Saturday, May 14, 2011

Love Tokens

It always astounds me that, in relationships, there's such a breadth of experience. No two couples are the same: some are homebodies, some go ziplining. Some bond over veganism, while others could chat for hours about the Western novels of Cormac McCarthy. Some folks are closest in the bedroom, while others are best as a dynamic political powerhouse. As a woman, but also a human, I'm fascinated by other people's experience in their coupling and uncoupling. I've been with my fella for about six months, a length of time that is, startlingly for a 27-year-old, one of my longest relationships. Most of my friends, on the other hand, have been paired with their significant other for about five years - a half decade of experience that I won't get until my thirties have started. I've been privy to their stories, though, and I've been taking notes.

One of my favourite things about being with someone is the chance to do something nice for someone you care about. I remember when I was going through my Horrible First Break-Up, I biked down to Cherry Beach with a girlfriend and she asked me what, exactly, was so great about being with this guy; what did I miss? I answered truthfully that I would miss being sweet to someone, being sweet to him, specifically. Because isn't that part of what love is? Being nice and taking care of someone, trying to make their days and nights a little more fun?

Which brings me to the topic of gifts. I have been blessed with some truly splendid love tokens: mix CDs so perfectly assembled I listened to them on repeat for months, and books that opened me up to new ways of feeling. I recently got David Foster Wallace's new book from my boyfriend before it was even released, a coup that landed him big-time love from me for both the sweet thought and the knowledge of a thing I like. My Big Ex was a great gift-giver, but ultimately a lousy boyfriend, and frankly? I'd rather have a good boyfriend who muffs it on the gifts but gets it everywhere else, than a scumbag who once bought me a really great hoodie. I seem to have hit the jackpot, though: my now-boyfriend is generous and pays attention, resulting in gifts that range from books to music to concert tickets to burritos made just the way I like 'em.

Women everywhere - and men, too - can identify with the longing for great gifts from their partner. Gifts speak to an understanding of who the other person is: some folks really want a custom-made fork for their fixie, while others jones for jewelry, and yet other are most enthralled by audiobooks. It's the reason gift guides exist, and magazines and websites put together elaborate guides to purchasing that "perfect gift" for the other person.

The going theory is that getting a gift "right" sets in motion a mutual understanding of each other's cores and souls, or something. This wedding blog I read (confidential to boyfriend: for no reason) regularly addresses ring angst: fiancees freaking out about engagement rings that are too expensive, big, tacky, small, or just not to a bride's taste. If he can't get the ring right, they fret, how will we ever work as a couple? Cue the dramatic flinging of one's self onto one's duvet and sobbing while the hapless groom stands to one side, helplessly. Consider the birthday gift - how to say, "I love you despite the fact that we are getting older and more decrepit, and your natal anniversary reminds me of my own aging process, jerk?" Or the anniversary gift, conveniently laid out in terms of gift requirements, but leaving open the dangerous possibility that some clueless girl will get for her honey a can of peas one year to celebrate their love.

When I was younger, I used to feel such stress when it came time for my birthday or Christmas - not because I hated getting gifts, but because I felt (and still feel) like dropping hints about wanting specific things is tacky, and therefore worried about not getting stuff I liked and having to fake pleasure. I always got at least one thing I loved, like nature books, and one thing I didn't really care for, like Land's End sweatshirts. In my old age, I've come to terms with the fact that sometimes, people nail it (like when my sister brought me sequined Minnie Mouse ears from Disneyworld a few months ago), and sometimes, they don't. I love them anyway.

Boyfriends get the same pass. Sometimes, the burrito gets too much hot sauce or the dress is in the wrong size, but it's the thoughtful gesture that counts more. There's nothing wrong with a little hint-dropping, and nothing wrong with graciously accepting a token of someone's affection even if the token makes you look like a lumpy elementary school teacher. In the end, the thoughtful gift is less about the money you spend or the occasion you're celebrating, but the understanding that love, friendship, and respect are actually kind of the best gifts of all.

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