Hearing the Call…

Homelessness is a problem not unique to California, but it can be more obvious because, obviously, the gentler weather works in their favor. There were plenty of homeless people in every placed we’ve lived over the past five decades.

My first art studio in Santa Rosa was near a park that had been a hot mess the years before I moved there. Rampant drug use and sales were an issue. But over time, this was mostly resolved, and now it’s a place where anyone can enjoy a little bit of nature.

I met quite a few homeless people, which was disquieting after the coffee shop next door closed for the day at 3 p.m., and again when it closed for good. Fortunately, I had a Dutch door, which allowed me to chat with them when they knocked on my door. I could assess them slightly, and simply close the top of the door when things got iffy. I had quite a few rich conversations with some.

My most frightening encounter was during an open studio event one evening late in the year, when night comes early. My tiny studio was filled with visitors, all happily exploring my space.

Until one older woman in a cheetah coat erupted.

She overheard me talking to someone about how I imagined myself an artist of the distant past with my artwork. It had been a long day, I was tired, and I said “pretended” instead of “imagined.”

She exploded. “Pretend” seemed like a fake façade to her, and she ranted on for several minutes about lack of integrity.

I was stunned, and tried to clarify my intentions. But she wasn’t having it. The push-back made her angrier. And everyone else fled my studio in a heartbeat.

Except for two women who stood silently by.

I am not good in these situations. When I’m scared, I run. I am not good in conflicts, and aggressive people scare the bejeezus out of me.

But something in me was paying attention. Something in me realized I was “doing it wrong”.

So instead of being defensive, I focused on connection.

I can’t remember what I said at the time. It was wasn’t about me, it was about the cave. How climate change caused those people to see their whole way of life disappearing in a handful of years. How those paintings were a prayer, calling the horses back. How the horses represent hope, and courage, for me as an artist, and for the world.

She calmed down, and listened.

And then I gave her a little horse. I put it in her hand, put mine around hers. I told her I wanted her to have it as a reminder of that. That we all matter.

Then I gently led her to the door and said goodbye.

Now, to be fair, in my mind, I figured giving her something was a good way to get her to leave. But that’s not how my two remaining visitors saw it.

Turns out both of them had experience with this. One was a psychiatric nurse, one had a similar background. Both of them said, “We knew she was going to be trouble. We knew it could go south in a heartbeat. And we weren’t going to leave until we knew you would be okay.”

Wow! Talk about angels in odd places….!!

They both said I had handled it beautifully. Met her where she was. Saw her as a fellow human. Being kind and patient.

I was flabberghasted. I felt I didn’t deserve the praise. I told them my own selfish intentions. They wouldn’t have it. (One of them still shows up to my events from time to time.)

Now, as an insight, that was pretty powerful. But it gets better.

A couple years later, I saw her picture in our local newspaper, The Press Democrat.

It was an article about people who lived on the streets who had finally been rehomed. She was on of them. An apartment had been found for her. In fact, she’d been in it for a couple months by the time she came to my studio.

What blew my mind?

She said that living on the streets was so traumatizing, it had taken her a looooong time to heal and recover. She said she was still ‘crazy’ for almost a year after, and she was just beginning to envision a normal life for herself.

It made me realize that even a home for a homeless person is not enough. They need support services, some for awhile, some for the long haul. They need to finally feel safe. And they need people who care.

That made me a teensy bit bolder in my interactions with this population. I remember a beautiful conversation I had with one person who was transitioning to female. At the end of our conversation, I asked her what she needed, expecting to hear “money”, and I would have given her some. But said, “I’m just so hungry right now.” Fortunately, I had a giant bag of granola I’d brought in for my snack stash. I asked if that would work, and she lit up with joy. I gave her the whole bag. (A year later, she appeared in a similar article. She now lives in a tiny house settlement outside Santa Rosa. Another artist in my community at the time had donated original hand-painted house signs for each unit.)

