by Shaina Bolin
Five days before Christmas, I exited a gas station, bounding to my car with $14 of change in one hand and my wallet and a pack of cigarettes in the other. The pack of cigarettes I swore I wasn’t going to buy—they will literally be the death of me. Every pack is what I call, “My Last Pack, I Swear,” and then, it isn’t. But I digress. Sights on my car, I walked by the young man on the curb and paid him little notice until he hollered out, “Ma’am?”
I turned around to face the man in the sock cap. He spread his hands out, as if in surrender, and asked, “Please?”
All anyone really wants is someone to listen, said my brain. All we as humans, really want from the other humans on this planet, is someone to listen, to remind us that we aren’t really as alone as we feel, and the knowledge that someone, somewhere, gives a damn.
I walked back and sat down on the curb beside him.
“Ma’am,” he started, as soberly and lucidly as I could imagine anyone speaking to me. “I got kicked out of the shelter for fighting. Someone stole my tent. All of my belongings…” his voice broke as he reached for a small green canvas bag, the shoulder straps tied in a loose knot.
“Are in that bag.” I finished. Not a question, more of a statement of sad realization. “Everything to your name is in that bag.”
“Yes,” he said. He began pulling items out of the bag. “I have this sweater; someone gave me a package of cookies, and someone else gave me this ‘take-care-of-myself-kit,’ like with a toothbrush and stuff.”
I laughed. “At least you have a toothbrush!”
His face lit up with laughter. Laughter helps us remember that we’re people, not animals, said my brain.
“Yeah,” he said. “At least I got that. But…” he stalled, “Is there any way you could…” he stalled again.
I knew what he wanted to ask. We’ve all been there, especially in this city: people ask for a dollar almost everywhere I go. And if I have it, I almost always give it to them. If I don’t have it, I try to listen to their stories, whatever it is they want to tell me. I pray for them to find their next dollar. Chalk it up to a sensitive heart or a naïve personality. I choose to chalk it up to all the times I’ve been down on my luck and flat on my ass in a place I felt like I couldn’t get out of.
This was different though. I had $14 to my name and eventually, I would need it. I held it in the palm of my hand, I couldn’t hide it, and I didn’t want to give it away. My mind batted around ideas like a cat with some yarn: maybe I could just give him $4? And keep $10 for myself? I would need it after all. Didn’t I just struggle to pay my rent and fix a blown out tire on my car? Don’t I have mouths to feed and toes to keep warm? Aren’t I leaving in a few days to drive 300 miles to see my family? Don’t I need gas money?
It’s so easy to feel justified.
But I just couldn’t do it. Sometimes it isn’t about what we let go of, but what we hold on to.
I looked in his deep brown eyes and said, “I’ve got fourteen dollars.”
His head dropped as I put the money in his hand; all the money I had to my name transferred over to his name. His tears fell shamelessly. He lifted his head and said,
“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. You don’t know what this means. I’m gonna take this money to the thrift store tomorrow and see if I can find a tent. Or maybe I’ll buy a bus ticket and go home to Memphis and see my mama. Thank you. Lady, you just don’t know what this means.”
I wanted to say, “Yes, I do know. I do know how it feels to be handed something you didn’t even know how to ask for. I know how it feels when grace arrives.”
Instead, I said, “God’s gonna bless you,” and I gave him a hug. I told him I would think about him a lot and that I hoped he found his way. His cries of “Thank you!” and “God bless you!” followed me to my car. I looked back at him once as I pulled my car out of the space; he was still thanking me and I gave him the thumbs-up sign.
I believe that God came to earth. I believe he came thousands of years ago as a little baby, grew up to be a man called Jesus, lived an incredible life, died a horrific death, and then was raised to life again three days later. But now, in this day and age, I believe God is on earth in all nationalities, genders, colors of skin, financial statuses, physical statures, sexual orientations, and even belief systems. Life is hard and we need each other, and we all basically want the same thing: someone to give a damn.
God shows up when, where, and how I least expect it. And he uses the most illogical, unforeseen people and situations to extend his grace, myself included. Grace is always arriving. It arrives and then it makes a transfer from one being to another, and then all things feel transformed.
The day after that happened, I wrote this story in the morning and then I had a day…with kids and messes and sadness. I realized that since my kids were spending that weekend and Christmas Eve and some of Christmas Day with their dad, I would basically be alone until Christmas Day. So, in a crush of loneliness, I made a last minute decision to go to my mom’s early. I called and talked this over with the kids’ dad, and we agreed on a time and place we could meet on Christmas Day so I could get the kids. And I called my mom and cleared this with her. I was walking through my house, making phone calls, grabbing random articles of clothing and books and paper and our Christmas stockings, in a half-hearted, extremely rushed version of packing, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw through the kitchen blinds, that someone had walked up to my porch and was putting something in the mailbox.
Still on the phone, I fished the envelope out of my mailbox and opened it to find gift cards for me and both of the kids; gift cards with not-so-small spending allowances. From Santa, they all said. A single piece of paper said, Merry Christmas! No names, no idea who it’s from or who put it there.
But it arrived and then was transferred to me, and suddenly, my Christmas was transformed.
Sometimes I feel like in my hunt for God, I keep running into grace, which is beginning to feel more and more like giving a damn. I think for me, hunting for God in the real world, where real life is happening, means giving a damn. And we can call it grace or a servant attitude or radical love or some new buzzword, but it boils down to giving a damn about other people. Right now especially, I think that’s what God wants me to know as I hunt for him: he gives a damn about people, and wants us to give a damn about each other.
*Also, I found $20 in my car so I ended up with enough gas to make it to my mom’s. We had a great, snowy Christmas.
**And also, I am going to quit smoking.
Shaina Bolin is an art student at UT and is a single mother to two children. Shaina is learning what it means to hunt for God amidst writing papers, attending classes, checking elementary school homework, and changing diapers.