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He shelters those in solitude and darkness.

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light."

(Matthew 4:16)

The people. Always the story begins with people. And there are no illusions about us. Walking, wandering in darkness. That's us, face-to-face with ourselves, looking into the mirror of starless nights, pacing the floor when we can't sleep, lost in our thoughts, stumbling over words that never say all we want to say, but sometimes say too much.

There have been people who have known the worst of it; who, having so little, have lost everything -- even their tears. When you have no more tears, you have nothing, your blood doesn't even matter to you anymore. And there have been others, who, having so much, have lost their souls. Hollow men and women easily dry up and blow away -- and they know it, and they know they have lost everything, too. All we get to keep is our wandering, our starless nights. All we hope for is anyplace warm.

There have been people, there still are, like us, for whom the wandering and the night bring God. And God becomes a home, and God becomes a light that does not pass but gives us back our tears and our souls.


She walks every day, winter and summer, fall and spring. She walks for hours along the city streets, through the parks, in residential neighborhoods and business areas. She walks and walks and walks. On the hottest days of summer she wears sundresses, her beet-red arms bulging out, her neck and face flushed. In winter she wears a green wool babushka and a long coat. Always she stares straight ahead, never making eye contact, always walking, walking. She is alone.

One day one of the clerks at the grocery store asked her why she walked so much. Without looking up from her pocketbook where she was digging for 2 dollars and 53 cents, she said simply, "Because they locked me up once."

It was true. In 1965, her only sister petitioned the state to have her declared incompetent and a danger to herself and others. They put her in a mental institution on the second-largest inland lake in the country. There she lived on a locked ward. Each day she looked out at the paths that led around the grounds down to the lake, paths they never let her take. In 1970, President Nixon cut off federal funding for many state institutions and sold it to the American people under the psychological guise of "mainstreaming." On the day she checked out of the state institution and became one of society's poorest people, she began walking.

On this clear day when the wind turned cold, she was walking along one of the sidewalks near where she lived. A man she had never seen before came riding by her in a bicycle. He slowed to travel with her and broke in on her: "Will you let me take your picture?" She kept walking, staring straight ahead. "Please will you let me take your picture?" She did not turn to look at him but kept going. Again, he pleaded, "Please let me take your picture. It's a hobby of mine. I have to do it every day."

For 20 seconds she continued to walk and then stopped at the bench at a bus stop. She sat down and waved him permission. "Smile," he said. And she did, offering him the smile she had saved for her wedding picture, ambitious and happy, a little unstable but content, flooded with a sense that things would turn out OK It was the same smile she saved for the first Christmas with her first child.


It wasn't fear or belligerence that sapped his face of any openness but rather a kind of weariness that made no pretense of importance and promised no emotional investment in whatever happened. The deep lines that ran his cheeks like wadis had been there a long time. He had been tired a long time. While most people never knew how much energy they had when they were young until they got old, he could always remember feeling this way.

On this day, which seemed like most other days, he walked along a street in a broken-down part of town. All that was left here were secondhand shops, dirty bookstores on their last leg and bars that shut down for only a few hours a day. He had on an old black captain's cap he'd had for about five years. The once-shiny visor was pulled off to one side but still covered much of his face. A man half his age sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk smoking a cigarette called out, "Hey captain." He made the slightest nod of acknowledgment without ever looking at him and walked on.

He paused in front of a shop that sold knickknacks from the |50s, including a large selection of salt and pepper shakers in lifelike forms -- cows, little black children, pheasants, trucks, windmills. Many of them still had the salt and pepper in them from their previous owners. He stepped over to the window, pushed the captain's cap back on his bead and looked for a long time down the narrow length of the store. Seeing the shopkeeper way in the back watching TV on a little black-and-white set, he stuck his thumbs in his ears, wiggled his fingers and stuck out his tongue. His hot breath left a damp screen on the window.

Even someone who has been tired all his life occasionally finds enough energy to do the unnecessary and unexpected. Even someone like this who has lived a lifetime of advent finds Christmas believable.


She stood there shivering, as much from the cold as from their taunting. Four boys, she couldn't tell how old they were, she hadn't been in the country long enough to reckon such things, were shouting insults. Again, she couldn't really tell what they were saying, they were talking so fast, moving around her, laughing. She knew they were saying mean things, things that, if she understood the words, would hurt her and make her angry. She stood mute and small in their midst, eyes looking down, hands pulling the old, long woolen coat more tightly around her neck. She tried to move ahead, slowly, steadily. But they blocked her way.

One boy rolled up the foil of a gum wrapper, chewed it tight and spit it at her. Another, picking up a withered branch poked the side of the long-handled bag she held tight against her side. The old wood broke into pieces. She closed her eyes, wandering off, back to the strange, fat man dressed in red she had seen ringing a bell outside a store. She had watched people putting money in a little black pot. When she passed him she had tried to see bow much money the man had, but there was a cover over the pot with a slot in it. It was "Christmas," she knew. What a strange word, this "Christmas." Why doesn't this "Christmas" make these boys happy? It's their god-feast.

In the end they were careful not to touch her; words were enough to release their adolescent passions. When they left her, the woman never changed her expression. She had gone far away, back home to the old country where it was warm and her menfolk fierce. A place where the gods were strong.

|Anywhere it's warm'

He shuffled along the sidewalk with a Styrofoam cup in his hand, slurping coffee quickly, greedily, not bothering to wipe off his hand as the coffee slopped over the side and slid between his fingers, rinsing them clean. He didn't feel the hot coffee sting, nor notice how it dribbled down his sleeve, pooling at the tip of his elbow. He smiled at people over the edge of his cup. Raised it briefly in recognition of others.

He paused and cleared a little light snow off the front steps of a church and sat down. The church was pinched onto an urban block between old office buildings and empty retail stores. A plaque nearby said the church was built on the site of the first Mass in the territory in 1855. Tacked to the bottom of the plaque was a notice stating the church was open between 7:45 a.m. and 8:30 a.m on weekdays. Confessions would be beard about 7:45 a.m.

Across the street was a pawn shop, low-lying and bright. A large sign across the front declared that it was open "12 to 12," with "Easy Money, Fair Terms and Quality Merchandise." Another sign in the window announced, "Guns, Ammunition, Jewelry, Video Equipment and Collectibles." Among the guns, jewelry, video equipment and collectibles on display were a chalice and paten. A hand-lettered notice next to the chalice read, "Solid sterling silver, gold-plated. One of a kind." He stared at the pawn shop a long time and then got up and moved down the street to where the line outside the Salvation Army was forming for lunch.

In line, the man in front of him turned and tipped his hat, "Good day, fadder," then laughed. The man behind him asked, "And where will you be saying midnight Mass?" He smiled back, disguising on Christmas Eve, as many people do, his pain, and praying silently, as many people do on Christmas Eve, that the God who would take flesh could understand in him what he could not, and answered, "Anywhere it's warm, anywhere it's warm."
COPYRIGHT 1992 National Catholic Reporter
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Christmas - homelessness
Author:Szews, George R.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Dec 25, 1992
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