By Irena Djuric

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Photo by Irena Djuric

“This is for you…it contains some of my sweat, some of my concentration and my willpower, and I’m giving it to you now. Instead of buying something that you would like to have, I’m giving you something that is mine, truly mine. A gift. A sign of respect for the person before me, asking him to understand how important it is to be by his side.”

These words are spoken by the main character in Paulo Coelho’s Eleven Minutes as she reaches into her purse and presents her lover with a pen. She tells him, “You have my treasure: the pen with which I wrote down some of my dreams.”

I think back to this scene as every store in our city has been sprouting pink and red for Valentine’s day, inviting people to pluck truffles and cards from stationary shelves and pull fuscia sweaters or bright red garters off sales racks. Maybe you’re even one of the last-minute lovers I’ve seen out there who are still pacing the store aisles trying to find that One. Perfect. Gift.

But no chocolate calorie or karat is worth its weight in wrapping paper if given out of obligation, and a flower plucked out of a neighbor’s yard may be just the perfect complement to an honest word and a long kiss.

Some of the best gifts I’ve received or given have been small but heartfelt. Years ago, Lydia knit me a soft purple scarf, and every time I wear it I feel surrounded and protected by her friendship and warmth. A regular at a soup kitchen I volunteered at carefully unfolded a handkerchief he carried with him – peppered with designs of $100 bills – and gave it to me as a mark of a friendship that grew over the year of Thursdays we had spent together over donated dinners.

Recently, I pulled out some old brushes and paints and incorporated pictures of my mom and grandmother into a canvas swirled with blues and purples. My grandmother died just a few short weeks ago, and I wanted give my mom something to remember her by. The few hours I spent painting and gluing were a meditation on what I loved most about my own mother, and what I loved about hers. In creating the gift, I was strengthening the connection I felt to these two women. By the time I had dabbed the last bit of paint onto the canvas, I was more excited to give her this picture than I had been with any other somethingorother I had bought her in the past.

A gift is a sacred exchange that calls for the right mix of honesty, heart, and vulnerability. This is so beautifully captured in Greg Mortenson’s book, Three Cups of Tea. Upon hearing that “a village called New York” had been attacked on September 11th, a woman in one of the Pakistani villages where Mortenson had been building a school came to him with a handful of eggs and pressed them into his hands, begging him to take her small present to comfort the “widows of New York.”

One of my favorite gifts came in a small paper packet. I had stumbled upon a neighborhood fair while living in Cape Town and wandered in to sample the food and see what was for sale. Lingering over several gemstones on display at one stand, I noticed two gentle hands come towards me, a paper packet in each palm. The owner of the gemstone booth was on the other side of the table, with a gift. “This one,” he said, “is for you.” He then placed the other packet in my hand and said, “This one is not for you. You must give this away.”

When I opened the packets, I found a roughened rose quartz crystal in the first. Its center contained the tiniest drop of water – ancient, formed over thousands of years. If I wiggled the stone just right, I could see the water droplet tremble at its center.

The second packet was not my gift to keep, but to give away. In it were a dozen tiny quartz crystals, each no bigger than a pinky nail. I jammed them into the pocket of my backpack with the intention of sharing them with my roommates, but quickly forgot about the little treasure entrusted to me.

Until, later in my travels, I met a woman on the train from Belgrade to Athens. Sitting together on the long journey, we exchanged a few polite words until she said something the made me remember the crystals in my backpack. Impulsively taking them out and presenting her with one, I was astonished to see her light up at this small present, and to ask just how I knew that this was exactly what she needed! She was a chemist, but had been studying gemstones and their curative properties for years.

We stumbled quickly, word over word, into a conversation that lasted us all the way to Athens. As we got off the train and parted, I walked away with the kind of joyful satisfaction that only good, soulful conversations can leave you with.

Those little crystals, over the next month that I spontaneously gave them away, infused my life with heavy magic. In Serbia, the mother of a close family friend was very ill and had been in the hospital for days. Accompanying my friend to the hospital for a visit, I stood humbled before this woman who had endured so much. Thinking of something to say was difficult, so I reached into my pocket and presented her with one of the little crystals.

“This came all the way from South Africa,” I said, “and a wise man there gave it to me knowing that you would need it.” Watching her touch it curiously, then cradle it warmly in her weathered palm, I felt like the tiny droplet of water trembling inside my own quartz crystal.

The crystals gave themselves away over the next few weeks, at just the right moments and to just the right people. Years later, I ran into a woman who I had given one of them to – a friend’s sister who at the time was going through a rough patch – and she opened up her wallet to reveal a little crystal tucked inside. “I still have it,” she said, “still.”

I’ve never heard anybody say that about a box of chocolates.

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