“I Paint What I See” – Bearing Witness, One Face at a Time

Marc Clamage - Maxine

“I SEE YOU BUT DO YOU SEE ME?” Maxine by Marc Clamage:

Since my last post on bearing witness, I discovered another blogger who refuses to turn away by painting panhandlers he sees in Boston Harvard Square near his workplace.

Meet artist Marc Clamage.

He writes: “I used to hurry by them, but then I began to stop. Each face tells a story, I realized, and I would try to capture as many as I could through a series of oil paintings.”

Marc Clamage - Rosie and David

“Rosie and David” and pet guinea pig, by Marc Clamage

He’d noticed that there were more than usual, “younger, and more troubled,” and sometimes, even whole families begging on the streets.

Many of the people he encounters were simple passing through, and using panhandling as a way to supplement a low-wage job, or help pay the rent.

Others were homeless, and panhandling was their only source of income. Some were obviously disturbed, showing signs of drug addiction or mental illness. Some were sick, and dying.

Marc Clamage - Justin and Lauren (The Lovebirds)

“Newly Engaged, need Motel to Celebrate” Justin and Lauren (The Lovebirds) by Marc Clamage

He adds: “I do not ask the panhandlers to ‘pose”’ for me, but to carry on with their business. I pay each person $10, though I wish I could afford more, because they earn that small fee in the hour or two it takes me to paint them.

Over that time, we often get to talking, which has been a privilege and an education.

I’ve seen or heard many human dramas: the tragic love story of Gary and Whitney; squabbles over the best places to work; the mysterious figure everyone calls “The Rabbi,” stuffing $20 bills into cups and disappearing before anyone can see his face.

Marc Clamage - Gary

“Gary, Desert Storm Vet” by Marc Clamage

“I’ve witnessed a few instances of cruelty, but many more of thoughtfulness and generosity. And when I head home, I’m always struck by one thought: There but for the grace of God go the rest of us. Perhaps that’s why we find panhandlers so hard to look at.”

I was deeply touched by Marc’s paintings and by the stories of the people who posed for him. You can view more of his paintings and read the stories on his website “I Paint What I See“, or at his blog.

I also like what he says about how he paints:

“I paint what I see, only what I see, only with it right in front of me, only while I’m looking right at it. I do not work from photographs, or imagination, or memory, or even from sketches. I paint exclusively from life. The essence of representation is that every choice, every brushstroke must be made in direct response to the experience of visual reality.”

Marc Clamage - Whitney

“Whitney”, suffering from cancer, by Marc Clamage

To really “see” someone, the way an artist does, objectively, without judgement, and yet responding to what is seen, the pain, or loneliness, or confusion, or anger; to see and be seen like that, must be freeing, for both the painter, the one painted. And for the viewer as well.

To simply behold what we see–the good and bad and beautiful and ugly–without judgement, but with compassion and humility, is the essence of “bearing witness.” And it must have a healing effect.

Bernie Glassman in “Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace” wrote:

“In my view, we can’t heal ourselves or other people unless we bear witness. In the Zen Peacemaker Order we stress bearing witness to the wholeness of life, to every aspect of the situation that arises. So bearing witness to someone’s kidnapping, assaulting, and killing a child means being every element of the situation: being the young girl, with her fear, terror, hunger, and pain; being the girl’s mother, with her endless nights of grief and guilt; being the mother of the man who killed, torn between love for her son and the horror of his actions; being the families of both the killed and the killer, each with its respective pain, rage, horror, and shame; being the dark, silent cell where the girl was imprisoned; being the police officers who finally, under enormous pressure, caught the man; and being the jail cell holding the convicted man. It means being each and every element of this situation.”

To bear witness in that way must be the hardest, the most healing, and the most humbling thing we could ever do. And the most needed.

Elsewhere, Glassman writes: “When we bear witness, when we become the situation — homelessness, poverty, illness, violence, death — the right action arises by itself. We don’t have to worry about what to do. We don’t have to figure out solutions ahead of time. . . . Once we listen with our entire body and mind, loving action arises.”

More of Marc’s paintings follow. See if you see what he saw.

Marc Clamage - Colleen

“Colleen” by Marc Clamage. She died of exposure and a drug overdose.


