Category Archives: Philosophy


Meps on KCBS for National Talk in an Elevator Day

When you get on the dull workday lift,
Where you always give strangers short shrift,
Just this once, say hello,
And then see how things go,
It’s the day to give strangers that gift.

Friday, July 31 is National Talk in an Elevator Day. For Meps, that means San Francisco Talk on the Radio Day, as she’ll be interviewed by KCBS morning anchors Stan Bunger and Susan Leigh Taylor about talking to strangers.

The brief interview is scheduled for 9:30 am PST. You can listen on the internet using the KCBS Live Audio Stream ( If you are in the Bay Area, tune into KCBS at 740 AM or 106.9 FM.

Does the bear have a name?

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.

Sonya with Love Live bear
Sonya with the LOVE LIFE bear, at Steve Fugate’s starting point

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.

Sonya and Carol
Sonya and Carol, sitting on Dad’s park bench

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.

Meps with the LOVE LIFE bear
Meps with the LOVE LIFE bear

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.

UUCG on Gloucester Street


Most of my phone conversations begin with, “Where are you?” Today, a good friend specifically asked, “What state are you in?”

I know she meant “Georgia.” But my answer was, “Contented.”

Last winter, I struggled in a remote boatyard without a car. When I finally left in April, I was constantly on the move, and I lived out of my suitcase. I stayed in dozens of places in 12 different states, and I never ceased rummaging.

I was perpetually wrinkled, except when Libby insisted on helping me with ironing. I had too many unmatched items, so I took them to a thrift store, where I replaced everything with black. But all suitcases have black interiors! I would unroll every shirt and jacket looking for one pair of pants.

I was terrified to unpack for two reasons. One was the fear of leaving something important behind. The other was the fear of offending my hosts by placing something of mine in their space.

On January 1, I spent the night on the boat with Barry, but it was too cramped for the three of us: Me, Barry, and Barry’s projects. On Saturday morning, I drove out of the boatyard with the intention of finding a short-term rental. Vacation rentals were super-expensive. Craigslist had some ads that were downright scary: “Free rent for female. Send photo.”

I sat in my car, wondering if a women’s shelter could refer me to a safe place. I didn’t know where to find a women’s shelter, so I went to an old, sad motel in on US17. Every car door and flushing toilet woke me, all night long.

I needed a little help from my friends, and I knew where to find most of them on a Sunday morning: At church.

If you know me, you probably just spit out your coffee in shock. Meps? In church?

My favorite church in the world is a tiny Unitarian Universalist congregation in Brunswick, Georgia, where we moored Flutterby for a month in 2012. Walking into the vestibule is like walking into a Happy Spot. I get lots of hugs and exuberant greetings. Sally keeps my old nametag, so I don’t feel like a visitor.

I made an announcement that I was looking for a place to stay, and by early afternoon, I had secured a peaceful room in an elegant townhouse. My housemates were a purring cat named Nell and a brilliant, funny Philadelphia native named Joanne.

That’s when I finally unpacked, setting my suitcase on the top shelf of the closet. I stood back and looked at the sparsely-filled closet and the empty bag with tears in my eyes. Even if it was only for a month or two, this was going to be my home. I could hear Joanne’s music from the living room; we had the same taste in blues and show tunes.

Joanne’s a fabulous cook and has an incredible art collection. We can talk about anything. Soon after I arrived, she told me she’d received an email from a local minister about an emergency homeless shelter that needed volunteers. “It’s supposed to be below freezing on Wednesday night,” she explained. “Count me in,” I told her.

The weather seemed too mild to warrant an emergency shelter when we drove downtown at 10 pm. In a room provided by the Methodist church, all but one of the homeless guests were asleep. There was a mountain of donated food and a huge pot of coffee.

To our surprise, a friend we hadn’t seen in a long time arrived for the same middle-of-the-night shift. We sat in the kitchen, catching up on each others’ news. The hours flew by.

Our conversation was accompanied by gusts of wind that literally shook the tiny building and rattled the windows. When it was time to leave, I stepped out into winter. The temperature had plummeted, and the wind chill made my eyes water. I cranked up the heat in the car.

In a state of gratitude, I crawled into my warm bed with my teddy bears and the purring cat. I was not just grateful for my circumstances, I was grateful for the chance to serve those ten cold and hungry men, whose sparse belongings were piled beneath their cots. I understand their plight all too well.

