This is a year of firsts. This is our family’s first year away from extended family and home. This is our first holiday in the tropics. And this is also our first Christmas when our kids are old enough to realize Santa Clause is not a literal physical entity, but rather a spirit who possesses us to be generous, loving and altruistic. They are old enough to not mistake poetry for prose, as Joseph Campbell would say.
And, this is the first Christmas our family chose to genuinely embody the spirit of giving rather than fixate on receiving.
But let me back up, because this idea was precipitated by a very unique experience for Martin and me that left an indelible mark on my psyche. About a month ago, Marty and I were driving our old truck down to town for our once-a-week foray to the feria for our organic vegetables and fruit for the week.
As often happens, we ran into a friend who thumbed us down and asked for a ride to his house down in San Isidro. He is a soft-spoken Tico named, Marcos (I changed his name), who we have hired to do a few odd jobs for us over the last year. Marcos is unique because he has olive skin with sparkling, blue eyes, and a genuine, lopsided smile and easy laugh that I have never seen him without.
He climbed into the truck and carefully packed away a small bag of oranges into his pack. After the usual greetings, we asked him about his family and what he was up to. He began to excitedly tell us all about an upcoming event he was planning for the “very poor children” in his village. He explained that most of them don’t have more than one simple toy, or a pair of good shoes to wear. Once a year, a week before Christmas, Marcos and some of his friends organize a gift giving celebration complete with Papi Noel giving gifts to these struggling families. All of the gifts are donated by other families in the neighborhood.
I excitedly offered in Spanish, “We can donate! What do you need?” And he answered, “Anything. It can even be used already. Toys and shoes, pots, pans. Whatever you feel like giving.”
After a few more minutes chatting, I asked, “Marcos, I have never seen a photo of your daughter, Prisila. She’s about 5 isn’t she? Do you have a photo?”
He dug his phone out of his pocket and looked down at the phone. He opened a photo on the screen, but before showing it around to us, he looked intently at the screen for a few moments, reflecting on his little girl with that lopsided smile.
He passed it around, and there she was, a little, blonde beauty with those same blue eyes as her dad. She also had that same smile as Marcos, but I quickly noticed that she had a severe scar from a cleft palate surgery running down from her nose to her upper lip.
“What a beauty! What is her personality like?” I said after gazing at her happy face smiling back at me from the screen.
“She is a happy child. We didn’t know if she was going to be ok. But we are so lucky she is here with us. She is a miracle! The doctor told us we should not have more children because of her cleft palate. I am so happy we have her!” He said, looking down at the photo sincerely.
As we approached Marcos’ neighborhood, I looked around at the homes. It was clean—no litter to speak of, but very run down. The houses were tiny shacks made of scrap materials…. tin roofs, concrete blocks, mud walls. ‘I can see how these families need some basic things.’ I thought to myself.
We finally arrived at Marcos’ house. It was a tiny home of the same random materials cobbled together to get a roof over a family’s head. It looked just like all the other meager homes we had been driving past. You could tell it was built from whatever was available to people with very few resources to purchase materials.
Marcos eagerly invited us in for lunch, without a glimpse of self-consciousness about his humble home. His energy was one of genuine, open joy to have new friends to share with. “Please, join us!” he implored, waving his hand in that funny, backwards way Ticos do, beckoning us to come inside.
We went in to meet his wife, Maria. She came forward for a hug with a big, welcoming smile. And there was his daughter, Prisila, standing behind her mother, trying to hide. I got a peek at her smile as she peered out from behind mom’s legs, shyly covering her mouth.
“Please come in and have lunch with us!” Maria offered. And she hurried back into the kitchen. A few minutes later, she returned with a small bowl of noodles and canned tuna fish, and 5 plates. I had no idea how she was going to divide up the tiny bowl of pasta, but somehow she did…each plate with six or so noodles and a tablespoon on tuna on top.
We ate and laughed, talking about the goings on in the area. The family was so sincere and humble. Little Prisila finally took her hand from her mouth and giggled shyly whenever we looked over at her.
As Maria cleared the plates, Marcos leaned forward to us and said in a low voice, “Cada dia es un milagro!” Each day is a miracle. And then he continued, “Every day, I wake up and ask God, ‘What is it I can give to you when You have given me so much? I have done nothing to deserve Your generosity. Now it is my time to give back some of what I have been given.’”
After lunch, we gathered our things and said goodbye to Marcos and his family. And as we walked back to our truck…the old truck I constantly complained bitterly about for being a ‘junker’, I was awestruck with how much abundance I take for granted. ‘What have I done to be so lucky in this life?’ I thought to myself. What have I given back to account for everything that has been given to me?
I have always prided myself on giving donations, volunteering and trying to be generous, but all this is relatively pale in comparison to Marcos, who, by North American standards, has almost nothing. Rather than complaining about his misfortune, he is focused on helping the ‘very poor’ people in his village, appreciating the miracle of having Prisila, and showing gratitude for some food on the table to share with new friends. I’m sure there are times he gets frustrated and forgets, like any human will do, to be thankful. But from what I have seen, his set-point for happiness is at a low enough level that he spends much of his time with a smile on his face and gratitude in his heart. Now I am left wondering if I am really the lucky one, or if he is.
That afternoon, we delivered a few gifts for the neighborhood children to Marcos. And yesterday, we ran into him at the local pulperia. He eagerly dug his phone out of his pocket and showed me three photos taken of Papi Noel handing the gifts out to the children. They looked at Papi Noel with absolute wonder and hope.
I felt the genuine gratitude these kids had for the most humble of gifts. I remembered years of gifts so high around our tree, our kids got bored opening all of them. I thought about the photos I had just seen on the internet of North Americans fighting over TV’s at Walmart. I thought about all the homeless and impoverished people freezing in the back alleys of the USA, while families less than a mile away enjoy dinner, oblivious to the suffering so close to their homes. But most of all, I felt gratitude for the gift Marcos gave to me this year, as often as I can remember to ask of life (or God, Universe, Goddess, Allah, or Higher Spirit), “What can I do for you today when you have given me so much?