Goodwill Amongst Men
Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat. Mother TheresaI am working in retail for the first time this Christmas. At a store whose contents are on many a wish list. I am witnessing a side of this season of giving that I’d rather not see. Holiday shopping is in full swing now, there is a level of pandemonium as moms and dads desperately try to find that size six pink hoodie that their little angel will just die if she doesn't find under the tree. Boyfriends awkwardly attempt to pick the most inoffensive size for their beloved and people drop piles of cash so that their receivers will know just how much they’re loved.
Yesterday I asked a woman if she wished for me to put a sticker over the price on the pants she was buying for her daughter. “No” she said between pressed lips, “I want her to know exactly how much I’m spending on her”.
This is the lesson she’s teaching her child about Christmas? And yet, I know that there is a part of me that has the same feelings of entitlement that this woman's daughter might also share. I have been blessed to always have had a luscious evergreen pregnant with a mountain of gifts. In fact, since I was seven I’ve had two. And while I spend a great deal of Christmas day plagued with western middle class guilt, I think I might have a very violent vendetta against the man in the red suit if ever my stocking were ever filled with coal instead of gift certificates and socks!
Last week, after a day of Christmas chaos and gross overspending, I met up with my sister and a few close friends at a place of a very different kind of chaos. A place where people argue over beds instead of the last size 12.
We had been asked by another friend to come down to the DI to help out with The Christmas Wish List. A website that shares the stories of homeless Calgarians in the hopes of connecting them with a personalized gift made possible by the generosity of more fortunate Calgarians. Our job was to interview the clients so that their stories and wishes could be posted to the site.
As we gathered in the little office awaiting our instructions, I was unsure of what to expect. I wasn't sure how some people might react to some of the questions and if I would be able to connect with the interviewees. I was handed a stack of forms and given a place at a table. On each form were a series of questions. Name? birthdate? How long have you been homeless? What are the reasons you are on the street? What are the biggest stresses of being homeless? What are your interests? What gives you hope? What would lift your spirits? What would you like for Christmas? And then a list of acceptable items: Work boots, phone card, transit passes, jackets, etc.
A long line of clients waited at the door as staff guided the first in line to an available volunteer. My first interview was with Donna* (not her real name). A blond woman in her forties. Beautiful, in a hardened way. She spoke of the relationship that ended, leaving her with nothing five years ago. About her 18 year old daughter. Her angel. She doesn't like her coming down to this corner of the city. Its too dangerous for her here. They arrange for times to meet. Her daughter will call and leave a message. Sometimes Donna doesn't get them. It hurts that she can't be there for the girl whose name she has tattooed across her shoulders. A permanent reminder of the gift she is in her life. What gives Donna hope? The dream that someday she will be able to have her daughter over anytime in a place all of her own.
A young man sits down next. He's 21. Born a year after me. We are both Gemini. Unlike my friends and I, the light is missing from his eyes. He has lost contact with his family. Made some poor decisions. “What would lift your spirits this Christmas?” I ask him. “A gift from somebody…Anybody.” is his reply.
More men sit down. One with a black eye and a quiet smile who wants nothing more than to see his kids this Christmas. They are in New Brunswick. It's a long way home. I get no requests for gift cards or fancy electronics. The requests are simple. Boots, overalls, a back pack-if possible a new one that doesn't have holes.
An older gentleman sits down. I ask his birthdate. 1955. He looks nearly 70, his face weathered and cracked by the years slipping by. He was attacked 12 years ago and made legally blind. He made his living driving machines. He can't have a licence now. He is thankful everyday for the eye doctor who gives him hope pro bono. I ask what would lift his spirits. His voice cracks and tears well up in his eyes as he manages a quiet “peace on earth and goodwill amongst men”. He shrugs as he concedes to the fact that that won't happen anytime soon. He marks down an am/fm radio. The music takes him away from this place. As he gets up to leave I ask him if I can give him a hug. He is speechless. His hand goes to his heart. He nods a silent yes.
Mother Theresa said once, that if there is no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to eachother. As we stood in an embrace in the midst of the chaos on the second floor, we belonged to eachother and if only for a second, I hope that that man felt some of the peace and goodwill he so desired.
The interviews gathered to a close and my friends and I made our way out of the shelter to a restaurant where we were able to share our stories over a meal that we got to choose from a menu. We recounted the jokes we had swapped, the moments we had witnessed, the things in our lives that we are grateful for.
It doesn't need to be said that I am grateful for a roof and for food. That goes without saying. On that night as I looked around at my sister and my friends and the memories we have shared together I felt more thankful than I’ve ever been. For being wanted. For being loved and cared for. For not being forgotten.