Each morning of late, my 4-year-old granddaughter Devon and I have started the day reading a book together. She often picks a little book, “The Gift of Nothing” by Patrick McDonnell, that one of my graduate students gave me shortly before Thanksgiving.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” my student insisted with a smile when she dropped her wrapped package off at my office.
But this children’s book actually is filled with something: wisdom.
The book tells the story of a cat named Mooch who wants to give his dog friend Earl a gift. But Mooch figures Earl “had it all” — a bed, a bowl, even a chew toy. So after much reflection, Mooch decides to give Earl something unique: nothing. That’s easier said then done, Mooch discovers as he ventures into our possession-crazed society. Nothing, he finds, is not for sale. And so Mooch finally settles on a really big box, wrapped in a bow, with nothing in it.
When Earl opens the ribbon and climbs up to peer into the box, he seems confused.
“There’s nothing here,” Earl says.
“Yesh!” said Mooch. “Nothing.” Then he throws open his arms and says, “But me and you,” and the two hug.
This sweet little book is a great reminder during this holiday season. After we read each morning, Devon and I head downstairs where she entertains herself while I make breakfast. All it takes are four forks: the daddy, a serving fork; the mommy, a dinner fork; and the two kids, dessert forks.
Imaginary play, in other words, launches her day. Its cost? Why nothing, of course. The same can be said when we play Chuckle Belly and Tickle Monster.
Yet nothing in the mountain of ads I read in Wednesday’s paper promoting Black Friday advertised any of these. No, instead, these ads told of fabulous discounts at retailers opening in some cases at midnight or even Thanksgiving night. Fabulous deals, in other words, for those willing to discard one of the years few family holidays. (Thank you, Lord, for my new home entertainment center?)
Word is that retail sales jumped this Black Friday. And this morning I heard on NPR that online sales during “Cyber Monday” had set a record. I imagine in these lean times that this is all well and good for the American economy, at least in the immediate future.
But I can’t help but think that we, as a culture, continue to undermine what we should truly value — shared time — to buy those goods and gadgets that prime the economy’s pump but also assure us of mid-winter depression when January’s credit card bills arrive.
As wealth continues to tilt dramatically and disproportionately to the few, those same money moguls of American business lure the rest of us to “shop ’til we drop,” to buy, buy, buy and spend, spend, spend — even if that spending does little more than leave us further in debt.
In “The Gift of Nothing,” Mooch gets the fact that there’s a choice. He gets that things don’t buy happiness.
My own family has had some unexpected expenses this fall. So we’ve decided to buy less this holiday — a prospect I already view with considerable relief.
This year, I’ll look for a gift or two for each family member that means something. We’ve already crossed off the big items — our first flat screen TV (which we don’t need), an updated sound system, the newest shade of silk or cashmere. And we’ll forget all the frenzied fillers, the stuff that piles higher and higher under the tree until the glazed frenzy of Christmas morning ends in a blizzard of disheveled wrapping paper.
This I know. None of these gifts were worth lining up for on Thanksgiving night. (Three cheers for the Nebraska parking lot attendant at Target who, I heard on NPR, refused to work on Thanksgiving night and began a campaign to keep employers from infringing on the holiday.)
And when money runs out for our holiday gifts? Well, I’ll take my cue from Mooch and Earl. As the book ends, they sat, side by side, looking out the window, “and enjoyed nothing … and everything.”