I love Christmas, I really do. I love that all the stores are closed and there isn’t anywhere to go. I love that the phone probably won’t ring. In the unlikely event the doorbell chimes, it will be a crafty friend with cookies or other homemade goodies.

I understand the deep significance of the holiday for those who celebrate it and mean no disrespect. As a Jew, Christmas for me means a nice day off and sometimes Chinese food and a movie. We never celebrated Christmas when I was a child and I have never hung an ornament. I  think the lights are pretty but I would probably be one of those people that left them up all year round out of sheer laziness.

There’s a book I’ve had my eye on at Powell’s: Rambam’s Ladder, A Meditation on Generosity and Why it is Necessary to Give, by Julie Salamon. A few months into this adventure, I still have a lot to learn about generosity and giving.

I forgot that I would not be the only person happy to get out of the house today. The streets downtown were teeming, and people had that wistful post-holiday daze about them.

As I approached Powell’s, I saw a young woman crouched over on the traffic island across the street. I couldn’t really make it out, but it looked like she had some paper or a drawing pad on her lap. People were streaming by in all directions. No one looked at her and she didn’t look up. I decided to try my luck at finding a parking place and then see if she was still there.

A spot opened up halfway down the block, which was amazing. After I parked I went back to the corner. There she was, still hunkered down practically into a ball. People and cars passed without seeming to notice her. I stood watching and it seemed to take forever for the light to change.

She’s the dark bundle at the bottom left

When I finally got across the street, I went over and tried to peek over her shoulder to see what was on the yellow paper in her lap. I was hoping to see an artist’s rendition of the surrounding landscape. Instead, I caught a glimpse of a few words. My heart sank.

“Hey, how ya doing?” I asked. “Oh, I’m okay,” she said cheerlessly. “What’s the matter?” I asked her.

“Oh, I’m just trying to make this sign with this dumb pen.” She straightened up just enough for me to see what was in her lap: a sign with block letters that said “Lost My Job. Couldn’t Pay Rent.” She held the ballpoint pen out and said she was trying to fill in the outline of the letters to make it more visible. “It’s taking forever with this.”

It was cold outside and starting to drizzle. The young woman looked 17, maybe 18. I asked her what was going on and she told me that she had lost her job as a house cleaner and had split up with her boyfriend. She couldn’t afford the rent for their small apartment on her own and got kicked out. She told me that the women’s shelters were only for pregnant women or domestic violence victims, and she had nowhere to go.

I was somewhat surprised to hear myself say, “How about you let me get you something hot to drink?” There was a pause and then she said, “Okay. If you want to. Actually, I don’t want to give up this spot. I just got here and someone else will take this spot if I leave. A lot of people walk by here.”

“C’mon,” I urged. “Let’s go inside for a bit. Maybe we can get you a better pen in the bookstore.” It really wasn’t hard to convince her. She got up and we crossed the street together. It crossed my mind that I hoped she wasn’t always so trusting. The bookstore was absolutely packed, a madhouse. On our way to the café we passed one of the information desks and I saw a Sharpie sitting on the counter. “Do you sell pens like this here?” I asked. No, they didn’t, but the employee offered to let us use it while we were in the store. “Just make sure you bring it back.”

I asked her name; it was Lauren. When we got to the café I told her to pick out whatever she wanted to eat. They were out of sandwiches but there were pastries in the case, and bagels. “Maybe I’ll get a scone. What do you think looks good?” she asked me. She settled on a lemon scone and hot chocolate. I sent her to find a seat while I waited in the long line to pay.

I wasn’t sure I would even be able to find her again. It was crowded and I had barely seen her face. But there she was: a small woman sitting by the window, hunched over her paper. I asked for extra whipped cream on her hot chocolate and I got one without. She was saving the seat next to me with her bag. As she moved it to make room she said, “I had a real nice backpack but I gave it to my friend. He really needed it.”

We sat together and her story came rolling out as she worked on her sign. She was 21 and had been doing okay until her hours got cut back at work. Her mother lives nearby, in Beaverton, but recently remarried “someone weird”. She’s not welcome in their home and doesn’t even know their address. Her Dad lives in San Francisco. She was hoping to get the money together to take the bus to California; in addition to her Dad she has other family and friends there. “At least I’d have some options.”

She was wearing a lightweight black coat over a blue sweatshirt, the dirty cuffs sticking out and partially covering over her hands. I tried not to stare, noticing dirty nails and chipped dark blue nail polish. She was intent on her task. “If I say ‘Looking for a room’ do you think they’ll know what that means? It’s a lot easier than writing ‘Looking for a place to stay’. I said I thought that sounded fine, flashing back to sitting with my kids while they did their homework.

There were two women sitting next to me, a stack of GRE study manuals on the counter in front of them. Their lighthearted banter stood in heartbreaking contrast to Lauren’s grim narrative. “25 Math Concepts You Absolutely Must Know. Okay, check this out. The area of a triangle, the volume of a cylinder. ‘The complete arc of a circle is 360º.’ Hey, I knew that one!”

The women were laughing about how much smarter they used to be when they were in high school. Lauren was telling me that her new stepfather didn’t want to see her for at least two years, and then only if she was in school or steadily employed. “It’s not like I want to throw my life away.”

She continued slowly filling in the letters on the sign. I asked her what she did yesterday, on Christmas. “Nothing. I really didn’t do anything,” she said sadly.

I finished my hot chocolate and watched through the window as people passed by. If they had glanced our way, they might have seen a gray-haired lady holding an empty cup and a young woman bent purposefully over a piece of paper.