My assumptions about how to help others has gone through many transitions over the years. First it was, “Don’t give them money, they’ll just spend it on booze and cigarettes!” So I didn’t give out money. Until our same local newspaper shared that, if people on sleeping on a sidewalk, and cigarettes and booze help them cope, why should we judge that?

From then on, I would give pan-handlers $10 or even $20, after reading it could make a difference. One elderly gentleman danced for joy when I gave him a $20. “I’m gonna go over to that (fast food place) and buy breakfast!”

But later I learned that money is better spent supporting the non-profits that serve the homeless. Money gained through begging simply encourages them to “stay put”. In fact, my new studio is close to a residential facility that is the first step towards rehoming this population. It’s temporary shelter that works with people who have taken that first step.

I drive by there at least twice a day. It can be daunting at times. There’s often someone who will walk in front of my car as I drive by, on their way to the bus stop up the road, sometimes obviously intentional. During the hours they need to vacate the premises, they gather along the street. They leave trash behind. It can be annoying.

But then I think, if this is their only feeling of control in their lives right now, I can handle that.

And if you’d like to read a story about the best public art project I’ve ever witnessed personally, check out this excerpt in article about Bud Snow’s project in my Learning to See series:

Bud Snow was someone I met during my studio years at South A Street in Santa Rosa. They do large-scale public art, colorful, vibrant murals, usually up high. The featured work on that page I linked was a mandala painted on a cemented area on the ground, in a park near my studio. It took them much longer to paint than usual, because passers-by could stand and watch them as they worked, asking questions and in total awe of the work.

Soon Bud Snow offered every visitor a chance to help paint the mandala! I did, and over a period of four days, I saw them interact in a beautiful, powerful way with every single visitor: Parents picking up their kids from the elementary school across the street. Local workers and business owners. Homeless people. Every single one of them was thrilled to take part. It was one of the finest, truest examples of ‘public art’ I’ve ever seen, involving members of the very community the art was meant to serve.

Yes, Bud Snow was paid for the mural. (Though the extra time spent with the public tripled the time it took, so they took a hit.) Yes, Bud Snow’s work is now a sort of very-public advertisement for their work. Each one enhances their reputation and their asking price.

And yet cities pay for public art because it’s considered a powerful force for good for their citizens. The premise is, art really is a gift that everyone deserves, not just wealthy collectors who will pay hundreds of millions of dollars for a single painting (of a long-dead artist)….”

I still remember the homeless guy who showed up as night fell, on Julia’s last day of painting the mural. He had a flashlight and held it for us as we helped Julia pack up her stuff in the dark.

It was obvious that he was happy to be part of a group, happy to help her, happy to be ‘of use’. He smiled the entire time. I can still see his face, gently revealed by the light he held in his hand.

I’m still learning, of course. But maybe some of my experiences can be a source of hope for others.

NextDoor, an online resource for individual neighborhoods, is often a place where people can complain at length about this issue. And sometimes, the lack of compassion, anger, resentment, and general angst about this population can get out of hand.

The latest outrage about homeless people is directed at a woman who helps herself to flowers in a neighbor’s yard. When told not to pick them anymore, she got angry. She now picks them and throws them in the street.

The discussion is almost evenly divided between “please be kind” and “get rid of these creeps!” Some of the responses were downright scary, scarier than most homeless people I’ve dealt with.

Here’s what I wrote today:

“FWIW, my partner of over 42 years brought me flowers on our first meet-up. They looked freshly picked, and he told me he’d picked them from a tree lawn on the way over. (He didn’t have a car at the time.) I told him most people do not want their flowers picked, and he said, I thought that’s why they put them near the sidewalk, so people could pick them. So there are plenty of people who think “public” flowers are for the public to pick. 😀

I want to say thanks and love to all the folks here who show some compassion for the homeless population. They are not all one population, not all live with addictions, not all have mental health issues, a lot of them age out of foster care, or have young children, or injuries that affect them deeply, and MOST of them do not want to be homeless.

