Sunday, December 21

What'll it cost you?

One morning a few years ago I heard on the radio that there was to be an extraordinary event in the heavens that night, one that had not happened before in the memory of astronomy. I can't recall what the event was, but the question of some concern for those who watched deep space was whether the event would have any measurable impact on planet Earth.

On hearing this I chuckled, "We'll soon find out," then promptly forgot the news item.

That night, for no reason, I decided to hang out in Georgetown and to take a bus there. Mentally drumming my fingers as the bus inched through traffic, I suddenly turned my head and saw that across the aisle a baby, perched in her mother's lap, was solemnly contemplating me. I stared back. She was so tiny, so exquisitely formed, a perfect new life.

I glanced at the mother's profile. Eastern European -- perhaps Romanian, I wondered. A young mother, still in her twenties.

Not American, not in America long, I could tell from her clothing and that of the baby's. From the clothing, not well off. Yet there was something about the way she sat, the way she held her head, that conveyed a quiet dignity and forbearance.

I thought, "What'll it cost you?" and said a silent prayer for mother and child. 'May all good things come to them. May they live lives of great happiness.'

Alighting from the bus, I decided to stop off at the Georgetown Park shopping mall, where I sat for some time, enjoying the parade of window shoppers -- tourists, college students, and Washingtonians unwinding after a day's work.

Then I continued my walk on M Street, heading toward Pennsylvania Avenue, taking in the passersby and the diners at window seats in restaurants that lined the street. I stopped off for a few minutes at Barnes & Noble but didn't feel like browsing the books, and continued my stroll.

As I neared the Four Seasons Hotel my eye was caught by a tableau inside a shop. The shop is no longer there; it sold all manner of delightful decorative fluffery, much of it visible through the large window, and all of it arranged in a riotous jumble.

The shop was closed for the night but still brightly lit. Inside were three females -- a mother and her two teenage daughters, from the similarity of the features. Probably the shop's owner, I thought, taking in the mother. They were trying on ridiculous Victorian hats, exchanging them, whirling around to show off the effect, and laughing in merriment at how they looked.

There was such gaiety about the group that it was infectious. I found myself smiling at them. I took some time to study the mother. This was someone who knew how to enjoy life, and she'd communicated the art to her daughters.

"What'll it cost you?" I thought.

I mentally whispered a prayer for them, and wished them all the best that life could give.

I didn't feel like walking any farther so I hailed a cab for home. On the way I decided to stop at a 7-11 for a few items. When I arrived at the counter with my purchases, there was an old man counting out change to purchase a cup of yogurt while the clerk stoically watched him carefully measure out pennies and nickels.

I took in the man's clothing and his profile. Probably homeless, years of heavy drinking stamped on his face. But there was something about him, something about the way he held himself, which reminded me that he had not always been a drunk.

I thought, "What'll it cost you?"

I pulled out a dollar and paid for the yogurt, gesturing to the man to keep his change. He returned the change to his pocket without looking at me. As I returned to the cab I said a silent prayer for the man.

The next morning I remembered the news about the heavenly event and thought, 'Well, we're still here. Nothing happened.'

Then a chill went up my spine as I recalled the phrase, "What'll it cost you?"

I'd never thought or spoken those words until the night before. Until I went back over events I hadn't even been aware that the question had come to me three times during my outing.

And I wasn't in the habit of praying for the welfare of complete strangers I encountered while on an outing.

Did the extraordinary heavenly occurrence somehow lift the human mind out of its ordinary concerns for a few hours? Are there moments in time, signaled by cosmic events, when the divine speaks more loudly in the heart's ear?

I don't know, but I do know I will not forget that night and its lesson.

The spirit of giving is not measured in gifts but in the willingness to give, the remembrance that there is always something we can give, if only our good wishes.

Did God give His only begotten son to save humankind? How many fathers have sacrificed their sons to battle to save others? Why shouldn't a higher power do the same?

Is there a supreme higher power? Does God really have only one son? Has He sent only one son to save us? Is God a "he?" Does God exist?

I've been incarnating in this realm so long I address both gods and demons as "sonny," yet even I don't know the answer to such questions. And I can't ever know, for to know while incarnate would mean I'm not subject to any human limitations.

Put another way you can't have your cake and eat it too: play the role of a mortal plus know all the answers, unless of course you're incarnating as a sage whose job description is to never fail to think up an answer to even the silliest question.

For the rest of us -- what'll it cost you to suspend your wondering for a few days about matters far above the human head, and determine instead to celebrate the spirit of Christmas? For what could be more joyful than to contemplate a being who makes the ultimate sacrifice to save humanity?

May the spirit of giving always be with you, and may all good things come your way.

This offering has been crossposted at RBO, Uppity Woman, Gates of Vienna, and Valentine Bonnaire.

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