Comfort and Joy
[This post was originally published as part of my BluebirdFebruary creative nonfiction blog.]
I stayed up late a few nights ago and watched as the downtown highrises, the twinkling trees, and the little restaurant across the street slowly disappeared into a bright thick fog. It was one of those bitter cold nights we don’t often have in the northwest, and I sat curled up on my couch, staring into the white, thinking about another night like it several years ago.
I had been visiting family in a town north of Seattle and was driving home by myself. Cutting across the rural lowlands, I remember seeing bits of mist and frost swirl over the roads. It was below-freezing, and I was thankful for my big coat and the big heater going full blast in the truck.
“You need gloves on a night like this,” I said to myself.
I made it to the freeway, crossed the overpass, and then I saw her. A woman standing at the onramp thumbing for a ride. Crumpled face, shaggy dark hair, denim jacket. No gloves.
As I passed her, I felt distinctly uncomfortable, and I wondered what anyone was doing outside on such a cold night. Her hands would be numb. I drove on until it occurred to me that I could give her a ride. Nervously, I turned around at the next exit and prayed, “Okay God, if this person is dangerous, please get her off that onramp by the time I get there. If she’s still there, I’ll take it as a sign and I’ll pick her up. I’m trusting you on this one. I can’t believe I am doing this.”
She was still there by the time I doubled back. My heart lurched the moment she swung open the door, but I managed to keep my foot on the brake and told her to climb in. I began to drive and she began to talk. I don’t remember her name. I do remember what she was doing outside on such a cold night.
“My last twenty bucks,” she said. “My last twenty bucks, and I figured I might as well try to win big at the casino here. But I lost it and don’t have the cab fare to get home.”
Minutes passed. She asked several times where I was driving in the middle of the night, and I kept explaining that it was only a little after seven. I tried a different tack and asked whether she had been in town for Thanksgiving. She said yes, and that she would be here for Christmas too, with her brother and her small nephews.
“You know,” she laughed, “Christmas and all those stories — Christmas is really just for kids.”
I finally pulled over to drop her off, and as she climbed out of the truck I handed her all the cash I had in my wallet.
“It’s only about eighteen dollars,” I said, “but you can have it. And you know, Christmas isn’t just for kids.” I waved and drove off and cried all the way home. Still sometimes I think about what kind of hope and disillusion could make me gamble away my last twenty bucks.
As much as I love the cheer of the holidays, this time of year I’m more often aware of a bleakness that persists just underneath the merriment, where the seams stretch and twist between what we have and what we want, who we are and what we hope people will see in us. We try hard to make it all work, take risks to keep it all together, and sometimes the results are disastrous.
It’s tempting to shut it out. But I know this: another story often told and retold this time of year, the one about Jesus, is a complete disaster too. Peel back the pageantry and witness a broke unwed teenager having a baby on the road, with a few migrant workers looking on, and an insecure politician biding his time to commit mass murder. It’s a story about the choices we make, the heavy loads we carry, and strangers who meet by chance. It’s messy and mysterious and heartbreaking, filled with hope and disillusion, a little like me and a little like you — and right where God works. And in this world of change, my friends, those are tidings of true comfort and joy.