The holidays, while full of joy, can be, as most of us can attest, painful.
“I’m not even sure why they are so painful” a friend from the Commons tells me, “but they sure are” he says. Sometimes all we can do—is it to suffer through it. “I somehow made it through” he lets me know. I tell him I did too. “I got real sad and real lonely” he confesses. “I did too” I confess. Then we sat for a minute in the heavy silence—feeling those weighty words sink into the space. He was helping me put away the extra stock of toilet paper in the bathrooms and the only sounds filling the air was the sounds of the plastic bag and the paper-wrapper rolls of toilet paper being passed from him to me to the cabinet and that silent sound of shared loneliness—a conveyor belt of productivity and heavyheartedness.
But we had each other and we had a task at hand and just like this was the way we got through the holidays—sharing that sadness and loneliness, passing it back and forth like the toilet paper we were putting away. It’s nice to have a task, a job, to put the sometimes (a lot of time) lonely heart to work. Next, we went about washing the dirty rags.
In our honesty we shared the burden and for a few minutes we both felt lighter, we laughed and told some jokes—we not only survived, but for a bit we really saw one another and found that module of gold in all the rubble.
We do a holiday party every year. It’s grand. It’s an immense effort of an entire community who comes together to offer a space where there is food and egg nog and gifts galore. We throw a party—the community comes together in ways which break the heart open in wordless gratitude. People show up and make cookies in droves, they write notes, they crack eggs, make pancakes. People bring gifts—to be an exact an entire truck load of gifts were brought. There are not big enough words to describe the excess of love and generosity that people pour into the people of the Commons. Often their lives are that of drought and lack and loss and scraping the barrel for the last little bit—but at the holiday party we celebrate the gift of having enough.
We dance and we laugh and we sigh and we drink some egg nog and we share that glance which belies we are in pain and we ache, and yet, the party still goes on, and so we dance along—sometimes only half-heartedly, and yet even half heartedly, it can be enough, enough to make the whole body feel lighter, even just for a couple dance steps. There are presents to open and songs to dance to and pancakes to decorate and new hats to put on and we do this all together in a messy pile of love and laughter and close to the chest are those we have loved and lost knocking.
In 2015 on Christmas Eve, our dear Friend Ilija died. He was beloved to us. He was kind and thoughtful. He was creative and funny. We miss him—we are always missing him. That year right before he died he joined us in preparing for the Holiday Party.
Right before we opened the doors to let everyone in for the party he asked if he could say a few words. He wanted to say how thankful he was to all the volunteers and everyone there for all they had done and for all the help. He told them they could never know how much it meant to him and all the people who walk through our doors. He told them how much it mattered and how immense of a gift it was.
Ilija practiced his gratitude and he taught us how. A few days later he died. I remember him this way, as our teacher, showing us the power of gratitude, showing us the importance of really looking at the person beside you and smiling. He beamed as he helped hang up ornaments and as he poured egg nog. He faced so much pain in his life but he was brave enough to enjoy the gifts he was given, even if they were so meager at times.
Ilija had been on the streets since he was thirteen.
I had asked him once how he ended up on the streets,
“My mom didn’t have enough money for drugs and me, and so I had to go”.
Ilija loved to laugh and tell jokes and so in our own joy we remember him and we remember him as we attend the holiday party, delighting in every detail the way he did, the way he taught us to.
We always gather together before we open the door for the holiday party to begin. Before we open the doors we take a minute to look at one another, to gather ourselves together to begin, to begin in gratitude and servitude and joy and all the pain too that these days can bring. We make the space for that which hides out in the heart to come to the surface and from that vulnerability we offer a hand to the other in companionship. As we gather we remember Ilija and out of our loss and despair and ache we reach out to those who walk through the doors.
The holiday party always reveals to us the immense generosity of those in our community, the immensity of care and love, and we revel in it—allowing it to give us the courage to keep on going, to keep fighting so hard for goodness and truth and equality.
Santa comes to the party, so does a band. We learn how to live at this party, we really do. We learn how to dance. We regain some footing. We learn that there is still goodness in the world. We learn that we can feel joy and sorrow at the same time.
The holiday party teaches us that we can still dance—limping with loss though we be. Our community bears our weight, they buoy us, and carry us, and we are so grateful. We dance the party away and we eat too many cookies and we hold all that loss close and we miss Ilija and so many others we have lost, but holding those invisible hands we dance anyways, clunky and heavy though we be. We feel the joy when we feel it, despite all the odds out of the rubble of loss, we feel that joy like a gift and we take it and open it and we celebrate, we really do celebrate—which is sometimes the bravest thing of all to do.
We learn again how to live. We learn through our feeble dancing, getting a little bit stronger as the music gets louder. Through loss, through people like Ilija, through death—we learn how to live, how to bear the aches as we dance. Even heavy hearts can dance, even broken legs can boogie—every year we are reminded how.
We will give Ilija the last word, here is a video of him telling a bit more of his story in his own voice.