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Macdonald: A holiday afternoon well spent in Ottawa

A hundred volunteers were cooking, doing laundry, serving and clearing and cleaning. Because each person involved knew that their time was the most valuable thing they could donate.

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I was not feeling terrific that morning. But I’d made a promise to a friend and I had an obligation to fulfil. And so I did.

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My friend is a pillar of this community. He recently received the Order Of Ottawa for his offshoot career of doing good works and uplifting people. And so, because of his inspiration, I spent that afternoon doing some good works.

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I’ll spare the details because I played a minimal part in the endeavour and it’s a prevailing philosophy among many that charity and charitable endeavours are best to remain anonymous. Unless of course, a lack of anonymity can lead to a raising of awareness. And that’s the only reason I’m sharing this story.

So where I was, they were expecting a few thousand people to be served for this organization’s first sit-down Christmas dinner service in three years, because of the pandemic. Not nearly that many showed up, likely because many were still unaware it was happening. But hundreds did. And astonishingly, there were almost more volunteers than one could count. Volunteers of all ages, more women than men, all different backgrounds, innumerable languages, and a cross-section of religious or non-religious beliefs. One of the leaders, as he was preparing the new team with tips and guidelines, said thank you in about a dozen languages.

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And so off we went. We gave people nourishment. Both of the belly and of the soul. Having worked in a fancy restaurant before, I’ve served near-royalty in about every field. From prime-ministers to senators. LA Kings and Ottawa Senators too. Movie stars and rock stars. About the most famous people that have ever come to Ottawa. And some nights, good nights, I may have earned a few hundred dollars.

On this day, though, I served people who needed a helping hand. People who may have felt grateful not only for a meal but for the kindness bestowed upon them. To have been addressed as Sir or Madame. No $50 steaks or $100 bottles of wine. But a turkey dinner at Christmas and a couple of cupcakes. And the clients, as they’re called, couldn’t have been more polite and gracious and grateful. Had I been having one of those Charlie Brown feelings of wonderment pertaining to the true meaning of Christmas, I wondered no more.

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A hundred volunteers, cooking, doing laundry, serving and clearing and cleaning. Chipping in, in any way they could. Because each person involved knew that their time was the most valuable thing they could donate. Because regardless of one’s own personal material wealth, our time is our most valuable and finite asset.

After my shift, when I was cashing-out, (there is no cash-out) I had the feeling it was one of the better service shifts I’d ever worked. I walked the half a dozen or so blocks home, with a takeout turkey dinner and a cupcake, and in that 10 or 12 minutes, I was grateful to be afforded the privilege of doing some good in the world. In my own tiny way.

And in a big-picture way, it’s a nice metaphor for the grandest of human achievements. The Great Pyramids are comprised of single stones. Terry Fox ran a few thousand miles one step at a time. The greatest of classical musical compositions are made of single piano or violin notes, played together.

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My friend is a gem. Walking down the street, he may look just like an ordinary middle-aged guy. But he’s a Diamond. And a city, a community, may look like nothing but steel and concrete. But the people inhabiting this urban jungle truly are a hidden Diamond Mine.

Thank you, Linus. Charlie Brown now knows the true meaning of Christmas. And thank you to my old friend for reminding me of an invaluable lesson.

The brightest lights at Christmas, in a city filled with them, aren’t plugged in and strewn upon trees and around windows. They’re the very people who simply brighten up the city, almost unimaginably and immeasurably, with the illumination afforded by their kindness.

Joe Macdonald is a former restaurant worker and current musician who has played in bands around town for about 25 years. He writes non-fiction, particularly about everyday life in Ottawa.

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