This past Sunday, my friend, Jeanie, and I were sitting at a picnic table, enjoying beautiful weather and laughing a lot. We were in Young’s Park, a riverfront park in Vero Beach, Florida.
She had the view of the water: “Ooh! Look! A dolphin!” I turned around to see.
I had the view of the parking lot: “Ooh! Look! A giant teddy bear!” She turned around to see.
A woman strode across the grass, carrying a 3-foot tall teddy bear. He wore glasses and a hat, a t-shirt with a slogan, and a Hawaiian shirt. Like most bears, he wasn’t wearing pants.
She set him down next to a tree and went back to her car. She and a second woman put a sign that said “LOVE LIFE” next to the bear. They started taking photographs of each other with the bear.
“That reminds me of the Happy Spot sign,” I told Jeanie. “What do you suppose it’s about?”
“I’m waiting for you to go over there and find out,” said Jeanie.
“Me? Why me?” She smirked, and that started me laughing again.
They’d moved the bear closer to the river, and now other people were stopping to ask curious questions.
I took my time, finishing my sandwich, and when I got up, Jeannie muttered, “Finally.” We walked over, and I asked, “Does the bear have a name?”
“He’s the Love Life bear,” they told us. Then they told us about Steve Fugate.
Two years ago, Steve left this very spot in Young’s Park in Vero Beach, Florida, walking a zig-zag route around the US with a sign on his head reading “LOVE LIFE.”
It was not the first time Steve walked across the country, raising awareness about suicide. It was the seventh.
Steve lost his son, Stevie, to suicide, and his daughter Shelly, a few years later. His website says that he is inspired to share the love he would otherwise be sharing with his children with the people he meets. To do this, he has walked 34,000 miles, giving love and encouragement to the people he meets along the way.
To say that Steve Fugate is an expert in talking to strangers would be an understatement. Steve Fugate has literally saved the lives of countless strangers.
But this post isn’t really about Steve. It’s about Sonya and Carol, his extraordinary friends.
Ardent supporters of Steve’s mission, the two of them do all kinds of behind-the-scenes work. Fundraising, social media, encouragement, sending care packages — they are two of many people who make LOVE LIFE possible. The previous day, they helped put on the second annual Love Life Walk Celebration. Dozens of people gathered, wearing LOVE LIFE t-shirts and carrying signs. Pointing to the 65-foot Barber Bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, Carol said, “We walked over the bridge together.”
When we met them, they were celebrating Steve’s second anniversary on the road with pictures of the LOVE LIFE bear, in his Hawaiian shirt, at Steve’s starting point. It’s a reminder of the point where he will eventually return, and the fact that his LOVE LIFE family is there.
By strange coincidence, that spot is significant to me. In 2011, after my brother, also named Stevie, died in a tragic incident, my husband and I stayed in Vero Beach as long as we could. Finally, we set sail northbound on Flutterby. The morning we left, my Dad stood at the precise spot in Young’s Park where the LOVE LIFE bear did. He waved until we were out of sight, unable to see the tears streaming down my face. My Dad always loves life and inspires me to do the same.
Steve Fugate’s valuable LOVE LIFE message is heard much farther afield than his two feet will carry him. Sonya and Carol — and you and I — are making sure of that.
~~~ You can read more about LOVE LIFE on Facebook and on the web. There’s a short documentary film on Vimeo.
A month ago, Barry and I started house-sitting in Seattle. The day our friends left was completely chaotic — luggage scattered about the house, last-minute baking, noisy children, and a slightly hyperactive dog. Then they swept out the door, and it was painfully silent.
A chicken clucked in the backyard. The second hand on the kitchen clock went: Tock. Tock. Tock.
I peered into the fridge, where mysterious leftovers waited in unlabeled, and more alarmingly, undated, containers. “I think I’ll walk down to the grocery store,” I announced, as I set off down busy 65th Street.
I took a different route coming back, down a tree-lined side street: 63rd.
A couple of blocks before I reached home, I came upon an interesting scene. There was a table in the middle of the sidewalk, surrounded by lawn chairs. On the table were chips, crackers, and hummus. Nearby, in the grassy parking strip was another circle of chairs. There were wine glasses on the grass, some empty, some half-full.
There was no one there. As someone later commented, “It looked like the aftermath of Chernobyl.”
