Love’s Present at Christmas
Having just come out of a deeply loving relationship, with little cash for presents and not nearly enough money to travel to Scotland to be with my family, I’m stressed about the holiday season and I’m missing my ex. I have wonderful children and beautiful friends but I know I’d be terrible company – either maudlin or pissed – and I opt to volunteer at a shelter for homeless women.
I feel like a fraud because the only difference between me and a homeless person is a benevolent landlady and I’m aware I’m volunteering for selfish reasons to avert my own crisis at Christmas. I’m accepted for two shifts when I fill in the online form and I’m in – but in for what? I have no idea what to expect.
The training session gives some clues – I arrive late and the venue is packed, “Who are all these people?” I wonder. I surreptitiously look around but can’t get a handle on it, they seem to be all different ages and from a whole load of cultural backgrounds. I’m amazed so many people are all here to help the charity Crisis at Christmas and the speaker explains there are 8 thousand volunteers in all, this is the largest voluntary project in Europe. Homelessness is not just rough sleeping but they estimate 4000 people slept out on the streets in London last year and he describes how that feels.
“The person tries to make themselves invisible to save them from being kicked by drunks passing by later, who find that entertaining.”
The person tries to make themselves as small as possible. They try to protect their possessions as best they can, as these belongings mean the world to them. If they have a sleeping bag, they’ll put their stuff deep inside and they will try to make themselves invisible to save them from being kicked by drunks passing by later, who find that entertaining. I want to cry. I’ve thought about people facing the rain, the cold, and other external factors, but I’ve never really thought about how it feels to be inside that person’s body.
The guy giving the presentation explains many of the people coming to the centre want to be with their families so he reminds us not to bang on about our families, as it’s a bit insensitive. I want to cry again, partly for them and partly for me! I feel desire for my ex all over again – I still want to be with him and I’d love to spend Christmas with his family but we’ve had a heart-to-heart and he’s told me, while he loves me, he doesn’t think we can form a long term relationship.
The reasons the homeless people are in the situation they are in is complex, the speaker explains, and I’m not going to solve their problems in a couple of days but, he says, it’s amazing the difference Love can make. Just by just sitting with someone, taking time to chat, play scrabble, you can help a person find the place within where they Love themselves, where they feel equal and valued members of our society no matter what their circumstances. That can make all the difference, he says, as it means they’ll find the inner strength to make it to an appointment, an AA meeting, whatever it is they need to do to take their next step. Whichever tasks I am given on the day, my primary purpose is to give Unconditional Love.
But the day before my shift I’m not feeling Love – I’m fearful and anxious instead. I think about asking my friends to send Love to me and in my meditation I ask for so much Unconditional Love this Christmas my heart will be full to overflowing and I will have lots to pass on. And then I get the answer! It’s so obvious and so easy! It’s what all the books have been telling me!
The way to get Love is to give Love. It’s not about asking people to send me Unconditional Love, it’s about me Loving them Unconditionally so I feel the feeling of Love in my body, so much, my actions are inspired and I can be a flow-er of Love.
I realise how lucky I am to have so many brilliant people in my life who inspire me to Love, they don’t have to do anything, as Unconditional Love makes no requirements or demands, just by being themselves they are part of the flow and they’re helping the homeless too. Volunteering is already an amazing experience, and it hasn’t even started yet.
As it turns out I needn’t have worried – when I walk into what would otherwise seem like some random girl’s school in North London it’s absolutely buzzing and I’m immediately infected with the atmosphere of pure Love and joy. It’s impossible to feel otherwise.
My team leader explains she’s a volunteer too and we’re all in this together. She says some ladies are high maintenance, they might ask for a towel, when they’ve already asked for five towels already, she explains why this is – well, one lady in particular, she doesn’t want to tell us what other guests have witnessed her go through, but she says it’s fair to say she has been treated worse than a dog, on the streets.
She explains lots of other things too, If I’m on cleaning duty, I might see a lady surrounded by things which look like rubbish to me but sometimes a paper cup is all that lady has and it’s precious to her, so not to move it without her permission. I feel so grateful for the guidance.
I have a number of tasks throughout my shift. All day long people are coming in and out of the centre, people come to perform, to sing, take dance classes, entertain. Some of the classrooms have been transformed into bedrooms, the school ballet studio is now a spa area. People come to give haircuts, massage, manicures. Dentists and doctors are on site, opticians give eye tests. One lady shows me her new glasses, they look really cool and she loves the attention, she’s radiant. There’s a whole room full of donated clothes and I have such a laugh finding outfits for the ladies as they glam-up for Christmas Day Lunch.
