It was a summer’s day more than 10 years ago when I met Andrew Joseph. I was the first to push my patio chair back from the table and take my leave from the group of painter’s, breaking for lunch. I crossed the street and entered an area on the corner of the sidewalk, encased by a decorative cast iron fence, a lone tree, and a bench facing the entrance to the art studio where I was taking a painting process workshop. He sat alone.
“Nice day, ‘ I said as I took a seat next to him.
“For some maybe,” he replied.
“Not for you?” I asked him, leaning in.
Andrew Joseph had made tracks out of northern Alberta, responding to his brother’s death, to his broken heart, to his family’s call, to his last goodbye at his brother’s funeral. When the Greyhound bus he was on fell behind schedule, he missed his connecting bus and his dear brother was buried without him to witness the moment.
It was such a heartbreak to hear Andrew Joseph’s story. I sat and listened to this man, long raven black hair, a face that was showing appearances of being worn by the years and life experiences, long after the painting group had gone back up the stairs to the art studio, Andrew Joseph talked, and I listened.
Up above, in the painting loft, a painting was taped onto the cardboard backdrop nearest the third story window overlooking the rear street. The painting reflected a street scene, people hanging out outside a building, under a lamp. A scene taken from a wider, broader painting the day before; a painting in which I felt overwhelmed by the pain and despair of the city streets.
The facilitator and I studied that first painting. “Does it feel complete?” she asked. I sighed, “No. I feel I need to be in the painting somewhere, and at the same time I don’t want to be. I can’t fix any of this and I feel tired from trying.” Finally, I painted the smallest black dot in a window high above the city. There. I was done. It was all I could do to look down from the window, far removed from the streets and people below.
The next morning I was back, reenergized. “I want to be in the painting in a bigger way,” I explained. “I’m just not sure how.” I pulled out a scene and painted it larger. Before we broke for lunch, in pencil I etched the words “See me” onto the painting. Still frustrated, overwhelmed, saddened by the detachment that people were experiencing on the city’s streets, I was contemplating how I could positively affect any of this. I was quiet during lunch and broke off from the group early. As I crossed the street I saw him sitting, his back to me. I entered the gated benched area, I offered him a cigarette and we began talking.
His grief over missing his brother’s funeral and not being there for his mother spilled out. His body trembled, his tears flowed. I sensed a strong and brilliant soul in Andrew Joseph.
After sometime he prepared to go to a soup kitchen before catching his bus back to northern Alberta. I asked him to wait a moment and I ran upstairs and gathered up what I had to share with him. He stood and we embraced and I held him as his body fought to stay strong, to hold him upright through this dark and bitter grief.
When I was back in front of my painting, my attention was pulled to the street below and I saw Andrew Joseph walking down the street to the soup kitchen before he caught his bus for the grueling sixteen hours back to the camp where he worked. I wrote the words, my name is Andrew Joseph under the words See me.
Andrew Joseph came to me as a teacher. I learned an important lesson that day; step back as you need, but being engaged in helping others can sometimes be as simple as paying attention and being the first to speak to someone, and a willingness to listen, and a smile, and sometimes offering a hug to a complete stranger when they clearly need it.
I chased a big change agenda through my work with community organizations or government and now I see that the most direct impact I have ever offered to others is being open to one person.
Don’t allow your mind to go to sleep, wake up, be present, be alive, be love. Wake up.
The painting felt complete.