Jan walked into my office, moved aside some papers, sat on the desk and said, "I almost died last week."
Jan is homeless. She's a smoker, and the oxygen level in her blood reached near fatal numbers last Tuesday. Poor nutrition and a night shift job contributed to the situation, and she's been coughing horrendously for weeks now. The doctor took one look at her test results and told her it didn't make sense that she's alive.
What's it like to hear that? I asked her. She shook her head.
I'm grateful, she said. I want to help people.
I asked if she'd like to share her story later that evening with the other women staying at the shelter.
Jan hesitated. No, she said, not yet. I've been thinking about it all day. I'll probably write a poem.
Save it for the poem, I said.
Poems come out of me, too, when I'm faced with situations that require delicate handling. I don't know Jan's history with writing, but I'm glad she turns to it to see her through.
Because art is for all.
A colleague of mine in Philadelphia told me she likes to set up shop outside of exclusive arts festivals with her loom. Encouraging random passers-by to weave as they will, she ends each day with a tapestry made almost entirely by people who previously knew nothing about the textile arts--people who would have never shelled out the festival's big registration fee.
Augusto Boal, founder of Theatre of the Oppressed, which I lead at the shelter, spent his life making sure the arts are accessible to all. His strongest statement on the matter was probably this one:
I believe that all the truly revolutionary theatrical groups should transfer to the people the means of production in the theater so that the people themselves may utilize them. The theater is a weapon, and it is the people who should wield it.
This quote comes right after his complaint that spectators often "leave their brains with their hats upon entering the theater," which is why he began to call his audiences "spect-actors" instead, encouraging them to participate in the action, to "rehearse for reality."
I could hand Jan a really meaningful poem on death, and she'd probably get a lot out of it, but right now what she needs is to sit and wrestle with death and a pen.
The end result might not be suitable for publication; I'm not arguing that amateur work should nudge aside that of professionals, at least not necessarily. But art is for all and any to take part. Art for art's sake is good, and art as a means for change, as a tool, is equally valid.
Later that same evening, a man called looking for another staff member. When I told him she wasn't available, he asked if he could read me his poem. He reads it to people who will listen, he said, usually his fellow patrons during the shelter's dining room hours.
It's from Genesis, he said. God gave it to me.
He began to read. I'm not much for rhyme, but his warm baritone delivery of the rhyming couplets was soothing. It was quiet by this time in the shelter, with only faint snores heard outside my office.
A few minutes before midnight, he wrapped up his rhyming version of the first book of the Bible, which God had given to someone else to write.
My evening at the shelter began and ended with poetry. As it should.