In response to my last two blogs, I was inspired to rethink my angst about gift giving by the comments of 30andOut, Tahllulah, and ScribblersSanctuary, who relish the opportunity to give at Christmas unencumbered by the anxieties I feel. Ken even sees his gifts as extensions of himself. I like that “gift as extension of self” philosophy. I’m going to try that philosophy on next year and see if it fits me.
About ten years ago, I let a financial advice guru convince me that if I wanted to make progress towards financial health, then giving had to become a part of my investment plan. As it turned out, I think it was very good advice because I have prospered ever since I started making charity a part of my monthly budget. I recommend it to anyone who ever says, “What goes around, comes around.”
I started doing this at a time when I could scarcely afford to do so. My jobs back then were low paying, I had a lot of debt from my student years, and I worried about money all of the time. I think of those times as my Top Ramen Days.
I indulged myself in those years with a daily treat that gave me one small thing to look forward to: I bought a cup of coffee at a nearby bakeshop. There was always a panhandler in front of the shop; sometimes I gave them the change from my dollar, and sometimes not.
My reasons for giving to panhandlers are always inconsistent. I don’t really think it’s an effective form of helping. I think that institutions that feed and shelter the poor do a much better job of serving them than my nickel-and-dime endowments, so I don’t often give to spare-changers. Instead I write checks to food banks.
But sometimes I give change simply because I feel ashamed not to. There was one panhandler near the bakeshop who piqued my curiosity. She held up a sign at the busy intersection I passed on my way home. Her name was Laurie. She had a black lab that she found as a stray who was always with her. She seemed pretty together to me, never drunk or high, and she didn’t seem crazy. She had been pretty once before the sun and wind did a number on her face. I wondered what brought someone like her to the street, but I never got the chance to talk to her in depth. Unlike the other panhandlers near the bakeshop who were poor but not homeless, I think Laurie was indeed homeless—she always had baggage stashed nearby.
We had a bitter winter one December—by Bay Area standards anyway. An artic cold front took the lives of several street people that year. I worried about Laurie when I saw her. I thought about the check I was going to write to the food bank that month and I wondered if any of it would trickle down to her. A lot of homeless people have dogs. I called the food bank and asked them if they accepted donations of pet food. They said no, they passed those donations on to animal shelters. I think that’s what gave me the idea for Laurie’s care package.
The food bank didn’t get a check from me that Christmas. Instead I gave a lot of thought to what I would need if I were suddenly put out of my house, and then I went on a shopping spree for those items. Lotion for face and hands in cold weather is a must. Guessing at Laurie’s sizes, I bought socks and underwear and gloves. A bar of soap, maxi pads, deodorant, and baby wipes. A toothbrush and toothpaste. A bunch of fresh fruit, nuts, and non-perishable food. Lots of kibble. I had a pocket knife that I’d received from a Secret Santa. It was a good knife, but I already had a better one, so I gift-wrapped it in a new bandana. I was ready for my mission.
I gave Laurie the bags the next evening on my way home. She was ecstatic and she hugged me, and I immediately felt ashamed of myself for worrying about lice. As I drove away and watched her in my rear-view mirror, I saw another fellow join her from the bushes. She handed him an orange. I was moved that someone who had even less than I did took an opportunity to share when she had something to give.
When I saw Laurie again a couple of weeks later, she waved my car over. She was wearing the gloves from my care package, and she pulled down the waist of her pants to show me that she was wearing the underwear too. She shouted, “Hey thanks for this pocket knife! This is the best—I use it every day!”
This is a troubling time of year for me. I have strong feelings of guilt and sadness associated with exchanging gifts, and those feelings often overpower the fun that should be inherent in giving to others. Most of the stuff I gave Laurie was pretty meager, and yet it was the one time I gave something that left me thinking, Finally, I managed to get someone the right thing.
And dang, it was fun.