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Jill dragged me downstairs to look at her new discovery: pottery thrown with gorgeous glazes.

“I don’t normally like glazes like this, but these are fabulous,” she gushed. She should know. Jill is an extremely successful potter in her own right. “Now DON’T YOU DARE BUY THIS FOR ME. I’m going to get her name and do some research.”

We walked back upstairs to the Craft Connection’s checkout counter, where Jill stood in line. I backed up silently as soon as she turned her back, slipped downstairs and hid one of the plates into my shopping bag. Then I quietly went back upstairs, caught the eye of one of the women who was wrapping another customer’s gifts, showed her the edge of the plate in my bag. We snuck it under the counter, and I slipped my credit card over. As Jill stood in line eyeballing other goods not four feet away, the woman charged me for the plate, wrapped it swiftly in brown paper, and I socked it away. We smiled at each other. Deed done.

Jill was none the wiser.

We spent the night on Baker Street, the main thoroughfare (this is her annual Christmas gift to me, which is time with her, which I treasure, and this lovely trip to a sweet Canadian town full of superb shops).

The next morning we had breakfast. On the way out, Jill took the key for the bathroom. I sprinted full speed back to the Craft Connection (, grabbed the bowl she had loved, bought it, and speed walked back to catch up with her as she was crossing the street.

“Had to hit the toilet,” I said, straight-faced. Jill laughed. I do have to hit the toilet often, so it wasn’t at all out of character. It was, however, a bald-faced lie. Her beloved bowl was crammed up under my left armpit.

Jill was none the wiser.

In the seventeen years that Jill and I have been coming to Nelson, this cat and mouse game has defined our trip. Every single year I watch what she picks up, falls in love with, and puts back because “it’s too expensive.” The second she turns her back, I take that item off the shelf, shove it under my down jacket, make some lame excuse about needing to buy something to drink and sneak up to the checkout counter. The employees are wholly complicit, as I tell them to HURRY UP so that Jill doesn’t catch me in the act. They grin, hide my gift for me right away, and I pay for it in seconds. The gift disappears, and I am standing near the cash register drinking my soda, the very picture of innocence.

I am an accomplished liar and thief- although of course I always pay for my gifts. The thievery is what it takes to get the damned thing to the cash register without getting caught by my friend. I absolutely love this game.

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One year I’d visited her during the summer, and in one of our favorite shops she’d gushed about a set of metallic food containers. The box was way too big for me to hide under my summer shirt. I told Jill I needed to use the store toilet. As Jill walked around the rest of the shop, I grabbed the box and the arm of a surprised employee and we ran to the back and hid. There, I paid and instructed her to send me the box to Denver, which of course cost a fortune, then I had to send the box again to Spokane for Christmas, which also cost a fortune.

Jill was none the wiser.

The utter delight that transformed her face when she opened up the box to discover those containers many months later was well worth the extra expense. She of course forgets everything she picks up and puts down. I don’t. And that’s the art of it.

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Jill has sworn to keep me from doing this very thing. “I’ve got my eye on you,” she claimed with great certainty last time we headed up to Nelson.

Well, yes and no. I’ve gotten extremely good at telegraphing my intentions to the employees, who take great delight in helping me pseudo-sneak goods out the door right under Jill’s nose. This results in sometimes very elaborate excuse-making on my part, and every year I have to come up with something both plausible and new to Jill. There are certain places we always shop, and because they’re kitchen stores, Jill disappears down a rabbit hole. That buys me time, and I can sprint two blocks down the street, spirit away a special something, and she doesn’t even know I left the shop.

It’s a very good thing I can run fast, even at 66, because in many cases speed is of the essence. While you may laugh, here’s the trick. I’m in superb cardiovascular shape. So after I return after a four block full-on sprint, I am still breathing normally. Jill has yet to figure out that I just ran at full speed, often in snow or on ice, to show up next to her looking like I’d been standing in the store the whole time. I have to choke back laughter every single time because she is utterly oblivious. This is one reason I love her so dearly.

