I usually write something pre-Christmas. This year, I didn’t due to the mad rush that Christmas was for everyone, including me, with the ongoing concern about climate-change driven bushfires here in Australia, particularly on the Eastern seaboard.
A question – what to do about unwanted gifts?
In among the madness, in the lead-in to Christmas, I found myself involved in a social media discussion about the etiquette of presents and unwanted gifts. The issue tabled was – what does one do with unwanted gifts? Should one accept them and play nice, or could one refuse or return them? I waded into the discussion and said that I thank the person, and politely return the item. I got roundly lectured about how rude and insensitive I am to the well-meaning people who attempt to give me things I don’t want.
Going into Christmas and all the social contact it involves for me, this recent exchange primed me to think about what exactly is my ‘position’ on Christmas and the attendant orgy of giving?
The Spirit of Christmas
Let me start by saying that I am not religious. There is no religious significance I attach to the holiday. I like the fairy lights and so, every year, I make a pilgrimage of sorts to the various streets near me where I can feast my eyes on the prettiest lights. This year, in Sydney, I went to see the light show on St Mary’s Cathedral, and that was spectacular.
For me, Christmas is a time to get together with people who love, support, and accept me, and who I love, support and accept. Partly because it is a holiday and most people in my inner circle are not working currently, I treat this as an opportunity for me to get together with them for a celebration of our bonds. These are people I think of as my family of choice – they are there for me when I need them, we share reciprocal relationships based on honesty, trust, care, sensitivity, and fairness. They reach out to keep aware of what is going on in my life and they let me know what’s going on in theirs. They share my values around connection and being in the world.
My inner circle are people with whom I feel I can be myself, and I value them being themselves with me also. We highly value authenticity and honesty, and the trust levels between us are very high. These are the people to whom I confide the good and the bad in my life; they are there for me for both, and I’m there for them. They are my family of choice.
For me, Christmas is a chance to spend time with my family of choice and others I care about. It’s a time to celebrate our bonds.
Background to the season – challenging my own consumerism
In the lead up to Christmas, each one of these people knew about what had been important to me over the last twelve months. Throughout the past year, I had numerous extended conversations with both my family of choice and others (i.e. family of origin and others) about the environment, climate change, the plastic crisis, the waste crisis, and human rights issues. In those discussions, I shared my concerns and practical efforts to become less materially oriented, having less ‘stuff’ (I’ve been practising Kondo-ing[i] – yes, it’s become a verb – my space for the last year), reduce my waste, reduce my carbon footprint, and my efforts to rely less on plastic, partly by not purchasing items wrapped in plastic wherever possible.
In our conversations, I spoke of my frustration and overwhelm with our society’s focus on stuff – the getting of stuff, the push through advertising media for us all to get more stuff, and the need to hold on to stuff. I even heard some people in my life tell me about hiring storage units for their stuff and needing to rent larger storage units after a while because their stuff seems to ‘grow’.
Walking the talk – cutting back on stuff in my own life
In my own life, I have felt frustrated with myself for having what I felt to be too much stuff. Stuff being my term for anything that isn’t really something I need or use and appreciate most days.
Over the past twelve months, I have made systematic as well as random efforts to clear out stuff, move on items that might be re-usable to op shops, and people who I think might like them. I have made a point of challenging myself to buy as little as possible that’s wrapped in plastic packaging, stopped buying toothpaste, and learned to make my own tooth cleaning powder. I have gradually learned to shop at bulk foods shops, have created a handy storage pack of jars and containers for such trips, and even put together a ‘take-out’ kit of containers and jars that I ask restaurants to use to give me my food to bring home. I walk around with my own keep-cup, and water bottle, and own a set of reusable cutlery that I keep in the car or my travel pack. I have made the move to compostable bin bags, and even compostable dog poo bags.
Having had lots of opinions about what we are all doing to the planet for years and having participated in a range of activist actions, I felt the need to really focus on living much more rigorously in line with my values.
As Christmas approached, I felt even more distressed than I usually get as I constantly heard the advertisements in malls saying, ‘Don’t know what to get for the person who has everything?’ and the ever-popular ‘Last-minute stocking stuffers’. Everywhere I looked, all I could see was rampant consumerism, senseless consumption and a terrible waste of precious resources. Dangly toys for one’s smartphone, silly socks, lots and lots of cookies in various kinds of plastic packaging, plastic toys. Most of it, it seemed to me, terribly meaningless and created purely for the sake of consuming. In essence, landfill.