Marc Clamage - Gideon

“Gideon” by Marc Clamage


Marc Clamage - Anthony

“Too Ugly to Prostitute, too Kind to Pimp” – Anthony, by Marc Clamage


Marc Clamage - maria

“Maria” by Marc Clamage


Marc Clamage - Laurel

“Laurel” by Marc Clamage. Here sign says she’s a mother of 4 and a victim of domestic violence. The flip side says, “I’m not a whore, asshole.”


Marc Clamage - Carrie

“Carrie” by Marc Clamage. Now clean and sober and off the street.

Not With a Bang, But a Whimper

coffee lumbar11That’s how our son’s short stay with us ended. With a whimper, or something equally weak and mundane. A falling out over a laptop. And breakfast at Denny’s

He seemed to be going through the old predictable stages of his addiction while staying with us, as I wrote about in Am I Crazy? Or Is He? How Addiction Warps Us. First he was Hyper-Happy, then went to Mad Maniac, demanding I take him to buy Methadone on the street until his doctor’s appointment for a prescription to Suboxane came through.

But after that horrible experience, Dangerously Depressed seemed to be emerging, and I wanted to head it off.

I know how depression makes you want to hibernate, but if forced to move around, get outdoors, talk to people, sometimes it lifts. That’s what I was hoping.

After two days of hiding out in his room, in bed, blinds drawn, his eyes glued to the laptop monitor, I decided this was not healthy for him. I urged him to come out and spend time with his dad and me.

When he refused, I said OK, but I’m taking my laptop back. And I did.

He flipped out. Harsh words were exchanged. And he stormed off.

I didn’t think he’d go far. I didn’t think he’d act on the threat he’d made earlier that week, to hitch-hike into town to score heroin. Not over a laptop!

But I was wrong. He didn’t come back. Not that day, or the next day when he had his long-awaited doctor’s appointment and the promise of a Suboxane prescription. Not the day after that, or the next.

He’s not coming back.

I might have gone after him that first day, or given him back the damn laptop if it hadn’t been for that last “hug” and parting remark.

He grabbed me in the hall in a big bear hug, my arms pinned to my side. It felt more like a stranglehold than a hug, like what boxers do when they’re exhausted, before going to the next round. Alarm bells were ding-ding-dinging in my head.

“I love you,” he said sweetly, as he held me tight.

“Don’t worry. I’m not going to leave,” he crooned.

“Now give me back the damn laptop!” he growled and hugged me tighter.

Then he laughed.

I almost laughed with him. It was so absurd, what we were doing to each other. Me trying to control him with the laptop, him trying to control me with his hug.

He was laughing at himself, at me, at the fake hug that was holding us up and clenching us together. Laughing bitterly at the knowledge that I wasn’t going to give the laptop back, that this wasn’t going to end well, for either of us.

“Let me go,” I said finally, and he did.

But just before he let go, he whispered in my ear. “You know those Methadone pills I gave you to hold onto for me? You can flush them down the toilet. They’re just aspirin. It was heroin I was buying, heroin all along.”

Then he let me go and walked out of the house.

His parting words felt like a knife twisting in my stomach. But I know now it was the very thing he needed to say to let go of me, and to force me to let go of him. To enable him to walk away, and to keep me from going after him.

He was burning a bridge between us with that confession, and he knew it. There was no turning back.

He’s living at a homeless shelter now.

He missed his doctor’s appointment and never got the suboxane he wanted. Instead he signed up for a Methadone Detox at a clinic. They needed a co-pay to get him started, so I met him there that first day.

Before we parted again, for who knows how long, we had lunch together at a nearby Denny’s. The noisy restaurant was filled with normal people going about their normal lives. It felt surreal.

Normal is such a quaint thing. You grab it when you can. Even when it isn’t real.

We ordered huge breakfasts, and traded items off each others’ plates. I had a slice of his sticky-bun french toast, and he had some of my sausage skillet. We packed what was left of our meals into one box for him to take.

When the waitress put the bill down on the table between us, I grabbed it.

“I’ll get that, Son,” I told him, loudly, as the waitress was walking away.

“Are you sure, Mom?” he asked. “Thank you. I’ll get it next time.”

Then we laughed. Together this time.

It reminded me of that last laugh, when we were caught in that death-grip hug. Another surreal moment. Another recognition of the absurdity of life, our lives at least.

But this time, all the tension and remorse and guilt melted away in that shared laughter, and all that was left was love.