One year she fell in love with a pair of earrings. I pooh-poohed them so strongly that she put them back, disappointed. The kitchen store was our next stop. As soon as Jill got lost, I shot next door, bought the earrings as the shopgirl guffawed (she had heard me convince Jill to put them back) and we shoved the small package into my Santa back of sneaked goods for my best friend.

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Jill’s not the only one I do this for. My friend Sonja, while visiting my house this year, oohed and aahed over a painted blue container from India. Sonja has a thing about lovely boxes. I saw its twin about a week later in TJ Maxx, and bought it immediately. That was eight months ago. When she opened up her Christmas gifts she was beyond charmed. She had forgotten all about it, and therein lay the delight.

Jill’s gifts to me reflect her skills. The year that I spoke at her mother’s funeral (an honor that absolutely blew me away) she gave me one of her exquisite totems. These very large pieces of raku dominate a wall, and I’ve had my eye on one for years. They’re almost a thousand dollars, and are fabulous works of art. Now I have one on my wall, just as I have pieces of Jill’s masterful work all over my house. She watches what I pick up and gush over and every year, something shows up that I covet.

In 2015, after coming home from Peru, I showed Jill a photo of a horse that I’d been allowed to ride at a very special estancia. This experience was such a watershed that Jill took the photo to a very talented potter friend and had her make a horse head portrait of that animal to hang on my wall. I was stunned. This is how Jill listens to and watches me during the year, and it’s an expression of her love that she just as carefully attends to those things that matter the most to me.

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With the exception of my friend Jill, most of my friends have no clue what to get me for gifts. If there is something I want, I buy it, which makes gift giving nearly impossible. I have ended up with scads of scarves (I don’t wear scarves) hand-knitted gloves from Nepal (that have no fingers, and I have Reynaud’s Syndrome, which means that I have to wear heavy down gloves) and other items that promptly get re-gifted. The BF, at a loss for what to get me, has on two occasions gotten me a spa day. I hate having a stranger’s hands on my face, so a facial is an exercise in torture for me. I suffered through it the first time to honor his gift. I did my best to explain to him that this wasn’t a good expenditure, then he promptly did it again another year. I gave the coupon to a friend. Simple truth? I’d rather just have time with the BF, the one thing he has the hardest time giving. That’s why it’s so important to me.

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In Gary Chapman’s seminal book The Five Love Languages ( he explains that each of us has a preferred way to express our feelings. Whether in a marriage or a friendship, we are most comfortable with one (or more, it depends) of the following:

  1. Acts of Service
  2. Words of Affirmation
  3. Receiving Gifts (or in my case, giving them)
  4. Quality Time
  5. Physical Touch
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Taking this quiz not only helps us understand what we want, but it also helps us understand what those we love would prefer. Often it’s as simple as a commitment to help with the dishes, or to show more affection, or to take care of an onerous chore. The investment we make in understanding those we love transforms our relationships, and demonstrates our investment in them.

Gift giving for me is an art form. It’s not for everyone, especially for those who are far too busy or distracted to take the time to notice what their loved ones like, like to do, or need from them. The Western Marketing Machine which is Christmas, which now stretches from late August through the first of the year like an overblown sports season (I can name a few) insists that we spend more and get more and get more extreme. That extremity doesn’t always translate into well-chosen gifts, which are the product of loving observation. We need to attend, not assume. When we become noticers, the gifts we give are amazing.

For my part, it is far more joyful and fun to study those I love and find the very things that, upon pulling back the colored tissue, makes them laugh out loud or cry in delight. They often aren’t that expensive. But they are right on the money. I love for my friends and loved ones to know they were heard.

But that’s just me.

Being Santa has, of course, turned me into a thief, a liar and and a sneak. Well, sort of anyway. It’s all in good fun and in the spirit of gift-giving. In some cases, giving the gift of time is the most important of all (

As we rush headlong towards the big day, perhaps what’s most important has nothing to do with the most impressive, the most expensive gift. Rather, it’s the one that speaks to the heart. This tale says it all: When we gift from a place of love and respect, we can’t go wrong.

Now: here’s to not getting busted.

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