A Delicate Balance

by Terry Oliver on December 1, 2010

Every year about this time, I begin to take evasive action as queries come in from family and friends as to where and how I intend to spend the Christmas holidays. For the last five years, I’ve managed to avoid the annual blow-out by helping  in some local homeless shelter.

The last thing I want to appear like is some sort of old Scrooge character, but at the same time I feel too uncomfortable participating in the stressed-out consumer binge that now masquerades as the most important festival in our western culture.

It hasn’t always been that way for me. I grew up totally immersed in the unbearable excitement that surrounded the runup to Christmas. And then, in my turn, I foisted it on my own children and saw the effect it had on them. Now, I see a third generation caught up in it and I just can’t handle it any more.

So I took the coward’s way out and fled from it completely. Oh, I still make sure my kids and grandchildren get a present from me but I can no longer face the actual day with all the anxiety and tears and disappointment that accompanies the festivities. The concern that somehow this year’s event hasn’t measured up to last year’s. And so, I make my excuses and disappear to somewhere I’m unlikely to be traced. Like a homeless shelter set up to feed the people who are no longer able to participate in the consumer orgy, whether they’d like to or not.

This is no hairshirt act for me, I hasten to add. It’s a pleasant low-key way to spend a couple of days meeting a whole  different stratum of our community and hear some fascinating stories. The most diverse people you could imagine end up in these ad hoc Christmas shelters and they love to tell you their life stories if you show the slightest interest.

I blame George Orwell for getting me involved in working with street people. His forays into the bottom layers of our society have been faithfully recorded in his book ‘Down and Out in Paris and London.’ Some of the characters I’ve met in food banks, soup kitchens and night shelters could have stepped straight off the pages of his book.

They have also provided me with plenty of incidents to include in my own novels as well as some thinly disguised characters.

So once again this year, I plan to make my excuses to avoid the festive excesses and instead join the subculture at one of Vancouver’s downtown shelters for AA and NA homeless and share a turkey sandwich and a coffee with some new-found friends.

I don’t know how much longer our current festive excesses can continue given the direction our western economies are going. But until we all decide that things have gone too far and change to something simpler and more enjoyable, I can recommend my method for a stress-free, happier mid-winter festival.

And think of the tales you’ll hear to tell your families and friends.

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