But all of them want the power of their choices, as do we all. Even when they step up and transition towards a home, it can take months, if not years, to heal from the trauma of living on the streets. They can be annoying, they can be problematic, they can be downright scary, and some we SHOULD be scared of.

But they are all also unique human beings who cannot afford services on their own. If we really want to consider ourselves true human beings, we have to start by seeing them as human, too, as humans who have not had our own advantages of support, income, homes, health care, good choices (that worked out for US), and people who care.”

We have to understand that part of why we see them as “other” is a way to distance ourselves from their situation. We want to believe that this could NEVER happen to us.

And yet we all know we may be one accident, one paycheck, one disaster away from being in that same situation. It could happen to a loved one. It could happen to us.

We can choose to look away.

Or we can choose to find even the tiniest way of helping. With our donations, with our taxes, with our volunteer time, with our work, with our compassion.

Part of me desperately wants to volunteer again with schools, with animals, with hospice.

But something is telling me my next service might be right in front of me. It’s scary. I’m still afraid.

But it won’t hurt to find out.

 

The Story You Tell and the Power of Your Tribe

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.

 A month ago, my husband was cycling on a bike path, when he ran over a stick. It jammed in his derailleur and broke it. Fortunately, I was a phone call away and retrieved him (and the bike) quickly.
Yesterday, the exact same thing happened AGAIN. (He swears it was the same damn stick, but I don’t believe that.) Unfortunately, I am thousands of miles away, in Keene, NH. And he had to walk home, in his bike shoes.

Life has a lot of sticks just waiting to jam up our derailleur…er, life. And in the last month, we’ve run over a lot of them.

The already sky-high rent on our home here in Santa Rosa, CA was raised, eating up almost half our income. We now have two large dogs and three cats. The rental market here is as tight as it is expensive, and it will be impossible to find a landlord willing to rent to us. As former home-owners for 27 years, it’s embarrassing to find ourselves here. (We did find a place, a much smaller place. As soon as I get back to California, we have to pack up and move.  My art will be on hold for awhile. Again. But bookmark this, I’ll return to it later.)

My husband’s employer’s company has 3-4 months of funding left, and there will be no more in the pipeline. All sources have been exhausted. The tech industry does not readily employ people in their 60’s.  Jon’s best option is to strike out on his own. But this is an expensive place for our second reboot in three years, and it’s a little scary.

My art sales have slumped. (This is not unique to me, I know, and not entirely of my making, but there you go.)

One of our children is struggling here in Keene. It sounded urgent enough for me to book a flight out here, to see what I can do. It is cold here. Really, really cold. Like 10 degrees when I woke up, and more snow, with winds gusting to shove that snow right up my nose.

My daughter just announced she’s getting married this summer, in the middle of Tennessee (best spot for the solar eclipse).

And that wonderful shared studio space at that incredible artist enclave has disappeared. My friend and I have extremely different visions for how the space should work. To preserve the friendship, I told her I needed to step away. But it all blew up in my face. My friend is deeply hurt by my decision. With all the other setbacks on my plate, I can’t afford the oxygen to fix this, even if that were possible.

That’s one story.

But here is the other side of the story I chose to tell.

My old tribe here in Keene is holding me together in so many ways. They know who I am, they know what to do.

These trusted friends will hold my tender heart, and my huge artistic vision, in their gentle, loving hands, until I can take them up again.

Let’s go way back, to the beginning of my art career. I took a workshop from wise woman Deborah Kruger, on creating an artist support group.

The premise was, “Women can do it all. But not necessarily all at the same time.”

When life throws big effin’ sticks in our path—sickness, death, divorce, job loss, a big move—there is only so much we can handle. Sometimes the first thing that gets put on hold is the very thing that nourishes our heart and lightens our soul: Our art.

Good friends will hold that vision of you: Your goals, your process, your abilities, your path. When you are ready (even if you think you’re not), they will gently remind you who you are. And help restore you to yourself.

