonsense about not having posted for over a week because I was struggling with a topic. Indeed, my next post will be an Observation, and those always take a little longer to write.

However, the main truth about my silence was that in my constant war against overflow of the “bathtub” of my SRO, I’ve had to turn my emotional attention, slowly and very reluctantly, from shopaholism to hoarding.

Packratting is boring compared to shopaholism: I don’t want to gather up all my trash, then walk it down two storeys to the garbage depot, and then walk back up. Same story, again and again. And the more days I am in denial, as I have been this past week, the worse it gets.

At this time of year, facing my clutter is even more difficult. I don’t want to deal with the gifts that people give me, so I leave them here and there half-opened so that the boxes and wrappers snag on me when I try to walk from one place to another in my little home. (Let’s see if I get to the Harry and David’s basket before the pears go bad.) Then there’s the problem of the original boxes that things were shipped to me in that aren’t nice enough to use to give people their presents in. And now I don’t have space to gather up trash as I usually do, so the bags and boxes from needful things like food and prescriptions pile up, ready for me to slip and fall on and for vermin to explore

It’s like the huge garbage whorls in the Pacific Ocean. There’s the big patch by the sink, the patch between my computer and the window, the patch by the door on the closet side, the patch by the door on the other side…

It always amazes me that in about ten days I can go from imagining that I’ve got my hoarding sort of under control to finding that I’m living in quite unpleasant circumstances of my own making. Given that my place is only 8′ x 10′, I shouldn’t be so surprised at how fast this happens, but the sudden ballooning always takes me unawares. I really do feel like Alice (in Wonderland) panicking at how small my room has become so quickly.

I took a couple of little presents to the foyer and put them on the freecycle shelf for someone else to use as their Christmas presents for people in their lives, but that’s not nearly enough to make up for the chaos reigning rampant in my home.

So I am sorry not to have written as I regularly do, but I think the hoarding situation is urgent enough for me to sign off now and put some sweat into dealing with the mess. Housekeeping requires a completely different sort of asceticism from restraining shopaholism, but it is ascetic nonetheless.


New “best posts” page

I’m excited to tell you about a new page in the top menu (the red ribbon). The page links to what I think are the best posts from my blog to date, things I don’t want to get buried. If you were brought here by a search engine, these posts probably relate to your interests. If you’ve been reading this blog already, take a look to see if you missed any of these posts when they were first published, with my thanks to you. Click here to go directly to the “best posts” page.

Thinking of buying? Think about buying.

This anonymous condolence verse is all wrong. We are not just our souls!

Loving friends! Be wise and dry
Straightway every weeping eye,
“What ye lift upon the bier
Is not worth a wistful tear.
‘Tis an empty seashell, — one
Out of which the pearl is gone;
The shell is broken, it lies there;
The pearl, the all, the soul, is here.”

Our souls are part of us along with our minds and bodies. Our selves are not just intellects inhabiting meaningless bodies, the way the above verse claims. However, on the other hand, we are more than chunks of meat that think and feel. We have both physical and nonphysical elements united together, each being (only) part of us.

The tragedy of death is not really that of the bereaved losing the deceased. The tragedy of death is the separation of the body, which is (merely) part of us, from the non-material element of our selves, which is also (merely) part of us. Death breaks us in two. Dead bodies are indeed worth weeping over, every bit as much as live bodies deserve to be loved and hugged and cared for.

This is on my mind in relation to, of all things, the “holiday” shopping frenzy. More than in previous years, I’ve been reading a lot of business news stories about Black Friday, Thanksgiving store openings, and the expected tens of millions of shoppers. This has led to some thought about some of the purposes of this blog.

Because of my belief that we are composed of both material and non-material elements, I mean two things when I examine an item closely in this blog. I say that goods can be good, that the material world is worth enjoying, that matter matters. But beyond this, I am also saying that the material world should be examined closely and enjoyed with real thoroughness, awareness, and, yes, suspicion. If you are going to own something, then really choose it, own it with respect, use it, enjoy it, appreciate it, and don’t let it own you. And real enjoyment of our possessions entails taking a close hard look at things we want but do not own yet. And so I take a close, appreciative, respectful look at things I long for but decide to deny myself. I do not blanket condemn the physical world.

