Sunday, November 27, 2011
“What do you want for Christmas?”
The question gets asked a lot this time of year, and I’ve had my share of wish lists and wants for the holidays. Yet, what really keeps coming to the top of my “list” for Christmas, is time, showing up and just being present in someone’s life.
It’s time spent listening to someone’s story, someone’s life experiences, and finding joy. In the telling, there is magic, and there is that special bonding that makes your heart glad. No possession or holiday trinket or toy can even come close to measuring up to getting to hear someone’s story or being with them as they experience the joy of something simple.
One Christmas, I watched my grandnephew open a number of gifts on Christmas Eve. He was the youngest in the family and we all had gotten him presents. Two years old is a wonderful age to experience Christmas. Soon, he had toy trucks and balls, and mechanical toys and some electronics scattered all over the living room.
Yet, after a while, he was busy making a fort out of a big cardboard box, and his squeals of delight rose higher in the room, as the fort turned into a garage for trucks, or a house, or a spaceship -- whatever his imagination could conjure up. The magic of Christmas that year was not the amount of toys, or the variety, of all the noise and color of whatever we might have found for him. Instead, it was the magic brought on by the boxes and his imagination.
This year, I’m spending Christmas at the local prison for young inmates. I’ve been mentoring several of the young men, and they’ve been teaching me more about life and courage and determination than what I’ve been offering them. At least, I think its at least a two way street for everyone involved.
They don’t expect much for Christmas. The prison has a $25 budget for each of the young men there, where most of them don’t seem to get any visitors. I’ll bring a few gifts for the young men I’ve been spending my Sunday afternoons. Everyone will get a present or two, and there will be a special dinner. Still, it’s prison and most of the guys won’t have anyone to show up to visit with them.
For the two guys I see every week, we’ll get some coffee and a snack, and play some cards or a board game. But, mostly, we’ll just talk, me listening to the stories of their lives and what they’ve been doing. Often, it’s not exciting, world changing stuff, but rather the stories of young men exploring their world a bit, and finding out what they like about themselves and who they are.
They are learning how to talk to a guy, and get a sense of just how to have a conversation about life. It’s a new experience for them. In their past, many of the adults in their lives taught them how to be angry and how to feel stupid and unwanted. And, some of the men in their lives abused them. What I’d call “normal” is nothing they’ve experienced, and so we all grow in how we look at the world, and ourselves.
They struggle to figure me out and how to get along with me. I try to offer some “normal” in their lives, and sometimes, the tears in all that struggle roll down their young faces.
I won’t bring much for Christmas: a few gifts of clothes and some books. Maybe a few movies I can donate to the prison, so everyone gets to see a few good movies during the holidays. One guy’s getting a guitar, so he can express himself in more than his conversation with me once a week, or the occasional letter I get. He’s grown a lot in the past year, and I think he can grow a whole lot more. We’ll see where the guitar in his young hands will take him in the last three years of his prison sentence. I expect to be amazed.
But, most of what I bring is simply my ears. I listen a lot. I share their lives and their stories, and maybe offer a few stories of my own.
I’ll say hi to some of the other guys there, the men who work in the canteen. They don’t get visitors much, so they spend the visiting hours earning the minimum wage around here, 25 cents an hour. Sometimes, I buy them a soda, and I get some big smiles in return. I joke with them, and read their poetry or the occasional essay they’ve written in their English class. What they write is deep and thoughtful, and I’m moved by their sincerity and their pain.
One time, I paid $3 for a couple of photos of a guy, so he could have something to send to his son and to his mom. He’d spent all of his 25 cents an hour income on other guys, the guys who come into this place without any money, and need some toiletries and maybe a CD player, so they can have some music in their lives. He didn’t want me to pay, but I insisted.
He’s never forgotten that, and he makes sure to say hi to me every time I come in to buy our coffee and popcorn. I ask about his mom and his son. He gets a sad look on his face, saying he hasn’t had a response to him sending the photos out to his family. But, he’s happy he made the effort, and he likes to let me know that. He hasn’t had a visitor for four years, so the least I can do is to say hi, and ask how he’s doing.
When I see the ads on TV for all the toys and the latest consumer trends, I just laugh. That’s not Christmas. Buying and giving all that stuff really doesn’t mean much, and it never has. Christmas is all about spending time and letting someone know they are loved.
It’s the two year old boy playing with the cardboard box on Christmas Eve, and it’s the young man in prison smiling because someone came to talk to him, or bought him a soda, or even helped him send his photo to his family.
That’s what’s on my Christmas list and that is what Christmas is all about.
--Neal Lemery 11/27/2011