In our little town, there is a charming little main street filled with antique stores and specialty shops and charming little cafes – two of them – at which you can buy lattes and cappuccinos and pots of tea with cookies on the side and sit at little round tables and have quiet, gentle conversations while watching people bustle about on the street outside. And if you head east on this street, down a block or two, just past the wellness centre (now with yoga classes!) and the office of the local Minister of Parliament, and then a few paces further, you will find another place to buy coffee, although you wouldn’t call it a café. It’s not the kind of place where you can get a latte or tea in tea cups with cookies on the side; you order your coffee ‘extra-large regular’ and maybe you get a donut on the side.
The regulars here don’t huddle over biscotti while taking a break from shopping; they gather outside near a wastebin filled with sand that they use as an ashtray, and talk and smoke and smoke and talk and when it gets really cold they consume their cigarettes in fast, furious bursts, inhaling deeply and quickly so that the tips glow bright red in the cold air, before ducking back inside and gathering in small groups around the tables and talking about this or that or nothing. Most of them come from ‘The Home’ around the corner, a residence for people who have gotten lost in the province’s mental health system and have no family to pull them out or take them in and so they live at ‘The Home’ and spend their days at the local coffee shop, alongside a handful of others who, for reasons of unemployment and/or addiction and/or mental health issues, take up the tables for the better part of the day, every day.
We go there sometimes, Emilia and I, because she likes the donuts with the sprinkles and I like their bagels with peameal bacon and cheddar and because sometimes you just want a coffee ‘extra large regular’ instead of a ristretto non-fat latte. Everyone always says hello, and someone always asks Emilia about school and she always lets the lady called Alice – one of our neighbours calls her Crazy Alice, which is unkind but not entirely inaccurate – pat her on the head and tell her that she’s pretty, which is something that she is disinclined to tolerate from others, especially when she does not have a sprinkle donut in her hand.
Two days before Christmas, we went there, but we didn’t buy coffee or donuts or chat with the regulars. We waited until there was no-one else near the counter, and then asked to speak to the owner.
“He’s not in,” said the lady behind the counter, the one who sometimes slips an extra sprinkle donut into Emilia’s bag. “He went home early because he’ll be in all day tomorrow and Christmas Day.”
“Could I ask you to pass something on to him? It’s a little weird.” I handed her an envelope. “I’d like to buy coffee and donuts for anyone who comes in on Christmas Day. I don’t know how many people will be in, but I hope this” – I gestured to the envelope – “will be enough.”
She looked inside. “It’s more than enough. It’ll just be the regulars. They have nowhere else to go. We’re the only place that’s…”
“…open on Christmas Day. I know. So if there’s more, maybe add sandwiches for whoever wants them? Or whatever they want. Whatever it covers.”
I know that this will read as clichéd, but still: her eyes filled up with tears. “They don’t have anywhere to go at Christmas,” she said. “They just come here.”
Emilia tugged at my arm. “Can I have a donut?”
It wasn’t a big thing, what we did – and it was, I should note, prompted by Yahoo’s Ripples Of Kindness (they made a contribution that covered half of my little Christmas Coffee gift) – but I think that it might have made for a nice holiday surprise for some people who usually don’t get holiday surprises, people for whom Christmas Day is a day for forgetting that it’s Christmas Day. I hope so, anyway.
The whole exercise, though, was more of a gift for me than it was a gift for anyone else. It was reminder that little things that make a little difference can go a really long way to making one feel hopeful about the world. The bigger stuff – working to raise awareness of and support for programs fighting HIV or wearing tutus and granting wishes and raising money for muscular dystrophy or advocating for families of premature babies or raising awareness of the challenges facing families of children with special needs or making sure that some needy families get Christmas or just generally trying to do as much good as we can – make our hearts swell and our souls lift and give us bigger hope for bigger things. They help us to believe that it is possible to make the world a better place in measurable ways. But they also, sometimes, remind us of how much work there still is to do, of how far we are from eliminating HIV and curing muscular dystrophy and eliminating poverty and fulfilling all the wishes that should be fulfilled and ensuring that disabled children live rich and fulfilling lives and that premature babies live, and it can all feel, you know, overwhelming and impossible, at times, when you think of how all of efforts really just chip away at that stuff, that mountain of bad stuff and sad stuff and stuff that we maybe just can’t fix, not in our lifetimes, anyway.
But when you do something little – sure, you could buy coffee and sandwiches for 40 people who will have no Christmas dinner, but you could also buy coffee and a sandwich for one person who just happens to look a little lonely – and that little something causes someone to smile and to feel a little better about the world, it makes you feel – it made me feel – that changing the world really is possible, even when – maybe especially when – we’re all taking the smallest baby steps toward that change.
It’s possible to say, of course, that everything I’ve said above is just a puffed-up and self-important way of saying, doing nice things makes you feel good, and doing nice things makes the world a nicer place, and that would be entirely true, but still. It all reduces to the same thing: little things can make a big difference. It’s important that we keep reminding ourselves of that, and that we then remind ourselves again. And again and again and again and again.
At that we then get ourselves a donut, with extra sprinkles.
(I’m so sorry that I have to keep comments closed. I’m back west with my family – and with Tanner – and things are challenging and distracting and I have limited access to wi-fi, so. I’m just not able to monitor comments and participate in discussion. If you’ve done something sprinkle-donut-worthy, tweet me or post about it Facebook and tag me so that I can read about it. I’d love it if you did. I need the boost.)