People have lots of good qualities

Next Time

A number of years ago, my friend Jacqui gave me and Barry a couple of purple rubber bracelets she’d gotten at the Center for Spiritual Living. They were imprinted with the words “Complaint-Free World.”

The premise was simple. To break the habits of complaining, criticizing, or gossiping, you just had to switch the bracelet to the other wrist any time you did one of those three things. If you could keep it on the same wrist for 21 days, then you had broken the cycle and overcome the habit.

Barry and I used them for a lot longer than 21 days. We found ourselves wearing them off and on for years. And I’m still not perfect! But I’m a lot more aware of myself when I do complain, criticize, or gossip. “The purple bracelet,” as we called it, was a good tool for learning new communication patterns.

The problem is, the rest of the world hasn’t taken up purple bracelets. And I have a terrible time receiving criticism. Some people simply wither. Not me. I cry.

When I hear the first few words of criticism, my brain starts screaming “Flee! Flee! Flee! Die! Die! Die!” I begin apologizing non-stop for my flaws, my failures, my looks, my weight, my ancestry, and anything else I can think of. I back out of the room, trying not to bawl until I’m out of sight.

It’s hard for me to learn anything new that way.

To me, “constructive criticism” sounds like an oxymoron. How can it possibly be constructive when it’s hurting my feelings so much?

Lately, however, I’ve found that there is another way for me to learn from my mistakes. There is such a thing as constructive criticism. It requires two simple things: Kindness, and these two words: “Next time.”

The first time I really got “next time” was in August, with Barry’s Dad, Dave. He’d been working out in the yard and had stopped into the kitchen for a drink of water. I’d been filling water jugs for Burning Man and carrying them out to the van; I was about to start packing food from the kitchen.

“Uh, Margaret…” said Dave, politely, “Next time you use the hose, let me put it away.”

I stopped and stared at him, like a deer in the headlights. Was I being chastised? Had I been a bad person? Should I apologize profusely? Or should I just pay attention to the words in his request?

He went on to explain that I’d coiled up the hose without draining it. When I hung it up in the garage, the leftover water in the hose ended up all over the floor. He said it so matter-of-factly, the only thing I could say was “Oops.”

The next thing I knew, we were both chuckling at my mistake. That was a first.

The long hose was so heavy, I had really struggled with it. Dave was kindly acknowledging that under the circumstances, I had done the best I could. He had a better solution, and in the spirit of constructive suggestion, he was offering it to me, free of charge. Of course, I couldn’t change the past, but “next time” I could do better.

I came away from the interaction with a new appreciation for Dave’s communication skills. I’ve always known him to be a super-quiet guy, one of those engineer-types. Coming from my own loud, boisterous family, I assumed quiet people were poor communicators. Now I saw how wrong I was. He used his words so carefully, so sparingly, that I could take him at face value. He only said what he meant.

He still liked me and could still laugh with me, even though I’d flooded his garage.

A few weeks later, I was staying with a friend in San Jose. “Next time you use that sharp knife, please wash it and put it away in the knife block.” Again, there was no chastisement for what I had done, only a constructive suggestion for how to do it better in the future. Again, the sentence started with, “Next time.” Again, it was delivered with a kind smile.

I was learning how to transform criticism — of me! — into useful learning.

Usually, when someone does something wrong, we put our criticism and complaints in the past tense: “You left the toilet seat up!” or “You left the toilet seat up again!” or the worst one: “You always leave the toilet seat up!”

Unable to fix or remedy what we did in the past, people become defensive. “It’s not my fault! The cat was drinking out of it!” Then kindness goes out the window, and an argument begins.

With two simple words, “next time,” we can give each other a graceful way out. We can acknowledge that the other person did they best he or she could and still take advantage of the teaching moment. We can be kind and unambiguous with our words, instead of delivering stinging criticism.

I recommend you try it. Next time.

The Official Happy Spot Video

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

Painting of a boatyard in front of the boats

Beauty and goodness are in the air

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,
And one woman’s work is another one’s pleasure.

Painting Flutterby's name with a marl-stick
Painting Flutterby’s name with a marl-stick in 2010

On a warm, sunny day like last Saturday, the boatyards are full of all kinds of painters. You can tell the bottom-painters by their green or blue hair. Topsides-painters don’t usually have colorful hair, just colorful language. Every gnat who drops an infinitesimal bit of dust on their perfect mirror finish provokes a new and interesting batch of swear-words.

