Monday, April 20, 2009

Standing together

Life is a great big canvas, and you should throw all the paint on it you can. Danny Kaye
On Saturday, we filmed the video portion of the Stand by Me (words and lyrics by King/Leiber/Stoller) production we are producing for the DI. The video will be used as a stand alone piece, as well as for 60 and 30 second commercials.

About 75 people turned up to be part of the excitement -- what a blast.

The objective was to use the multi-purpose room to paint a scene that resembled our second floor 'day area'; a large open space with tables and chairs where clients can sit, read, eat, chat, play cards, etc. About 45 clients and a handful of external volunteers turned up to play the role of 'clients'. Their job was to look enthusiastic, to be excited, to be engaged by the music -- to look like they were having the best of times.

About 15 musicians turned up to stand together to perform the song. Their job was to 'lip sync' the music bed we'd previously recorded at The Beach and to look like they were having the best of times.

Reality was, everyone was having the best of times.

Donnell, PR assistant and Jorge, Client Volunteer Coordinator, had spent the previous week convincing clients to participate in the event. As two younger clients told Donnell at the end of the day, "We only came because you promised there'd be good food. We stayed because we were having so much fun."

And fun was had by all. There wasn't a face without a smile. A body that didn't stand just a little bit taller. A spirit that wasn't lifted.

For me, my objective was to ensure that every single person there had a good time. Liseanne, my youngest daughter, came out to help choreograph the event and to be a cheerleader with me. Our job -- to raise the energy in the room.

Our clients are often cynical and depressed. They see the world through the skewed perspective of the despair that settles upon them every day. When we first started playing the music, they were shy and tentative in looking enthusiastic. Attitude is everything in a homeless shelter. For most people, the belief that they have to keep the barriers up to protect themselves from being hurt, ridiculed, ostracised or shunned, limits their ability to experience joy in the moment of living in the rapture of now.

There was a whole lot of 'rapture' going on Saturday. Even those clients who habitually see the negative in everything, were smiling and clapping, singing along and having a good time.

One gentleman told me that he noticed something while 'performing' for the camera. "Acting like I was having a good time, moved me into feeling like I really was having a good time," he said. "In the end, I quit acting and just had a great time."

Act your way into a feeling. If your feelings are getting you down, liven them up with acting happy. If your mood is sagging, lift it up with action.

As I went around the room thanking people for their active and enthusiastic participation, I stopped by one man who had been particularly enthusiastic, to thank him for his help in keeping the energy up. "You know," he said, his body still swaying to the beat even though the music had stopped. "It was really cool to just do it and not care what anyone thought about me. At one point, when the music was playing and there was no singing, I sort of let my arms down and quit moving. The energy dropped. When I put lots of energy into it, the energy in the room rose."

"Your energy created more energy around you," I told him. "You 'changed the state' of the room by upping the energy you put into the room."

At one point, I watched one of the client musicians. His face was set in a scowl. A dark cloud seemed to be descending around him. He looked out of sorts. I searched for something to say to lighten his mood, as, in having worked with him often, I know who stressed he gets when things appear to be falling into chaos or not going the way he thinks they should.

"Don't you just love chaos!" I said, walking up beside him where he sat at the edge of the stage, holding his guitar.

"No," he quickly responded. "Something's gotta change. Fast. I'm ready to blow."

"Then change your state," I told him. "Stand up. Punch the air. Yell. Make a power move with your arm. Get the energy flowing in a positive direction."

He didn't want to do it. He hunkered over his guitar, clinging to his bad temper.

It didn't matter.

In the end, the fun and laughter, the energy of the room invaded his spirit and he too was lifted up to join in the joy.

It was a day of standing together. Of making a difference in each other's lives by being the change we want to see in the world.

For the musicians, the volunteers, the film crew, it was a chance to give back -- and to have fun while doing it.

For the clients and staff who came out to support the event, it was a day to be part of something bigger than homelessness, bigger than the tension of being part of a community that is often marginalized by the city around them. It was a day to build bridges, to create understanding and, to stand together and celebrate what makes the DI such an amazing place.