Now let’s look at the other story I choose to tell:

Gift #1 Though we have not built that precious network of friends here in CA, it’s in process. And a friendship of 20 years led to our next home. It will only be available to us for a few years. But that will give us the space to figure out where we go from here. They know we have pets, too. Yay!

Gift #2 The painfully broken friendship gave me clarity on a better way to be there for my child. I will not force him to take care of me during this difficult time, no matter how hard it is to listen sometimes. I need only be present, for now. If that hadn’t happened two days before I left, I would have blundered on as I have done in the past. It was a lesson that arrived just in time to be a better mother.

Gift #3 As I make time to meet up with these good friends, each one has an insight for me. I hear the exact words I need to make it through the day. As I bemoaned the fact that I’d fallen into another situation I should have recognized—again—a friend exclaimed, “I just LOVE my life lessons! I love them so much, I learn them all over again. And again. And again!” I laughed for the first time in days.

Gift #4 As I share such wonderful insights with the next friend I meet up with, it’s just what they need to hear, too!

Gift #5 We have already realized the rewards of our life reboot. Jon’s got his game back, reconnecting with old allies, and finding new ones. The work he’s doing is the work of his heart—collaborating with users to create the tools they need to make their own work easier. The projects are timely, extremely relevant, and deeply-rooted in bettering our culture.

As we consider our next steps–as our reboot is rebooting–Jon and I realize it will be easier this time. For example, we are only moving across town, and we can break it down into small loads. And the new neighborhood will have all the features we treasure in this one.

Gift #6 My art will go on hold again, though hopefully not for long. OTOH, if we should have to leave Sonoma County down the road, I’ll only have to walk away from a few years of audience-building here. Not three decades, like our first move!

Gift #7 My Keene tribe is still here!

Gift #8 I’m passing on the gifts! When I was living in Keene, I never thought of connecting my tribe members! (I know, I know—“DOH!!”) Two of my meet-ups organically overlapped yesterday, and two friends met each other for the first time. The synergy was astonishing. One had the exact information the other needed to take a step forward in a new career. The other recognized not only a new, rich resource in the first friend, but an ally. Both were validated anew to themselves as they recognized the same qualities in each other: Passion, integrity, professionalism, creativity, emotional maturity, and a wicked sense of humor.

I’m now working on getting all of these core people together, if not on this trip (though we’re trying!) then the next. In between, there’s Skype and Google Hangout. We’ll figure it out.

#9 And now I’ve shared this gift with you, faithful readers.

I’ve shared how sometimes, the seeds of a new beginning are buried in the deep past, and sometimes, even in the most recent hardship. The way to your next step is not carefully hidden in the great universe; it is often right under your nose. The words you need to hear are already sitting in the heart of someone who may cross your path—today.

And when the world feels like a hard and hopeless place, there may be someone standing next to you who will offer exactly what you need to get through it. Holding your dream, your beautiful vulnerable open heart, tenderly and lovingly, until you are ready to pick them up again.

Your bonus gift for subscribing today! Here are some of the wonderful words I’ve heard, in addition to the ones I’ve already shared. There will be more!

“Breath until you’re surprised.” This came up in a conversation about an ancient breathing/meditative practice that helps people heal from trauma, grief, and abuse faster. I sense there’s something deliciously deeper here that will reveal itself in time. It’s still sitting with me, and I love it.

“It’s only blood.” In a discussion about letting go of old family conflicts that may never be healed. If the family we’re born into is difficult, we can choose to create our own family.

“This ain’t your first rodeo. You don’t have to be the clown.” A discussion about me trying to make myself smaller so I can make insecure people feel better.

“You don’t have to go to every fight you’re invited to.” No explanation needed.

 “I sit with uncertainty everyday, until Clarity makes her presence known.” Every. Single. Day.

(If you’d like to see the published article and comments, go here.