When I was a senior in college, I was chosen for an abbreviated study abroad trip to Egypt for two weeks to study politics. While there, we visited an area of Cairo known as Garbage City, populated primarily by Christians. All of Cairo’s garbage comes to this neighborhood, and the residents recycle something like 98% of it. We went to a factory which employs women to wash cloth, make paper, and sew products. In the gift shop, I bought a box of blank cards made of recycled paper, each decorated with embroidery of daily life. Women carrying bundles on their heads, jumping fish, trees, camels, swooping birds.
I believe I started with a set of 12, and I have 3 left. I gave card to my brother-in-law this year for Father’s Day, as I believed he would appreciate this connection to Christians a world away. I gave a card to my boss one year for Boss Appreciation Day. When he commented that he wished he could use the card again, it was so lovely, I made a note for myself and gave him two cards the next year, one with my thanks for his work as my supervisor and one blank for him to use as he wished. I’m not sure what happened to the others. I remember designs that are no longer in the box and I hope they blessed the person who received them. I kind of wish I’d kept a list.
I do remember the first person I gave one of these cards to. You know when you feel like you should really like a person, but somehow you just don’t? There’s nothing wrong. They’ve never been in any way hurtful to you. Everyone likes them, gets along with them. Even so, something about them doesn’t sit easily with you. Something about their presence, and how you feel in their presence, makes you shy away from instead of embrace their company. I had one such person in college. I didn’t want to be a jerk, so I did my utmost to like them. And sometimes it went fine. And sometimes I felt that all-over itch I couldn’t explain and ghosted for a while.
It was her birthday, and a very good friend of mine was best friends with this person, so my friend roped me into a joint birthday gift. She had the ideas and most of the execution, so I only had to offer polite opinions and pay for half. Then we went back to my apartment to wrap it. But we needed a card (or maybe just I did). I didn’t have any on hand, so I ran to my bedroom and found this box from Egypt, still wrapped in it’s crinkly clear plastic bag. I picked out a card of two women walking with bundles on their heads. It was one I liked, one I felt she would like. Still, this card was precious to me, and the first one I’d give away, so I felt a morsel of ungenerous unease at parting with it to her.
I gave it anyway. I knew that morsel didn’t have a point, or a reason. This card might have even been an attempt to make up for the feelings I didn’t have for her, but felt certain I should.
I filled the card with the story of its creation, since that was largely why the card was precious. However, I also didn’t want it to look like I didn’t know what to say to her other than Happy Birthday, not to her and not to her best friend sitting on the other side of the coffee table from me.
Happy Birthday was all I knew to say. That was the point. But it needed padding. And I really did want her to have a good day. And, as I remember, she really did. And she was so effusive about the card that I became more generous with opening my hand to give them away.
I’ve been thinking about times when I haven’t known what to say, or how. Last week I drove to work numbering my points for an email I’d have to send when I arrived. I replayed an old conversation in my head while working in the yard, trying to come up with a better outcome. Lately, I’ve been talking myself through a conversation I’ve yet to have, wondering if it’s really best to have it at all. I’m wondering if there’s a good way it can go, wondering how I can keep to my convictions if the other person reacts badly.
I don’t think a pretty card and a story will help in this case. But my point definitely needs padding.