Less common are the traditionalists who paint the name of their boat, using a marl-stick, instead of ordering vinyl stickers. I didn’t know what a marl-stick was before I painted “Flutterby” on the side of Flutterby.

The least common painters are the women I saw last Saturday, who had colorful smocks and sweaters instead of colorful hair and language. Before they began, they walked around the yard, holding up their fingers to make little rectangular frames. Then they set up their French box easels and went to work on pristine white canvases.

They were “plein-air” painters: People who go outdoors to paint pictures. They follow in the tradition of artists like Money, Pisarro, Van Gogh, and Renoir, taking advantage of natural light to create images on location.

Average-looking fiberglass sailboat with lots of junk around it
Average-looking fiberglass sailboat with lots of junk around it

But here, in an industrial boatyard, full of heavy equipment?

I struck up a conversation with one of the painters, commenting, “Every day, I ride my bicycle five miles to the library to draw. Then you guys drive all the way out here to paint!” “Oh, you should join us,” she told me, earnestly.

I shook my head. I couldn’t take a day off just to paint a pretty picture.

I asked what brought them out to the boatyard, because she’d told me she came from Fernandina Beach, about 45 minutes away. “We love the shapes of the boats,” she said, looking over my shoulder at a row of hauled-out sailboats. I turned and took in the scene. I saw a compressor, an orange pylon, a blue plastic kayak, a small RV, and in the middle, an average-looking fiberglass boat with a lot of stuff on the deck.

Then I looked at her painting. She had simply painted the maroon and white sailboat, capturing the classic lines of the yacht and the marshes behind it. All the ugly stuff was absent.

Artist working on her painting of a sailboat
Artist with painting of sailboat

Suddenly, the whole boatyard looked different to me. “It’s about what you leave out, isn’t it?” I said, more to myself than to her.

In the days since then, I’ve looked at this place through new eyes. I’ve noticed the lines of the tugboat against a dazzling sunset. I’ve noticed the perfect reflection of a rusty crane in the water. I’ve noticed some breathtakingly colorful oil slicks.

For years, I’ve been telling Barry that living in boatyards is no fun, that these places don’t speak to my “artist’s soul.” But if artists are driving out here deliberately, in order to make art, I’d better rethink that perspective.

There’s a wonderful lesson for all of us from the plein-air painters. We see what we choose to see. No matter where we are, we can choose to see beauty and goodness with a little imagination.

Painting of a boatyard in front of the boats
This artist made a dumpster look romantic and added a shipwright who didn’t exist



Good things come to those who wait

About ten vendors were set up at the St. Marys Community Market last Saturday, in 40-degree temperatures. Most of them were selling honey and handicrafts. The name “community market” should have tipped me off — there was only one produce vendor. There’s a huge advantage to such a limited selection; I was able to get all my shopping done in five minutes!

It seemed silly to ride my bicycle all that distance without spending a little more time in town, so I took myself to a nearby cafe for breakfast.

The only problem was, all the tables at the cafe were full. To kill some time while I waited, I walked into the adjacent art gallery. That was where I met Cindy, who was sitting at the sales desk, painting miniature houses.

We started chatting, and I mentioned that I was from Seattle. Hearing that, she lit up like a Christmas tree — Cindy grew up in Seattle, 50 years ago. She was overjoyed to have someone to talk with about the Pacific Northwest.

She arrived in St. Marys many years ago, in a move that was intended to be temporary. Her husband’s job was associated with the nearby submarine base when “peace broke out,” she says with a wry laugh. Because of the job, the family had to stay in St. Marys for years, instead of returning to Seattle. When they finally divorced, Cindy still couldn’t leave — by then, her children had met and married local people. Meanwhile, out in Seattle, her mother, father, and brother passed away.

Cindy told me how she longed to see the pink sunsets on Mount Rainier again and ride a Puget Sound ferry. She described the Pike Place Market in the 1950’s, exploring the labyrinthine lower levels as a child. She and her family had spent time on Camano Island, camping near Utsalady Point and nearly buying a house there.

As she reminisced, Cindy told me that she’d even written to Starbucks, begging them to open a store in St. Marys. “Whenever I sit in a Starbucks, I imagine Mount Rainier through the window,” she told me. “It takes me back there.”

