And everything. Why giving people your full attention and time is the only real gift we have to offer.
When the perfect gift idea escapes you I may have the answer. This is what works for me, anyway. My guess it might for you too. Stay with me here.
JC, my social media guru, scoured my house while I slept. It was the day after my shoulder surgery. He’d driven down from Portland to help me with my tech, which included a brand new Roku stick, a signal booster for the house and a few other new-and-confusing to me purchases that I had stacked next to my big screen.
I snored away the day, releasing the anaesthesia while he roamed the house.
He was in search of The Perfect Gift.
JC’s one of those people who, like me, loves to scour a life looking for something that’s transformational. He has a sixth sense, which I share to a point, for observing other’s lives, and identifying the one thing that said life is missing, and presenting that as his gift.
Last year he nailed it perfectly. He bought me a Duluth Trading Company canvas log carrier. Until I started using it, I had no clue how monumentally handy that damned thing would be. During fire season I use it multiple times a day. I LOVE that log carrier.
And of course every time I use it, and it makes my schlepping up and down the small hill to my wood pile a breeze, I think of JC. He really nailed in that way that uber-observant and sensitive people do.
On a recent call, JC was frustrated. This time around, despite his ramblings around my home for an entire day, he was stumped. He couldn’t figure out what to get me, for I do a really, really good job of getting everything I could possibly need and then some. Most of the time. I most assuredly hadn’t thought of a log carrier.
So what is the perfect gift?
Given the nature of where we are right now in Pandemic Times, the terrible isolation of so many of us particularly as we age, I have one answer:
I want quality time with JC.
He recently asked me to give him some dates so that he could come down and just spend a day. I love his brilliant mind and his superb way of framing things to make them gut-bustingly funny. To wit, he recently referred to The Great Wall with Matt Damon as the most visually beautiful ham-fisted failure of a movie ever. Nailed it.
I regularly lift his comments for my own use, and give him credit, for his insight is wonderful. His Millennial’s take on the world and its absurdities is often inspiration for articles.
Time with JC is precious.
THAT is what I want for Christmas.
The people I love in most cases live several states away. Having made the big move to Oregon last year, being in a state which took lockdown seriously has meant that some of the community building that I might otherwise be doing has been on lockdown as well. I love my house. I love being solo.
But I am bloody well lonely at times. We all are, my guess, even those who live in lively, loud households. Loneliness isn’t an illness of a lack of company. When my ex lived in my house for the better part of year in 2018, I have never felt so utterly alone and isolated, appreciated only for the occasional roll in bed. Any request for affection or talk was greeted with an angry “I’m down a rabbit hole. You’re in my space.”
I was so damaged I hid in a downstairs gear room, sleeping on the floor, to get away from him. That was horrific.
Loneliness has little to do with whether or not there are people around. More so, whether there are people around us who see us, appreciate us, hear us, and care enough to commit their time.
The ex, ever frustrated as JC now is that I didn’t want for any physical thing, withheld the one thing I wanted: quality time.
Over the course of fourteen years, the ex gave me one spa day as a gift ( I cannot BEAR having strangers touch me unless it’s medical care). Then nothing for years and years, not even a phone call over the holidays. For two years in a row, in a move of remarkable awareness, he gave me a fifty-dollar gift certificate to The Clymb, which I’d asked for, and used. Then nothing again for years and finally, after all that, he gave me another spa gift certificate, even after I had told him in no uncertain terms that I hated being touched by strangers.
All along, I begged him for quality time. What I got were one-hour visits, which were basically a f--k and a fond farewell. I studied his life, gave him gifts that blew him away because I knew his life, and presented him with things that either made his life easier or that made him look handsome and heroic.
That last, by the way, was a $400 buttery leather aviator jacket, which he never wore for me, and which he left in my basement after he moved out. Along with having given to his brother other things that I had spent six months researching for him which he professed he loved. He discarded those, just like he discarded me after he was done.
He never gave me time. That, in a nutshell, is how you and I communicate to those we say we care about that we most certainly do NOT care about them. I still care about him, for he reached out last year in his deep loneliness, which has only worsened. I’m not the author of that, but I understand it. I have empathy for what he's feeling.
That ex is now struggling, out of work for more than a year, alone in a crap apartment, sick with Covid, and desperately lonely. I get it. I’ve been there, not with Covid, but I get lonely.
If you don’t want to be lonely, you first have to invest in people.
You and I can’t keep using how busy we are to avoid intimacy and then wail about how lonely we are.
As silly, stupid season spreads and expands, and what another writer called “enforced jollity” pushes our isolation into our faces, I read this from The New York Times:
From the article:
About one-third of Americans older than 65 now live alone, and half of those over 85 do. People in poorer health — especially those with mood disorders like anxiety and depression — are more likely to feel lonely. Those without a college education are the least likely to have someone they can talk to about important personal matters.
A wave of new research suggests social separation is bad for us. Individuals with less social connection have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation and higher levels of stress hormones. One recent study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent.
This article is from five years ago. Quarantine has exacerbated this to the nth degree. I know the ex is deeply lonely, extremely stressed out because he’s had anxiety attacks. Been to the hospital ER numerous times for various illness which all sound stress-related. All of that has made him far more likely to suffer badly from Covid, which really loves to party down on a stressed-out immune system.
