When I was five I got a pony for Christmas. We lived in rural Oregon and the pony was an asshole pony who disliked children so this wasn’t as storybook as it may sound. I still remember looking out the upstairs window as the truck with the horse trailer drove up the gravel driveway, and there he was, a little dark pony for me. I loved riding horses and drawing horses but having one was less delightful. His name was Pistachio and his evil nature included scraping his sides along fence posts so that his child rider’s leg would be crushed and they would get pushed off and the ride would end. He was quite cute when just decorating the meadow but terrifying as an actual mount.
When I lived in Rochester and was eternally disappointed by my future mate, I asked my therapist what to do. They suggested that perhaps the early childhood pony gift, even though a gift horse in the pejorative sense of the term, had perhaps set me up with a weakness for a grand gesture. We joked that what I really wanted was a very fancy vacuum cleaner when what I got was a massage gift certificate.
Here we are all locked up and I think about grand gestures. If I were to bake a cake for a friend they might be afraid to eat it. Nothing touched is unsuspect. Perhaps a serenade out in the street? But it’s technically illegal and the police may or may not have a sense of humor.
The grand gesture, the whirlwind trip to Paris, and even the massage gift certificate are all indefinitely on hold so I thought I’d wander down memory lane and see what stories I could remember.
When I was 19 and very much in love with an artist, he woke himself up at 2 am and baked me a surprise Sacher Torte in the middle of the night while I slept. That dark chocolate cake with gold leaf on top seemed to appear out of nowhere the next day, out of sheer love.
In my twenties, I worked many long days at a big finance company in a big building in San Francisco. They didn’t believe in anything but work and money. Before I realized that I had other gods and left to pursue a doctorate in French literature, my boyfriend took me to the Saratoga mud baths. I said no, I must go to work, because I always have to be there, and he said, I took the liberty of calling your boss and asking her personally to let you have the day off so we can go get naked in the mud and celebrate your birthday, with my mother.
A Serbian surgeon I knew briefly heard me complain about my weedy garden. The next day a crew of workers showed up at my house and worked for hours to clean it all up. Even though it just took a phone call and a checkbook for him, I was thrilled at the thoughtfulness.
A more recent friend knew he would be late getting into town for my birthday so he secretly arranged for his friend’s wife (someone I had not yet met) to go to my favorite bakery and bring a strawberry cake to my house. Delicious.
An old friend traveled across the country and showed up at my door unannounced with a bottle of perfume and a large bunch of gladioli. It was like a romantic comedy but the timing was terrible and I never knew what to do with the perfume, the flowers that fit in no vase or the old friend.
I have often thought that these gifts, these planned acts of thoughtfulness, these creative expressions of love were the best stories. Now no one can give me anything. Packages no longer arrive. My excursions go no further than a kilometer. If someone showed up on my doorstep I would first have to lock them up in solitary confinement for two weeks. I’m already in France and can’t even surprise myself with a weekend in Paris or Montauban. Birthdays and anniversaries and proposals are occurring in the most stripped down circumstances all over the world.
So hungry have we been for the love, for the cakes, for the sacrifices and the planning. Was I, were we, duped into a decoding of love that required so much of the physical world to be at our disposal? Is it time to go back to the things we can exchange that cost nothing? Words and presence. Presence and words. Not even touch but words and presence. So the next time you reach out to someone or hear from someone far away, take the big step, listen, and pick out the most beautiful dancing whipped cream strawberry words that you can find in the boutique of your skull.
I am so fortunate to be part of several communities where what we do is really, really listen to each other. This is not a grand gesture but it is what is keeping me sane. My future holds no trips to the coast, or five star dinners out but I am thrilled to think that it holds a long pause after I’ve said my piece or a delightful friend taking a deep breath and saying… I’m here, tell me about it.