I decided it was time to go and told Lauren I was going to take off. I had a C-note folded up in my pocket and I held it out to her. “I hope this helps out a little. Take care of yourself.” “Oh, thank you! Are you sure?” she asked. “Yeah,” I said. “Look at it.” She opened the bill and let out a gasp. “Are you sure?” she asked again. For the first time, she looked at me full on, relief flooding her features. Her eyes sparkled with intelligence and a flash of optimism. I saw how pretty she was behind the piercings, dirty hair and guardedness.

“I think I’m just going to go right to the bus station and see if I have enough for a ticket to San Francisco. I could be there tomorrow!” She reached out and pulled me into a hug, saying “No one has ever helped me out like this before.”  I told her she was smart and beautiful and I just knew things would work out for her.

On the way out, I passed by the employee who had lent us the pen. “She’ll bring it back soon,” I promised. He shrugged. “We’ll see.”

“I’m sure she will,” I insisted. Now I think maybe she held onto it as a reminder of the strange and wonderful thing that happened today. I kind of hope she did.

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22 Responses to The Complete Arc of a Circle

  1. Pru McDonald says:

    Another beautiful, serendipitous story… SO MEANT TO BE!

    When you’ve had the real meaning and beauty of Christmas in the past, with loved ones close by, it’s really difficult to move beyond that, to get through all the frenzy and commercialism to keep one’s sanity. I’ve tried all kinds of ways to get past the pain, to count all my blessings instead, and I somehow always manage.

    This Christmas I was able to provide love and companionship for another solitary traveler, a single friend, who joined me for a great movie, and a meal at my home afterword. It was SO VERY rewarding! Getting each of us through an imperfect day, but in a rather perfect way. Serendipitous!

    Just as you found someone to help in her solitary journey, and did
    far more good than I. I can envision the good you do, expanding
    outward, exponentially, your one C-note at a time creating such
    boundless spiritual rewards for so many, many, many people!

  2. Cindy Thomas says:

    You’re an amazing woman, Dr Jill. Glad you enjoyed your holiday weekend. And by the way, you need not be a Christian to hang an ornament… hope you’ll try it sometime. 😉

  3. Erica Simon says:

    Hello Jill, I want to tell you how you have inspired me this week. I have been thinking about what I would do with one hundred dollars; How can I get my kids to consider others? I have also been thinking about how to “fill the family stockings” for Christmas. I have three boys of my own and a niece and nephew whom we have over for Christmas. So here’s what I did: I wrote notes to each of the five children, ages 10-15, telling them that Santa and Mrs. Claus wanted them to experience the gift of giving to someone less fortunate than themselves. We (husband and I) gave each twenty dollars and a stamped envelope to tell us what they decided to do. I listed suggestions, but asked them to give to someone or someplace that would bring them the most satisfaction. I am not sure what they will do, but I have faith that they will find joy in giving.
    Thank you for sharing your joy. I will miss your stories when you finally stop.

  4. Janet Jacobson says:

    Hi, I must add my story…Christmas eve day, peddling home on my bike, I heard a loud moan and “F**k it, just f**k it” from a homeless woman standing in front of a recycling center that was closed. She had a bike rigged with collected bottles, her bundle the size of a small car. She sat on the curb and cursed again, it really was a moan. And, Jill, you came to mind. I turned around, rode back and gave her the 10 dollars I had just drawn from the bank. She said this was the second time she had come to the center and they were closed; she was going to have to drag all her scavenge back to her tent and the cats as well as herself would have no food…but the 10 would save her this pain. Her name is Iris, pronounce Errice, and she’s as Irish as could be, beautiful blue eyes and nice brown hair, missing most of her teeth. She was so grateful, as I was to give.

    • Janet- How heartbreaking to witness such vulnerability and need. How wonderful that you were able to ease some of Iris’s pain. Who knows what kind of difference that may have made, beyond the obvious? Thank you for writing. I have also thought of you, many times. Blessings and love. Jill

  5. Janette Wittwer says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. I sure hope that girl got to her Dad’s safely. She is one of so many people that are struggling to just stay alive, if only were more observant and less judgmental towards the plight of others. Thank you so much!

  6. DJan says:

    Now THIS is a Christmas story that warms my heart, although I truly hope that she ends up all right, she is awfully trusting. You are the most amazing writer, I really mean it! I was there with you. Thank you for this wonderful story, I am smiling as I write this.

  7. Thank you, DJan! I hope so too. Wishing you all good things for 2011!! Jill

  8. Susan says:

    How we take for granted to eat and be warm… another heart-warming story – you’ve so inspired me…

  9. Ginny says:

    You did it again! This is the season of hope and love. It gives me a great feeling when I read what you are doing that I have found peace taht there is people like you in the world. What a beautiful person you are!

    • Ginny- You are very kind, but don’t forget that I am getting back at least as much as I give. It warms my heart to connect with people in this way, and I have been so encouraged by readers like you. Thank you, thank you!

  10. Steve H says:

    Hi Jill, I just read your latest blog post waiting for our breakfast on a sun drenched terrace in the California desert. I’m reminded as I have been again & again reading your blog posts how much I take for granted & how much I have to be grateful for including our friendship w/ you & your family. Happy New Year, Steve

  11. Katherine Howells says:

    Your experience has enriched my life, among many others as well, Jill. Thanks so much….

    I’m saying prayers for Lauren…

    Blessings, Katherine

  12. My heart is touched by another beautiful story of compassion. I hope this young lady made it down to SF. Thank you, Jill. Your words warm the spirit as much as the hot chocolate surely warmed some cold hands that day.

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