Tampa's Metropolitan Ministries, one of those thousand points of light that strives to save the vulnerable, struggled this past year to keep the flame burning. Even as Christmas loomed, the agency was clamoring for donations of toys and food — a message that belied the declarations about Florida's improving economy.
If conditions are so swell, then why weren't the fortunate giving? Or did bloodless statistics look better because people had given up on returning to what we once called the normal world and showed up instead at places like Metropolitan Ministries?
Those who live by public numbers should keep in mind what every clergyman knows: Appearances lie. This is most true of the holidays, when we work hard to put our best (and best-decorated) face on. Flush bank accounts, or at least not empty ones, and dented hearts are not uncommonly paired.
The holidays are not just pleasurable but instructive. The terminally gleeful get annoyed by those of us who are not, and we waste time by indulging ourselves. This past week, I finally, mercifully, grew up enough to figure this out. When the guests were grumpy, the pork tenderloin came out of the oven overdone, and I realized I was irked because I was so desperate to please — when, in short, the holiday lost its greeting card gloss — some force from somewhere kicked me in the pants.
In a sea of need, it was a puny gesture, but I drove two children's puzzles and a bag of groceries to Metropolitan Ministries. It was Christmas Eve. There must have been a lot of last-minute shopping going on, and perhaps a lot of dented hearts in search of soothing, for the line of cars driving into the Ministries' drop-off tent was, although not long, better than short.
Later on came chances to talk to a few old friends. We mixed pleasantry with honesty and helped each other make the holiday richer, perhaps. For me, there is no perhaps about it.
None of this is meant to be self-congratulatory. I should have and could have done more. Many do, just as many have this holiday business figured out. But it is as true of finding pleasure as it is of riding a bike: Some people learn faster than others. All that matters is that we learn. The new year has begun, and I'm also supposed to remember the lesson and carry it through the next 12 months. That's the trouble with new years. They get old quickly, and we tend to forget.
In columns such as these, at this time of year, bromides are unfortunately expected. This is not one: It is not a wish for happiness, but for the ability to make joy when possible and to be damned grateful when it appears. Think of pearls, rare and lovely and formed under hard circumstances. Let 2013 be your year of the pearl.