NOTE: I wrote this in January, 2004. With the exception of the long-cancelled tv show reference at the end, it remains timely and relevant…
The day after Christmas, my daughters and I went to San Francisco to ice skate. In years past we had so much fun in Union Square during the holidays, and so we had planned a day. What we didn’t know was that the rink had been moved to a new location. When we climbed the steps and saw people walking where the ice should be, we laughed at our foolishness and decided to move to Plan B.
We came to skate, but it didn’t matter. This was Christmas. This was San Francisco. Blessed, unpredictable life!
We posed for pictures by the decorated tree, pretend-skated across the square, stopped to watch the silver men, and looked in vain for the San Francisco twins. Then we went wandering.
We wandered the streets like the tourists that we are, looking in the store windows, caught up in the jostle and joy of the season. Threading our arms through each other’s like skaters, we glided down the city sidewalks. We needed nothing more than just being together on a crisp blue day in this crowded city, a BART ride away from our quiet suburban lives.
We headed up Geary.
The homeless are everywhere,
Sitting on the sidewalk with their cardboard signs.
Propped in open doorways, wandering the drugstore aisles.
I live my quiet life. I raise my family. I take care of my business, and I forget.
The homeless are everywhere, hands out, piercing me with their looks of hunger and need.
When I go back to my quiet life, they will still be here.
Waiting. Hands out.
After the first few encounters, I start to harden.
I feel winter’s sharp sting.
I am not skating.
An old woman approaches. She is so wrinkled and frail, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She makes eye contact and I reach into my pocket, pull out a handful of change. I press it into her hand, so small and warm.
She holds my stare.
“It’s not enough.”
So matter -of -factly, she says it.
I pull my hand away, herd my daughters up the street.
“It’s not enough.”
She follows after me.
When I was young, my grandfather used to tell us the story of how he fed the beggars at the back door during the Depression. These beggars would leave a mark on their way out, alerting others that this was a home where you could get a bowl of soup or a hunk of bread. He had us all convinced that one of the beggars who came to his door was St. Joseph. For years, our family celebrated March 19, St. Joseph’s Day, with a simple meal and a retelling of the story of his visit to my grandfather’s house. As I grew older, I doubted the story, but embraced the message of sharing what little you have.
Now I don’t have a little, I have a lot.
And I gave an old woman a handful of coins.
A few days later, my daughter Kerry was re-reading the family Christmas journal that we add to every year. She called to me when she got to a familiar place.
“Listen to what you wrote when I was little,” she said.
There in the journal, years ago, I wrote about all we have to be thankful for. Then I went on to recount all we were doing for others during the season of Christmas: the giving tree at church, the adopt-a-family at school, all the little rituals we do to feel like we are making a difference. At the end of the passage, my words echoed in my daughter’s mouth, “It’s not enough.”
“Mom,” she said, “maybe she was a messenger.”
Maybe we’ve been watching a little too much Joan of Arcadia, but when I close my eyes I see her looking at me so directly.
You have everything, her eyes say.