She hadn’t had a Christmas tree in four years. Not because she didn’t want one. She never gave up wanting one. She didn’t have one because for four years she didn’t have a home to put one up in.
And now, she does. Now, she has a place of her own. She has a tree.
It’s not a large tree, but in her one bedroom apartment, it fits perfectly. “I love the smell,” she says as she ties another silver ball onto a branch. She breathes deeply. “Oh wow! This is so exciting.”
I am sitting in a chair watching her, chatting, attaching hooks to each ball in preparation of its placement on the tree. Joelle had agreed to have her photo taken for the brochure as a way to give back to the agency that has, as she describes it, ‘saved my life’.
I knew Joelle* when she was staying at the shelter where I used to work. A tiny birdlike woman, chronic health conditions, addiction, a messy divorce, life missteps left her without a home, or the ability to work. In her weakened state, she became one of those who ‘fall through the cracks’ and end up on the doorstep of shelters across the country. Struggling with life, poor health, poverty, addiction, they run out of resources to keep a roof over their head and find themselves knocking on a shelter door.
If they’re really lucky, and there’s a focus in their community on affordable housing for those living on the margins they will get a place to call home, just as Joelle did.
On this day, just before Christmas several years ago when I still worked at an emergency shelter, I watched Joelle carefully place decorations on the tree and was moved and touched and reminded of the delicacy of this thread called the human condition. A thread made up of tiny moments that link us to the wonder, and sometimes sorrow, of being human, of being part of humankind, alone, yet not alone. Together, yet separate.
Joelle’s tree was a gift. A gift from a woman she met during the summer while in hospital for six weeks receiving chemotherapy. The woman, Sarah, was in the next bed. For six weeks the two women from very separate and different walks of life connected. They talked and shared and when Joelle got out of hospital, Sarah took it upon herself to create a welcome home for Joelle in her new apartment.
And that’s where the magic kept unfolding.
Being released from hospital into homelessness is one of the tragedies in our social fabric. For Joelle, being released back to the shelter was a given. Until through Calgary’s Plan to End Homelessness and the housing the shelter provided, Joelle was housed.
She was provided the basics, furniture, dishes, but the place still lacked that feminine touch, that sense of — ‘Joelle’. And then Sarah, stepped in and ‘prettied up’ the place. She held a house-warming for Joelle, inviting her lady friends to come and create a place of comfort and beauty for this woman she’d met while lying in a hospital bed, recovering from her own serious medical condition.
I sat and watched and chatted with Joelle and I knew it was there. In that room with us. It was palpable.
The spirit of Christmas.
The best of our human condition dancing in the twinkling lights of a Christmas tree that was a gift from a stranger who has become a friend and who continues to take the time to ensure this woman for whom life has not been easy, finds a less stressful, more beautiful path.
“What does having your own place this Christmas mean to you?” I ask Joelle as she tosses tinsel and reminisces about Christmases past.
“It means I get to spend it with my daughter. We get to be a family.”
And there it was, all over again. The meaning of Christmas shining in the light of one woman’s eyes filled with wonder as she decorated a tree and dreamt of spending time with the ones she loves. And in the wonder of the moment I was reminded once again that Christmas is not in the baubles and glitter, the gifts or the Christmas cards strung along a mantle. It’s right here. Right where we are. It’s a place to belong. To be welcomed. To be together. A place where family meets and connects to what makes magic happen — our human condition shining in Love.
It is Christmas. No matter where we are, no matter how far from home we have strayed, may we all come home to the heart of sharing peace, love and joy at this special time of year.
For stories of Christmas and recovery and having a home, please visit The Gift Project.
This article has been revised from its original version posted in 2010. I have changed the names of the individuals involved.