Saturday, December 24, 2011

Finding the lightness on this day

Today's Observer column. Merry Christmas, everyone:

Eight mornings before Christmas, a man walked into the Kmart on Freedom Drive and asked to see a manager. He wanted to pay off some customers’ layaway accounts.

The man had seen stories recently about people receiving that gift – in Indiana, he thinks, but possibly somewhere else. Layaway payoffs have become a heartening trend – with people walking into stores here and across the country to settle an account or two, to surprise someone with a gift from a stranger, to remind us of the spirit this season is supposed to bring.

This man, who lives in Charlotte, wanted to do the same but more. He thought he might pay off $2,000 worth of layaways. He is not a rich man, so this was a gift that would leave a mark on him, as well.

That Kmart that Saturday was crowded and harried and not a particularly joyful place to be – a little like our lives this time of year. It seems harder to find the quiet in Christmas these days, for so many reasons. For some, it’s the battle of managing the message, of accepting that Santa is a big part of it all but hoping to at least keep him away from the manger. For all of us, faithful or not, it’s a struggle to manage everything else – the lists, the time, the heaviness of expectations that are laid upon the season.

Those expectations are more daunting for some in this economy, and it’s those people the man wanted to help. And so he found Kmart store manager Stephanie Williams, who told him she would do whatever he wanted.

He decided on three criteria in paying off layaways: First, the accounts needed to be weeks old, to show that someone was planning and paying off a balance bit by bit. He also wanted no layaways with big ticket items like big-screen TVs, and he wanted to see something in each account that showed purchases for children.

Williams found 19 layaways fairly easily, totaling about $1,700. Processing each took time – the store’s system was set up for commerce, not charity – so our giver went to run an errand, thought about it all, then came back. Let’s do more, he told Williams, and they did, stopping finally at 49 accounts. The new total: just under $5,000.

He left again, this time to find a dollar store, where he bought Christmas cards, one for each of the layaways he had paid. He sat in his car, and on each of the 49 cards he wrote a message: “This Christmas, be kind to strangers, be kind to family, and be kind to yourself.”

It’s that last part – “be kind to yourself” – that he thinks about now.

“I sort of imagine what it would feel like to want to give my family something and have to plan six weeks ahead to pay – and to feel like that was in jeopardy,” he says. “That would feel heavy and painful. It seems exactly the opposite of what Christmas is supposed to feel like.”

This week, Williams has seen her customers come into Kmart and discover their layaways have been paid off. “They have been overjoyed,” she says. What Christmas is supposed to feel like.

It’s something we all can offer, our giver thinks. Not necessarily with money, but with a kind word, with a hand on the shoulder, with time. It’s about making someone feel better, he says. Or perhaps this: Making someone feel lighter. There’s a word for that we share on this day, whether you look gratefully to the heavens, or in wonder at what’s around us: Peace.