Monday, January 01, 2007

Blessed Christmas

My head always struggles this time of year. I did not have this angst in my brain as a child. In Helena, Montana, everyone was pretty much the same economically. I didn't see disparity between groups of people. My husband's parents were well off by Helena's standards. We grew up three blocks apart. Truly, minimal difference existed between our families. While they had a little money and a successful jewelry store, my father had education and the respect of the community as the principal of the local junior high.

Seattle is different. We have tons of folks with tons of money. Recently, an article in the paper told about a high school history teacher who donated $1 million to the history department at UW. He is retired and never had a salary of more than $35,000 per year. He merely dabbled in our hot real estate market on the side and earned millions. Nobody knew. His first priority was his students and he is grateful for his education--hence, the donation. The history teacher is one example of many.

Yet everyday on the streets of Seattle, one can witness severe poverty. Furthermore, tucked within all of the neighborhoods and only blocks from million dollar houses are apartments or small homes with people barely making it. Through my church we help these needy families in Edmonds, Lynnwood, and Mukilteo with food, presents, and basics such as toothpaste. My kids would pick a matching child of the same sex and age and shop for them. Now the match yeilds older teens who need winter coats and socks. But my help seems paltry. The families are still destitute. We still spend too much on ourselves. In my opinion, my children were raised with privilege and a nice house beyond anything I ever imagined as a kid in Helena. It is all so dichotomous.

And I am haunted always by a Christmas Eve 25 years ago. As a young lawyer working in a downtown Seattle law firm, I waited in the dark for my bus. Working in the big city was exciting. More than once while standing at the bus stop, I would look up at the sky scrapers and feel amazed that this little girl from Montana was there. But this one dark night I was approached by a homeless man. He told me he had no where to go and it was Christmas. He asked me if he could come home with me. In all likelihood, alcohol gave him the courage to pose the question. He was not belligerent. He was not coming on to me. He was not panhandling. He was a desperate and sad soul.

How did I respond? I told him it was not possible. I said no. I apologized and wished him a "Merry Christmas". He walked away. I stared at the streets of Seattle and the Christmas lights through the bus window and tears trickled down my cheeks. The encounter profoundly affected me that Christmas and every Christmas since. I did nothing to help this person except to feel terrible about his predicament.

My response over the years, I guess, has been to teach my children. They have received my message and for this my soul is grateful. My son plans to head for South America after he graduates to teach English to children and in some way to improve living conditions for the poorest of the poor. My daughter is hooked up with some great organizations trying to end global poverty. From her, I received my best Christmas present--donations in our name to Oxfam.

Each of us received a card describing a representation of the gift she made in our name. Along with the description was a personal note from her:

1. For her brother, she bought a sheep.

"Dear Lucas, You are fortunate to be able to swathe yourself in wool and leather and to consume lamb and steak whenever you please. But some people have to live off of rice and thin textiles. This Christmas you can feel happy in knowing that your gift is allowing a family to survive and make a living. So enjoy your roast beef! Love, Kaley"

2. For her Daddy, she protected traditional fishing grounds.

"Dear Daddy, Since we have the means to be able to pay for a personal fishing trip every year to Alaska I thought it would be applicable to ensure that some family with less than that can do the same thing! I love you and Merry Christmas---feel good about this gift. Kaley"

3. For me, an emergency toilet was purchased in my honor.

"Dear Mommy, when you have to go to the bathroom you have the luxury of looking out at a beautiful perched view of Puget Sound in a room that will eventually be etched in luxurious marble. Some people have to shit in their living room. You can feel good this Chirstmas that you are upping someone's quality if life even a smidgen by providing them with a fraction of the luxury you have when you excrete. I love you and Merry Christmas. Kaley"

And the song in my head as I struggle with dichotomy. Thank you, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young for "Teach Your Children":

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good bye.
Teach your children well,
Their father's hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you'll know by.
Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.
And you, of tender years,
Can't know the fears that your elders grew by,
And so please help them with your youth,
They seek the truth before they can die.
Can you hear and do you care and Cant you see we must be free to
Teach your children what you believe in.
Make a world that we can live in.
Teach your parents well,
Their children's hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you'll know by.
Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.