Some of my tasks are quiet, there’s not much to do manning the luggage area but you always work with a co-volunteer and usually a guest pops by for a chat. My co-worker on this task is a young model who’s had so much success this year, travelling to Japan and throughout Europe and she’s got a ticket to New York – this is her dream come true, so she’s helping the homeless this Christmas to give something back. I think she’s incredible. I feel a little jealous of her flourishing of youth when everything is still possible and recall my own mad trips to New York when I was a late teen. But then I realise nothing’s changed – in many ways I’m still living a crazy, fun adventure and I connect with her energy and reconnect with that part of myself. That’s a real gift I’ve received. Just there. I have so many amazing conversations about spirituality, shamanism, living in the moment, Love, relationships, life, all sorts of stuff. It’s great because I’m meeting so many different women and I don’t think I would have met them otherwise.
She’s such a beautiful woman, quite elderly and even in her desperation she radiates a sense of dignity alongside her defiance.
I connect most deeply with the most vulnerable guest. She has peed on the sofa. My team leader explains she did the same last year, it’s because she’s been treated as an animal on the streets she’s behaving like on. This is her way of claiming her territory, making the sofa and the centre her home. She’s such a beautiful woman, quite elderly and even in her desperation she radiates a sense of dignity alongside her defiance. Her clothes obviously need to be washed but we don’t have laundry facilities at our centre. So my co-volunteer and I are in the showers doing our best to clean them, we are trying really hard to get a fresh smell into the clothes and it’s proving really difficult. I understand these clothes are all this lady has and I am trying to feel what she’s going through and I’m filled with so much gratitude. I realise I take fresh smelling clothes for granted. My co-worker reckons she’s good at handwashing because her mum washed clothes by hand and I’m explaining my mum had a twin tub, and here we are wringing out the lady’s dress and her end has loads of water running out and my puny efforts are only getting a trickle and we are laughing so much! Our mothers are with us in spirit and in our hearts – I could never have imagined hand washing urine out of someone’s clothes could be so much fun! I feel such Love I manage my tasks with ease, and lest I forget for a moment, I just need to look around at everyone else and see their smiles and loving gestures and they show me the way.
Even desperate situations can be turned around, the vulnerable lady’s really grateful and I sense she feels a little more secure. She asks me to join her for Christmas dinner and as we’re talking I get what she has done for me, how much she has given me. I realise it can’t have been easy for her to ask me to wash her few belongings, it can’t be easy to put yourself in such a place of vulnerability before a stranger. There’s no facade there whatsoever, no facade left to hide behind. And I understand by just being her and by being vulnerable before me she has taught me to be ok in my vulnerability, to be me, all of me, the bits I don’t like, the bits I wish were different and to accept myself in this moment for who I am, in my entirety, in whichever situation I find myself in. This is such a blessing.
I have a hoot with another guest, who tells me stories about how she designed clothes for legends in the music world, in the sixties. She’s a great spirit and so well read and interesting to be around. She wants to watch ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ on TV so we are sitting together laughing aloud. What an inspirational lady, when you can laugh like that even when life has taken such an apparent downturn. That’s another amazing teaching I receive, yet another gift. I’m having such a giggle I don’t realise my shift has finished but when I look around I don’t recognise the other volunteers, the night shift has arrived, it all works like clockwork and I feel sad to leave.
My team leaders are working hard to get everyone into accommodation by the end of the month. I hope they manage. I don’t like to think of the ladies being back out on the streets again. When we part we say, “Hope not to see you next year” and we chuckle. I know they will always be in my heart. I am profoundly grateful for their honesty, courage, inspiration and teachings, for all of gifts I have received. I’m already playing with my new presents, being more vulnerable, before myself and before others, more open, enjoying life and remembering it’s all a big adventure.
When I collect my coat I see my ex texted at five past midnight to wish me a Happy Christmas and to tell me he’s thinking of me. That feels sweet and he fancies a chat but I’m so tired I can’t talk! I feel happy, so grateful for this whole experience and what it has taught me. Today is right up there as one of the top ten days in my life.
I volunteered for Crisis at Christmas a few years back – if you have a similar experience or you’d like to share please comment or feel free to get in touch.
Peter Clarkson: Homeless London
Andreea Popa: No Fun Home
Francesco Tommasini: Street Prayers
Yuval Levy: Down in the depths
David East: Portals of Light – sidebar
Jon Tyson: Cannot Face It – sidebar
Zac Ong: New York for rent – sidebar
Jon Tyson: Blue – sidebar
Matt Collamer: Seeking kindness – sidebar
Jac Depczyk: All photos unless otherwise credited