|A Tree for Christmas|
It's not a large tree, but in her one bedroom apartment, it fits perfectly. "I love the smell," she says as she ties another silver ball onto a branch. She breathes deeply. "Oh wow! This is so exciting."
I am sitting in a chair watching her, asking questions, chatting, attaching hooks to each ball in preparation of its placement on the tree. My co-worker is holding the video camera, capturing the moment, silently observing.
I had chatted with Karen the day before when at the apartment building the shelter owns in the downtown core. I was arranging clients for a photo shoot for a new brochure that is being developed to assist in fund-raising for the shelter where I work. The goal is to pay off the mortgage so that we can convert more apartments into affordable housing units. Karen had agreed to have her photo taken for the brochure as a way to give back to the agency that has, as she describes it, 'saved my life'.
I knew Karen when she was staying at the shelter. A tiny bird of a woman, chronic health conditions, addiction, along with a messy divorce left her without a home, or the ability to work. In her weakened state, she became one of those who 'fall through the cracks', and end up on the doorstep of the shelter. Over the course of her four years in and out of various housing programs and shelters in the city, she never had a place of her own at Christmas.
And then, in June of this year, Karen got a place of her own. A one bedroom apartment to call her home.
As I watched Karen carefully place decorations on the tree, I was moved and touched and reminded of the delicacy of this thread called the human condition. A thread made up of tiny moments that link us to the wonder, and sometimes sorrow, of being human, of being part of humankind, alone, yet not alone. Together, yet separate.
Karen's tree was a gift. A gift from a woman she met during the summer while in hospital for six weeks receiving chemotherapy. The woman, Judy, was in the next bed. For six weeks the two women from very separate and different walks of life connected. They talked and shared and when Karen got out of hospital, Judy took it upon herself to create a welcome home for Karen in her new apartment.
And that's where the magic kept unfolding.
Being released from hospital into homelessness is one of the tragedies in our social fabric. For Karen, being released back to the shelter was a given. Until management stepped in and made it possible for her to get the keys to her own place.
And then Judy stepped in and 'prettied up' the place. She held a house-warming for Karen, inviting her lady friends to come and create a place of comfort and beauty for this woman she'd met while lying in a hospital bed, recovering from her own serious medical condition.
I sat and watched and chatted with Karen yesterday and I knew it was there. In that room with us. It was palpable. The spirit of Christmas. The best of our human condition dancing in the twinkling lights of a Christmas tree that was a gift from a stranger who has become a friend and who continues to take the time to ensure this woman for whom life has not been easy, finds a less stressful, more beautiful path.
"What does having your own place this Christmas mean to you?" I asked Karen as she tossed tinsel and reminisced about Christmases past.
"It means I get to spend it with my daughter. We get to be a family."
And there it was, all over again. The meaning of Christmas. It's not in the baubles and glitter. The gifts or the Christmas cards strung along a mantle. It's right here between us. Right where we are. It's a place to belong. To be welcomed. To be together. A place where family meets and connects to what makes magic happen -- our human condition shining in Love.