The Gifts We Give Ourselves

The French theorist Georges Bataille seemingly predicted the horror that Christmas morning has become today.

This morning, I gave myself a gift no one else could’ve given me. I rose at 6:50, ten minutes before my alarm went off. I reached for the phone I’d slipped under my pillow seven unbroken hours earlier. I smiled that so little activity — Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, email, text — appeared on my lock screen.

My eyes opened, alight with a clarity I haven’t felt in many months. Sure, ideas were whirring around my mind — that’s sort of degree zero for any writer, I suspect. Yet today, I saw precisely through the swirl of musings. A space parted into which I could insert myself and then get out relatively unscathed.

Christmas had, for me, come a day late.

The morning of December 25th, children in the West slip and scurry down flights of stairs and tear through shiny sheaths of wrapping paper, only to experience one of two feelings when the wrappings’ contents are revealed — joy or disappointment.

Spectacle and sacrifice during the holiday season come together in a way that wouldn’t have surprised the French theorist Georges Bataille. His writings on “the accursed share” — that superfluous portion of any economy that a society has to do away with and destroy — always stay with me from Black Friday, right up until I slip into the new year, spent and chagrined.

Excessive outpourings of ostentatious gifting limn right up against the horrific and disgusting. The organisms, us, who have an excess of energy available to them, writes Bataille, can use it in order to grow — or that energy can be lavishly consumed. As each year draws to a close, so much of our energy is indeed expended. So we watch on our phones, transfixed, YouTube videos of masses of bodies as they trample and battle one another for something to leave under their trees — maybe for their children, maybe not. Luxury looks no different than waste.

My stocking was light this year, but who cares? In fact, I preferred it that way. It means I didn’t have to worry about Santa Claus, who was currently logging forty-plus hours at work at her age and enduring the constant pain of arthritic knees. I didn’t want Santa running around shopping for my sister and me.

At 2:40am, early Christmas morning, I boarded a train bound for Boston. Following five hours of intermittent sleep, which I passed contorted into awkward sleeping positions, I walked into my parents’ home. I delighted in the selfish thought that my coming by 8am was itself a gift.

Christmas Day was a blur — a flurry of nurturing emotions, stories that fed me, and delicious dishes prepared by the whole family. I consumed all of it. I went to bed feeling exhausted and eager to put my mind at ease after the long and expensive day.

And this morning, as I write a bit of a riff, my mind is clear, and I’m thankful. I alone have given myself a wonderful Christmas gift — a day late, no less. Maybe this short piece is as saccharine as the boxes of cookies, chocolates, and cakes that litter our coffee table, but in sentimentality and excess, I recognize the desire to be thrown back to earth.

Instead of scouring for parking at the mall today, instead of imploring disempowered sales associates to issue me refunds for presents for which I have no gift receipt, I’m finding the space to tap into the gifts I can produce from within me.

Vivian Gornick wrote a beautiful line about the anthropologist Loren Eiseley, who, despite awakening every morning to a “vast and etherizing depression,” nevertheless “swung his legs over the side of the bed, stood up, walked across the room, sat down at his desk, and began to work. The act alone steadied him.”

Today, the day after Christmas, I rush to finish writing before my father wakes from his nap, my mother returns from work, my sister from an afternoon outing with friends. My fingertips pulse with a faint, familiar beat beneath them that I’m suddenly aware of. I feel content, my mind a little less weighted, and I wonder why I don’t chase this high every morning.

I’m not a writer — not yet, at least. But training my body to become one is instrumental to thinking in my mind that I’m one.

Practicing how to use words, how to give oneself to them, is all there is. There will be many more disappointments — rejections, mental blocks, paroxysms of insecurity — and perhaps a few joys, too, if I’m lucky.

This is the gift that words give me. Instead of becoming a slave to the presents that lie under Christmas trees, I choose to belong to words. It’s impossible to ask anyone but myself for words. How to give myself this gift every morning, then — this, this is the only thing that matters.

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