Gifts without Bows: Telling and Receiving Stories as They Are


This is a time of gift giving. It’s a time of buying and making and choosing and wrapping.

In our family, we tend toward minimalism when it comes to wrapping gifts. From my father I inherited the practice of using newspaper. When your package carries the latest headlines, there’s no need for bows or ribbons. And if you’re feeling extra festive, you always have the Sunday comics.

We all know it isn’t the paper on the outside that matters, but we sure do act like it sometimes.

I think that one of the best gifts to give and receive—any time of the year—is the gift of our stories, our feelings, our truths. Sometimes they come in worn-out shoeboxes, in paper bags with the tops folded down, or in cardboard boxes marked “Kitchen” from the last move. They’re offered with trepidation and best received with reverence. They’re precious, authentic gifts, rugged and unedited.

And without a bow.

Are we willing to receive such gifts, or do we prefer presents wrapped neatly in shiny paper, with colorful ribbons curled just so? Do we want only the stories that have tidy, happy endings, tied up with a platitude or moral or lesson? Do we carry our own supply of bows in case the gift givers are lacking?

Are we willing to give those gifts as well? Do we hold back the deep realities of our lives, the honest hurts, waiting until we can decorate them with a “that’s when I knew it all happened for a reason,” an “I learned so much,” or a “now I can see it was all part of God’s plan”? In the waiting there is sorrow and pain.

I can’t help but think of my missionary friends, and other cross-cultural workers, too often feeling the need to adorn their stories so that no one will “misunderstand,” too often saying what is expected or what is easier to hear. I can’t help but think of myself when I’ve done the same thing.

Not all gifts are meant to be shared in the open. Some are too personal. Some can only be given in a private, safe, accepting space. Can you create a space like that for your friends, for their parents, for their children? Without such a place, their precious gifts stay hidden away. And hidden gifts are often forgotten and remain ungiven . . . simply for lack of a bow.

The decorations aren’t necessary. Give your gifts without bows, we’re listening. Receive our gifts without bows, we’re talking.

Merry Christmas.

[photo: “Project365-Day21,” by Farouq Taj, used under a Creative Commons license]


Farewell to “The Story,” with Listening Lessons from Mr. Gordon and Some Maasai Visitors


On October 11, Dick Gordon recorded his last episode of The Story. He’s moving back to Canada to be closer to family, and so ends the radio show’s 8-year run.

As I’ve written before, I’m a big fan of Gordon’s interviewing and listening skills, and I’ll miss catching his new installments from time to time.

After his last segment, Gordon recorded about 4 minutes on his philosophy of getting people to share their stories. The piece is entitled “Goodbye.” In it he talks about listening with patience:

There is a natural pause after the first part of an answer to a question. I ask you what it was like going for a walk with your grandfather, and you say, “It was nice. Not too cold. We had a good talk.” And if I wait, and if I don’t feel like I have to fill that pause and jump in with something else, that’s when you’re most likely to say, “He told me this story that I’d never heard before.”

“So that’s my conclusion,” he says, “after more than 36 years of talking on the radio, that the best thing I can do is not talk but listen. That’s when you hear the best stories.”

In another short audio post for The Story, this one from December 11 of last year, radio producer Marika Partridge talks about what she learned from a group of Maasai performers. As a child, she had spent a month camping with her family among the Maasai on the plains of Kenya. Years later, she was asked to interrupt her harried routine and host a group of Maasai singers and dancers coming to her home town of Takoma Park, Maryland. She consented and was glad she did. The experience broke through the busyness of her daily life and taught her about “conversation and caring”:

“Our way of life is really very strong on adhering to the word of mouth,” says the leader of the performing group. “When we speak to one another, we say we feed each other. We nourish each other spiritually.”

In “Saying Yes to Visitors,” Partridge shares the new perspective she gained:

Do I connect with the people I meet every day? Most of the time, other people seem like stumbling blocks, preventing me from getting to my next appointment. If I slowed things down and connected in this Maasai way maybe I could rediscover how to experience humanity as more than a series of interruptions.

Goodbye to The Story.

Goodbye Mr. Gordon. Enjoy your long conversations with family and friends—old and new—in Canada.

The Story is dead. Long live the stories.

[photo: “Listen,” by Jay Morrison, used under a Creative Commons license]