For way too many years in my naïve bubble of white middle class privilege I could not imagine why Christmas was a difficult time for some people. Was it because they had had such fond memories and now things had changed, they’d gotten older, they had kids, perhaps there was no one to shower them with gifts, cook a hot meal or tuck them in?
When I lived in Vancouver, thanks to partner number two we would semi-regularly trek to St Andrew’s Wellesley United for the Sunday morning service. I had been raised a Presbyterian (now a wonderer at the world and not really of any domination though Zen bhuddist seems to align with some of my beliefs and practices), so, not a big stretch. Really the reason we went I think is because the reverend Sheila Mackinnon put on a great show. It was like having Shelagh Rogers of the CBC give the sermon. There was humour, spontaneity, laughter and much food for thought. Of course my partner at the time was more devout in his practice than I, but the show and the promise of a Sunday brunch, boozy or not, were more than enough to get me out of bed.
The reverends (there was more than just one) regularly mentioned the First United Mission down on Hastings street in the downtown east side of Vancouver. A place I referred to and still do as ground zero––for drug use and abuse, for poverty, homelessness and just the saddest reflection of disenfranchised and victimized humanity.
From time to time I have had to deal with severe cases of the blues. I’m not sure if there is clinical depression lurking in my depths, but I try to deal with it with a hands on approach. Back then I took inventory: Was I sleeping? Eating properly? Bank account was overdrawn, was that it? No success with auditions? Another publisher rejected me? Should I meditate more? Do some therapy around it? Volunteer? Aha! I had heard that taking the focus off of one’s self was a great cure for feeling better! But volunteering to that point had meant stuffing envelopes or something innocuous and boring. Had I ever seen a soup kitchen? Of course I had. In the movies. Of course.
Anyway, as I learned, the First United Mission always needed volunteers so I took the cue and I marched myself down there (took the bus) to Hastings and Main. Hastings then, spoke to a former world of wide busy streets with trolley buses, cafes, Chinese restaurants, grand hotels, big department stores and prosperity of Vancouver in other glory days. The spotlight now was definitely not on Hastings which had become home to sidewalk lean-tos, welfare hotels, lumps of sleeping bags and cardboard hovels, barred windows and entry ways of those same department stores now being used as shelter from a wet and cold Vancouver. Empty taverns, still operated with moving shadows and dim lights. And of course there were people, yes people, horizontal or vertical, with deep hollow eyes and holes in the bottoms of their pockets and shoes, probably wondering how the hell they got there in between the highs and lows.
I was given a tour of First United by the pastor, a kind woman who seemed to know how to navigate her church through the rough seas of Hastings and Main. First stop on my tour was the nave, the dimly lit area where services were held. It was modern, curved with the same kind of hard modern pews that my own St Timothy’s back in Ottawa a lifetime ago had. It’s hard to forget that hard pew on my bony kid bum. Forever imprinted. In the dim light I noticed some movement at one of the pews, slowly as my eyes adjusted I saw that almost each pew was occupied with a sleeping body. A pair of boots extending over the end of one, the curve of hips or torso at another. It was almost noon. A weekday. And this was home to God knows how many. The only place to rest their heads, and street weary bodies.
Over the years I ended up participating in what was known as “family friendship” twice a week at First United. (I described it as one of the ‘realest’ times of my week.) A kind of soup kitchen in which attendees committed to showing up for a hot meal. We served, spaghetti, chili, stew, something cast off from a food supplier or grocery store, that became treasured lunch to attendees, accompanied with white bread and weak coffee, maybe jell-o, and then we sat and ate with the attendees and, over time got to know and recognize them. Some you couldn’t look in the eye. One woman, vivacious, straightforward and ball of fire, I later recognized as one of the disappeared women, who met a horrible end, at the hands of the notorious, well, I don’t want to mention more, but you can find it all in the press. You’ve heard about him.
It was a little community of regulars who crawled out from the cracks to show up on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Other days of the week there were other services, coffee or watery soup for those who had spent the night on the street or in a bus shelter.
Christmas drew near. The Vancouver skies darkened. Lights went up downtown. Apartment balconies blazed with colour. Shop windows competed for kitsch. The carol ships (yachts line with Christmas lights), tootled around English Bay every evening, and there was a bottomless optimism reserved for this time of year, where music was everywhere, people stumbled on the sidewalks after drunken staff lunches, and after-work eggnog.
But away from all this mayhem, at the mission was a growing sense of dread. It was clear to me as my bus seemed to descend into the darkened world of Hastings and Main. While I stressed over my Christmas list and thought I was justified in despising how Christmas could bring out the worst in me, it became clear that the impending dread of these peoples’ Christmas was not the over-indulgent sentimentality of days gone by. No, they didn’t have that luxury. They didn’t miss the Christmas of my childhood and the orgy of gift taking (not much giving), over stuffing, decorating, and nodding off to Babes in Toyland. Nor was their dread about that steamroller called Christmas that, in my world, could annually crush me in its wake if I didn’t fight to make it out the other end with a couple of dollars still in the bank account. They weren’t stressing over their gift list or their guest list. There was no rent to pay.
These people had experienced Christmases where the drunk uncle wasn’t a source of amusement. Where Dad…exactly where was dad? Where there was lots of nothing, a whole lot of it, and shouting, and smashing, and fists through walls and wails and tears and the most horrible abuse, all to the soundtrack of someone dreaming of a White Christmas. It all finally made sense. I finally got it; it made its way through my safe little naive bubble and burst. This was why some dread this time of year. For me it had been extra special and for them extra horrible. While I was bemoaning my not having time to ice my gingerbread the way we did as kids or make the short bread according to my mom’s recipe and the price of more booze just because we always need more booze, to sit and reminisce, they were doing everything possible to forget.
Still we decorated the room where we ate lunch, little bits of tinsel and strings of popcorn that we made in a group, each assigned a different decorating task. Cut out paper stars. Things you make with a pair of scissors and a folded piece of paper. We stood in a circle before lunch and held hands. We said a prayer. We all knew. We all knew the storm was approaching. We all knew that the best presents we could give each other were our hopes and prayers, prayers for a safe and Merry Christmas and the hope that we would all see each other again in January. Survivors all.