My Christmas manifesto/request
Anyone who knows me knew my wish in the lead up to Christmas: don’t buy me stuff! Please don’t spend money on things – I have enough things; I have too many things (still). If you want to give me anything, then set aside some time for us to be together and be present with me. Let’s have an experience together. That would mean a lot to me.
Walking the talk at the coal face
I had a variation on that conversation specifically about not wanting stuff with one person just before Christmas.
In her household, Sandra[ii] says that they each have a Christmas boot full of booty for one another. This booty consists of silly presents, small things that are meant to be funny, light-hearted things, a way of letting people feel the abundance of Christmas and feel cared about and thought about by others. Last year, my own ‘boot’ from her included a Darth Vader plastic rain poncho, a head-scratcher, and beer-scented body wash, among many other such horrors. I was determined not to repeat the experience.
This year, I carefully stated that I did not want any stuff. ‘Too late’, she told me. ‘I start buying for the boot right after Christmas. I’ve already done it.’ I was stunned and repeated that I would really, really, really prefer NOT to be given stuff regardless of whether she had already bought it. I reminded her that I don’t want stuff, I don’t want plastic, and I’m trying to simplify my life and get rid of stuff, not add to it.
Sandra listened to my request in her own way: she offered to bring and cook a 3-course meal at my home, three hours’ drive away from her home. I felt very moved by this offer and tried to tell her that this was a sumptuous present: her kind offer to cook a fabulous meal, and her presence. She insisted that this was not what she wanted to do.
On the day she came, I helped Sandra unpack the car. We were meeting at my place for our celebration. We unpacked a fully stocked gourmet portable freezer/ fridge that held all the victuals for our meal, boxes of cooking utensils and equipment I lack, and boxes of bottles of wine. Then, Sandra leaned into her car and pulled out a huge over-stuffed Christmas boot made from jute and red faux-fur trim. ‘Your boot”, she told me triumphantly. I was stunned.
When the time came for the exchange of gifts, Sandra handed me the huge sausage of stuff and said expectantly, ‘Your boot!’.
One by one, I pulled out such hand-selected and personal delights as the book, “The poetry of Donald Trump” (no, I’m not making that up); another book, “Crap taxidermy” (honest, I’m not kidding about this either). There was some body scrub plastic loofa lookalike attached to a Frozen plastic toy figurine, synthetic grip socks, a jar of jam, a tiny jar of Nutella, a keyring with dangly things on it, and so on. That hodgepodge of stuff could have been meant for anyone – there was nothing about it that remotely signalled it had been picked with me in mind. It was totally impersonal, meaningless, and just represented landfill to me.
Seeing my face, Sandra called out reproachfully at one point, “But it’s fun, Marie-Pierre!”. I told her, “I have fun – just different fun to this. This isn’t fun for me. You know that.” I couldn’t laugh as I pulled out the items one by one – I couldn’t see anything funny about it at all. I had said what I wanted and what would mean a lot to me, and it had been blatantly ignored.
Each time I pulled out another item and said a reluctant ‘thank you’, I saw Sandra’s face drop and look increasingly hurt. Somehow, we had gone from me asking for something very specific to her ignoring that clear request, and now her taking on the hurt role because I was so clearly not pleased with her overriding my wishes. It seemed like either I played along and swallowed my values, my resentment at being disrespected, and accepted my boundaries being breached, while playing ‘nice’ and smiling sweetly to go along with conventions and do what others wanted, or I accepted that I would be seen as the ‘difficult one’, possibly as rude and insensitive, but walk away without a mound of landfill and a gutful of resentment.
I grew up with it. I don’t want to grow old with it.
I know those values: the “Be quiet. Be Nice. Stuff it down and be polite, be discrete, go along with the social conventions. It won’t cost you very much to make someone else happy for a moment by seeming to go along with what they want in front of them.” I grew up being told that expressing my displeasure or desire not to go along with something someone else wanted was for me to be difficult, selfish and rude.
I decided after years of therapy and reflection: I grew up with it. I refuse to grow old with it.
A little while later, as we were cleaning up the remains of the meal from the table, Sandra leaned in towards me and said “If there are things you really don’t want, you don’t have to keep them. Give them back and I’ll find someone else to pass them on to.” I was stunned. I asked her, “Are you sure? You won’t be upset?” Sandra confirmed she meant her offer. I turned to the place where the pile of stuff still lay on the floor, found the boot, and quickly filled the boot to the brim. I kept a small jar of fig jam, some nougat, and a silicone reusable straw.
