I am a writer in the fashion industry. Every day, I’m surrounded by beauty. Meetings with thin, pretty models, desks teetering with stacks of Vogue magazines, rack upon rack of clothing—silk chiffon gowns, cashmere sweaters, every gorgeous thing imaginable—lures me with loveliness.
Last year, desiring more meaning in my workweek, I began to lead art classes at a women’s homeless shelter during my lunch breaks. Simple stuff, meant to engage those without the wherewithal to use the shelter’s job placement or counseling services. Working with those women is where I came to believe that true beauty is a tough, enduring thing, hidden deep in the heart of every human being.
My first class met on a Monday in a small room situated between the cafeteria, smelling of gummy mashed potatoes, and the Day Room, a dim-lit place where people in fraying, ragtag clothes slept on plastic chairs. As I set out supplies that first day, I watched as a woman burst into angry gibberish, her arms flailing as if swiping invisible insects from her skin.
My heart banged against my crisp white shirt, in which I felt totally out of place and unsure.
But people had seen the flyer, “Art, Monday at Noon” and were now shuffling in to sit at the worktable.
”Hi, I’m Lynn,” I said, as I placed palm-size wooden shapes—hearts, butterflies and flowers—that I’d bought from a craft store on the table. When I opened up a new package of 96 colored markers and poured them out, a dozen hands scrambled to pick them up.
“Is there a blue?”
“I need the red one.”
“Purple. Where’s a purple?”
I guess art needs no explanation. We exchanged names and got busy coloring. As the clock neared one o’clock, the end of class, I glanced around to see what each woman had done.
Cheryl, who spoke with a tiny voice and shook with Parkinson-like tremors, had colored a heart in crimson red with a huge smiley face, its eyelashes long and curvy.
Dana had rolled into class in a bulky wheelchair festooned with plastic bags. She’d chosen a butterfly and colored it in at least a dozen colors, an abstract layering of purples and greens and yellow.
Mary, who punctuated conversation with firecracker expletives, had chosen a heart, like Cheryl, but hers was dark-as-night indigo blue with two sunny-yellow words: “hope” and “peace.”
I stared, amazed.
Whereas beauty surrounds me daily, Cheryl, Dana and Mary’s lives were marked by the ugly degradation of homelessness. Yet the simple act of coloring sparked an experience of beauty within—stalwart and strong despite difficult circumstance. I could see the truth of it on the table before us: Cheryl with her crimson-red heart still knew what it meant to smile. Mary might live in an inky night of darkness herself yet she still held out peace and hope for all of us. And Dana, wheelchair-bound Dana, must have felt a sense of flight as beautiful as her extraordinary butterfly.
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