He suggested that instead I donate to an organization called Cure Blindness, which provides surgical cataract treatment to individuals in developing countries.
My brother is globally minded. He is a nurse practitioner in Vermont, where he mostly works as a primary care provider. He studied anthropology, served in the Peace Corps, and worked with Native Alaskans and adjudicated youth in Florida.
My brother is a helper and a giver, and I am lucky to have him in my life.
After Thanksgiving, I attended the Reverend Billy and Stop Shopping Choir's performance at Joe's Pub. A major message of Reverend Billy is that shopping is both a distraction to our spirit and from the uncomfortable events in our world, as well as bad for the environment.
Many of us don't think about this. Shopping is a gratifying experience, giving us things that we need and want and bringing us joy.
But it can also prevent us from thinking about all of the things that upset us or that we need to change, either out in the world or within ourselves.
Thinking about the journeys our products take, the materials they are made of, the workers who have touched them, the trucks and ships that have carried them, the wars and violence over the resources within them, all results in what my Environmental Policy teacher would call a "negative externalities."
There is an invisible cost that we do not pay for with our dollars, but rather by dirtying the environment, including using fuel and oil, the human cost of bad labor and business practices overseas and at home.
All of this is part of the products we buy. It's something to think about.
I'm not going to tell you not to buy gifts. We all know I love to do it and have already done so this year. But I am offering to you that there are many ways to provide gifts, we just need to shift our thinking.
For example, what if this Christmas you dedicated some volunteer work to a friend or loved one? Maybe they join you, or maybe instead you hold them in your thoughts while you do the work, and then write them an email or card telling them about your experience?
What if the gift was a visit to see a friend or to take a loved one to do an activity that they enjoy? What if your gift was to listen to some music with someone and allow them to tell you all the reasons why they love it?
What if your gift was to make a tape or playlist of music that makes you think of them, and write an explanation of why? What if you spent time writing a heartfelt card that was truly sincere and shared that with the person you care for?
All of these things are gifts of our most precious resources: our time and our attention.
I asked my brother to give me a travel bag, as work has me traveling quite a bit these days. But I am realizing that the gift I am most looking forward to is playing a board game with him on Christmas Eve.
Or teasing him about eating too much cookie dough and reminiscing and having a real heartfelt talk. These are the real things on my Christmas list this year.
I hope that you get the gifts you need this year, whether they are tangible or intangible, and I hope you find a way to sustain the feelings of joy that they carry all year.