When we were done eating, I dropped him off in time for his appointment with his Drug and Alcohol counselor.

Then I drove away.

I don’t know when I’ll hear from him again. Not for a long while, I hope.

Homeless, or Houseless?

800px-OIC_jindalee_sand_dunes_2 Creative Commons

Once when I was part of an effort to end homelessness in our community, one of the participants who had himself been homeless objected to the term. “We’re houseless, not homeless,” he insisted. Unfortunately his preferred term never caught on. I understood what he meant though. It was more than the fact that many people without housing live in cars or campers, or take up residence in empty buildings, or crude shacks built in remote areas.

It was the realization that all of us share a home on Mother Earth that may or may not include four walls and a roof. I remembered how Jesus once lamented that birds have nests, and squirrels have burrows, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. Yet we never think of Jesus as having been homeless. Nor do we think of our nomadic ancestors as having been homeless. There was always a sense that people were at “home” in their own bodies, in their natural environment, and in the communities of those they identified with.

This realization struck me on a deeper level years later when my own son suffered from long bouts of “houselessness,” living on the streets, or in cars, or in this case in the sand dunes, when he could not find nor afford a drug treatment program that could take him in– or he was too strung out to seek to recovery.  After living that way all summer and most of the fall, he contacted me. He wanted to get clean, and needed a place where it would be safer and warmer to wait for a bed to open up.

Sand_dunes_-_Oceano_CA wikipediaWe met in a parking lot and he had me drive him to the beach so he could hike back into the sand dunes to collect his gear.

I offered to go with him and help carry it back, but he said no. It was too far, and the most direct route would have us climbing up and sliding down huge dunes. So I took a walk along the beach while awaiting his return.

The weather had been stormy for the last few days and the morning sky was a molten sheen of silver as the sun tried to burst through. The tide was out and tiny rivulets of water had formed between the ripples of wet sand, reflecting the bright sky. Dozens of sand dollars in all sizes had been washed up on the beach, most of them perfectly whole, and I collected my share. Hundreds of tiny sea birds hunted among the puddles and shallow waves. Among them gulls flew in and out, and one long-legged white heron tip-toed among its cousins.

IMG_3297It was breathtakingly beautiful and peaceful. I imagined him up there, all alone among the sand dunes at night, peeking up at the bright expanse of stars, hearing the hum of the breaking waves, breathing in its salty breath.

Camping out it might have been called–once upon a time in a land far away.

But when he returned with his gear I found out it wasn’t that way at all. The dunes where he slept were full of fellow travelers. As we were driving away he had me pull over so he could hail down a man on a bicycle packed tight with tent poles and back packs and what looked to be a small camp stove.

“Tell Josh I left the tent and blankets he loaned me out there for him.”

Kelli pic 2Josh was a young man living in the dunes with his girlfriend. They had grown up “houseless” and now were living a ”houseless” life together.

Many people like them and the bike rider lived back there, and the place where he had slept would not remain empty long. The secure burrow deep beneath a sage bush had been dug by another, inhabited and abandoned time and time again.

But that’s not the half of it, he told me. Many have lived out there so long and had become so adept at doing so, they had tapped into the electric grid and had TV, computers, and electric lights.

This was true back in the canyons far from the beach as well. There a whole community of “homeless” residents lived, having dug caves and elaborate tunnels into the hillsides, and built tree houses for lookouts to guard against intruders. Hundreds lived back there, he said, in relative luxury, since they too had found ways to plug into the electric grid. The homeless 1%, I suppose.

This is not to make light of, nor to romanticize the plight of people who lack mainstream housing. There is no question that for some this is a lifestyle choice.

DCF 1.0But for the vast majority who live on the streets or in the dunes and canyons, they do so because they have no other options. They are there because poor health and medical bills left them bankrupt and houseless. They are there because a lost job, a string of bad luck, addiction, mental illness, and an array of other similar calamities left them no choice but to try to find a way to exist without a house to live in.

Sadly, we’ve make outcasts and outlaws of the poor and sick and struggling. We’ve banished them to live outside the norms of society and forced them to create counter communities at the fringes of society.

We call them homeless, when in truth we all share one home. We’ve simply failed to provide for our own. We’ve failed to create the kind of safeguards and services that would keep all of us safely housed.