Leadership Lapses

Two stories are unfolding in Canada that appear to continue the downward spiral of ethical lapses by contemporary leaders. The first concerns Rob Ford, Mayor of Toronto.The second, Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The beleaguered Toronto Mayor, Rob Ford is back in the news.

Ford has been charged in past with conflict of interest, sexual harassment, public intoxication, bigotry and driving under the influence.

Ford's latest challenge could prove his undoing. He is alleged to have smoked crack cocaine, purportedly captured on video.

Apparently Ford was filmed  cavorting with known drug dealers, one of whom was shot dead by persons unknown sometime after the video was shot.

Ford is now the subject/target of every late night comedy show host in North America.

So much for Toronto-the-Dull.

Amidst calls for a statement, demands that he enter rehab by staffers, and an angry citizenry demanding his resignation, Ford has stonewalled.

Nonsense is the official reply, delivered by Doug Ford, the Mayor's seemingly smarter brother.

Prime Minister Harper, the law-and-order, clean-up-government-corruption 'broom' of just a few years ago, is mired in ethics controversy as well.

The P.M.'s Chief of Staff, Nigel Wright payed Senator Mike Duffy's $90,000 of disallowed housing expenses from his own pocket.

Harper claims he didn't know. That's why he accepted Wrights resignation much later than perhaps he should, he explained.

Any Canadian that believes Harper didn't know what was happening right under his nose hasn't been paying attention to the Prime Minister's modes operandi.

The ultimate control freak, not even the Tory backbench can utter a word without his express approval.

This is the same Harper who slammed then P.M.Paul Martin for the mess he  inherited from Jean Chretien, known as Sponsorgate.

Here's what Harper said then:

"At worst, he personally ordered it done and chose the people who executed the plan. At the very least, he fostered an attitude within the party, chose the managers of the people who committed these crimes and completely and utterly failed to exercise any oversight, supervision or leadership. In the end, it doesn't really matter where [his] actions or lack of them fall on that scale. He is the leader and a leader is responsible for the actions of the people he leads. If he had a right or honourable bone in his body, he’d admit that and resign immediately." - Stephen Harper on Paul Martin, during the Gomery Investigation, 2005.

Perhaps Mr. Ford and Mr. Harper should be held to account in just such a manner should it be learned that they both stepped across ethical boundaries.


© Patrick O’Neill 2013. All rights reserved.


Posted on May 24, 2013 and filed under Uncategorized.

The Six Principles of Purposeful Action

Action is principle based. A principle is an important underlying law and a primary source of how something works. For those engaged in bringing something new into the world, whether it is a new vision, goal or structure recognizing and following such principles can accelerate your progress.

Here are seven principles of purposeful action:

1. Start Anywhere

Starting anywhere requires us to initiate action. “We are the children of our deeds,” says an old Spanish saying. It suggests that by starting anywhere we transform ourselves through action. Initiating action, we create a path of heart and meaning rather than expecting one to be provided for us.

2. Take The Next Step

After starting anywhere, we need to take the next step. This affirms the principle that each and every step of the journey of meaning is important and transformational. Goethe provides wise counsel on this matter: “It is not enough to take steps which may some day lead to a goal; each step must be itself a goal and a step likewise.”

3. Use Your Resources

Each of us have a unique combination of gifts, talents, knowdge, skills and experiences. They need to be applied if we hope to progress. Our resources are the one thing we can count on especially when we meet uncertainty. And we will.

4. Seek Guidance

Action requires a pilot or it easily strays off-course. Seek out time for reflection and wise counsel from trusted sources. Alone we see only so much. With others we begin to see what is at first might be invisible to our eyes.

5. Stretch Your Comfort Zone

Creative tension is the force that stretches our capacity for openness, creativity and problem solving. It appears when we begin to explore possibilities, and especially when we attempt to bridge the gap between possibilities and outcomes. View it as a form of “therapeutic irritation” because it forces us to stretch, grow, and change in order to act in new and original ways.

6. Be Open To Outcome

“Be open to outcome, not attached to outcome” is one of the powerful principles expressed in The Four-Fold Way, by Angeles Arrien. It is the best way one can prepare for the unexpected to happen with a certain degree of detachment. Arrien defines detachment as “the capacity to care deeply from an objective place.” Openness allows for elegant solutions to problems that we encounter to occur, solutions that  we may not have considered.