I lost track of my reason for stepping into the gallery, which was to wait until a table opened in the cafe. I lingered, talking with Cindy for over an hour. When I finally tore myself away and sat down for breakfast, every table was empty. I had the place to myself to think about Cindy’s story and her fierce homesickness for the Pacific Northwest.

The definition of an expatriate is a person who lives outside their native country. Is it possible to be an expat without even leaving the country?

Cindy’s story is proof that it is. The culture of St. Marys is completely different from that of Seattle, and she can never go home again. But with three children and many grandchildren in this part of the country, all she needs is a Starbucks to be reasonably happy.

Hank, Meps, Barry, Philip

Suffering is optional

It seems that I am not the only one with something important to say about suffering. For another masterful look at the subject, read “What Suffering Does,” by David Brooks in the NYTimes (April 7, 2014). ~1meps

When I look back at 2013, I suffered a lot. I didn’t write much, because I was so busy suffering. And when I wasn’t suffering, I was running around, super-busy, trying to keep ahead of the suffering that nipped at my heels.

I do have a lot of beautiful photos from 2013. In them, I see exuberant, joyful smiles and gorgeous scenery. Those were taken during the running-around, super-busy times. The suffering is just outside the picture frame.

Hank during radiation
Hank during radiation

I spent the first half of the year in landlocked Ohio, far away from Barry and the boat. I was caring for my disabled brother, Hank, who had a rare type of cancer that led to multiple surgeries and the loss of half his nose.

While he was undergoing radiation in the summer, I noticed something funny on my nose, too. In a  freakish solidarity with my brother, I landed in surgery in September, losing a portion of my beautiful, freckled nose to an invasive basal cell.

Losing half a nose is nothing, though, compared to losing a person. In the middle of October, I lost my partner in creative and artistic endeavors, Philip. My phone became heartbreakingly silent, as the source of my daily encouragement and inspiration vanished.

I suffered horribly.

That was my mistake. From the very beginning, I should have learned what Hank had to teach me about  suffering. Actually, what he had to teach me — and all of us — about not suffering.

To Hank, the cancer brought wonderful amounts of love and attention — visitors, phone calls, presents, flowers. Each trip to the hospital was a new adventure, a chance to make new friends. Every medical person who interacted with him came away with a gigantic smile and sense of wonder.

Just as he had when we went on vacation in 2009 (see Smiling so much, you need a new toothbrush), he kept me running. I was constantly busy, scheduling appointments, tracking medications, driving, cooking, being his nurse. But as long as I was with him, I wasn’t suffering. How could I, in the presence of that glorious smile and cheerful attitude? How could I suffer, if he didn’t?

Meps with Hello Kitty bandaids
Barry tried to cheer me up with Hello Kitty bandaids

I forgot that lesson totally when I had my own surgery. I was miserable at the thought of being disfigured, in agony because I refused to take the pain medication prescribed. I cried and whined. I was the worst patient ever.

A month later, when Philip died, I immersed myself in suffering yet again, for months. I’ve cried so much, you’d think the boat would be floating.

Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about this business of suffering. Hank had a major trauma in his life, yet he suffered little. I have seen people suffer more over a broken vacuum cleaner or lost keys.

Based on Hank’s example, I believe suffering is optional. We can choose to separate the events that cause suffering from the suffering itself. I’m going to try that in the coming year.

Suffering takes a lot of time. When I set it aside, I’ll be writing a lot more, taking beautiful photos, making art and music.

I should have done that in 2013.

Hank, Meps, Barry, Philip
On vacation with Hank, Barry, and Philip at the Golden Gate Bridge

On a roll with The Bike Lady

A couple of years ago, when Barry and I joined Facebook, we found out what happened to some of the folks we’d gone to high school with. We were especially interested in the ones who’d left Columbus, Ohio, that place known as “Cowtown” that inspires long-distance travel.

Now I have to admit that one of the most interesting is still living in Central Ohio. Back when she went to high school with Barry, in a class of about 100 kids, she was known as “Kathy.” Now she’s “Kate.” For a couple of years, I’ve listened with growing irritation to Barry’s constant chatter about her, always prefaced with, “On Facebook, Kathy said…” She has the kind of big, successful life that makes me green with envy: A writer and video producer, single parent to two adorable adopted kids, funny, charming, good-looking.

OK, I can look past all that. Kate Koch Gatch is a real, live hero.

For the past five years, she’s collected brand-new bikes, helmets, and locks to donate to foster children in Central Ohio. This year’s goal of 750 bikes brings the total to almost 2000 bicycles.