What I knew, that added to the strangeness of the scene, was that the chairs were on the corner where I’d found the Original Happy Spot. As I stood there, puzzled, I heard music and followed it to some concrete steps leading up to a tall fence. There was laughter and the clink of glasses, but I couldn’t see who was on the other side of the gate. Would they be young? Old? Friendly? Suspicious?
I raised a trembling hand, and I knocked.
A woman leaned over the patio railing and hollered, “Who’s there?” Before I could answer, she said, “Come on in!” In the backyard, about twenty people and a Black Lab stared at me curiously. It may have been because I was a stranger. It also may have been my loud outfit, a combination of an orange t-shirt with a tie-dyed blue-and-purple skirt. I’ve heard dogs are color-blind, but this one knew something was weird.
I went on to explain that their corner was where I’d found the Happy Spot in 2009, how I’d taken it to Burning Man that year, and ever since, I’d been spreading the idea of Happy Spots wherever I went.
“Does anyone know who marked the original Happy Spot in your street?” I asked.
They interrupted each other in their eagerness to talk. No one knew of a happy spot, but they told me the corner was known as “Chalk City,” because so many of the neighborhood kids drew on the pavement there. “I’ll ask my daughter,” said one woman. “There’s a big block party there, you know,” said someone else.
“It was there two years in a row; surely somebody will remember,” I told them. “It’s kind of a big deal to me.”
“Would you like a glass of wine?” somebody asked. I shook my head, politely. “I was on my way home with these groceries. My husband will be wondering where I am.” That led to them insisting, “Go get him!” “OK, I will,” I said.
I walked back to the Chicken house with my groceries. After I put them away, I asked Barry, “Do you have some time to come with me right now? Maybe an hour or so? It’s a surprise.”
I couldn’t wait to crash the party again, with Barry this time.
He got up from his computer, and as he put on a fleece, I surreptitiously picked up a piece of chalk and put it in my pocket, as Philip Wilson had once done for me. Later, he told me, “I was expecting you to take me to the Happy Spot. I just didn’t know there would be anyone there.”
I walked him back to the corner, but he was puzzled as I kept going past the Happy Spot and marched up the concrete steps again. Instead of knocking, I flung open the gate and barged in. “I’m baaaack!” I announced, “and this is Barry.”
They immediately sat us down with a couple of glasses of wine, and we chatted and enjoyed the music. One of the guitarists was our neighbor from two blocks away. It was a beautiful summer evening, and a lively group. I couldn’t keep track of everyone’s names.
Eventually, as we were talking about the Happy Spot, someone said, “Let’s go out there and make one.”
I held up my piece of chalk. “I’m on it!”
I marched back down the steps, followed by Barry and a few of the party-goers. In the appropriate place, I knelt and drew the familiar box, labeled it “Happy Spot,” with a smiley-face in the O, and then wrote “Stand Here” with an arrow.
I stood up, and Barry and I demonstrated how it worked. Then everybody wanted to try it, and we all took turns standing in the box, hugging each other, and taking pictures. Eventually, the rest of the party came down to see where we’d gone, and we hugged them, too. The party continued, literally in the Original Happy Spot in the middle of the street, for quite some time.
It was only a few feet from the Spot to the abandoned table and chairs I’d first noticed. For the next hour or so, we sat there, periodically getting up and introducing other neighbors to the concept of the Happy Spot by giving them unexpected hugs.
It was exactly like the Happy Spot at Burning Man, where we routinely welcome and hug complete strangers. Could it be that the Happy Spot is magical, whether it’s at Burning Man or not?
You try it and tell me. All you need is a piece of chalk or pencil-and-paper; a big, friendly smile; and lots of hugs.
Look out, world! No party is safe from Meps, the Happy Spot Party-Crasher now!
I had so much fun writing about Happy Spots last week, I decided to make a video slideshow. I used a format I recently learned about called “Pecha Kucha”: 20 slides, each displayed for 20 seconds. It keeps the presentation moving along in a snappy fashion!
Feel free to share this with your friends — it’s on YouTube. You can download free Happy Spots over at 1meps.com.
Numbered lists are ubiquitous. From the best-selling book, Fifty Shades of Grey, to Martha Stewart’s “11 Whoopie Pies,” everything published these days is counted, quantified, and numbered. As always, I have waited to jump on the bandwagon, afraid of being trampled by the herd mentality and lost in the crowd. (“Three Metaphors Bloggers Should Never Mix”)
I can’t wait any longer. It’s time for me to jump into the fray and start numbering my writing.
