This is the time when I reflect on so many things about the life I’m living. I think about the lives of others too, and can get very caught up in the emotion of their experiences as well.
We call it Christmas, but it is also known as Chrissy, Xmas, Chrimbo, Holiday Season, Holy Season, Advent, not to mention Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. It means slightly different things to each of us, and then there are families and communities that move like a murmuration, soaring and dipping with the ease of a unified flock, into the various traditions that work like glue. And they must not fail to make them happen. So appropriate gifts and tokens must be procured.
I do miss the inane, the reliable institutions
in my family’s life, although I never knew I would.
Now I live in another country, where I look to fill in time working in a gift store when I’m not catching up on sleep, and communicating via the social media platforms, playing online Scrabble, or writing.
People are coming into our store with purpose and determination. I love seeing the effort and thought that people put into their choosing gifts.
I love how some, like me, will come in, looking for gifts for someone else, browse for ages, and then leave with a trinket for themselves. I applaud their little whimsy of selfish self- love. Maybe, like me, they will otherwise notice a distinct lack of concern from a loved one, or a gap in their family experience. Maybe no-one knows or can be bothered knowing what it is that that person would actually like to receive. This little gift for one, chosen and cherished by that one, will be appreciated and held close, as if it can amend for fractured relationships and missing pieces in a close familial experience.
I do appreciate the sense of captured treasure that that one has paid for, and takes away, proudly wearing it as a badge of honour. ‘It is mine, and I deserve it!’
I see repeat offenders in my store, the ones who come back again and again, even if to buy the cheapest and simplest of things; a card, a block of chocolate, and then come back to buy a basket to put their things in. And before you know it, they’re filling that basket with socks, candles, trinkets. I think of one lady in particular, who has a miserable chronic pulmonary condition, and sometimes hides behind a stand to gasp and cough in a frightening way. I thought I would need to call an ambulance the other night, but she rallied, and hung out in the store till closing time, then returned 2 days later. She refuses to stop shopping until she has thought ofeverything. She’s not a big spender, just someone who relishes the decision making, I can tell. I am certain I will see her in the store at least one more time before Christmas.
And then we get the sort of folk who duck in for shelter, for free coffee samples, and in the case of one guy the other night, to enjoy a good farting session right in the middle of the store. He left, soon after, but returned, to chat and laugh with our manager, and leave empty handed except for a refill of free coffee.
They are almost, all of them, welcome.
We see people who want to engage, share their preparations and involve you, the salesperson, in their Christmas preparations; the middle aged men with a long mental list of people and expectations, the older lady, excited about all those tiny grandkids she will be trying to entertain. Perhaps these are my favourite type of customer. They are infrequent shoppers, often romantic, purposeful, generous in their choice of gifts, and once we have packed their things into the carry bag, and sent them on their way, we smile after them, because we were able to satisfy their needs.
It isn’t always possible to do this, but we hope to do it.
Some people come in, already shopping fatigued, piqued at our lack of something they assumed we would have, and sighing, they resign themselves to buying something they have doubts about already. I feel as though such shoppers have already tainted the spirit of giving. Obviously, I can’t shoulder their burden for them. If they want to chat and unload a little, that’s Okay, but once they’ve taken their burden out the door I can’t help them.
There are the generalisations, the stereotypes of people, and then there are the unique individuals, who stay in my consciousness, long after my working day:
The woman who needed a list of things to do and places to visit in Adelaide, where she was going to be for a couple of weeks, caring for an Aunt, so I hastily wrote them down, (Hahndorf, the Food Market, the Museum, Vic Harbour etc).
The mother and teenage daughter, striking, tall, beautiful, who argued loudly in Russian between themselves at the counter, even as I processed their purchase. The older hippyish guy who said ‘Kia ora’ to me and wanted to have a long chat about the state of Seattle’s growing issues, and the beauty of life Down Under.
The woman who came in to buy gifts for her workers, but who was quite disparaging of them as well.
The woman who, having put her back out earlier that day, sat on the floor in the middle of the store to pet the Penny the volunteer’s dog.
The woman who rang up, anxiety in her voice, did we have any decent Christmas decorations, and would they be suitable for her children to choose some to buy? I
affirmed that we did, and they arrived, late in the evening, just before closing. Her children, who I thought might actually be little demons, were the most careful and articulate, well behaved children I’ve seen, but Mum was incredibly scared that they weren’t.
The tall, wistful woman who hung back in the shadows, pretending to browse, but was actually just waiting for her man to arrive, and when he did, she stood in the middle of the store holding his face kissing him again and again. He was trying to tell her he ‘fixed it, almost fixed it, tried to fix it,’ but she wouldn’t let him talk, she was overwhelmed with love and affection for this much shorter hero.
(I was replacing stock nearby and felt I needed to act like a repelling magnet, and give them as much space as they needed, though my heart was squeezing out its very lifeblood in emotion at this wonderful, spontaneous outpouring).
Who knows the stories behind these moments? Sometimes I get to know, but most of the time I do not. We are seeing greater numbers of people in the store than ever. We have a very quiet year until this six week pre-Christmas Shopping period, when it all blows up, exponentially. We don’t have a choice but to get as many unpaid, available staff in as possible, and make a fist of it. We have a mission, to make a profit for people in developing nations, to keep their little industries and workshops going, and their lives fulfilled.
When the crowds diminish, then we get to really engage with people, and talk more about our Not-for-profit mission.
It’s a great mission, and I hope I can one day meet at least one or more of our makers- who we count it a privilege to assist.
One thing we always do is try to make a connection, build a bridge by letting our customers know why it is important they spend their dollars here. Sometimes we fail to get that message across, maybe because we have no time, or they came in because we had a cool product that was cheaper than the other shop across town, and it doesn’t matter to them who made the things. Whatever the case, they usually come in because our things are handmade and are often from recycled, repurposed goods. There is a lot of value in those kinds of things around these parts, I’m proud to say.
The take home for me at Christmas, is that I do feel a lack in my experience of intimacy,, family, tradition and joyful expectations of just hanging out with people in a spirit of celebration. I can’t rely on my circumstances or my emotions to align properly. I’m all out of whack. I desperately want my family near me. I am unsure where to put myself. I get a few of these moments with our very kind friends here, but nothing can replace what I lived with throughout my life as a parent and friend in my home environment. Well not as yet.
Meanwhile, this gig in the gift shop, it does fill some gaps. I get to talk to real people, people who matter a lot in that moment. Their lives are meaningful, and they are grabbing their own Christmas experiences and running with them. I am a part of that process, just for a moment. It is a moment of intense sentiment and sometimes anxiety.
I get to know and reaffirm the sense of intention and positivity that gift-giving brings into others’ lives.
For a short period of time I pooh-poohed the whole ritual of Christmas presents, and now I have learned to appreciate them again. It’s a vicarious practice at the moment, as I have other issues of anxiety over preparing and posting things, but that’s another story.
Right now, it’s a moment by moment savouring.
Enjoy your own version of this, and Merry Christmas.