© Patrick O’Neill 2013. All rights reserved.



Posted on May 10, 2013 and filed under Uncategorized.

The Minotaur

Legend tells us that the Minotaur had the head of a bull and the body of a man. This unfortunate birth defect (but the desired transformation of every stock market trader) was the product of strange mating practices between the Minotaur’s mom, Queen Pasiphae, and a white bull. The bull was apparently beautiful, but that fact alone does not entirely explain the Queen’s lust. She was the target of revenge by the god Poseidon. Poseidon conjured the bull from the sea and gave it to Pasiphae’s husband, King Minos, who asked for a sign that Cretans were favored by the gods. Minos was then supposed to sacrifice the bull to Poseidon. He refused to carry out the offering because the white bull was magnificent and Minos decided that he wanted it for breeding purposes. Strangely, he got his wish.

Poseidon wreaked revenge on Minos like a mob boss. He went after generations of the King’s family, turning Pasiphae into a zoophile and the offspring of her union with the bull, into a Minotaur. This appears to have been a reasonably popular consequence in the ancient world, where centaurs, satyrs, manticore and sphinx apparently abounded, the hybrid offspring of questionable moral choices.

Minos decided to enlist a contractor, Daedalus, to build a Labyrinth, a huge holding pen for his monstrous stepson. Each year fourteen young people – seven boys and seven girls – from neighboring Athens were led into the Labyrinth and fed to the Minotaur as tributes in the original Hunger Games. This too was an act of revenge, payback for the assassination of Minos’ son Androgeus who was in Athens at an athletic competition. When the Athenians either refused, or could not identify the murderer, King Minos decided that the penalty should be an annual tributes dinner with the Minotaur.

Enter Theseus, the hero. Theseus’ superpower was wisdom (a state of mind that predictably deserted him in middle age). Theseus decided to solve the problem of the Minotaur’s tribute buffet by volunteering to take the place of one of their number. He was aided in his quest to kill the Minotaur by King Minos’ daughter, Ariadne. Apparently, Ariadne shared her mother’s predisposition to infatuation, falling in love with Theseus at first sight. Ariadne consulted her father’s man, Daedalus, about the specs for the labyrinth. She was advised: “Go forwards and always down, never left or right.”

Like a ninja, Theseus entered the labyrinth at night with the directions, a concealed weapon, and a ball of golden thread. He tied the thread to the doorpost and began stalking his prey. According to legend, the Minotaur was dispatched with a slash to the throat, or was strangled, depending on the source. Theseus, following the thread, retraced his steps and escaped the crime scene with the girl.

© Patrick O’Neill 2013. All rights reserved.

Posted on April 25, 2013 and filed under Uncategorized.

A Personal Destiny

You have a singular vision for your life, relationships, work and community. You may not see it yet, but it waits patiently for you. It is not in your mind, but in your own heart. Its secrets are available to you through commitment and practice. Traveling the path of the heart, however, demands something of us, challenges us to grow into our best selves. It asks us to trust, to use our gifts and talents to serve the heart, not the ego, and to build character on the journey.

It asks that we turn down the volume on the self-critic, to turn away from fears of not being enough or doing it right. Ultimately, it asks us to change.

Posted on April 15, 2013 and filed under Uncategorized.


“For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.”  – Jesus

Truth seems like a value in decline, associated with an earlier, simpler time when character was a matter of honor and what you said and did was a matter of self-respect.

Daniel Boorstin, the American professor and writer, warns us of the consequences of the decline of truth in modern society: “’Truth’ has been displaced by ‘believability’ as the test of the statements which dominate our lives.”

More recently, the American comedian, Stephen Colbert coined the satirical term “truthiness”– the conscious avoidance of facts, logic, evidence and rational analysis – to describe the same condition.

“What is truth,” asked Pontius Pilate at the trial of Jesus?

It is easy to imagine a combination of skepticism, mockery, resignation, and weariness in Pilate’s tone as he asks one of the most famous questions in history. Washing his hands of the pursuit of truth and his responsibility to uphold it, Pilate becomes the archetype of the weasely politician. His profession has yet to recover.