3 Small, Lumpy Parcels and 551 Happy Spots
I give Happy Spots to everyone I meet, strangers and friends alike. Last year, I had 250 printed, and I ran out. This year, I doubled my order. Just after my 50th birthday, I received a small, lumpy parcel from VistaPrint. In addition to orange Strangers Have the Best Candy business cards, it contained 500 Happy Spots. Each one is guaranteed to bring dozens of smiles.
Around the same time, I got another small, lumpy parcel, full of birthday gifts from my Dad. One of the items inside was a 1963 Doris Day movie about Happy Soap, “The Thrill of It All.” He’d wrapped the DVD in pastel paper and decorated it with a Happy Spot. It made me smile to think I now had 501 Happy Spots!
A week later, one more small, lumpy birthday parcel arrived. This one had traveled across the USA, was returned to sender, then traveled across the USA again (“See the Amazing Gift That Traveled 7,214 Miles”). I recognized the handiwork of that super-artistic quartet of geniuses, the Miller family of Columbus, Ohio. You may remember them as the creators of the one-of-a-kind board game, Meps’n’Barry-opoly.
Inside, I found three small bags, each containing 50 pieces of candy. I suspect that as soon as I eat one, I will instantly become one year younger. I think I should wait until Barry comes back, so he can watch.
This third parcel also contained 50 of the goofiest, most original Happy Spots I’ve ever seen. This brings my Happy Spot total for May to 551, as you can see by the photos below. The number of smiles is exponentially larger, far exceeding the number of Whoopie Pie recipes on Martha Stewart’s website.
Vote for your favorite Happy Spot by leaving a comment!
A couple of months back, Barry and I went for a walk in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood. At the intersection of two side streets, I saw something that made me smile — children had decorated the pavement with colored chalk. There were drawings, words, and patterns all over the intersection and extending down both streets.
The item that caught my eye and cause me to detour as I crossed the street was a small box. Inside, someone had written “Happy Spot.” Beside the box was the instruction, “Stand here,” with an arrow. I stood in the Happy Spot and beamed at Barry. Then he came over and stood in the Happy Spot, too.
It was such a simple idea, I had to borrow it.
A few weeks later, we were preparing our gear and costumes for our third annual trip to Burning Man. We had a list of things to do — build and test our shade structure, sort out costumes, and pack camping gear designed for “radical self-reliance” in the desert. There was also an item on the list that said, “Create Happy Spot.”
Using yellow signboard and Sharpie markers, I made a couple of hand-lettered signs. We found some yellow-and-black smiley face lights to put on them, and Barry’s Mom donated a sheet of happy face stickers that had come from Highlights for Children.
We took some good-natured ribbing from our more prurient friends. “Oh sure,” they said, rolling their eyes, “you’re gonna set up a Happy Spot at Burning Man. We can’t wait to see THOSE pictures.”
It’s true, there are many R- and X-rated things at Burning Man. But it’s also true that in our first two years, we’d somehow managed to miss them. There are enough PG-rated activities to keep anyone entertained for a whole week, and if we wanted the Happy Spot to be PG-rated, it would be.
On the first day, we set up our Monkey Hut shade structure, festooned with a fringed drapery and floral sheets. Then Barry installed the large Happy Spot sign at the top. Now our tiny camp *was* the Happy Spot.
The next day, I took one of the smaller signs and set it in the ground in front of the hut. I stuck a garish pink daisy on the sign and affixed an arrow pointing at the ground. Barry used some pink rope and landscape staples to outline a little box on the ground, the same size as the chalk one that had inspired me.
The box was perfect for one person and just big enough for two people if they were hugging each other.
We tried it out. Mmmmm, it was happy.
Our first “customers” were neighbors and friends. Our friend Yani came by and got her picture taken in the spot, showing off the her funny little thumb puppet, whose name is WhoopAss.
On the second day, a woman in furry aqua boots and a matching bikini top was riding by on a bicycle. She screeched to a halt and jumped off her bike and onto the square, saying “Oh! What a Happy Spot!” Before she pedaled away, we gave her a hug and a happy sticker for her bike. The magic was working.
