A gift from Imabari

An encounter with an old woman in a small Japanese port city taught me a lesson about giving and receiving gifts, and what the word contribution can mean. I was with my good friend Greg on our annual trip to some of the most wondrous parts of Japan. After several stops in Shikoku, we were heading to the Seto Islands and needed to catch a ferry in Imabari, a place famous for towels of all things. Imabari no taoru would be appreciated by our relatives in Kobe and Tokyo, and we bought some in a small store dedicated to this source of local pride.

Greg purchased our tickets. He’s fluent in Japanese and can navigate the complex timetables and transportation options whereas I’m limited to basic transactions like ordering food. We waited by ourselves near the water.

After a few minutes, an old woman with a cane and several bags approached us and started talking. She was at least 80 years old, perhaps much older. I couldn’t understand her and my first instinct was that she wanted something from us. But Greg explained she was just making small talk. Then she fished inside her purse, pulled out a small wooden carving, and handed it Greg.

The Gift from Imabari

She told us that her husband carved them and she liked to hand them out to people who would be traveling or living abroad. Her husband liked knowing that his small creations were spreading around the world, and she was pleased that I was from New York. So she looked for another one to give to me. After a fruitless search in her large bag (“I always carry more with me,” she said, disappointedly) she unstrapped the one from her mobile phone and handed it to me.

We thanked her but felt compelled to offer her something in return. Greg asked if we could pay for them. She looked at him soberly, “If you give me money, I can’t let you have them.”

We quickly recovered from our blunder and talked a bit more about the carvings before the ferry came. The boat filled with schoolchildren as we made stops at several islands, and I marveled at the gorgeous scenery and at a life where people commuted this way.

A different way to commute

Our destination was a small island called Yuge. As we exited the boat, I saw the old woman, by herself, carrying her bags and her cane and heading up the steep ramp. I ran up to her calling “Sumimasen!”  ("Excuse me!"), and carried her things. At the top of the ramp, we smiled, bowed towards each other, and said goodbye.

Now, I carry that little wooden carving wherever I go. It reminds me of the gifts available to me every day, and that I can experience connections and other beautiful moments if only I’m open to accepting them.


I like to think we gave her a different kind of gift, our own small contribution. I imagine her coming home, relating a story about the two foreigners she met at the Imabari ferry, and telling her husband that two of his creations would be going on a journey soon.

10 gifts for that special someone (you)

Are you happy?

You’re probably busy. And stressed. And have a full life. But happy?

“2300 years ago, Aristotle concluded that, more than anything else, men and women seek happiness. Much has changed since Aristotle’s time. And yet...we do not understand what happiness is any better than Aristotle did, and as for learning how to attain that blessed condition, one could argue we have made no progress at all.”

Happiness starts with you. (If you’re not happy, how can you make others happy?) So here are 10 investments you can make in yourself. 10 inexpensive ways to help you create, grow, learn, have fun, and connect.

1. Write.

Working on your writing is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. Writing helps you clarify your thinking, is an outlet for expressing your ideas and opinions, and is one of the best ways to shape your reputation and give you access to opportunities.

Whether it’s with a moleskin or a MacAir, find a comfortable cafe and start writing more.

2. Curl up with a good book.

Reading Like a Writer” will give you a new appreciation for reading as well as writing. Reading is a way to learn, to escape, or to simply admire how language can be used by a master craftsperson.

Try some beautifully-crafted short stories like those in “Olive Kitteridge” or “Interpreter of Maladies” or in Hemingway’s complete collection.

3. Subscribe to TED talks. 

Perhaps one of the simplest yet most wondrous ways to learn is to watch TED talks. Every weekday, for free, you can get a world-class presentation delivered to your phone.

Where else could you hear from Seth Godin on driving change and Malcolm Gladwell on spaghetti sauce? Or, in a few engaging minutes, learn about stunning advances in computer viruses and bio-engineering? Or be inspired by an opera singer who wouldn’t let a double lung transplant stop her from singing?

Watch every talk or let serendipity be your guide. Being in the middle of such a confluence of fields and perspectives is where great ideas come from.

4. Speak up. 

Public speaking, like writing, is a valuable and eminently learnable skill. Improving your speaking is one of the best investments you can make in yourself and your career.

Two excellent books - “Presentation Zen” on visual design and “Resonate” on storytelling - will be enough to differentiate your talks from almost everyone else’s.

5. Eat well.

Good food, well-made, has always been one of life’s joys. But Michael Pollan can teach you to think about - and appreciate - where food comes from. “Omnivore’s Dilemma”  and “In Defense of Food” give you a balanced and informed way to think about food.

Far from constraining your choices, Pollan opens up your eyes to what good food can and should be like.

6. Move! (And get a fitibit to help you.) 

Sometimes we’re so fixated on gym memberships and particular routines that we forget the basics. Simple things like going for your annual physical or just walking more may be the best things you can do.

Get a fitbit (a small pedometer) and see how that little bit of feedback throughout the day can help you dramatically increase how much you walk.

7. Schedule time to play.

Why do weekly meetings fit so easily in your calendar but not a weekly date with your partner? Or play time with your kids?

Pull out your calendar and block off time for something different - a movie or a night of stories or a jigsaw puzzle. Having playtime in your life makes all the other hours richer, too.

8. Give thanks.

Sometimes the best way for you to feel good is to recognize someone for something they’ve done.

A hand-written letter, now more than ever, shows you care. And the response you’ll get will make you feel wonderful.

9. Give back.

Don’t just hope the world gets better. Put hope in action. It’s easier than ever to give and also to get feedback on the difference you’re making.

Become part of a movement like KivaWaterAid, and Donors Choose. Donations to these organizations are truly gifts that keep on giving.

10. Finally, the best present...is being present.

One of the best gifts I ever received was a small booklet titled “be free where you are.”

The book made me aware that I was always looking ahead or looking behind. And how I was missing the only moment I was truly alive - the present moment.

From now on, I don’t want expensive stuff. I want to invest in my happiness instead.

Life is a verb. Go live it.