Jean-Paul Sartre sees a distinction that we would do well to remember in wisdom work.  “Like all dreamers," he wrote   "I confused disenchantment with truth.”

Like Pilate, many of us struggle to recognize and acknowledge the truth even when it stares us in the face. Seeing what is true can be disheartening. Sometimes it may seem easier not to see at all.

But to avoid looking at what is true is cowardice and comes back to wreak havoc. Those who prefer fantasy or the posture of an ostrich, head firmly planted in the sand, rather than looking at people and circumstances for what they are, participate in their own betrayal.

One has no one to blame but oneself.

© Patrick O’Neill 2013. All rights reserved.

Posted on March 29, 2013 and filed under Uncategorized.

The Giant

This is the story of a giant. I met him one day when one of my clients, a home insulation company, asked me to help turn around a failing manufacturing plant on the south shore of Montreal, Quebec. The plant employed approximately 350 people and was slated for closure if it could not correct its performance. It had the poorest productivity of any of its sister plants across North America and a distinctive set of challenges. Two new leaders were running the plant: one parachuted in from head office to catalyze change, the other transferred in from the U.S. to manage day-to-day-operations. What they found when they arrived was alarming.

There were serious conflicts at every level of the operation. Communication was emotionally charged and any cooperation that may have existed previously had been replaced by a desire to pin the blame on someone else. As part of the attempt to create positive change, it was agreed that the leadership team conduct a three-day meeting to look for solutions to the plethora of problems, a meeting that I was to facilitate.

The three-day meeting took place at a local hotel and was conducted through simultaneous translation, so that the French-speaking participants could communicate with the English-speaking participants. It took tremendous patience for people to slow down, think carefully about their words and listen to others. This commitment to understand, however, was quickly overtaken by old grievances – and by the morning of our third day, not only were things not improving, quite frankly they were worse. People were yelling and pounding the tables for emphasis.

Fighting a sinking feeling, I attempted to steer the conversation back to the reality that the facility’s past need not be the determining factor of the future. As soon as my words were translated to the group I noticed something very large move in my peripheral vision. I stopped speaking and turned to my left. The room came into complete silence at the sight of a foreman named Gilles rising forcefully from his chair. He was a giant – the size of an NFL lineman. I wondered what on earth had happened in the translation that caused this mountain to move. My relatively short life flashed before my eyes.

Gilles looked at the room for several long, tense moments. Finally, he began to speak. “I apologize for all of the things that I have said and done that caused problems for us. I can see that I have made a bad situation worse. I also believe that if we can put our past behind us, we can work together differently. I’m prepared to do that.” Gilles sat down at that point. Those were his first and final words at the meeting. From that point forward, however, the tone of the meeting changed.

Suddenly, people were talking about what they would do differently. They began to release their positional opinions and consider what others were offering. Commitments were made and agreements struck. And that facility turned the corner. Several years later, the plant was still in operation, all because of one man’s ability to speak from the heart.

Gilles, the giant,  created a breakthrough.

© Patrick O’Neill 2013. All rights reserved.


Posted on March 25, 2013 and filed under Uncategorized.


“Creativity is a type of learning process where the teacher and pupil are located in the same individual.” –
Arthur Koestler

Posted on March 20, 2013 and filed under Uncategorized.

Thank You

Those of you who continue to visit my  blog, thank you for your patience. I haven't been posting as much as I would like recently. The reason is that I am working on a manuscript and it has taken over my available writing time. Bear with my – I shall return!

Posted on March 19, 2013 and filed under Uncategorized.

The Measure of Happiness

Having the best stuff­– trophy partners, monster homes, luxury vehicles, state-of-the-art electronics, art, luxury vacations, expensive jewelry, and your own reality show –has become the cultural measure of happiness. You see it everywhere: in magazine advertising, television commercials, product placements in blockbuster movies, and in celebrity culture. Advertisers spend an estimated $500 billion dollars every year to convince us to spend ever more money on looking good, impressing others, and being on the “A” list. It is supposed to be the shopping list to a happy life.

In his book “The Fear of Freedom,” Erich Fromm describes the impact of this kind of conditioning: “Modern man lives under the illusion that he knows what he wants, while he actually wants what he is supposed to want.”