For everyone, it was a day to remember. An event to relive in stories told around dinner tables, no matter which floor they're on; the second floor of the shelter or the dining room of a home somewhere in a suburb of the city.

It was a day to splash paint upon a canvas so large that the hope that lives at the shelter every day will spill out into the city and inspire others to stand with us in making a difference.

It was a day to paint in bright and vibrant colour, to sing and dance and cheer and laugh and share in creating something remarkable.

It was a wonderful day thanks to everyone who came out and made it happen!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

One Enchanted Evening

If you can dream it, you can do it. Walt Disney
Last night, Mikaela and another Grade 12 classmate put on a benefit show on behalf of the DI. The evening included artworks by Mikaela and her co-organizer, Amelia, as well as guest artists and performers.

When Mikaela, a Grade 12 student at Ernest Manning High School, first approached me with her idea to hold an evening of music, art and poetry on behalf of the DI, I suggested using the multi-purpose room at the shelter, a large airy and bright room on our sixth floor. The view is inspiring, the space lofty. The windows over-look the valley where the Bow River serpentines through the city. Houses step up the hillside on the other side of the river and trees promenade along the skyline amidst lush and verdant parkland.

When Mikaela first suggested the show, I thought, "What a lovely idea."

What I didn't have was an idea of how beautiful an evening she would create.

At 1pm, when Mikaela and her friends arrived to set-up, the room was open and bare. By the time they finished mounting their artworks, along with pieces from the artists of the Wild Rose Studio at the DI, the room was filled with spirit, with imagination, with dreams spilling out into the hallway where the client artists filled the space with vibrant paintings and photos, pen and ink drawings and soapstone sculptures.

It was One enchanted evening.

There is something heartfelt and touching about a young woman who has a vision and then sets out to make it happen without any muss or fuss. Without long, drawn out committee meetings where agendas are set and Visio charts constructed to ensure fiscal and corporate accountability are measured against clearly defined outcomes and expectations.

There is something refreshing in having no expectations other than to open a space for someone to create one enchanted evening.

For Mikaela and her co-host, the evening was an adjudicated event they needed to create to complete their Fine and Performing Arts Certification before graduating high school. They could have simply put on a show at school and called it done.

Instead, Mikaela wanted to make a difference. She wanted to be the change she wants to see in the world.

And she was.

The guests mostly included friends and families of the students involved as well as some staff and volunteers.

For many, when they arrived at the shelter, most of them were surprised to find themselves in a place they never imagined they would be.

"Our clients are the same," I told one woman who mentioned she was taken aback when she walked through our front doors. "Being in a homeless shelter is never something they dreamed would ever happen to them."

"My daughters got a different perspective on life this evening," she said.

"It's the same for our clients," I replied. "The first time they come here, they are in shock. Frightened. Confused. Their lives are crumbling around them. Their hopes are dashed. They don't want to be in a shelter, yet, here they are."

Here they are. Struggling to find themselves. Searching for answers. Hungering for a way out of despair back to hope, to possibility, to dreams unfolding.

Last night, Mikaela brought hope alive with her heartfelt desire to make change happen. She raised some money, brought in some clothing and food donations. At one point, the musicians who are part of our recording of Stand by Me, performed and one of Mikaela's friends, a saxophone player, joined them on stage. They'd never rehearsed together, and yet, with the fluidness of water flowing in the river below, they joined together to create beauty in the notes they played. There was no us and them. No my side of the street is different than yours. There was simply the joining together to create something of value, of worth. Something different.

Some of the client artists sold art pieces, some made connections, chatted and talked about their lives and dreams and hopes. Some simply stood back and enjoyed the happenings going on. No matter where they were in the room, where they stood or watched and listened, no one was unchanged by what was going on. No one was untouched by the enchantment of the evening.

It doesn't take much to start change happening in the world. In Mikaela's open and honest sharing of her talents, her gifts and beauty, the world became a better place last night.

