It’s Christmas morning and I’ve just come in from an early morning walk with a friend. The streets are still quiet, but whomever we meet seems animated by that “Good will toward all” sentiment of the day. “Merry Christmas,” something rote but right, going beyond the customary “Hi,” if that much. May that little extra last into the New Year. My companion and I agree that it’s a relief to have the big build-up to Christmas over. I’m grateful to have the peace the season promises. I do find, however, on reflection this morning, a moment of sheer grace in recent days which gives me some hint about the possibilities of finding the spirit of the season—the spirit, it should be in any season—in the most unexpected places.
One of those days of the the general frenzy of the countdown to Christmas, I found myself in the local hardware store, in the midst of a project. The place was thronged with folks buying holiday ornaments and the other trappings of the holidays and I had a hard time securing help. Taking matters into my own hands, I seized on a stray clerk who seemed to be in a holiday daze himself, spinning from one demand or another, but for a moment at loose ends, it seemed. I’d noticed him before, a burly young man, the sort I’d normally presume was informed, competent and available solely for my purposes. But I’d also noticed—how was this apparent?—that he had about him a sensitivity, vulnerability a life of his own that would be worth knowing about: an individual, in short. I’d gotten as far as putting a name to the face—Eddie—and we’d had a brief conversation or two reaching a little way across the divide of customer and clerk, that divide that seems necessary to the efficient running of the commercial machine. He had a family, I knew that much (and how, I wondered—but politely didn’t inquire into—did he support them at this likely minimum wage job?)
Eddie readily complied with my request, hoisting the bag on a broad shoulder and as I steered him to my truck in the parking lot. He commented on how good it was to get outside in the fresh air and confided that he was feeling a bit strung out. Wanting to give him the pretext of a few extra breaths of fresh air on a sunny winter’s day, I asked him what it was about and he revealed that he’d had just four hours of sleep the night before, nothing for breakfast other than a cup of coffee and a doughnut, and was in the midst of a low blood sugar crash. I’m certainly familiar with that malaise. I was about to drive on when I realized I could actually remedy the problem, payback for his favor to me as though I needed an excuse. At this season I carry around cellophaned and ribboned packages of the homemade, end-of-the-year packs I make for and distribute to my friends and an occasional worthy stranger, in the course of my rounds in town. He certainly qualified as worthy and somewhere between a stranger and an acquaintance.
“Hey,” I said, “I’ve got just the thing for you.”
His face showed surprise. I had something for him? As he unloaded the concrete into the back of the truck, I retrieved from the glove compartment one of the packs. “Here,” I said, as I dropped it into his hand, “A little something to raise the blood sugar and give you some lasting power at the same time.” He looked at it dubiously and I was half afraid he’d give it back. Perhaps he didn’t care for nuts. Perhaps he preferred donuts.
I pushed past my reservations. “Open it,” I commanded, “You need this right away.” He hesitated but obediently undid the ribbon and peeled back the cellophane. He surveyed the cornucopia of walnuts and cashews and almonds, dried plums and apricots, coconut flakes, gold and silver stars, dates, chocolate dipped pretzels. “Go ahead,” I prompted. He reached tentative fingers over the unexpected offering, his hunger overcoming whatever hesitance he had. I was as saddened by his hesitation as much as my own. Shouldn’t this be more in the natural course of things? He gingerly sampled. I could almost feel the sugars and proteins hitting his blood stream.
“I make these myself,” I said, and we talked about where I get my ingredients (bulk bins at the local natural food store), how roasted the nuts (325 degrees for a 30 to 45 minutes for the more durable nuts, 15 minutes for the delicate pecans, pan fried in butter for the even more delicate pine nuts.) Since my neighborhood was local to the store, I invited him to its more than usually opulent display of holiday lights. “Christmas Tree Lane,” I said, and in fact he’d heard about it. It’s an old tradition, fairly well known hereabouts.
“Really? I’ve heard of you.” He promised to come and bring his family. I described my house but stopped short of inviting him to ring the doorbell and enjoy some hot chocolate. There are, after all, boundaries in this world of distinctions, customer and employee, friend and chance acquaintance. Necessary? You might say, but more’s the pity. We parted with the requisite, merry Christmas etc. and I went on to my job and he to his. But not before I dipped into my Santa’s stash in the glove compartment and fetched another especially fulsome bag. “And one for the family.”
“Really!” he said, “You don’t have to.”
But I did have to. Right in front of me was a clear need and an easy answer to it.
It’s not as though clear needs are not all around me. I only have to stop at a traffic light and there is a person with needs stationed there with a sign, “ANYTHING HELPS.” I usually put into my busy gear and pass by, bad on me, but I must confess I have a hard time confronting needs that go far beyond my capacity to address it. But it hurts a little, each time, to pass by. Maybe I was making up for this everyday stinginess, but in any case it felt good to be given the opportunity to give what really for me, with my privileges, is an endless supply. As I drove on into my day, I caught myself grinning and looked at myself in the rear view mirror. Yes, I had the kind of silly grin you can’t help yourself from at a really good joke or an especially spirited exchange with a like soul. In a world of so much deprivation and calamity, of homelessness at home and displacement around the world, there is so little I can do, it all seems so overwhelming. My general way of dealing is to put my head down and go about my work, addressing the needs of the customer of the moment, the challenge of the task at hand. What a favor he was doing, lifting me out of that narrow mindset!
As I write, I’m put in mind of those lines from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Scrooge, reflecting on his habitual withholding ways, making business his paramount preoccupation, says with bitter contrition,
Business? Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the ocean of compassion.
I’ll hope to see Eddie and his family on Christmas Tree Lane one of these last nights of the old year before the lights are gradually retired and we return to business as usual. I’ll have a pot of hot chocolate simmering on the stove for them. Or for any other worthies—and all are worthy.