Is this pursuit of material wealth and celebrity making us happier as a society? I don't think so. As a matter of fact I think it's having the opposite effect.


 In 1972, the Fourth Dragon King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, conceived the idea of measuring “Gross National Happiness” (GNH). Based on Buddhist principles and values, it was designed to unify the emerging economy in Bhutan behind both spiritual and economic indicators.

Treating happiness as a measure of development was a radical idea. The President of the International Institute of Management, Med Jones, took GNH a step further and identified seven measures:

• Economic Wellness • Environmental Wellness • Physical Wellness • Mental Wellness • Workplace Wellness • Social Wellness • Political Wellness

These distinctions are useful in that they make an important connection between wellness and happiness. They also uncover a much larger framework for the development of happiness beyond just wealth, sex appeal, and social status.

The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire, developed in the 1980’s at Oxford Brookes University, builds on this view by providing personal measures of happiness. These include: optimism about the future, purpose, the feeling of rest, the ability to make decisions with ease, energy levels, frequency of laughter, relational satisfaction and wellness to name a few.

Our society needs to expand it's definition and understanding of what makes us happy. Our health and well-being depend on it.

© Patrick O’Neill 2013. All rights reserved.


Posted on February 22, 2013 and filed under Uncategorized.

Pilgrimage of Honor

The first peoplemade this spirit path when the trees were young and the ground was soft.

Remembering the old ways we walk with humble steps. Every breath a promise to do no harm and leave no trace.

Beneath the cottonwood, the dead lie sleeping. silent witnesses, to our pilgrimage of honor,

We offer water to the four directions. Our prayer flags rise as we say these words.

Honor to the land. Honor to this place. Honor to our ancestors. They prepared our way.

Posted on February 13, 2013 and filed under Uncategorized.

Chief Spence Has Won

If you have read today's National Post newspaper, you will notice that a column by someone named Peter Foster is featured prominently on the front page. Mr Foster accuses Chief Theresa Spence, whose hunger strike entered its 25th day, of "either a bizarre degree of narcissism, or revealed her as a witless puppet. Perhaps both." Chief Spence waits on Victoria Island located on the Ottawa River, for a meeting with Prime Minister Harper. He has steadfastly refused to take the meeting.

Mr. Foster goes further by suggesting that the deplorable state of relations between the government of Canada and First Nations is "not lack of goodwill on the part of Canadians, or even political will on the part of the federal government. That plight is the legacy of failed policies past, and resistance from native leaders to changes in accountability, transparency, education, and property right that would inevitably undermine their own power."

If your blood is not boiling yet, this should do the trick:

"It is also critical to temper aboriginal expectations. Consultation is essential, but the idea that First Nations can be "full partner" in resource development in the immediate future is patronizing nonsense for the simple reason that they lack what wonks like to call "capacity." Similarly patronizing is the claim that native people may be able to bring some unique, spiritual input to environmental issues that are in fact matters of science and technology."

The viewpoint that is represented by M. Foster, is hopefully, shared by a scant few. It is, to my mind, the worms of racism covered by a layer of intellectual whipped cream. No matter how you eat it, it's disgusting.

What Mr. Foster, and his colleague Christie Blatchford, fail to recognize is that Chief Spence has won no matter who she meets–Prime Minister Harper, Governor General Johnston, the Queen of England.

Chief Spence has brought attention and focus to apartheid in Canada. Hopefully, the status quo will be overturned.

© Patrick O’Neill 2013. All rights reserved.


Posted on January 4, 2013 and filed under Uncategorized.

A National Disgrace

Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, how can you face yourself in the mirror? Your refusal to meet Chief Theresa Spence–and your callous treatment of First Nations treaties– is nothing short of a national disgrace.

For those outside our country, Theresa Spence, chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation, is camped on Victoria Island, a stones throw from the Parliament of Canada, on a hunger strike that will end when the Prime Minister agrees to a meeting.

This is the third week that Chief Spence has had to endure the Prime Minister's criminal indifference.

The issues concern government negligence of treaty rights contributing to shocking health and living conditions on First Nations reserves.