Kate is known as “the Bike Lady.”

It’s a passion, not a job. She volunteers her time and covers all the administrative costs, so that every dollar donated goes towards putting kids on bikes. Kate points out that the public funds that cover the foster care system cannot be used for holiday gifts, so these are kids who wouldn’t have bikes otherwise.

Kate, herself, is not into cycling. She just recognizes what a bicycle represents to a kid — a big-ticket item that demonstrates love, respect, freedom, and hours of fun.

Margaret on her first bike.
Me and my first bike. What was your first bike?

It certainly brings back memories for me — what was my first bike? It was red, a hand-me-down. When it was time to take the training wheels off, my Dad was at work, and I had the impatience of a small child. So Mom grabbed a wrench and wrestled them off. Then there was my first new bike, a blue-green one-speed with coaster brakes, high handlebars, and a banana seat. You could carry one friend on the handlebars and another one on the back of the long seat, if you could balance your bike with three people on it!

This morning, I woke up thinking about all the people in my life who I want to share Kate’s story with:

  • Barry’s rambunctious nephews, who are growing up with their own bikes in Columbus.
  • A dear friend in San Diego who years ago experienced the foster care system in Central Ohio.
  • A friend in Central Ohio who used his bike to commute to work in all weather when he couldn’t afford a car.
  • A friend in the Bay Area who is an advocate for adoption, who lets her kids bring their bikes into the living room.
  • My sisters and their families in Eugene, Oregon, where bicycling is a way of life, despite the rain.
  • Our friends in Virginia who lost their daughter in a cycling accident, but still want kids to know that bicycling can be safe and fun.
  • And all my Sou Digna friends, who know that grassroots projects can make a huge impact in any community to remind people that they are worthy.

Thinking about all of them, there was only one thing for me to do this morning, to kick off the holiday season: Go to the Bike Lady’s website and “put a kid on a bike.” It’s just one of the 750 that Kate will give away. Reading about this project makes me feel really, really good about the world. So if you are feeling down or blue, looking for some inspiration, or wondering if you can do anything to make the world a better place, check out the page on her site called “Start Your Own.”

It feels great to know a person who is doing something to bring happiness to so many kids in difficult situations. As Kate says, “So many kids will be over the moon and riding down a hill in 3 weeks thanks to people like you who get it, understand it and take action.” That’s what we all have to do, with the emphasis on taking action.

A little inspiration and a lot of action can go a long way. To use her own words, Way. To. Roll. Kate.


The CHOOSE ART sign at night

Choose ART, or how I got my fluffy

This is my third blog entry about Choose ART. You might also enjoy the gallery itself, and the entry about the construction of the piece entitled, “Grabbing a Tiger by the Tail.”

In 2012, for the first time, I got a “fluffy.” It was a proud moment for me, and I felt more validated as an artist than when I received my B.F.A. in painting and sculpture.

Meps installs the fluffy
With the help of her Winnie-the-Pooh backpack, Meps drives the fluffy into the ground, showing where CHOOSE ART will be installed at Burning Man 2012.

The “fluffy” is nothing more than a silver disk, actually a CD, with a construction nail and a tuft of pink plastic whiskers. On the disk are written, in black magic marker, the name and number of your art piece. On the vast surface of the desert at Burning Man, the fluffy’s importance is to show where your art goes.

By the time you’ve gotten your fluffy, you’ve not only created a large piece of art, you’ve documented that art. You’ve made sketches and submitted a written description of it to the Burning Man organization. You’ve told them how you plan to light your art and keep it safe, and how you will make sure it doesn’t leave “moop,” or trash, behind on the surface of the playa.

Based on your written submission, the art team has decided where to situate your piece. That way, the city is totally full of art, without it being concentrated in one place. They also give a map to every person who comes through the gate, showing where all the art is.

To get our fluffy, my artistic partner, MacGyver (aka Philip), and I went to a place called “The ARTery.” Like a real artery, this place is the lifeblood of the event, yet we take it for granted. We were greeted by volunteers who treated us like royalty, who made it clear that our title is Artist. They reviewed our submission and showed us where they’d placed us on a large map. “Is this OK?” they asked. After we asked to be moved further away from the loud sound stages, a couple of field operatives armed with a GPS took us out in a golf cart.