Again from the article:
Loneliness is an especially tricky problem because accepting and declaring our loneliness carries profound stigma. Admitting we’re lonely can feel as if we’re admitting we’ve failed in life’s most fundamental domains: belonging, love, attachment. It attacks our basic instincts to save face, and makes it hard to ask for help.
The willingness to admit loneliness goes against the idiot grain of American self-reliance, which is as vicious a lie as it gets.
My closest friend Melissa and I speak several times a week, which we never did when I was in Denver, not fifteen minutes from her house. Her conversations keep me sane and grounded. She keeps me laughing which keep the isolation monsters at bay. And as I slowly wind down all the big projects ( who knew there were so many?) I am beginning my outreach to make adult friends.
It’s slow, for people have a hard time trusting, given such ugly political times and the simple fact that a conversation with the wrong person could kill us.
We circle new people warily like dogs, sniffing each other’s butts to discern whether or not someone is safe to speak freely to about any damned thing, at the risk of being called a Libtard or whatever the insult of the day may be. I’ve done it myself, which simply underscores how swiftly such things take us over when we spend way, way, WAY too much time alone. It seems to take much longer before our tails tentatively wag, and we begin the sacred process of establishing friendships.
We distrust each other, not without good reason. We stay away from each other, not without good reason. We fear each other, not without good reason. We have no idea which new person we meet not only harbors hate but also carries a gun to carry out revenge against those they dislike, which seems to be just about everyone. We have no idea who is harboring a virus, those who walk around the aisles of our supermarkets unmasked, potential serial-killers in our midst.
Trust comes slowly these days.
Which is why, in this season of pressured happiness, the gift of time is even more precious.
The willingness to give others our time creates safety. That circle of safety creates the possibility of trust. Trust takes time, trust takes time in person. There is no greater gift most especially in a time of pandemics, widening political divides and fear-mongering. That means time without phubbing, which is deeply insulting, and signals to your conversational partner that they aren’t important.
That’s the same as hearing someone typing on their computer as you talk, and hearing their emotional awareness fade as they check out their ebay bid.
That’s rude as hell. And we wonder why we’re lonely.
If I want friends, closeness and community, I must do much more of what I did last Friday morning. I hugged a crying friend whose mother is mentally ill, and who is causing him great pain. That investment of time is what earns us the right to friendship. He was immensely grateful.
I was far more grateful that he trusted me with his vulnerability.
That investment of time earns us the right to be loved in return.
In the bitter watches of the night when all the walls fold in upon us, December is at once terrifying and terribly demanding. We are to manufacture families where many of us have none, joy and gratitude during a time of massive loss, and a full house of love and joy where too many are in tents and using porta-potties.
The pressures of the season are brutal.
Again from the NYT article:
I see this most acutely during the holidays when I care for hospitalized patients, some connected to I.V. poles in barren rooms devoid of family or friends — their aloneness amplified by cheerful Christmas movies playing on wall-mounted televisions. And hospitalized or not, many people report feeling lonelier, more depressed and less satisfied with life during the holiday season.
New research suggests that loneliness is not necessarily the result of poor social skills or lack of social support, but can be caused in part by unusual sensitivity to social cues. Lonely people are more likely to perceive ambiguous social cues negatively, and enter a self-preservation mind-set — worsening the problem. In this way, loneliness can be contagious: When one person becomes lonely, he withdraws from his social circle and causes others to do the same. (author bolded)
Again, the article was pre-Covid, pre- January 6th, pre- a lot of things. And spot on, but on steroids now.
I want time with people. Like JC, I both thrive on company, and need alone time to recharge. I’m intense and most certainly not everyone’s cuppa. But those who do love me, do with a passion, and it is returned in kind.
I ended two long term friendships in part because those people called me a close or best friend but could find time. One answered every single call for two years straight with the same words: Honey I can't talk right now I'm busy. If we got together she was full of stories of time she had for her real friends.
The other promised for years and years she was coming to visit in spring. Never did. When we did get together, she regaled me with stories of her real friends whom she did visit. You get the message after a while. You're not worthy of their time.
I want time with people.
But first I have to be willing to give it. That means putting myself out there for rejection (guaranteed) abuse (ditto) and potentially endangering myself with all the circulating germs. It’s a calculated risk.
JC and his love and I are having breakfast at Gravy’s in downtown Portland this coming week. I got his fiance something she will love, which pleases JC no end. And he will head south to spend a day with me, which pleases me no end. This time last year the two of them were far away, bouncing between Boise and Texas, living through that awful ice storm.
I am beyond grateful that they are back close enough to visit in a day drive.
The single greatest gift you will ever give is your full attention.
Turn the TV off. Put the phone DOWN. Better, put it AWAY. Be available. Be attentive. If you’re not willing to give this, then forgive me for making this point: you are not worth their time either.
Whatever religious holiday you celebrate, this time of year, marked as it is in the northern hemisphere by long, cold, dark days for many of us, can be alleviated if we invest in ourselves by investing in others. Be that a soup kitchen or a cup of soup with a new acquaintance, makes no difference. We need each other.
Being willing to need someone, and being willing to be needed, is what makes the tentative tail wag with greater enthusiasm.