It is my belief that if Canadians saw these conditions first-hand they would be deeply ashamed.

Meanwhile, Harper government apologist, Senator Patrick Brazeau, suggests that Chief Spence go through "proper parliamentary processes."

Chief Spence appears to me to be a very sensible person. She has, no doubt, exhausted herself adhering to "proper parliamentary processes" to no avail.

Senator Brazeau, an Algonquin, should know better.

His response to Chief Spence's call for more consulation between the government and First Nations is Orwellian: “The word ‘consultation’ is such a broad word. People will have their different definitions and interpretations of what exactly that means.”


The plight of First Nations people has deteriorated under the Harper regime.

Shawn Atleo, head of the Assembly of First Nations issued the following statement:

“Now more than ever, we must see immediate and urgent attention and concrete commitments by government to work together with first nations to address the unfulfilled promises, commitments and agreements that leave first nations people struggling to meet the basic standards of life on a daily basis.”

Wake up Canada. Our indifference–and our Prime Minister's neglect– is killing people.

Posted on December 27, 2012 and filed under Uncategorized.

What Guns Can't Kill

Dear Friends: Like me, I am sure that you have been deeply disturbed by the violence that killed 20 children and six school staff in Newton, Connecticut.

The NRA has offered a mind-blowing solution to gun violence in schools–armed guards.

The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun, they reason, is a good guy with a gun.

You are probably also horrified by the prospect that 40,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in Syria.

Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Afghanistan and Iran are all in varying states of combustion and violence.

In DR Congo, hundreds of children remain separated from their families and a million people have been displaced as fighting rages in Goma.

Here at home, violence and murder targetting Aboriginal women is epidemic.

The Government of Canada has steadfastly refused to commission an investigation into why law enforcement has done so little to protect one of the most vulnerable groups in our society.

Not our job, they claim.

It's easy amidst such conditions to throw up our hands in disgust and lose faith.

In the face of such difficult circumstances we are not asked to do the easy thing.

We are called to do something much more challenging.

Love harder.

At this time of year, whether you honor Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, Festivus or the Solstice, use the occassion of gathering with family, friends and especially strangers in solidarity against hatred, fear and violence.

Guns can't kill love, friendship, compassion, generosity, and goodwill.

Let's remember that as we commit to the healing that needs to come into our world.

"When I stand before thee at the day's end, thou shalt see my scars and know that I had my wounds and also my healing," wrote Rabindranath Tagore.

Merry Christmas to all.

© Patrick O’Neill 2012. All rights reserved.

Posted on December 24, 2012 and filed under Uncategorized.

Leonard Cohen

I went to see Leonard Cohen on Tuesday night at the Air Canada Center. Thanks to the Davis Brothers for the invitation. We had great seats in a private box with clear sightlines to the stage.  Leonard, at 78, is a phenomena. This is the Old Ideas tour and Lennie is in fine voice. Lynne and I saw him last time he passed through Toronto, two years back. It was a great show in a smaller venue. I was worried how he would do in the cavenous sports arena.   Nothing to worry about. He cut the room to half the size during his first number and by the end of the night managed to shrink it down to a living room performance for his closest friends.   There is nothing like Leonard Cohen out there. Looking like a Rat Pack survivor in a fedora and sharp suit, Leonard spent much of the performance on his knees, a mythological supplicant to God, a woman, the dark.   "I wonder if he can get back up," said my wife. "I know," said I. "I'd need some help getting off of my knees."   Leonard was up and down all night, a master of sincerity and seduction like a two-headed coin. The old songs were all there: Suzanne, Who by Fire, Sisters of Mercy and Halleluja. So too were the new.   Hi band was smooth and tight, featuring Javier Mas on the 12-string bandurria, Neil Larsen oh Hammond B-3 organ, and Bob Metzger on steel guitar. The back-up singers– Sharon Robinson and the Webb sisters–were, in Leonards words, "sublime."   Here's a lyric from Old Ideas that proves that you can get better with age:   "I love to speak with Leonard   He’s a sportsman and a shepherd   He’s a lazy bastard   Living in a suit   But he does say what I tell him   Even though it isn’t welcome   He just doesn’t have the freedom   To refuse   He will speak these words of wisdom   Like a sage, a man of vision   Though he knows he’s really nothing   But the brief elaboration of a tube   Going home   Without my sorrow   Going home   Sometime tomorrow   Going home   To where it’s better   Than before   Going home   Without my burden   Going home   Behind the curtain   Going home   Without the costume   That I wore   He wants to write a love song   An anthem of forgiving   A manual for living with defeat   A cry above the suffering   A sacrifice recovering   But that isn’t what I need him to complete   I want to make him certain   That he doesn’t have a burden   That he doesn’t need a vision   That he only has permission   To do my instant bidding   Which is to SAY what I have told him   To repeat   Going home…   I love to speak with Leonard   He’s a sportsman and a shepherd   He’s a lazy bastard   Living in a suit"   Ah, Leonard. To be young and vital is nothing. To be old and vital....that's sorcery! See you on your next tour, rock star.   © Patrick O’Neill 2012. All rights reserved.

