Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Small Acts

This is the time of year when an act of charity is personally mandatory. There's something about the first real cold - and it's icy cold right now even in this part of California - that brings a sense of urgency to the idea of giving. And tis the season to highlight the differences of the haves and have nots.

I didn't realize just how fortunate I was until I gained a window into the lives of some students over the years. Some kids studied the holidays as portrayed on TV like bitter anthropologists. Occasionally, one of them would grill me sarcastically after the winter break. Once I had kids of my own, it might go something like this: "I bet you had a Christmas tree, didn't you? I bet your kids had presents. Were they wrapped? Were they all excited for Santa? Were they like . . . oh San-ta! I was good this year. Oh!"

No one really has TV-perfect holidays, no duh. What teenager - or adult - isn't at all bored, disappointed or annoyed by forced family celebrations? I already knew that some families choose not to celebrate or suffer an unexpected tragedy that ruins the holidays. What I didn't realize is some families don't have a plan at all. The kids don't know what to expect. The circumstances might involve poverty, illness, or addiction but the end result is the same: basic needs left unfulfilled while the rest of the world seems to be rolling in peace, love and joy.

The first December I was unemployed, I took a walk in my neighborhood at night, and instead of enjoying the sights and solitude, I couldn't stop noticing how much people seemed to have from the outside looking in. I couldn't stop thinking about my bank balance and how much my neighbors' light displays must cost. I couldn't stop thinking about what I couldn't afford to give my kids . . . tickets to the Nutcracker, tuition to the better preschools, and home-cooked feasts that looked something like the Sunset magazine spreads (might have been inflating my cooking skills a tad).

Then, I came across a mom on Craigslist who was asking for clothes donations for her little girl. She said she had been injured and was struggling to keep her apartment, living on food stamps. I sent her a huge box. I have no idea what was true or not. She was asking for clothes and probably hoping for money. But all I had to offer were secondhand clothes and toys. And it was time for me to stop worrying about what I lacked and focus on what I could provide.

Last December, I bought new toys and kids' jackets for a local nonprofit collecting donations. I found myself down there on Christmas Eve morning. There were people lined up down the block and around more than one corner, waiting for donations. White delivery vans stuffed with clothes, toys and food, slowly navigated through the crowds on their way out of the parking lot. Seeing so many in need was stunning. I noticed a range of facial expressions . . . indifference, impatience, sadness, embarrassment . . . but what still haunted me hours later was the all-encompassing vulnerability.

Later, at my in-laws' Christmas Eve dinner, I sat at the formal dining table with the fine china and silver, classical music in the background. After a multi-course gourmet meal, most of us were still sitting at the table, about to transition to opening the mountain of presents surrounding the tree, and I couldn't shake the images from the morning. I decided to talk about what I'd seen and fully embarrassed myself by breaking into sobs (hello, my name is bleeding heart liberal). I couldn't articulate why I was so upset at the time.

I think I was touched because I felt just how tenuous my own financial situation was, yet I also experienced a tremendous amount of gratitude for what I had (don't worry, I won't be making a list). Though a small act of charity might not amount to much when considering the behemoth problem of poverty, I think it helps both the haves and have nots. And I think we are all kind of both, in one way or another.


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