Yesterday afternoon I shadowed a group of active duty military people, actually Sailors studying to become submariners at the school on the base in Groton, who've been collecting canned goods and other non-perishables since Thanksgiving and who were bringing a goodly portion of their collection to the Saint Vincent de Paul Place in downtown Norwich near the Otis Library.
It's a community meal site and food pantry for people many of the rest of us have either forgotten or would like to. You and I speak these days about 'tough times' as if either of us have any idea what that means, and maybe you do, but I have a job and my family has a hearth and home. Many of those helped by Saint Vincent's have none of that-and for them, the struggle is holding body and soul together today until tomorrow and then they start again.
The sailors were delivering about 3,500 canned goods and boxes of non-perishables to Saint Vincent's and to the Norwich Vet Center over on Cliff Street. In a way, both places bracket and bookend a downtown in small-town New England struggling as hard as those who live in it to remain relevant and vital as America of the 21st Century hurries by with hardly a sideways glance.
We have holiday decorations in downtown, but there aren't very many people around and about, which is pretty much the same story across the country as the enclosed mega malls, built a generation ago on cheap land near the highways, replaced village greens and downtown shopping excursions before, they themselves, were obviated by virtual malls and on-line shopping sites where you click, pay and ship without ever exchanging a word of conversation with anyone.
This time of year, perhaps because of the religious overtones or maybe the philosophic atmospherics, you'd think we might be a little more gentle with one another. We are, after all, somewhat fragile as a species and while some settling of contents takes place as our lives unfold, there are secret places each of us have for memories and moments others will never share. But the kindness of strangers is like most everything else, in short supply these days, though it was cheering to see all these young faces, like bright and shiny pennies, forming a chain to unload groceries to help those in need.
Instead of the rush and crush of the crowds at the mall and the big box store, where we all collide in pursuit of the same bright and shiny must-have holiday item, here were friends we'd never met before helping neighbors they may never see again-and while it was happening in my town, help like this is going on all over even where you live, even as we sit and discuss the notion that our social contract should have more contact with one another, regardless of race, sex, age, creed or need. Maybe this is the time we should start to make that happen.
We spend too much time alone in private plots of frozen space and all the news just repeats itself like some forgotten dream. We no longer see the poor, the halting, the lame and the lost. Any sympathy for the battered and beaten has vanished and our indifference makes no distinction between old and young, have or have not. And the reason for the season is in danger of being lost as the Three Kings are marked down for quick sale and there's a manger clean-up needed in aisle five slouching towards Bethlehem.