“When I give, I give myself.”
– Walt Whitman
The plane lands. It taxis to the terminal and the passengers disembark. She waits in line at Immigration, passes through Customs and follows the herds of fellow travelers to Baggage Claim. She grabs her luggage and, when she finally sees me, is engulfed in a lung-crushing bear hug.
My mom is in Medellin, Colombia.
The central idea for this article, the idea that ignited fire behind the plan that brought my mom to Colombia, is not my own. But if we are honest with ourselves, very few ideas actually are.
No, the credit for this particular idea belongs entirely to my dear Uncle Bob.
)One chilly night in the fall of 2015, over a beer, my uncle told me of a present that he and his brothers had recently given each other. They had given one another the present of not having to give each other presents anymore.
Not for birthdays. Not for Christmas. Not for any reason whatsoever.
They realized they had far too much “stuff.” Plus, the process of buying one another presents caused more stress for the purchaser than joy for the receiver. It was easier to not have to think about it. They were adults. If they really needed something, they would go out and buy it.
Why have someone else waste their money, and time, guessing at what you might want?
Gift cards are a picture perfect example of the implied pressure to give something, anything. We don’t know what to buy, and don’t want to waste too much time and energy thinking about it, so we pick a store and buy a gift card. We pass along the hassle of actually making a decision right with the plastic little card.
If you think about it, why do we spend precious mental and physical energy buying something for someone that:
a. The other person does not REALLY need.
b. The other person may not want.
c. Often causes you more stress than it will pleasure for them.
As soon as I heard my uncle tell me this idea, I was all in.
I quickly informed my immediate family members of my new present to them. They never had to buy me a present again. I work. I have money. I’m good.
In turn, I would not be buying them presents anymore.
Enter my mother. If ever there was a person who was NOT going to be on board with this idea, it was my momma.
My mother loves to shop. Shoes, clothes, food, whiskey, craft cheeses. You name it, her house has it and they have lots of it.
The first year I tried to roll this idea out, my mom hassled me about what I wanted for my birthday. I refused to give her even a hint of an idea.
She wrote me a check.
As Christmas approached, she continued to ask, “So, what do you want this year?”
And I would reply, “Nothing. No, mom. Really. I’m good.”
So Christmas rolled around and there I was, digging through an overstuffed stocking that my mom had prepared for me. And as I went through a stocking full of socks and gum and underwear and cigars, I pulled out what was for me a Christmas morning first.
Cold. Hard. Cash.
Well, at least it wasn’t more stuff.
“This is what I would have spent on you, just keep it and buy something you like,” my mom said.
Now I wish I could say that this was my ‘ah-ha’ moment. It wasn’t. My family ate and drank our way through the holidays. I spent the money. I’m pretty sure I bought a bottle of whiskey. Winters in Wisconsin are cold.
THE BIG IDEA
The idea that brought my mom to Colombia came to me a few months later, as I was contemplating what to buy her for Mother’s Day.
You see, I knew had to break my new gifting rule. My mom had put some effort into my Christmas presents. I may not like the idea of gift-giving that much, but I’m not an asshole. It would be rude to continue to receive and receive and not give.
Around this time, I was planning my move to Medellin, Colombia. My next adventure.
As I thought about what my mom might like, I thought about how happy she gets when we all go to her house for dinner. How she loved coming to Milwaukee to go out for dinner and cocktails. How she hated when I moved abroad and wished that I lived closer.
And then it hit me. For Mother’s Day, instead of a present, I would give my mom time. Time with me, to be specific.
I went to our local bank and created a joint-checking account for the two of us. I then deposited the money I was planning to spend for Mother’s Day into the account.
On Mother’s Day, I gave her her account card and told her that from now on she could put any money she was planning to spend on me for birthdays or holidays into this account. I would do the same.
This account was our money to be used on experiences together. I alluded to the fact that I wanted her to come to Medellin but was doubtful that it would ever happen.
My mom, surprisingly, bought in. The more I put money into the account, the more my mom put in. An entire year of holidays and birthdays passed and the account balance grew.
I often talked to my mom about coming to visit me abroad, but never thought it would happen. But when I put my money where my mouth was, things changed. My commitment to want to spend time with her, nothing more and nothing less, inspired her to do something she might have never done previously.
So one Mother’s Day, two birthdays and one Christmas later, there we were. Medellin, Colombia. The City of Eternal Spring.
My mother’s trip was a trip of firsts:
Her first time in South America:
Her first time riding in a tuk-tuk:
Her first trek through the jungle:
Her first time salsa dancing:
Her first time opening a bottle of beer with a lighter. (Sorry no photo. Some things must remain sacred.)
And you know what? I got to be there and share and encourage and be a part of all of this. I got to sit in the middle of the Colombian coffee region and talk with my mom. I got to take her out salsa dancing. I got to walk through Medellin next to her and watch her understanding and perspective of the world expand before my eyes.
I encourage you to stop giving presents.
Forget the shoes and the phones and the TVs and the billion other pieces of commercial garbage that we are told we need but actually don’t need at all.
From 1947-1950 American author Jack Kerouac went on four spontaneous, aimless, cross-country road trips. He and his friends, inspired by a search for kicks (not shoes), women and jazz, criss-crossed the country from New York to Chicago to Denver to New Orleans to San Francisco and back again. These trips became the basis of Kerouac’s famous novel, On The Road.
During this same period of time, Tonka Trucks and Steel Pogo Sticks were two of the most popular Christmas presents. Most men wore fedoras. PEZ dispensers were all the rage. If you wanted to make a significant technological purchase, you bought a nice black and white television.
Now, if you were presented with the choice between Kerouac’s trip and the material possessions of the 1940’s, what would you choose?
Material possessions, when viewed in hindsight, always seem ridiculous. Experiences are personal currencies that enrich the fabric of our lives. Memories with loved ones like wine. They only get better with time.
Since starting this tradition with my mom, it has continued with other members of my family. We no longer give presents. We plan fancy dinners out at new restaurants. We give money to be used for future trips.
I do not remember what I received for Christmas two years ago. I do not remember what I got for my 10th birthday.
I remember making fishing poles out of bamboo trees with my aforementioned Uncle Bob and waking up at 4AM to go fishing.
I remember spending two weeks on a houseboat with my dad in the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota.
I remember going to New Orleans for the first time with my two of my best friends. I will never forget the two weeks I spent with my mom in Colombia.
It is with this in mind that I propose a trade. Stop with the presents. Invest your time and money into experiences with those that you love, not things.
I guarantee you’ll never look back.
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