However, the sickness of the holiday buying frenzy is that no objects are contemplated and examined for their goodness and their meaning; they are not appreciated or truly wanted; they are only grabbed at, seized, barely looked at for a minute or two. They are mere entertainment, never truly enjoyed.

This acquisitiveness, this greed, this materialism, is a mirror image to the idea that we are nothing but souls in shells, ghosts in machines, intellects inhabiting meat. Both attitudes show disrespect to the physical world. And both are wrong.

Forsaking all others: To choose a charity

I have pretty well decided on this. I still struggle, however, and you may too, so I am writing about it. That is, I concentrate my charitable donations on only two organizations, with the exception of small donations now and then as a favor to friends, and turn down all others.

To say this in the face of the recent terrible storm is not easy. I strongly believe that if you do not already have an existing plan for donating to selected charities, you should give to the relief efforts. But if you have an existing plan that takes up virtually all the money you have allotted to charity, you need to think carefully, because whatever you give to one group comes out of another group’s pockets.

I suggest that if you believe that human need in times of disaster is so compelling that it is incomprehensible or immoral not to give to relief efforts, then a relief agency should be your main charity of choice all year, every year, to the exclusion of other causes, because disaster happens constantly and everywhere. When one person is made homeless because of an apartment fire, he or she is no less homeless than one person made homeless among thousands due to a storm. I do not believe it is right to give only to famous disasters.

In relation to this topic, I have a party question, or, rather, a set of questions, that causes people in the vicinity to turn and look. These have the dual traits of being a just a bit invasive yet allowing people to boast, which is ideal for party talk. You should try this. People may stammer a bit at the start, but their ultimate responses are fascinating.

Namely, what is the thought process that went into choosing your favorite charity over others? There are so many deserving causes out there – why did you choose your favorite cause? And why did you choose that particular organization over others that have the same goals? Even if you give to many charities, there is probably one that got more money than the others. For what reason or reasons?

After all, how can you say that clean drinking water should get more money than preventing child abuse? Or how can you say that a ballet school should get more money than a university? Should relief efforts for an earthquake take precedence over cancer research? How can you deny all the worthy causes out there? How can you judge between them?

There is a huge range of responses, and we all should contemplate why we want to spend our money on the organizations we do. For one of my friends, it is tax simplicity with no particular emotion. His employer has an arrangement with one particular disaster relief charity, and withholds pretax money from his pay and gives it to the organization. For another friend, the specific unique nature of one charity moved her so much that she wanted to give all her donations to it alone; there are no other organizations like it. Another friend has an emotional stake in a particular cause, but she chose one organization in particular because of its special methods, which she believes are the most effective means of getting things done for the cause. And one friend chose a very local charity so that she can make unannounced visits to see what they are doing.

For me, efficiency in use of money is key. I chose my #1 charity because there is only one category, one cause, where I have deep enough knowledge of the topic to decide confidently which particular organization is most efficiently run. Oddly, it is not the field I work in, of which I know only my little corner; instead it is the one field, rather obscure, where I can look at an IRS Form 990 (the tax return for nonprofits) and understand what I see well enough to compare organizations.

I chose my #2 charity, a very tiny one, because I have observed them in person and know a couple of specific items they need. I can have these items direct-mailed more cheaply in bulk than if the group purchases small quantities from local stores, and I know that they will use up these things completely. The efficiency of my gift is total.

If you are only giving to a charity or charities with small gifts here and there, you are not doing yourself any favors, and you are not doing the organizations a favor. Asceticism, i.e. discipline, is needed here. Give a lot, and give with focus.

Research shows that when people give a significant percentage of their income, they are happier. So be generous.

Furthermore, if you are giving to more than a few causes, then you are wasting money, because it costs charities a surprising amount of money per person per year to maintain their lists and make appeals. The more you focus your gifts, the fewer the organizations you give to, the more money goes to your cause.

