The homes in my neighborhood are putting on the glitz, just as they are all over the country this time of year. A thirty minute jaunt yields houses that have undergone a transformation from ordinary to lively or stately to very grand, depending on the block. Some of my favorites are Arts and Crafts style homes; they boast a sturdy grace and warmth when festooned with crayon-hued or starry-white lights. Doors are festive with ribboned wreaths, and winking blue snowflakes or silvery orbs brighten some porches. Shining in a spotlight are icicles so impressive that for a moment there is an impulse to feel the chill burning my fingers from a stolen touch. But, of course, illuminated plastic ones bedeck these eaves.
The walks bring chuckles and appreciative comments from my spouse and me. There is Santa in his sleigh with three lively reindeer, only they are leaping from a treehouse (where Mrs. Claus smiles widely alongside a deer left behind–what is his story?). The treehouse is as attractive as the main house. One of our favorites is a giant fir tree that, being too mighty to fully decorate, morphs into a smaller one as a more manageable Christmas tree is outlined among branches with traditional lights. A proud bright star tops it off. From a distance it looks as though it could almost rival the fabulous tree that watches over downtown Portland in our “living room”, Pioneer Square. Which is breathtaking, I might add. After Thanskgiving, I couldn’t get enough of its beauty and cheer; neither could dozens of others.
Yes, we live in a beautiful city. I am thankful more than usual for shelter as the weather turns ornery and demanding with rain-driven winds and persistent cold sweeping across the streets with no mercy for those who have no place to rest. It reminds me that reality is only partly what we determine, despite our work hard to make it so. It is also comprised of unforeseeable circumstances. No one expects to be trolling the streets looking for a place to lay his or her head. There isn’t always a plan B or C for those who lose jobs, become ill and use up their money to pay medical expenses, escape from domestic violence, or struggle and bargain with demon addictions or severe mental illness. And for many of those folks, seeing those warm, vividly decorated houses only brings grief.
There was a winter in Texas a little like that when I was still young enough to rebound despite circumstances. Times were lean then, too. The economy was not as robust as hoped and work was elusive for the father of our two young children. I was working at an ice cream store and making next to nothing, my hands tired and sore after hours of scooping the sweet confections and working in a huge freezer. Water, electricity and rent for the small apartment had to be paid. After that, there was little left for food. The cupboards were not completely bare but they glared at me with a half-full cereal box, a few cans of soup, a box or two of macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and crackers, some white rice. The children, two and four, had mattresses on the floor for beds in their room but managed to enjoy that, though I furtively checked each night for spiders and the assortment of other insects that made Texas their preferred habitat. For fun my son and daughter climbed and slid down a bright wooden slide and hideaway combo their father, an artist and carpenter, had built for them.
They counted on me, on us. And I was not sure I could be the parent I needed to be with stress and discouragement wearing us down. There was just too little to meet so many needs. The truth was, I wasn’t sure I could even be the human being I wanted to be as I wondered what would become of us. My oldest sister lived in the area and she helped as she could. But angry and embarrassed, I told her as little as possible, like how mammoth cockroaches scuttled underfoot in the dark nights when using the bathroom. Or when I spied them in the kitchen and grabbed the children and ran to the neighbors. They had them, too.
Signs of Christmas seemed like rumors of doomsday and it advanced despite our desire to forget it that year. I found praying strengthened and soothed me, as usual, although I was getting impatient for more immediate assistance. I had gone to church at times in Texas out of a lifelong habit, but didn’t quite feel connected to the well-fed, content congregants. Still, I nurtured a strong sense of God’s steadfast presence in my life and the world despite the blows life had unleashed. So I hung on by my fingertips.
Yet as the days passed, a persistent dis-ease nagged me despite my best intentions: where was the succor I needed this December, that very day? Where was the job that could help us get back on track? Most importantly, where was the old persistent hope that was essential to remaining strong, finding more love in our lives, and designing a safe and sure way through the trials? I contemplated these things as I sat in the empty living room and my family slept fitfully. I looked in the corner where the tree should have been, and was not. I remembered the resplendent beauty of fresh snow, toboganning down an icy hill and making igloos in the Michigan snow we had left far behind, and the memories felt like a burden.
One Saturday morning a few days before Christmas, someone knocked on the front door. I peered out the drawn curtains and found two strangers on my stoop. Smoothing back my hair and quieting the children, I opened the door a crack.
A man and woman smiled shyly and said my name, the person they meant to see. “We’ve brought you a couple things. From the church you attend.”
I fought back the terrible urge to tell them they had the wrong apartment number, that I wasn’t who they thought. I wasn’t a real church-goer, at all. There must be a mistake, as I did not take charity; I survived one way or another like everyone had to do and I would get through this. But two big boxes were in their arms and they looked at me with a simple sweetness. I bit my lip, recalled my manners, and allowed them into my spare, cold living room.
And they showed me their gifts of food for our family and wrapped toys for the children, and decorations for an artificial tree that waited outside the front door. They did not make a fuss. They did not pat my toddlers on their heads as they pawed through the food with squeals, grabbed the tree and the lights, eyes wide with amazement. The couple just smiled and turned to leave. Tears broke through my astonishment. I tried to speak, but could barely stammer out a whispered, “Thank you.” And then they were gone.
I stood with my smallness and debated whether it was good to receive or not. The humiliation of having to accept such gifts battled it out with gratitude and relief, with a restoration of hope. Thankfulness won out as the children and I set up the tree and made a hot breakfast. I realized later that the gift-givers had not told me their names. But their acceptance and warmth–those stayed with me.
So we had a Christmas Eve and morning, after all. We had food to last a couple weeks. And what I learned was that pride can be a damaging thing, and that people care more than we even imagine. That we get what we most need if we have even a little faith. Gifts of Spirit first and last: kindness, compassion. Basic human good will when all else is failing, if we open ourselves a little.
The places in my neighborhood give me happiness. I love good architecture, bountiful plant life all year ’round, families coming and going as they busily live their lives, joggers running, their faces flushed with health, dogs and cats sidling up to me. I feel my good fortune like a surprise bonus.
But this time of year I remember how it was, how it can be, and, surely, how it is for countless others. I hope you will remember them, too, and share a little more –quietly, maybe even secretly–and hearten someone with whatever is needed and good. And if you are on the other side, the far side of joy, open your door. See what happens.