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.

Silent Night

The night before I left my brother’s apartment in Columbus, I was packing my bags. “Are you going to carry those out to the car tonight?” Hank asked. I sat back on my heels and looked at the heap of stuff I’d dragged into his apartment during my nine-day visit.

It was dark and cold outside. “Nah, I think I’ll wait ’til morning,” I replied. “OK, can I turn this light out?” he asked me. He’s always turning out lights behind me; his vision is so poor that he’s content in the dark.

I went to bed early, to get a good night’s rest before driving to North Carolina.

“WHAT THE?!?!” I woke in the middle of the night to the loudest alarm I’d ever heard and a strobe light going off in the living room. A fire alarm! Was it real? I waited in hopes that it was a false alarm, but the hideous noise continued.

I got up, bouncing off the furniture by the pulsing light of the strobe.

I threw on a pair of jeans under my pajamas and a coat on the top and stuffed my feet into untied shoes. Hank didn’t show any signs of getting up for Armageddon, so I banged on his door.

“I smell smoke,” I told him. “We’d better go.”

While he put on his bathrobe, I grabbed my purse, my laptop, and two irreplaceable teddy bears. I threw a bulky blanket and two coats on top of my pile, then helped Hank with his slippers. I took one last deep breath and opened the door to the hallway.

It’s terrifying to have a fire in a big building and not know where it is. The hall was full of awful-smelling smoke, but there were no people. I dragged Hank towards the stairwell, hoping we were going away from the danger.

By the time we made it to the first floor, the only evidence of the fire was the alarm. Hank’s apartment was right near the source. I sighed, thinking of all my worldly possessions up there. I should have packed the car, then everything would be fine.

Meps and Frankie waiting for the firemen

Meps and Frankie waiting for the firemen

Fire trucks were just arriving. There were clusters of people in the lobby, some with walkers and wheelchairs, but nobody seemed freaked out. I sat on a sofa, embarrassed by my heap of coats and teddy bears.

The firemen charged through the front door, and then stopped. They didn’t know where to go. There was obviously an emergency — alarms were screaming, strobe lights were flashing — but the residents just stared at them without speaking. The firemen milled around, puzzled by the reception.

Most of the people who live in the building are completely deaf.

Finally, I stood up, teddy bears and all, and showed them the door to the stairs. “I think it’s on the third floor, down that wing,” I said, pointing. They pounded up the stairs in their boots, axes at the ready.

I sat back down to enjoy my late-night people-watching and wishing I could eavesdrop. Around me were small circles of people, talking excitedly in American Sign Language. ASL-speakers use much more than their hands. They use their whole bodies, like dancers, to convey complex meaning. I put my fingers in my ears to block the alarms, but the people around me were completely unfazed.

Hank waits for the firemen

Cheerful Hank waits for the firemen to give the all-clear

The fire was quickly out, and the firemen brought giant fans to blow out the smoke. They sounded like jet engines! Hank’s neighbors simply continued their silent conversations.

The whole catastrophe was over in about an hour, but I couldn’t sleep after that. I tossed and turned, my ears ringing. They would still be ringing the next day.

I’ve always said that Hank and his neighbors are not disabled; they are differently-abled. For those who cannot see, darkness is no problem. For those who cannot hear, every night is a silent night. And for those like Hank, who do not worry, every night is a peaceful one.

 

Turkey with strangers

You can’t argue with this: Thanksgiving is not really about food. If it was, we’d be perfectly happy to eat turkey in a restaurant. There’s an entire episode of Mr. Ed about how horrible that would be.

In 2008, Barry and I planned to spend Thanksgiving with my brother, Stevie. He didn’t call, and he didn’t arrive, and by noon, I realized our plan had fallen apart. Barry and I were in a boatyard, hauled out, with no invitations to a big family meal. There wasn’t even anything appropriate to eat on the boat. I shed a few tears of frustration and loneliness over my sorry plight.

I’d heard a rumor that the God-fearing Baptists in town would be serving dinner for nomads and wandering sailors. I’m no Baptist: You could call me a Baptist-fearing Goddess! But I was willing to face my fears for some turkey and cranberries.

We drove the Squid Wagon into Beaufort at 1:30. “We’re not serving until 3 pm,” said the nice man in front of the Baptist church. “You should go over to the Methodists.”

We headed over there, about a block away. When we walked into the Methodist church, we found that we’d missed their dinner, but they were eager to load us up with leftovers. We staggered out to the Squid Wagon with to-go boxes of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and about a dozen desserts.

Then we climbed back into the front seat of the van and had a debate: Where should we eat our dinner? “I don’t want to eat Thanksgiving dinner on a park bench in town,” said Barry.

We decided to take a one-hour walk and then go back to the Baptist church, where they welcomed us with open arms. Their food was simpler than the Methodists, but we found the camaraderie we were looking for. We were treated as honored guests, not strangers.

Over dinner, we discovered that many of our new Baptist friends were in a hurry to eat and get going; they were going home to share a second Thanksgiving dinner with their families! That explained why the Methodists served so early, why there were so many leftovers.

At the end of our meal, we were urged to take even more leftovers! We were chuckling as we drove back to the boatyard with plenty to share with my brother, who arrived a day later. I pray the God of the Methodists and Baptists forgives us for double-dipping. We gave thanks for every bite, but it was not about the food.

Peaceful Thanksgiving powerboat in Beaufort

Peaceful Thanksgiving in Beaufort

Let's do lunch!

It’s been eleven years since I quit,
And I miss all my friends, I admit,
But when you read my book,
You will see, I forsook
Corporate life for a much better fit.