When we arrived at our spot, they again asked, “Is this OK?” We nodded, and then they handed me the fluffy. I personally drove the nail into the ground with a mallet, and when I stood up, we had a little ceremony of congratulation, with hugs all around.

Of course, this simple, exhilarating moment was followed by three days of exhausting setup in driving dust storms.

It was worth it, because I like art. I like it a lot. I like to make it, and talk about it, and look at it, and play with it. I like to encourage people to think about it. I love to inspire it. I’d worked hard to inspire this art — it wasn’t just mine.

Many artists listen to music while they work. In 2011, I had an idea to take that one step further. Just as we convert music into dance through our bodies, I wanted to convert music to art, and then take that art to Burning Man.

The progression goes like this: An artist chooses a song that inspires them to create a piece of art. A passer-by chooses that piece of art, which starts the music playing. That music, combined with some intriguing lights, inspires them to dance. Now we’ve merged music, art, and dance into one experience. What will come from that merged experience?

With this in mind, I created a list of 30 eclectic songs, ranging from the Weiner Blut waltz to the Hokey Pokey. I sent them to artists and photographers, and eight people began creating art for the installation.

For myself, it was exciting, as well as completely intimidating, to sit down and make “real” art on paper. Despite having a degree in painting, I haven’t given myself permission to do this in many years. But Burning Man is about giving ourselves permission to try all kinds of things. I even gave myself permission to fail, knowing that I might have to tear something up and start over.

As I was finishing up my last painting, the other pieces of art began to arrive, and I was completely awed. Wow! I wanted everyone in the world to know about the incredible artists I had discovered, who had been inspired to make beautiful pieces simply by sounds. I was the proudest curator on the planet.

We sent the art out for high-quality scanning and had it reproduced on special material used in the sign industry, so that it could be backlit at night. To my surprise, when it came back, the images were vivid both ways, with or without the backlighting. Now, instead of a nighttime-only installation, we had art that could be enjoyed 24 hours a day.

The problem was, playing music without the dancing lights didn’t make sense. So I contacted the artists and asked them to record an artist’s statement that we could play during the day. The recordings I received were not only thoughtful and interesting; some were theatrical and others poetic or lyrical. In them, I heard the same creative spirit that inspired the art.

In August, I turned my attention to signage and final painting of the installation. I needed something that would draw people’s attention and give them some instructions, but I didn’t want to upstage the art itself.

I’d originally envisioned a big sign at the top that said “Mating Shadows,” but as the time came to create it, I dragged my feet. I later ran across this quote, by Tom Price of Burners Without Borders, that explains exactly what I was struggling with:

“(Burning Man) is the epitome of an unbranded event. It is the anti-brand.”

How could I make a sign to attract people without branding the art? That’s when a bolt of inspiration struck me:


It was so simple! In just two words, I could provide the instruction: “Come over here and choose a piece of art” as well as deeper meaning: “Choose art as a way of life.”

The CHOOSE ART sign at night
Barry and I designed and created the CHOOSE ART sign together. It was one of our most satisfying collaborations.

To avoid creating a brand, I accidentally created a movement.

As I designed the lettering and did the woodworking on the sign, something inside me was changing. I gave myself permission to play the piano every day. I gave myself permission to sing. I got up and sang a solo, a capella, in front of 50 people. I wrote poems. I made theatrical recordings layered with music. I danced. I didn’t just appreciate the creativity of others, I reveled in it. I was the poster child of Choose ART.

Once the art was installed at Burning Man, I went to visit it every day. It was far out in the desert, but it was never lonely. Every time I went out there, people on foot, bicycles, and art-cars came to look at the pictures and talk. Often, they snapped a picture of the Choose ART sign.

We’d had some t-shirts made, and I noticed thoughtful smiles and nods when people read the words on the front: “Choose ART.” We began to talk about where we could set the installation up after Burning Man. We began to talk about how to improve it, keep it new and fresh. We began to call it “Choose ART,” instead of “Mating Shadows.”

The movement was taking on momentum.

Today, it is still gathering inertia. We’ve modified the design to make it easier to set up in a variety of environments, and tweaked the electronics to make the lights work better. You can sit at home, view the art, and listen to the artists’ statements right here on I even made a CafePress store where you can buy a shirt or a canvas bag to show off your favorite piece of art and spread the Choose ART message.

How do you Choose ART? Do you make it, talk about it, look at it, play with it? Let yourself be inspired by our project. Give yourself permission to create, and watch what happens.