Posted on December 8, 2012 and filed under Uncategorized.

Ingrown Dreams

Every now and again I run into someone who has grown bitter as a result of what I call an "ingrown dream." These are the dreams and aspirations that were never pursued, either because the person lacked the self-confidence to try, or because the fear of failure prevented them from taking action.


We've all met people embittered by what they woulda, coulda or shoulda done.


We always regret the road not taken. Although we mask our disappointment by being busy or successful, eventually our unwillingness to follow the dream begins to haunt us.


It's not that the dream has disappeared. It has actually become ingown, like a hair that causes irritation, then infection. That's what happens to the spirit when we do not express our dreams in the world. It develops an infection.


I love the passage from the Brazillian author, Paulo Coelho. It comes from The Pilgrimage.


"We must never stop dreaming. Dreams provide nourishment for the soul, just as a meal does for the body. Many times in our lives we see our dreams shattered and our desires frustrated, but we have to continue dreaming. If we don’t, our soul dies.


‘The Good Fight is the one we Fight because our heart asks it of us.The Good Fight is the one that’s fought in the name of our dreams. When we are young our dreams first explode inside us with all of their force, we are very courageous, but we haven’t yet learned how to Fight. With great effort, we learn how to Fight, but by then we no longer have the courage to go into combat. So we turn against ourselves and do battle within. We become our own worst enemy. We say that our dreams were childish, or too difficult to realize, or the result or our not having known enough about life. We kill our dreams because we are afraid to Fight the Good Fight.


“The first symptom of the process of killing our dreams is lack of time. The busiest people I have known in my life always have time enough to do everything. Those who do nothing are always tired and pay no attention to the little amount of work they are required to do. They complain constantly that the day is too short. The Truth is, they are afraid to Fight the Good Fight….


“The second symptom of the death of our dreams lies in our certainties. Because we don’t want to see life as a grand adventure, we begin to think of ourselves as wise and fair and correct in asking so little of life. We look beyond the walls of our day-to-day existence, and we hear the sound of lances breaking, we smell the dust and the sweat, and we see the great defeats and the fire in the eyes of the warriors. But we never see the delight, the immense delight in the hearts of those engaged in the battle. For them, neither victory nor defeat is important; what’s important is only that they are Fighting the Good Fight.


“And, finally, the third symptom of the passing of our dreams is peace. Life becomes a Sunday afternoon; we ask for nothing grand, and we cease to demand anything more than we are willing to give. In that state we think of ourselves as being mature; we put aside the fantasies of our youth, and we seek personal and professional achievement. We are surprised when people our age say that they still want this or that out of life. But really, deep in our hearts, we know that what has happened is that we have renounced the battle for our dreams-we have refused to Fight the Good Fight.


“When we renounce our dreams and find peace, we go through a period of tranquility. But the dead dreams begin to rot within us and to infect our entire being. We become cruel to those around us, and then we begin to direct this cruelty against ourselves.


“What we sought to avoid in combat-disappointment and defeat-came upon us because of our cowardice. And one day, the dead, spoiled dreams make it difficult to breath, and we actually seek death. It’s death that frees us from out certainties, from our work, and from that terrible peace of Sunday afternoons.”


Ingrown dreams are dangerous.


© Patrick O’Neill 2012. All rights reserved.