Steve and Meps at Sweet Mickey's

Steve, of Expeditors International, and Meps at Sweet Mickey’s, September 2014

This is especially for my former coworkers, who have kindly encouraged me to be an author and artist, instead of a business analyst, knowledge manager, or systems integrator. I’m probably ruined for the corporate world now, because I can’t remember how to install (is that the correct verb?) pantyhose. I hope I don’t have to wear pantyhose when I make it to the Today Show.

If you’re a former coworker of Meps’, please say hello in the comments!

 

 

Sweet Strangers in Ballard

I hope to see your smiling faces in Ballard tonight, sometime between 6 and 8 pm. If the rain stops, we can make Happy Spots on the sidewalk in front of the store! If it doesn’t, we can make paper Happy Spots inside!

When I walked in right off of the street,
The two strangers I happened to meet,
In their colorful store,
Full of candy galore,
Booked an author appearance there — Sweet!

Sweet Mickey'sIf you’re in the Seattle area, come see Meps on Tuesday, Sept. 23 from 6 to 8 pm at Sweet Mickey’s Candy Shoppe in Ballard (next to QFC on 57th). An autographed copy of Strangers Have the Best Candy won’t rot your teeth. And the fabulous candy and fudge Sweet Mickey’s carries is worth a trip to the dentist!

Party-crasher

Ivy the Dog

Waiting for her “people” to return

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.

“Um, hi,” I said, nervously. “I’ve never crashed a party before, but I wanted to tell you something about your corner. It’s featured in a YouTube video about the Happy Spot.

“The what?” they exclaimed, in chorus.

50 Happy Spots

Happy Spots, as interpreted by Julie, Cody, Emanuel, and Gabriel Miller

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.

Burning Man Happy Spot

Happy Spot campers, called “Happy Spotters,” at Burning Man 2013

“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.

Happy Spot

Philip’s sunset Happy Spot in San Leandro, California

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.”

Drawing a happy spot in chalk

Meps, drawing the Happy Spot for the Original Happy Spotters

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.

Smiling neighbors in the Happy Spot

Smiling neighbors in the Happy Spot

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?

Group in the happy spot

Friends, family, and strangers were hugging each other in the Happy Spot

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!

What's scarier than ziplining?

Please join Meps on Wednesday, July 16 at 7 pm for a scary (to her) presentation on “How to Talk to Strangers” at Ravenna Third Place Books in Seattle.

Barry's entire zipping family

The entire family poses for a photo along the zipline course

The young blonde girl ahead of me screamed in terror the whole way across. But when I stepped off the wooden platform yesterday, I wasn’t frightened at all. Ziplining is easy if you don’t have acrophobia, or fear of heights.

I was with Barry’s family on Camano Island for my first ziplining adventure. There were eight of us, all shapes and sizes, ranging from 11 to 73 years old.

The scariest part was just reading and signing two pages of liability release forms. Then we were outfitted with harnesses and helmets, and we climbed into an old Army truck to ride up the steep hill. Even though we were less than a mile from Barry’s parents’ Washington home, it felt like a rainforest tour I once took in Brazil.

Barry and his nephews wait for his sister to zip across

On the platform, Barry and his nephews wait for his sister to zip across

For two hours, we rode six different ziplines that were up to 60 feet above the forest floor. When we reached the final platform, we were still about 40 feet up in a tree. One by one, we rappelled down to the ground, our descent controlled by two very capable guides.

I was quieter than usual, because I was enjoying the lush green beauty of the forest. Mistaking my reticence for fear, one of the guides patted me on the back and congratulated me on my courage. “This isn’t scary,” I told him, wryly. “I wish it was the scariest thing I’ll be doing this week.”

Barry and Meps on the zipline platform

Look, Mom! No hands!

Cody and Julie on the zipline platform

Look, Grandma! No hands!

This Wednesday evening, July 16, I’ll be giving my first public book presentation at Ravenna Third Place Books, in Seattle. It’s completely open to anyone, it’s free, and I’ve promoted it widely, sending calendar listings and press releases all around Seattle.

I’m not afraid of spiders, snakes, or the dark. I’m a little nervous around alligators, but not much. Last week, I literally gate-crashed a large party, proving that I am not afraid of strangers. However, I suffer from glossophobia: Fear of public speaking.

Why, if it’s so frightening, do I want to do it?

I want to do it, because I believe in the power of my little orange book, Strangers Have the Best Candy. Over and over, people tell me they had a change of heart while reading it, that they go out and smile at strangers now, that they strike up conversations. This is not an entertaining little memoir. This is a book that advocates a new philosophy, a new way of interacting with other humans.

Gabriel rappels down a tree

Gabriel rappels down a tree

But like the screaming girl on the zipline, I have to remember that talking to strangers may be frightening to my audience. How better to understand their fear, than to suffer my own?

Having no innate fear of spiders, snakes, or strangers, there’s only one sure way. Glossophobia: Simply to be afraid of the power of my own voice.

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.

551 Happy Spots

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

Happy Spot card

Meps’ Happy Spot card

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.

Happy Spot

Happy Spot from Dad

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 balanced meal

There once was a lady named Doeri,
Who wanted to eat cacciatore,
She broke her routine,
By eating poutine,
And posted the pic and the story.

This was inspired by a friend’s photograph on Facebook. Barry and I ate poutine with Kris a number of times, because it was the cheapest food item in the Lunenburg pub. “It has carbohydrate, protein, and fat,” I said. “A balanced meal!”

Poutine

Classic Poutine