“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.

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Rants and Rage and the Bright Rush of Wings

Archilochus_colubris_Illinois_(6155782912) Creative Commons Jeffrey W FlickrMost of the posts that I try to write for this blog disintegrate into dark rants and rages.

Rants against a society that fully recognizes how an epidemic of addiction is destroying our children, our families, whole neighborhoods and cities, filling our jails and prisons, and littering our streets and alleys with the living dead.

And yet, and yet, how this same society provides painfully few resources toward treatment and recovery. A son or daughter seeking a bed at a detox center is forced to wait months for something affordable, dole out thousands of dollars for a few short days, only to be turned out onto the street again when the stay is ended.

Rages against the fact that the few available programs designed to help recovering addicts will bankrupt most families, since the road to recovery, as all admit, includes multiple relapses. But instead of sticking with those who relapse, helping them when they most need support, these programs kick them out on the streets again. With no place to go, to start over again and again and again, with no end in sight.

Sometimes it helps to rant and rage. And sometimes it just creates a dark hole that sucks me ever deeper into despair.

That’s where I’ve been heading. What I’m resisting.

What helps is knowing that I’m not alone. That I’m not even worse off than most.

At least, I tell myself, my son was not gunned down in his first grade classroom by a half-crazed boy; he did not hang himself because he was cyber-bullied into thinking he was worthless; he was not hit by a drunk driver on his prom night; he was not blown up on the battlefield in a senseless war; he was not shot in a movie theater for texting his daughter; he was not lost somewhere over the Indian Ocean on a flight to Malaysia.

At least he was not sold into slavery as a boy in the Philippines; or forced to murder his family as a child-soldier in Somalia; or bombed by a wayward drone on his way to a wedding somewhere in the hills of Aden.

Somehow it helps putting personal suffering into perspective. None of us are free of suffering. Even if what makes us suffer is the suffering of others.

Suffering is not the point, we soon come to see. It’s not what matters most. It’s not what breathed life into us, what keeps us moving forward, or what makes our lives worthwhile—the lives of those we’ve lost, and the lives of those still here, and those still waiting to be born. We do well not to dwell on our personal sorrow any more than we must to move past it.

These willful rants and rages help no one. I can let the darkness suck me up and become another casualty. Or I can turn away from the darkness toward the light. I have that choice.

I can choose to honor the light in me and my son and all those who are struggling–all the fallen children, all the mourning mothers–rather than dwelling on the darkness that dishonors us all.

I can honor the light that lies at the edge of every shadow, that pierces the storm clouds, and melts the mist. The light that filters through tree leaves, and slants across the grass, and pricks the night sky, and rains down in moonlight on the dark meadow.

I can honor the light outside my window this very moment, this first day of Spring, where the hummingbirds dazzle the garden with a bright rush of wings–hovering and humming, everywhere, everywhere! When I stop, and look, and listen.Colibri-thalassinus-001-Creative Commons photo credit mdf

Suffering is Relative, But Love is Absolute

Rodin_-_The_Prodigal_Son_-_LACMA

Rodin – The Prodigal Son

Two blog posts I read recently remind me how all suffering is relative, but love is absolute.

The first blog post was by writer Christian Mihai. He starts with this quote:

“You cannot save people. You can only love them.” ― Anaïs Nin

Then he goes on to say:

“[N]ot every battle can be fought with someone holding our hand. Some battles, we are meant to fight alone, to try to conquer our fears and insecurities. . . . . You can only love people, and that is more than enough, more than anyone should ever ask for.”

The other post I reblogged here yesterday, which includes this quote by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. He writes about a revelation that comes to him during a death camp march, with fellow victims dropping by the roadside. He is remembering his beloved wife as he marches, and this is what saves him:

“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honorable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, ‘The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.’”

The take-aways for me from these post while I try to help my son in his battle with heroin addiction is this: I may not be able to save him. This may be a battle he has to fight alone. But the love I bear him can help bear me up when I feel like falling by the wayside. And perhaps knowing I love him helps bear him up when he’s falling under the weight of addiction.

If Frankl could bear his suffering during his internment at the Nazi death camp with only love to bear him up, surely I can survive my far lessor suffering. And so can my son.

My new truth: While suffering is relative, love is absolute.