Saturday, May 24, 2008

Small significances.

"Try to make at least one person happy every day, and then in ten years you may have made three thousand, six hundred and fifty persons happy, or brightened a small town by your contribution to the fund of general enjoyment" Sidney Smith

Yesterday I took two clients to buy art supplies for the art program I started two years ago at the shelter where I work.

My intent was to re-stock our supply cabinet. I got way more than I intended.

It was a small thing to do. Pick them both up. Load their stuff into my car. Drive ten minutes. Wander around for an hour. Drive back to the shelter.

A small thing with huge significance.

One of the first things was my realization that in my car I held all their worldly goods. Being homeless means not having a place to put things. It means carrying what you've got with you, at all times. Watching over it at all times to ensure it doesn't go missing. When R and M climbed into my car, they carried backpacks, a shopping bag filled with the artwork R is currently working on. M had his guitar and a satchel with his artwork. They may travel 'light', but there is nothing light in having to continually move all your stuff with you.

When we got to the store, R and M were like kids in a candy shop. "What's the budget? Is it okay if we switch from acrylics to water-based oils? We could really use one of these, and these, and these."

At one point, there was another artist in the store. A woman buying some acrylics. M and the woman had a long conversation about the effects of retarder and how it adds texture to the paint. I stood and listened, and was in awe of their interaction as they shared their love of painting. No labels. No judgements. Just two artists talking about techniques of their craft.

As we drove back M told me about an incident he recently experienced in the park. It's an island retreat in the downtown core where he likes to go on sunny days to play his guitar, paint, draw, read. One day, four police officers walked towards him. One approached, the other three stood back, as he describes, "Keeping their distance in case they had to draw their guns."

The officer greeted him with a friendly, "Good afternoon, sir. Nice day."

"Yes it is," replied M, putting down his pencil to pay attention to the officer.

"Lots of people out today," the officer continued.

"Well, this is a perfect place for them to come," said M.

"Yes, it is," said the officer. "Have you noticed any homeless people around today?"

M. was surprised and taken aback by the officers question. He looked around. Looked at the four officers watching him. He wondered if they were expecting him to jump up and say, "Caught red-handed. I'm one of them there homeless people you're looking for!"

He wanted to laugh. To break out in dance. To run and look under a bush and show the officer where he might find one of them homeless. Instead, he politely responded, "Nope. Not today."

"Well, thanks for your time," said the officer. "We're here to keep the park safe." And the officer joined his compatriots and walked away, eyes alert for 'them there homeless'.

In the car we joked and laughed about the encounter. But it wasn't really that funny. It was rather sad. Pathetic. Disturbing.

Perhaps if the officer had asked, "Have you noticed any drug activity around here today?", the encounter would not have been so distressing.

It is an equation that adds up to life on the other side of the street. Homeless = Criminal.

M knows who he is. He is a man who has paid a deadly toll for the alcohol that robs him of his will to rise above the circumstances of his life. He is not a criminal. He is a man with an addiction. A man who is searching for a way to find some sense in the nonsense of being homeless. Will he ever find the path out of homelessness back to well-being? Maybe. Maybe not. Until he does, until he awakens to the truth of his beauty, it is vital that he be treated with the dignity his human condition bestows upon all of us.

R is a gambler. He too struggles to make sense of the nature of the beast that controls him. He too deserves to be treated with the dignity of the human condition we all share.

Both are gifted artists.

As we got back to the shelter they thanked me for the experience. Their smiles broad. Their gratitude real.

It was a small thing to go shopping for art supplies -- yet the significance will continue to resonate for all of us as we move through our days.

For me, it was a reminder that beneath the 'condition' of their lives, are real people, human beings struggling to find their voice, their courage, their sense of being human.

And for M and R, it was a chance to feel their worth. To feel respected as artists. To be part of the human condition beyond the street. That place where their gifts and talents transcend the circumstances of their lives.

It was a great afternoon. An afternoon for which I am grateful.

The question is: Who can you make happy today? What one small thing can you do that will make a difference in someone else's life?

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