Posted on November 30, 2012 and filed under Uncategorized.

The Thanksgiving Story

Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends. i hope that abundance visits you, your family and your community.


It was Thanksgiving Day, 1997. That's when I first met John.


I'd seen him before, sitting on the sidewalk on the main street, selling his "art." He was about 60 years old at the time, hair askew, and dressed in an old coat, worn out shoes and shorts. He wore shorts all year round, usually the same pair, no matter the weather or temperature.


John was a panhandler and I avoided him, intimidated by how uncomfortable I felt when he tried to make contact with me while I was passing, which was often. He'd be attempting to sell his artwork to passersby, pieces of paper or cardboard that he had found and applied wild color and distorted images to.


Most people ignored him completely, as though he were invisible. I couldn't tell if he was mentally impaired or crazy or both. That Thanksgiving Day everything changed.


Perhaps from misplaced feelings of pity, I decided to buy one of his postcards. He was delighted. He tried to find the best one, and then decided I should have several. He had a new series of "postcards" that he was fashioning with frayed paper and Popsicle stick frames. He retrieved them from an old canvas shopping bag, one of several he carried with him at all times. It was the best way to gather art supplies, he informed me. John reeked of garlic. Later, I learned he ate it raw every day for his health.


At the conclusion of this transaction, John asked if he could visit me sometime. Disoriented by the question, I mumbled "ok".


"What's your address," he asked to my horror. I quickly gave it to him and scuttled away, certain he would forget.


Three weeks later, on a Sunday morning, I saw an apparition wander up the street where I lived. It was wearing shorts and carrying several shopping bags. It called my name. Oh my God, I thought to myself. What now?


John arrived full of amiable greetings and a request to visit for a while. He had brought me more of his latest work and would I like to see it? I invited him in to get him off the front porch, so the neighbors wouldn't see us together and start speculating.


In he came. He plunked himself down on the floor in the hallway of my house and began rooting through his bags. By now my family was gathering, shocked witnesses to what was unfolding. As he emptied his bags onto the floor, my alarm grew exponentially. He seemed to be carrying with him every scrap of paper he had ever found. It was filling the hallway. Finally, his search was successful. From out of this mess, he pulled a reasonably good likeness of the church that stood at the top of the hill. "I was having a good day," he explained. "I think I captured it well."


Something about those words and how they were spoken, the humble satisfaction they conveyed, touched my heart. That was the moment that I decided what he had already concluded some time before. I was going to be an arts benefactor. "Can I have something to eat," John asked? "I haven't had breakfast and I have to go to church soon."


That was our first breakfast together. John had breakfast with us every Sunday for three years thereafter. He especially liked peanut butter, which I began buying him in bulk jars. And raw garlic. And bacon and eggs. He would bring me his recent or not so recent work, depending on how he was feeling. We would talk about his life, his schizophrenia, the shock treatments he had endured as a child, his memories of his parents, summer camp, the latest police officer to take him home, the beatings he received on the street. He would sing songs in German, his mother tongue, and educate me about the harsh treatment that the mentally ill were subject to from the budget cutbacks by the government of the day. He was a gentle soul.


A couple of years after our first meeting, when my father died, John was full of kind words. "You have helped me so much. Now I can help you, Patrick," he said.


Perhaps he already knew that he had been helping me all along. Helping me to overcome my stupidity and arrogance in dismissing him as a crazy person. Helping me see the dignity that comes from creative expression, no matter what it looks like. Helping me see the power of enterprise and entrepreneurial spirit. Helping me see that a genius of relationship can come in dirty old shorts and boots with holes in the toes.


In the third year of our friendship, John was ill on and off. He had to curtail his walking, which was a disappointment to him. In his prime, he confided, he could walk twenty to thirty miles a day. Although I was worried about him, I wrote it off to the medication he was on, which was very harsh on the body. He hated hospitals and refused to go, likely the residue of his childhood experiences.


When we didn't hear from John upon our return from the cottage that summer my wife phoned the minister at John's church. He gave us the sad news: John had died from a massive stroke. He also told us that we had missed the gathering that had taken place for John in the church hall.


It was completely filled with the patrons of the arts.


© Patrick O’Neill 2012. All rights reserved.