Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Gift (Part 1) by Madelaine Sayko

The other day I was in my beloved NYC, walking down 5th Avenue. It was an intoxicating moment; NYC at Christmas time – the cacophony of visitors, fur-trimmed, leather adorned, polar fleeced and down puffy, the slightly frenzied madness of families with wandering glassy-eyed children, ingénues who insist no matter the weather on wearing spike heels, the ubiquitous hot dog vendors (with everything of course), the smoky scented chestnut roasters, carols swirling past in the air punctuated by ringing bells and voices laughing and talking in a zillion different tongues. The gleaming star up by 57th street…and then there is the tree, oh the tree with its glorious blanket of lights, surrounded by wooden soldiers and angels and ice-skaters, bursting with a sense of festivity. And the stores, recession? What recession, the stores glitter and gleam with bounty, silk and elegance, their windows filled with fantasy worlds.

Then I stopped in front of Harry Winston. In the window was a necklace of breathtaking beauty, the facets of diamonds literally danced with fire and light. But even as I admired the magnificence of its beauty a thought came to me: how many people could live in safe homes and have food to eat for the whole of next year for the price of that single object?

Now, I understand that there is not a scale here – a necklace or the lives of 50 people, and I don’t expect folks to deny themselves beauty or pleasure or even very expensive things. But I think its important to pay attention. In that same bit of holiday madness were a few folks on the street corners, dressed more soberly than the rest. They were selling a magazine written by the homeless, it was a struggle for them to make their voices heard. And on the home front I noticed that our local paper had a small announcement: 43 people died from homelessness this past year. Interestingly this was placed under a much larger article that spoke about a crime problem in another community. Three individuals had been attacked and the police commissioner was quoted as saying, “Three is a big number.” Well, 43 is a big number too – even if it’s “just” homeless people.

Yet I know that people do care, they do reach out. Indeed, upon reflection it seemed this year that there was an even greater multitude of groups and causes soliciting contributions, from high school food drives to replenish ravaged food banks, to corporate groups sponsoring families with no money for clothing or household goods, from collecting toys to simply raising funds. This holiday I have seen a growing league of individuals, all of whom are attempting, in various ways, to fill the expanding gap of need experienced by so many. And, despite the faltering economy, I have also seen an equally abundant number of folks responding, reaching into their pockets and trying to help.

Yet I have mixed feelings about all this goodwill. On one hand I am deeply moved by this grass roots enthusiasm, by the fierce determination and pervasive belief that “a small group of individuals can change the world,” that with enough cans and sweaters and teddy bears we can heal the heartbreak and overcome the struggle that grays out the joy in life for so many. I am also gratified and touched by the number of folks who give, who recognize their relative abundance, who are moved by compassion or a sense of injustice or by something. These acts, regardless of who is in what political office, regardless of individual beliefs, speak to an essential goodness in people. And in that I find hope.

But I am also saddened by these efforts, saddened because their very abundance speaks to how great the need is. Notwithstanding the insights of the economic pundits, the reality is there on the street, in the numbers of folks who need food, clothing, who cannot afford holiday presents or have no home in which to celebrate. The need is there in the empty food pantries and strapped agencies. And, unfortunately this mushrooming growth of helping agents is merely the representation of how the demand for help has outstripped the depth of available supports.

This piece is continued on the next blog entry.

Ms. Sayko is a senior manager in health care who also works to improve conditions for those  who struggle with illness, injury, poverty and homelessness.

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