It was the night before Christmas, and my mother’s neighbors had company. Their daughter and new son-in-law.
The parents’ room was on the first floor, the newlyweds’ upstairs. In the middle of the night, the son-in-law needed the bathroom, so he quietly slipped into the hall and reached for the bathroom door. Having turned the wrong way, he stepped into space and tumbled down the stairs.
He wasn’t hurt, just dazed and confused. But the racket woke everyone. His new in-laws flipped on the light to find him scrambling to his feet. In his “altogether,” as Mama put it.
A friend tells me that “Blessed are the poor in spirit” is best translated as “Blessed are the confused.” Gravity is not usually such a shock. But blessings or not, surprises sure shake up our relationships to space, time, and each other. Nothing like the unexpected to fling open your window into the startling present now.
It’s the season for surprises and we have a new twist on our “Christmas Gift!”. An old Southern tradition of sorts, Christmas Gift! is a sometimes elaborate plot to surprise unsuspecting family or friends by being the first to shout “Christmas Gift!” that morning. Whoever wins is owed a little trinket. Our particular version began decades ago when a stranger approached a good friend and her four young children, two of whom had outgrown their winter coats. The unknown woman gave my friend a hundred dollar bill and said, “This is for those darling children.” My friend tracked me down and gave me half.
Our Christmas Gift! has been shaped by other families, too, but the constant is: we become the surprise we want to see in the world.
The rules are simple. Each person has the same denominations of bills. 1. You must gift them to someone you don’t know. 2. You must do it in person. 3. You must write a word on each bill – an intention you want to circulate. With luck, the word will be a sign for someone. The answer to a prayer. With luck, you won’t get caught.
My son joked that he was going to write the word “RECIPROCITY” on the largest bill and give it to his sister. (This is why we have Rule No. 1.) This year, Rule 4: You must give the money to someone who isn’t asking.
We’re raising the stakes. That tinkling bell outside Wal-Mart? Won’t work. Neither will the cardboard sign promising God Bless. You will have to take the first step. You will have to pay attention.
I was driving away from a shopping center a few days later when, out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a man squatting against the brick wall. Stair-stepped up his back were two bedrolls, numerous plastic jugs, and, bundled on the sides, constellations of grocery bags, seemingly empty except for more grocery bags. He was dressed in layers of heavy clothes, topped by a dark green army jacket. A thin black mustache outlined his mouth and joined a beard that swirled to a point like a fine calligraphy brush. He appeared to have stepped off a Kung Fu movie poster.
I drove off. What was he doing here? A wandering Asian man? Pretty unexpected in these parts. We weren’t near public transit. Could he have walked from the highway? And then it hit me like the wall the man was propping up: He was here for me.
U-turn. I parked a few spaces away and walked over. He raised his face. I handed him a bill and said, “Thank you.” He responded in a language I didn’t recognize. When I got to my car, I glanced back. He had scrambled to his feet. He was bowing.
I bowed, too. Reciprocity. And wept the whole way home.
I’m pretty sure these moments land at our feet for a reason. Anything that blows our minds long enough to let us perceive the world around us is a gift.
It was the night before Christmas. Some friends had taken construction paper, glue, tape and straws and fashioned a Christmas tree for their cell block. As they were decorating this makeshift creation, an older man called, “Look outside.”
The men sprang to their windows. What was the matter? Outside, a line of people stood on a bridge, yelling, shouting, and waving. The men were stunned. The people on the bridge – total strangers – held up a sign. It said “Merry Christmas.”
My friend wrote, “People who didn’t even know my name were gesturing their humanity and reminding me of mine.”
It’s the best miracle of all, seeing each other in our all-together. If it pisses God off when we don’t notice the color purple, goodness knows Her attitude when we don’t notice that somebody is naked or hungry or poor in spirit.
As I finished writing this, I caught a glimpse of a shooting star cascading from the sky. Is it the answer to someone’s prayer? A sign for some total stranger? Does it read Merry Christmas?
Maybe just being present is the best present of all.
Lynden Harris is the founder and director of Hidden Voices. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org