I’m mindful when I speak or write about Christmas and the holidays, as it can be a really difficult time for many people, especially folks who feel rejected from their family, alienated from society, and are simply struggling to survive.
While really wonderful Christmas memories in wintery Owen Sound, Ontario dominate my mind from childhood, I definitely wallowed in a lot of self-pity as a teen up until my late thirties, bemoaning my single status and imagining all the fun that would be had if I was part of a couple. The mind plays a lot of tricks on us, even when there’s so much to be grateful for and so much beauty. I figure if Christmas can bring me down for loneliness, how hard it must be for those in the Downtown Eastside, with more valid reason?
Some library patrons at the Carnegie have explained that there’s pros and cons of living in the Downtown Eastside during December. At Oppenheimer Park there are competing Santas at each corner offering up gifts. There are people from the suburbs wandering about the streets dishing out huge boxes of chocolates, turkey dinners hosted by non-profit groups for lunch and supper, and all kinds of random delights. And yet, after awhile it becomes a little tiring, and my one friend says she’s actually relieved when January comes and they all go home.
At the same time, I really admire the efforts of the Carnegie Centre staff to create a festive, welcoming atmosphere full of decorations, parties (Christmas Eve and New Years they stay open until 1am!), crafting events, portraits (check out this article from the CBC), concerts, dances, dinners and more. One may not be celebrating with blood relatives, but at least there’s “family” at the Carnegie.
Last week I got to play Santa as a result of a super kind gesture from my co-worker and his daughter, Coco. They had purchased tickets to see Stevie Nicks (of Fleetwood Mac!) on December 9th but ended up being unable to go. The obvious solution was to give them away, which is a testament to their easy-going generosity when most would sell them online for $100 a piece! My co-worker asked if I could think of anyone?
Well, at lunch one of our regulars stopped by the cafeteria table I was at and was barely holding it together – let’s call her “Maureen.” Her daughter had overdosed three times and multiple injections of Narcan did not seem to awaken her (she was hospitalized), and Maureen was witness to seven more overdoses the previous day. I asked her how she was holding up, and if there was anything I could do but the tears started welling and she rushed off to the bathroom. So, when my co-worker asked for a recommendation – I chose this woman.
I called Maureen up and she said she was afraid to answer the phone not knowing if it was tragic news or another emergency. When I explained the offer she hung up and was at the library in approximately 8 minutes! She suggested I hold onto the tickets so she wouldn’t lose them, and was just floored that she was about to go to a concert.
The next day I was stopping by the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre dropping off a poster (we’re doing a beeswax candle-making workshop with Hives for Humanity for Winter Solstice, combined with an opportunity for friends and family of the Murdered and Missing women to record a memory for the DTES Women’s Memorial Quilt website).Suddenly I see Maureen and she rushes over to me with her friend. I’m introduced to the friend she plans to bring as her guest, and the lady is crying with joy and hugging me!
Initially the friend wasn’t believing that the news was true, as if Maureen was messing with her, but once it registered she was shouting it from the rooftops – just so pumped to see Stevie Nicks. Plus, it also will be her birthday the night of the concert. Dang!! I will admit that I secretly was hoping my co-worker was offering the tickets to me, but after that kind of heart-warming response, I’m so glad he didn’t. These women live such a hard life of suffering, and could use a little Stevie Nicks for strength and a fun night out.
While this gift was pretty epic, there’s been other quiet interactions that fill me with joy. Another patron was explaining that her favourite movie was the classic film, A Christmas Carol. She had purchased two VHS copies, imagining herself watching it until old age and wanting to be sure she always had one on hand.
It turns out that her VHS player crapped out before the tapes did, so she came to the library to track the movie down. Unfortunately, three copies were stolen and with only one copy circulating it would mean a long wait, well past Christmas. I looked at the cover on the website and leaped up from the reference desk. Someone had donated a DVD version for our Friday Hastings book giveaway. I had put it aside for the coming week, but obviously I was going to hand it directly to someone who cherished it. Again, just tears of happiness!
Every interaction with a Carnegie patron isn’t this momentous, and sometimes my role as Branch Head means playing hard-ball with individuals (especially when they steal magazines and books, shoving them into jackets and down their pants, forcing me to chase them down!), but primarily it’s such good work with the loveliest of people. I’ll definitely be sending up quiet prayers for everyone living down here over Christmas. I hope that there are moments of deep comfort, acceptance, joy, song, and even miracle.