I felt like a huge weight fell off my shoulders. Sandra looked crestfallen, but she quietly accepted the boot and took it back to her car later. I thanked her for respecting my wishes.
Being true to myself – self-respect
I can’t describe how happy I felt when I watched Sandra drive away, taking the unwanted stuff with her. I felt happy at the fact that this was that much less stuff I now had to think about storing, disposing of, redistributing, feeling guilty about not using, feeling guilty for not being grateful or appreciative enough about getting, feeling resentful because it crowds my space, and feeling resentful and bewildered that saying ‘I don’t want more stuff’ and insisting on having it heard meant risking my relationship with Sandra, risking me being seen as ‘difficult’ and ‘the problem’. Again.
Instead, I’m confident that Sandra drove away feeling somewhat hurt that I rejected all these disparate objects she had gathered together for my Christmas boot. She may well be thinking variations on – that I’m rude, ungracious, insensitive. Maybe even, controlling. That’s a risk I’m prepared to take. That I’m glad I took.
As I waved goodbye to both Sandra and the stuff, I felt an enormous sense of relief and gratitude. I felt relieved that I didn’t have to deal with more unwanted stuff, more junk. I felt grateful to myself, ironically, for standing up for myself, for what was important to me. And for making those values more important than the childhood values of ‘go along and play nice for the sake of polite society’ that were instilled in me.
And grateful that, hard as it was, Sandra had enough generosity of spirit to relent and offer me a way back. While she did not acknowledge openly that her move had been in direct opposition to what she knew were my expressed wishes and values, her willingness to take the unwanted things back felt like an olive branch, and her way of communicating some respect for my wishes.
I also hope that Sandra heard my deep appreciation for the gesture of bringing and cooking an elaborate 3-course meal to me at my home, hours away from her own home. I certainly said how much that gift meant to me several times – I hope that helped her temper my refusal of her stuff.
Reflections on stuff
A couple of days after Christmas, I wandered into a second-hand bookshop and found a book that immediately drew my gaze. James Wallman’s, Stuffocation (2013, Crux Pubs). I’ve been devouring it since I bought it, and have felt a satisfying recognition as he articulates things I’ve thought for a long time, struggles I have had over the past few years in particular, and trends I have been seeing in other peoples’ lives around me.
I gave away my television in 2006 when I briefly lived in a household with someone else who had a television. As someone who had seldom turned on the TV I had when I possessed one, I struggled with its sudden intrusiveness in my everyday life – the schedule of shows and news, the screen’s commanding presence (particularly as digital screens came onto the market), the pervasive sound that seemed to penetrate every room in the house. It seemed to me that nowhere in the house was free of the droning of never-ending voices, energetic/sonorous mood-manipulating music, artificially excited presenters and actors, artificial drama, artificial fun, pained survivors of tragedy on the news, and always, canned laughter and the constant urging to spend, spend, spend of advertising.
Once I moved out on my own again and chose to live without a television, I reclaimed a simpler life that feels much more suited to me. As I selected what furnishings to have in the space, I consciously thought of items that would be needed for a life I would feel nourished by. I gave away lots of kitchen items as space is at a premium in my new kitchen. I gave away a lot of books, challenging myself not to buy more bookshelves; wall space is at a premium here too. Gradually, I sorted through my clothes, and gave a lot of items away – mostly, if I had not worn it in a year, it went to goodwill.
I feel content.
I’m on holidays right now. Part of my holiday ritual now includes identifying which area of my house to sort through and pare back – identifying what stuff I can get rid of and which I can recycle or give away. Because there is always extra stuff. A book I bought I thought I’d like but don’t get around to reading, books and other items I thought I’m now ready to part with. That ever-present second drawer in the kitchen that seems more booby trap than function.
I look forward to doing the sort. It feels like a welcome shedding of things I no longer need, or that I didn’t need in the first place and I have accumulated anyway. A chance to reclaim the space and my time as I want it.
So, if you’re sitting post-Christmas with a whole lot of unwanted things, and feeling overwhelmed by having more, wondering why you’re not feeling happy, you might try reading the book I mentioned, Stuffocating. And if it speaks to you, or you’ve watched Marie Kondo’s programme on Netflix, and you have a sense that there’s something to what she is saying (“Does it bring you joy?”), but you don’t know where to start, call me. Let’s see how we can help you identify what your values are and how the way you are living with your stuff might be unexpectedly working against those.
[i] Marie KONDO, (2014), The life changing magic of Tidying up, Ten Speed Press.
[ii] Not her real name