The purple tricycle from Target arrived in a box so battered that it looked as though an elephant had sat on it. Inside, the rim and spokes on one of the back wheels were bent beyond the point where we could straighten them. The trike remained in the basement Christmas morning. And by the time we got two-thirds of the way through opening presents, I was glad it had.
That’s when Devon’s brain short-circuited. After the mittens and hat, the Tigger and Pooh stuffed animals, the magnetic letters, and hair brush and barrettes, the popup books and Legos, she started zigzagging around the room like the wind-up $3 Lady Bug in her stocking that did flips and proved her favorite present of the morning.
We always get too much stuff at Christmas, and having a 2-year-old grand-daughter around doesn’t help. At Christmas, anyway, shopping is our buzz as we drink deeply of the American addiction to buy things in an economy whose engine relies roughly 70 percent on consumer spending.
One can only ask, “Why?”
The ’80s brought that cynical bumper sticker, “He who has the most toys wins.” And yet even now, in the midst of a recession, with neighbors losing jobs and homes, we are still primed to buy, still think that somehow lots of things will solve our problems, that good times will return and that this time, unlike last, all those material goods will make us happy.
They won’t. Kathy and Betsy both bought me beautiful Christmas presents that I really appreciated. But my very best came from Meghan, my younger daughter and Devon’s mom. When it comes to material things, she doesn’t have much. But she cooked me crepes, smothered in butter and as good as the ones I loved as a child when Margot, our German au pair, made them as a labor of love.
Margot died a few years ago, but the handmade gold stars she shipped from Germany a few decades ago still hang from our tree, another gift of special meaning.
Love has never had a dollar sign attached. Neither does friendship, community, caring or any of the other nouns that make day-to-day life worthwhile.
Why then do we buy too much and work all the harder so we can buy more or at least buy as much as we did when the economy was better? Why do we shove family into a handful of holidays when we finally allow time to slow down enough to enjoy ourselves before racing out the door again to cram in more work so we can buy more things?
I picked up this morning’s New York Times and came upon this headline: “A Time to Think Hard About Retirement and Death.” I’ve started thinking more about the first recently, but was kind of hoping the second would hold off for awhile. Life flies past like a rocket in part because we all quickly forget the childhood story of Ferdinand. He’s the bull who refused to fight and instead sat in a field to smell the flowers. Bull or no bull, he understood the value of each day.
This is a season of hope. I take much from my family, from Betsy’s visit home, Meghan’s crepes, Devon’s exuberance and Kathy’s steadfastness. As I look ahead to the next decade (is it 20-10 or 2000-10?), I take it as well from the stories my students write and the Facebook emails former students send. These are stories about helping — those raising money for displaced children abroad or tutoring underprivileged children near to home, those engaging in conversations on race or engaged by opportunities to volunteer.
These narratives are small pieces of my hope for this nation as a whole in the decade ahead, a hope that this will be the decade of giving and caring, of volunteering and engaging, of community through action, one person, one act of kindness at a time. Forgive me, Miss America contestants, but world peace is just too big a prize for me to wrap my hands around. Teaching an uneducated newcomer to this country to read, that’s something I can understand.
And do. Which brings me to my resolution. I’ve written about the need for voluntarism. I’ve taken some pride in teaching students to write well and, I hope, do some good. But when it comes to carving time for my own volunteering, I keep filling my plate with all these tasks which are more like the goods we buy at the store at Christmas than the crepes Meghan put on my plate this morning.
It’s past time to grow by giving — in person, not from a checkbook, but from the heart. Thinking about retirement can wait. So can death, as far as I’m concerned. When it comes, I’d like to be in a slower, less affluent place, one that leaves me personally much richer.