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.

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.

Brunswick MLK parade photos

Gallery

This gallery contains 61 photos.

These images were taken by Margaret Meps Schulte during the Brunswick, Georgia Martin Luther King Day parade on January 19, 2015. Looking at the proud faces in these photos, I became teary-eyed, wishing I could do more to help my … Continue reading

Why I Still March

View MLK parade photos

In July 1963, there were riots in Savannah, Georgia. A large headline in the Savannah Morning News read, “Rioting Negroes Stone Cars, Set Fires, Smash Windows.” Several stories were run under the headline about property damage during night marches that turned violent.

I wasn’t born yet, but I know that those front-page stories caused problems for my father, the executive editor of the newspaper. Decades later, he told me his publisher had called him on the carpet over it, saying, “Dammit, Schulte, why did you have to put that on the front page?”

Dad was defensive. “There were five thousand people marching in Savannah last night, and you don’t want me to publish the story? This is big news!”

The publisher continued fussing about the articles. “Next time, bury that in the back of the paper.”

The Civil Rights Act was passed a year later, and one would think that would solve the problems. But people are still marching, and the reason is still buried in the back of the paper. Why is that?

Broken window

Broken window in Brunswick

Where I’m living, in Brunswick, Georgia, the median income for a family is $28,564, and 25% of families are below the poverty line. The city’s racial makeup is 60% African-American and 36% white.

Contrast that with neighboring St. Simons island, where the racial makeup is 94% white. There, the median income for a family is $73,580. Only 2% of the families are below the poverty line.

When I first arrived in Brunswick, on my sailboat, Flutterby, the folks at the marina gave us a map of the town. They told us to walk a circuitous route from the marina to the Winn-Dixie grocery store, 2 miles away. “Why’s that?” I asked. “Oh, you know…MLK Boulevard runs through that section,” was the reply. It broke my heart to hear her tell cruising sailors, most of them white, not to even go into the black neighborhood.

Adams Market sign

Latino grocery in Brunswick

I disregarded her advice, discovering charming houses and intriguing Hispanic grocery stores in that neighborhood. I also discovered a lot of abandoned shacks and lots full of weeds. I had some uncomfortable encounters. This was definitely a neighborhood whose residents struggled to survive.

I returned to the neighborhood this past Monday, on Martin Luther King Day. For the first time, I was marching in the MLK parade with a group of folks from the Unitarian church. The day was beautiful and the mood was buoyant.

At the staging area, I photographed the folks who were in the parade. But as we began marching down Gloucester Street and then turning onto MLK Boulevard, it was the people watching the parade who drew me. I began handing out Happy Spot cards, getting hugs and handshakes, and taking photos of the parade-goers.

Why do I march? I have mixed reasons. I love to celebrate the successes of the African-American community, a group of people whose rich ancestry predates my own on this continent. But I also march as a protest. The law may say otherwise, but inequality persists.

Parade-goers in Brunswick

Family watching the parade on Albany Street in Brunswick

The photos I took that day are full of happy people, but they bring tears of sadness to my eyes. Many of the houses behind the parade-goers are unpainted and unkempt, with bare dirt yards. These are people who live below the poverty line, because they don’t have the wealth of opportunities that I do. The economic figures and demographics are painfully clear. Being black and living in poverty often go hand-in-hand.

During the rest of the year, you won’t see any other parades going down these streets. Until they do, and until we have real equality, I’ll keep marching.

Shelter

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.

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 1meps.com.

Donating to a better institution

I was feeling a bit of frustration,
And in search of a blood bank location.
But then yesterday saw,
At the town Mardi Gras,
The big bus for my tribute donation.

The Bloodmobile drove past us, behind a marching band and in front of a bunch of pirates with a cannon, in the St. Marys Mardi Gras parade. I didn’t think twice about it until I saw them parked at the end of the parade, between the children’s rides and the car show. Just about then, a hoard of biting gnats descended upon us, and Barry and I decided that it was better to donate the blood to a good cause — especially since it’s that time of year when we like to donate blood in memory of Becky Johns.

“Gnats are not a cause, they are an institution,” says Barry.

Meps with Strangers Have the Best Candy t-shirt and matching orange coband

Showing off the orange coband that matches the infamous Strangers Have the Best Candy t-shirt

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.