As Mahatma Gandhi implored many years ago, may we all become the change we want to see in the world.

Thank you Mikaela, Amelia, all the guest artists, the performers and guests who came out to support In Chorus. You created a changed world at the DI.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Reg's Trees

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity, and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. William Blake, 1799, The Letters
Today is a big day at the DI, especially for Reg, one of the client artists who frequents the art studio. Today, his book, Reg's Trees, will be launched.

Reg's Trees is, in Reg's words, "a book of magic called Art." It's not just the content that's magical, it's the concept and the path the book took to become 'real' that is magical.

Reg loves to paint trees. Well, actually, Reg loves to paint, trees are one of his favourite subjects. Trees have roots. Trees have arms that reach to the sky. Trees have history, a story, a life. Trees tell their stories in the leaves they drop, the blossoms they bloom, the shelter they offer to whomever stops beneath their leafy embrace. Trees are a story.

Reg's Trees tells the story about what can happen when men of imagination give into their nature to create.

Reg's Trees was created from 'found' objects -- one of Reg's favourite art forms. Another client rescued ten wooden tablets from a certain death in a garbage pile when he saw a yard sale owner about to chuck the tablets away at the end of his sale. Knowing of Reg's yen for found objects, he asked if he could have the tablets. The yard sale owner agreed quickly. He carried the 8" x 5" blocks of wood back to the studio at the shelter and presented them to Reg. Reg, delighted to have new found objects, painted over the old photographs laminated to the blocks of wood. Trees appeared.

One day, a poet, David van Belle, was at the shelter working on a play he was producing on homelessness. David admired Reg's trees. Reg, never shy, asked David if he'd be willing to write a poem for each tree. David quickly agreed.

A woman named Dawn came from the City of Calgary, Arts and Culture, Recreation to visit. "Can you help us connect with homeless artists so that we can build stronger community?" she asked.

"Absolutely," we replied.

We opened our doors to the This is My City project and magic happened.

In appreciation, Dawn, along with the This is My City project gifted the publication of Reg's Trees.

Today, Reg will see his work in print. David, the poet, will have his first book of poetry published. And for all the artists, and everyone else at the DI, we will have a chance to celebrate the magic that happens when we let go of disbelief and fall into the certitude and aclchemy of magic all around.

Monday, April 06, 2009

We won't forget you. Written by Diana E.

It’s Monday morning and I’m feeling tired and ‘blah’. Usually on Mondays I find it more difficult to make eye contact and wish people a GOOD morning. Surprisingly today, everyone is cheerful and funny and I laugh often over the breakfast hour.

I have a new senior who has been coming to the Senior Centre for a few weeks now. He tells me a story about how he hasn’t seen his brother in 30+ years -- since they both left the other side of the country.

"I heard my brother might stay at the D.I…," he says hopefully.

I ask him if he has a brother named __________.

He says yes and I ask him if he would like to talk to him…he's sitting just 3 tables away I tell him.
They have both been coming up here for weeks without a clue!

He is stunned and searches vainly for a glimpse of his long lost older bro and I point him out.

He walks slowly over to him and they shake hands and sit and talk and catch up on so many years. I watch one brother quickly wipe a tear away.

What a beautiful moment I am allowed to witness! I’m floating on air and I can’t wipe the smile from my face.

Then I receive a general e-mail about two more of our clients passing away. One of whom I have known for years struck down suddenly by cancer. I am so terribly sad as I tape up the memorial announcements for everyone to see. That makes five that we know of who have died in March.

Sometimes it feels like too much and I can’t deal with the sadness but there are still those who count on us to turn up for them, no matter what. I gather 'my guys', try to keep them safe and hope they are all still here when I come in to work.

I am sad but I am grateful that I have not become so jaded that I don’t feel at all. Up down happy sad. What an emotional rollercoaster this day has been.

I hope ‘my guys’ know how much I care about them.

Rest in peace Bill, Peter, James, Harold, Ed and Travis. We won't forget you.

Written by Dianna E. Coordinator, Senior's Activity Centre