Charity Navigator says,
“By concentrating your giving among a few outstanding charities, your donations will do more good than if you contributed small gifts to a wide array of charities.”

However, now that I’ve picked a couple of causes to commit to, I find it’s still hard to resist appeals from other organizations. There are constant disasters riveting the world’s attention. There is one charity that sends such wonderful pictures causing me so much delight that I once spent a couple of hours going over their elaborate mailer before deciding not to donate. Other causes I feel great sympathy for, even passion, but I am not able to evaluate them as well as I can my chosen causes. It is difficult to turn them all down, but it is the only way not to dissipate my efforts and waste the money.

But many people have no organizations at all that they are able to evaluate, or they lack a sense of the causes that are out there, so they do not even have any organizations to evaluate. So I am going to present some links I have found helpful.

Do they still say “HTH” on forums? “HTH.” Hope this helps.

Illuminating one’s sweetheart

320px-A_pair_of_African_penguins,_Boulders_Beach,_South_AfricaIt was one of those grand romantic moments that in movies are usually accompanied by swelling music.

But as you know from my pancakes post, I’m a little geeky. What actually happened is that my man friend got a new bag that opened out flat, unlike the cylindrical duffel bags that he had always used before.

I had never done something so intimate in front of him as to empty my purse (I suspect many women are quite intimate with a man for many years before being willing to do such a thing), but he laid open his bag before me and said, “This is what I carry all the time.”

One item made me gasp. I stammered, “You have a headlamp, too! You carry a headlamp!”

“Well, of course,” he replied levelly. “How else could I see into the backs of things?”

I could have kissed him right then, but was overwhelmed by emotion at finding not just someone special but a true kindred spirit. We both carried headlamps every day; we really were meant to be together!

Petzl E91 Tikkina 2 headlampYou see, there is a small, powerful Petzl Tikkina 2 in my purse at all times. I’m all set if the power goes out in the subway. I admit to using it most to find earring backs on the floor at the office, but it rose to full magnificence when power completely failed in my neighborhood for half a week. I was all the envy of the neighbors for having a flameless, handsfree, wearable source of light. It attracted enough attention on the street that the next time a major storm approached, the corner store got in a supply of headlamps, which promptly sold out.

Headlamps do make fine gifts to people of a very practical mindset who do not expect to be amused. After my most recent major surgery, I was under the care of a visiting nurse for some weeks, and on her last visit, gave her two headlamps. She was delighted to have a handsfree tool (cleaner than a penlight) for looking into throats and examining wounds in less than stellar home lighting, “and,” I reminded her, “if your car breaks down.”

I am so passionate about my head lamp that it pains me endlessly to find no possible reason for me to buy another wonderful flameless handsfree light, the Striker Light Mine, which is ideal for dark times when having a protruding light on one’s forehead is an impediment and magnets are an asset rather than something that wipes out the information on one’s cards.

Let me let the Striker people describe it in their own words:

Striker Light MineProfessionals, including automotive technicians, electricians, plumbers and HVAC contractors, will want to have one on hand, as it is small enough to fit into tight areas and aim a powerful beam of light where it is needed most. Because of its 12 neodymium magnets, it also works as a “pick up” tool for dropped screws, nails and hardware.

Do-it-yourselfers and homeowners will also find hundreds of uses for the Striker® Magnetic LED Light. Use it when working on an engine, changing a tire, wiring a home theater, switching on a breaker, crawling around under a counter or sink. It will stick to the fridge, making it the go-to flashlight for the whole family, and its great to have on camping trips.

This light is so clever, and looks so jolly and cute, like a cartoon hedgehog in the midst of getting a perm, that I ache to find a use for it in my own life. It seems impossible that I cannot, but try as I might, it is useless to me. This makes me sad.

But those who use it must use it a lot, because it is sold not just individually but in a “stocking stuffer” five-pack, as well as a “professional” model that yields more modes of light. I once knew someone whose hobby was repairing antique cars, and he would have liked them. Like headlamps, they will be good gifts for a practical person who could use them.

