I spent a couple hours standing outside a grocery store, ringing a bell next to a Salvation Army kettle.
There were two different bells, with slightly different tones, and I’d switch whenever I got bored.
I didn’t get bored very often.
It was actually big fun. It was a sunny afternoon, I was on the south side of the building, and I was wearing warm boots, a stocking cap, and a beat-up leather jacket that’s seen me through about 20 winters. I was plenty warm, in all the ways that matter.
I suppose I knew about half the people who came and went, and most of them stopped to say hello. I was surprised by what got stuffed through the slot in the kettle. When I see a Salvation Army kettle my usual tendency is to grab a handful of change out of the console of my pickup, but a lot of people dug folding money out of their wallets and purses.
Christmas comes in different ways and at different times. Sometimes it comes with the giant snowflakes slipping past the streetlights at midnight on Christmas Eve. Sometimes it’s brought by a 3-year-old helpless with glee at the very thought of presents, or a grandmother whose lap is overflowing with children dressed in their best. Sometimes Christmas has come in a darkened church while we’re singing “Silent Night” - and those Christmases are very good indeed.
With my back to a sun-warmed brick wall and my boots ankle deep in salty slush, I found a little bit of Christmas while ringing that bell. Then I came home and started hearing about something unfathomably bad happening at an elementary school in Connecticut. It was the next morning before I could bring myself to read the news and try to absorb the details.
And then I started to write my Christmas column.
It wasn’t easy. Especially since, just the day before, I’d told a group of people that the number one rule of a writer is that while it’s OK to lie to your readers, you can’t lie to yourself. Everything I was writing about the wonders of Christmas felt like a lie.
I’ve been working on this column for four days now. That’s a lot of time to put into trying to assemble 600 words that make sense, but there are times when the world doesn’t make sense either, and I still have to write something on those days, too.
I thought about quoting Matthew, about Rachel weeping for her children, but people don’t need to be told to weep; there’s plenty of that going on already.
There are things I could say about gun laws or about the way we go about treating, or not treating, mental illness in our country. Those are all conversations that a serious country would have. And in a few places, those conversations are beginning. Not many, but a few.
The thing is, Christmas doesn’t exist outside of the world and this world is full of sorrow. As I was ringing the little bell, a woman limped by with her foot in a cast. A man pulled into the parking spot next to me and struggled out of his vehicle carrying a portable oxygen bottle. A good friend of mine parked across the street, and I watched as she very slowly made her way toward the grocery store. I saw the smile cross her face as she recognized me. I asked her how she was doing and asked a follow-up question when she fudged her answer. She shrugged and said, “The doctors think the cancer is back.”