Most of the people who stopped were on foot, because it was easy to meander over to our side of the street. But many stopped on bikes, and some firemen even stopped their truck in the middle of the road, got out, and stood in the Happy Spot. They gave us little plastic junior fireman figures to play with.
Everyone who stopped got a happy sticker. Unlike most stickers given out at Burning Man, these little stickers were all on one sheet, so they had to be affixed immediately. “Which sticker would you like and where would you like it stuck?” I’d ask. It was fun to watch them decide. All the stickers were different colors and had different happy expressions. Some people chose to put them on their bikes or water bottles. Others asked to have the sticker on their forehead or chest. A couple of people had little notebooks to put them in. Everybody got a hug with their sticker.
As the creator of the Happy Spot, I actually missed its most intense moment. Barry and Yani were hanging out in the shade when a man walking down the street stopped and stood in the Spot. “I need to go get my girlfriend and show her the Happy Spot.” They chatted briefly, and then the man looked up and said, “Oh, here she comes, right now.”
He called her over to stand with him in the Happy Spot. Then something very special and powerful happened, with a lot of tears and kisses. It was such a lengthy private emotional moment that Yani decided to make herself scarce, quietly saying goodbye to Barry and riding off on her bike. Barry, who had been sitting right next to the Spot, got up and puttered around the back of the campsite, trying to be unobtrusive.
The next morning, the two of them came back, hand in hand and smiling. Something big in their relationship had been healed in the Happy Spot.
Even with the Happy Spot at my camp, though, I wasn’t done dispensing joy to my fellow citizens of Black Rock City. On Friday, I put on a floor-length blue skirt, a huge satin confection with a glittery, gauzy overskirt. With it went a matching top, wings, and a wand. As the Fairy Godmother, I was going out to grant wishes.
I walked into Center Camp, which was, as usual, chaotic. A cute young guy caught my eye and smiled. “Would you like a wish?” I asked. “Sure!” he said. I realized I hadn’t actually figured out how the Fairy Godmother should grant wishes, so I had to make it up on the spot. I told him to close his eyes and make a wish. “You don’t have to say it aloud, just think it.” With my wand, I tapped him lightly on the right shoulder, the left shoulder, and the right again. “Bink, bink, bink.” I gave him a kiss on the cheek, and I said, “There! It may not come true right away, but it will come true — in your cosmic lifetime.” He grinned up at me. “It just did,” he said. His friends all laughed and asked for wishes, too.
I continued around the circle, offering wishes to people of all ages, shapes, sizes, and colors. From a bench across the way came a shout, “Shelly!” I looked over, and an animated young guy was telling his friends, “I saw her last year. She had the most amazing costume, made out of giant seashells.” I couldn’t believe it. I’d worn the “‘shelly” costume a couple of days earlier, but it hadn’t generated a lot of comment this year, and I thought maybe it was time to retire it. Yet here I was, dressed as the Fairy Godmother, and this guy remembered me, and the costume, from the previous year. Bink, bink, bink, went the wand, and then I granted wishes to all his friends, too.
Hearing what the wishes were would have been interesting, but that would have diminished the gift. I didn’t want to exchange a wish for a piece of interesting information. I just wanted to give the gift of a wish.
I did accidentally hear what a couple of the wishes were, though.
A man sitting by the street, offering beverages to passers-by, wanted a wish. I asked if Barry could take a picture as I granted it. “Sure,” he said, “Can you take a picture with my camera, too?” “I’ll grant you two wishes, then.” “Does that mean I’ll get two wives?” he asked.
I offered wishes to two little boys who were with their father. “Are you sure we don’t have to tell you our wish?” they asked. With parental wisdom, their father said, “You can whisper it in my ear.” He leaned down, and the younger boy whispered in his ear. Then I granted his wish. Bink, bink, bink. The older one, probably about 10 or so, did the same. The younger one looked up at his brother. “What did you wish for?” Big brother leaned down and whispered something in his ear. “Oh!” said little brother, loudly. “You wished that Jeremy would stop being a jerk, too?”
When I offered a wish to their father, he declined. Gesturing at the two boys, he said, “I’ve already got mine.”
For me, the Happy Spot and Fairy Godmother were what Burning Man was all about. Connecting with people, and giving them a once-in-a-lifetime gift that wasn’t about “stuff.” In a gift economy, I’d found the most valuable thing I could give away — the gift of joy. Yet the more I gave away, the more I had.