And I think that if you see a need for it in your own life, you should try one, and maybe you, too, will discover your sweetheart!

Shopaholism by proxy, part 2

Yes, my relative was a shopaholic, a strange one, but a shopaholic like me.

I would have loved it if he had sent me generic gifts. There is always a need for more or less generic gifts, such as gifts to people we do not know well; housewarming gifts; and “hostess gifts,” the old-fashioned term for gifts given to people when we arrive at social events they are hosting. That is what I mean when I say generically that something would be a terrific gift. It is assumed that possibly the party-throwing recipient may not be crazy about the heart-shaped bottle of pimento olives, but that it was given on a guess that someone who likes to give cocktail parties will find a way to use olives. That is why nobody should ever expect gifts to match their specific fantasies of what they would like to receive.

However, my relative’s behavior is a warning that conversely, we shopaholics should not use other people as excuses for us to buy them what we would like to receive.

Putting it plainly, to do so is nothing but using other people in order to satisfy our compulsions. Yes. That bad.

188px-Angelico,_Bosco_ai_Frati_AltarpieceThis is a particularly subtle form of shopaholism — shopaholism by proxy. I have committed it myself many times, though less often, I hope, in recent years.

I am not specifying whether our gifts should be cheap, expensive, or moderate; I am only saying that the specific nature of the gift should be aimed to suit to the general style of the recipient, not that of the giver.

At an obvious level, you may love to bake, but don’t give a box of homemade sugar cookies to a diabetic and say, “Just one a day won’t hurt you.” You may love books about baseball statistics, but don’t give them to someone whose interest in sports is limited to tennis.

162px-John_Singer_Sargent's_Madame_Ramon_SubercaseauxOn a more subtle level, do not give people objects they might enjoy but in a style you like, on the excuse that you are “broadening their taste” or “giving them some contrast to what they already have.” It’s a temptation particularly in regards to the fabled “people who have everything,” but fight it, because it’s insulting. It’s insulting to suggest that the life of someone who likes Fra Angelico is incomplete without a calendar of works by John Singer Sargent, or the reverse.

And if you notice that someone owns a lot of something, probably it’s best to give them something else. Either they are big collectors or heavy users who have a very specific idea in mind of what they will need (such as a keen photographer or cyclist, whose next purchase is likely to be a piece of equipment you have never heard of) or they are getting a whole lot of what they don’t want or need, and aren’t using it (such as an artist I knew who had an immense collection of unopened bath products in shrink-wrapped gift baskets).

And when you need a more or less generic gift, let it not be conspicuously ill suited to the recipient, or requiring too specific tastes. Think before you give someone a doily you love or some wine of a vintage you esteem or, indeed, many of the items I have touted on this blog as good gifts. These may be excellent gifts indeed, but only for the right people. If you find a set of wine glasses that you think are wonderful, they may be a very fine wedding gift — but not if you know the groom’s first wife was a big drinker, because maybe he is marrying a teetotaler this time around!

good_cardIf it’s too hard to figure out what a recipient would like, give a Good Card charity card, which lets them choose a nonprofit to give it to. Better to be a vague giver than to indulge your shopaholism by giving an item that will not be enjoyed, that burdens the recipient with its disposal, that is a waste of money.

The gift-giving season should not be a cover for the sneaking pleasure of purchasing what we covet for ourselves. If we want something deeply enough, we should get it — for ourselves. If we want it that badly, we should either make a place in our lives for it, or give up our fantasies about it. We need to be honest with ourselves about our longings and what we can accommodate in our lives.

When we choose gifts, we should not be pursuing our own pleasure in making the purchase; instead, we should be seeking to optimize enjoyment for our recipients by choosing what they would enjoy themselves. We should not be choosing gifts thinking “What would I most enjoy receiving?” but, rather, “What would the recipient enjoy receiving?”

Our gifts should not circle around about ourselves and the gravity well of our bottomless shopaholism. What we should be seeking to express through our gifts is not how we feel about the things we give, but how we feel about our friends and family.

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