A photo of my previous life in New York, where I worked at Oxford University Press
If any of you have been to New York City during Christmas time, you will know what a magical place it can be. The store windows stun in their Christmas displays, there seems to be festive music on every corner, and if you’re lucky enough to have been there when it was snowing, it does make you feel as if you’re walking around in a movie scene.
I lived in New York for approximately six years, before I moved here to the UK. One year, a few months before Christmas, I finished a book called The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People and realized, based on what the author was writing about, that there was a very big void in my life and that was about being of service to others. It’s very easy when you live and work in a city to become desensitized to being human, and I wanted to reverse that decline I could see happening within myself.
At the same time that I had decided to find something to do that would involve helping others, I went to a university reunion held at a very posh hotel, and while there, was told by one of my old university friends about a soup kitchen in my neighborhood. He had volunteered there before, and suggested that I come along with him on the next available Saturday. While I was keen to give my time, a soup kitchen had never crossed my mind. But he was extremely persuasive and proceeded to show up on my doorstep that next Saturday at 11 o’clock, where I was a bit hungover from the previous night’s revelry and left me no other option than to quickly get dressed and make my way out the door. His instructions to me as I got ready was “to dress modestly and to leave any jewellry at home”. I do remember thinking “well I can always do it once, and then say that at least I tried”.
And that Saturday was the first of almost three year’s of Saturdays spent volunteering at the kitchen that went on to be one of the most incredible experiences that I had while living in New York. Each Saturday, we served over 300 meals in a two hour period to some of New York’s poorest people.
When you stood in a room surrounded by hundreds of people who sleep under bridges, use benches as mattresses, and consider large cardboard boxes a home, you cannot help but feel humbled at what you have in your life or for the opportunities given to you. I distinctly remember leaving once and going home to my apartment in floods of tears, as I had served a mother with three children their Christmas meal and I knew full well that they were going back out to the streets of New York to wait for another week before they got a proper meal.
And without a doubt, it was the Christmas period that affected me most.
Every year, when Christmas comes around, I take a bit of quiet time to reflect on the people that I met during that period of my life. Oddly enough, my son and daughter were in New York last summer on holiday with their father and they went and served in that very same soup kitchen. When I asked them about their experience, with uncharacteristically adult fashion, they both said it was amazing.
When I moved from New York to the UK, I was bereft at the thought of not going there every weekend, to make sure my moral compass was pointing to North. I always came away feeling a strange sense of calm at the end of each session – that I knew a secret that not many other people did about how to find true contentment. It can be found by spending it with others who have less.
So this Christmas, while it is easy to get swept up in the pressure when clever marketing makes you feel you are not giving enough to your family, I can assure you if you spend time in the spirit of your family, in a home that is warm and dry and there is food on your table, you have more than enough.
PS – If you want to read a bit about the soup kitchen, or volunteer when you are traveling through New York (they love volunteers!), it is called the Meatloaf Kitchen and here is the link.