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“We almost never think of the present, and when we do, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future.”  Pascal

When I lived in NJ, there was a new age gift store with a sign outside proclaiming, “Remember the precious present,” cleverly being pithy and exhorting me to buy at the same time.  I would drive by it and mutter, “Commercialism, blah, blah, exploiting new age psycho babble for blatant consumerism, blah blah, useless chatchkes to clutter up our already cluttered lives blah blah.”  Not once did I actually remember to be in “the precious present.”  I was always so obsessed with my self righteous pontification that the present came and went and became the future and I missed the whole thing.

Each year I have wrestled with the meaning of giving and receiving gifts.  For a few years, as my sisters skyrocketed to financial prosperity, a “can you top this?” enterprise emerged, with everyone in the family insanely buying absurdly expensive gifts for each other.  It peaked the year my sister bought me a new electric range, because she “couldn’t bear us suffering with that old thing anymore.”  A range?  For Christmas?  What was next?  A car? Not that I wasn’t grateful mind you.  I did need a new range.  It’s just that I was kind of expecting ….a  sweater. Or maybe a new wok.  The stove sent our family into a frenzy that finally ended when I realized it took a year to pay off the Christmas gifts.

At that point, my sister agreed, “You’re right.  Let’s make lists so that we can buy what is in each sibling’s price range. That way, no one ever wastes shopping time, and the receiver is always satisfied, since the gift was on the list.”  I would receive these lists: Liz: A new scuba watch, Le Creuset cookware, an underwater strobe, a Kitchen Aid mixer, an HDTV, new socks.  Krysia: A new Ipod, Czech crystal jewelry, Size 9 Pumas, the entire works of Joseph Campbell, a Bose stereo system, and some Gap T shirts.  How could I get Liz socks when I knew in her heart of hearts she wanted a scuba watch?  (Good to 300 feet of course.)  I fantasized that she threw in the HDTV as a joke.  Only later did I discover that she had harbored a secret hope that the entire family would chip in to get her the “one big gift.”

One year I tried home made gifts.  The sight of me cursing as I sewed satin purple ribbon to a sleep pillow stuffed with lavender, or cursing as I cut myself with the mat knife struggling to make a hand bound scrap book, or cursing as I   attempted to decoupage small boxes made my craftsman husband giggle.  His family long ago had taken to sending centerpieces with candles surrounded by Styrofoam angels and gift certificates to J Crew.  He would merrily go off on a power walk leaving me struggling to separate my fingers from another Crazy Glue mishap.

I tried one year of no gifts.  Don’t try this .

Another year, I went to India.  I just skipped Christmas entirely, packed my bags and left.  On Christmas day I was in the city of Ajanta taking in the monumental statues of Buddhas carved in dark, musty caves.  I told myself that Buddha and Jesus were probably reincarnations of the same being, and what better place to spend Christmas?  Yet as I combed the bazaars, and wandered through silk and sandalwood shops, my mind chattered, “This box is perfect for Monik.  I know Alex will love this little glass Buddha.  Wait till Jack gets his glow in the dark Bahoubali!”  I gave up.  Gift giving must be in my DNA.

So I did a Google search of Christmas gifts and DNA. I found this German site. “Do you have enough from socks and ties or similar unpersonal gifts? You are searching for a gift idea, unusually, personally and really unique? You have found it. It is your own DNA! A gift that is unique, unusual,  particular, personal and individual. We pack your DNA (your hereditary property) in trailers from glass. As chain trailer, earring, key trailer, heart.  As decoration in gold and silver. Or packed up into a flower.” Hmmm.  Let me think. Who would just love to own some of my mucus membranes packed into a charm?

Then I found it.  In his book, Mushrooms and Mankind, mycologist (mushroom specialist) James Arthur has presented this startling proposal.  The Christmas present is the recreation of an ancient Siberian Shamanic ritual involving the amanita muscaria, a potent hallucinogenic mushroom.   “They (the shamans) enter through an opening through the rooftops, traditionally, (sic) and bring these mushrooms with them in sacks. They traditionally wear Red and White (The colors of the Mushroom). Reindeer are native to Siberia, and eat these Entheogenic Mushrooms,  which grow in a symbiotic/mycorrhizal relationship under… ready? Christmas trees.”  Arthur goes on to explain that these mushrooms are strung together and hung on the mantle to dry – a precurser to our popcorn and cranberries.

So basically, my need to place something under the tree for my family is the result of my Paleolithic relationship with hallucinogens.  I like it.  I’ve always thought Christmas shopping was one big, consensus hallucination, “Wow, look at this.  Dad would look so good in these pajamas!” “Hey, did you see this?  A corkscrew shaped like a rabbit!”

“No way, let me see. Whoa, you’re right.”

When you’re shopping, there is no past or future, just the precious present…..

I’ve decided this Christmas to enroll my family into The North American Mycology Association.  They’ll receive free issues of The Mycophile, NAMA’s bi-monthly newsletter, and McIlvainea: The Journal of Amateur Mycology, I think it was most interesting that when I went to their website, their logo mushroom was…the amanita muscaria.