A few days ago, I met a woman named Denise in the way that I meet people every day. Which is to say I never even say hello or shake their hand. I meet them at my desk with my headphones on. I meet them sometimes during their moments of crisis and sometimes during their moments of triumph, but not typically anywhere in between. It is a totally one-sided conservation, me listening and them talking. Sometimes I make them stop talking in the middle of a sentence so I can finish writing down what they say.
When I meet her, Denise is at Phoenix City Hall, showing off her artwork. It’s part of an exhibit done by formerly homeless hospice patients. A year ago, Denise was homeless. She’d also just been diagnosed with cancer.
I pause, scroll back a few seconds in the video, and press play again as I type the words that come out of her mouth. I don’t like paraphrasing. People say things the way they say them for a reason.
“God gave me a gift so I can see things through His eyes. So I can calm down and go through my journey.”
Her voice is that of a woman whose journey has not been easy. To whom staying calm may require more energy and focus than I can imagine. I have no clue what she’s done before this, what she’s seen. Only, really, what she has drawn.
A simple cup:
“The reason why I like this one is is shows my glass is being filled. That I’m no longer sad anymore.”
An elegant woman, bald as the day is long:
“This one was made the same night I had my hair shaved off because of my cancer. I like to embrace whatever is going on in my life. And this was a way for me to say: you’re beautiful no matter what.”
Here’s the thing about people who’ve actually gone through a struggle, who’ve lived it. The clichès–like “you’re beautiful no matter what”–aren’t clichès. They’re internalized. Hard-won wisdom. Their gift to the rest of us.
Denise is not a great artist by the standards we typically use. And she is not producing great works in the scholarly sense. She sketches on a smaller scale. On a canvas most of the world will never see. She is like most of us.
The masters, the ones in the museum, are and should be celebrated. But I think it’s worth remembering that the more we idolize those who create, who influence, who inspire on a massive scale…the less we see the many more who practice small works. Of love, bravery, compassion, creativity, and determination. People all around us. Our friends and neighbors and even those we ignore. People like Denise.
In the middle of her life, she learned to draw, beat cancer, and found a home. Now, she says, “I have the chance to give all I can.”
Sometimes “all” isn’t much. But small works each day add up. Here is my small work for the day. Sharing her story. All you have to do is put on your headphones and press play.