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28 October 2008

Run into the bamboo thicket in your jammies

What if it was your job to help everyone else succeed? – David Robinson

Tess fairy packet Tess got a small package in the mail a few weeks ago.

Its arrival alone (regardless of the content) was cause for some serious celebration in our house.

Tess mailboxTESS fairy packet env In fact, mail is such a Big Deal in Our Home that the best five dollars I ever spent was at a consignment shop—a blue plastic standalone mail box that now sits at the bottom of the stairs going up to Tess’ room. When that tiny plastic red flag goes up, all hell breaks loose.

MAIL! I GOT MAIL! I HAVE MAIL! OH YE-AH, OH YE-AH, she screams as she shimmies from side to side like Bob Fosse in All That Jazz.

So that afternoon, she wandered past the front door, noticed the tiny plastic red mailbox flag was in its upright and locked position, and started screaming up a lung.

She pulled out a padded envelope that was covered in magic. Pictures of fairies covered the front and back. “WHO’S IT FROM? WHO’S IT FROM?” she screamed.

I looked at the return address: “It’s from… it’s from… Llilleloo of the North Fern Pond?” I cocked my head, quizzically, like we so often see cartoon characters do or actors with only one way to express curiosity.

“Llilleloo of the North Fern Pond?!?” she asked, taking the package in her tiny hands, and turning it quietly over and over again. There were Mickey Mouse postage stamps and pictures of fairies on lily pads. She looked at me intently. “I never KNEW that fairies were REAL!” she said intently, with VERY WIDE EYES. “I NEVER KNEW THAT FAIRIES WERE REAL!” she said very slowly, looking at me with those big eyeballs locked onto mine.

She ripped into the package to find a letter FROM A REAL FAIRY (eyes wide open) and a beautiful, tiny, glass kaleidoscope necklace with sparkles that float and shimmer.

A few months ago, I wrote about Tess seeing a fairy in the Botanical Gardens during an educational program there. (She was supposed to find signs of living creatures—and she did, though the leaders of the group were skeptical.)

After reading that post, a woman named Nancy MacDonald wrote to tell me about being a fairy for two little girls. “I am their fairy friend - they named me "Daisey" and they are quite certain that there is a whole community of fairies that visits the bamboo thicket behind Chris' house, but that I have an extra special relationship with them. 

DSC_0004 “The fairies learned when the girls’ birthdays are,” she wrote, “and on each special day, baked and delivered (to the bamboo thicket) heart-shaped, made-from-scratch chocolate cakes with flowers on top.” DSC_0008 The fairies also made magic wands for the girls for the winter holidays. She sent a picture of the girls on Christmas day, opening their presents from the fairies. “They RAN from their house in their jammies when I knocked on their door and announced that there was a white box in the bamboo thicket and that I thought it might be from the fairies,” Nancy explained.

DSC_0036 The fairies left a note for the girls, explaining the requirements for humans to be able to connect with the fairies, rules we might all follow:

Dear Sweet Emma & Lora ~

It’s COLD in the bamboo thicket!
We have been visiting warmer places, but think of you often.

You asked if we have a book of spells to give you. We don’t. What we can do is share with you some of the ways we have felt or seen magic . . .

It’s in the rocks, the pieces of glass, the flower & moss and the humming bird nest we shared with you. And it’s in the dreams we have as we sleep near the dream catcher you gave us. And the music we hear in the moss you gave us. It’s in the joy we feel when we find a new note from you – knowing you believe in us.

Fairies have some very special requirements that humans must meet in order to connect with us.  These include:

1.    The human must be free. This does not mean that you don’t have responsibilities. It means that you must have a creative mind.
2.    The human must be open – open to new ideas & possibilities & to the wonder & magic all around us.
3.    The human must be generous in dealing with others. The ability to be kind is one of the strongest tests used in the fairy realm. This means you must always be ready to perform a kindness. Compassion for all forms of life (human, fairy, animal or vegetable) is very important!
4.    The human must be courteous and respectful.
5.    The human must be truthful in word & deed. A fairy’s word or promise is pure and they expect that the human word will be, too.

So here is one of our favorite fairy poems. It’s about magic. We hope that you will enjoy saying (or singing) it as much as we do. Make up your own tune!

Magic is as magic does
It’s in your hearts and always was
Take care to think the kindest thought
And then your magic good has wrought.
Our friends do magic fingers snap
Goulies by the gashen gap
Fairies by the fairen flap
Witches by the wizen wrap
Elfin by the shivers sap
Tolls and trogs do trouble trap
(and only good can come of that!)

We wish for you
    Sweet dreams ~
    Happy days ~
All the love & Magic your hearts can hold                 

The Fairies

What does a fairy look like in every day life, I wonder? In the case of Llilleloo of the North Fern Pond, it looks a lot like Edie Evans, a high school classmate of mine who, though I haven’t seen her in 30 years, sent Tess magic via the U.S. Postal Service. In the case of the bamboo thicket, it looks a lot like Nancy MacDonald. Whose fairy are you? What do you do that sends them dashing to the bamboo thicket in their jammies? What fairies can you allow yourself to believe in?

Angels and fairies are related. They come from the same thicket.

My business partner, David, once asked a class of his to go out into the world and be an angel for someone for three hours. Here’s his powerful description of the experience:

“You’re kidding, right?”

My silence served to escalate their fear. I was careful not to smile even though their avoidance techniques were becoming desperate, keystone cop-ish:

“We’re in college!”
“We’re adults!”
“How can we do this?”
“What does this have to do with learning?”
“We’ll be arrested!”
“No one will take us seriously!”

“Exactly,” I said. They stared at me, incredulous. I said, “So, you’ve got it? I’ll see you in a week.” And then they laughed.

By that point in the quarter, they knew me enough to know that there is always a greater point to everything I assign. They knew that the only way forward was to go through the experience. They were used to my purposeful obscurity. I was on a campaign to teach them that the answers are never in the teacher.  

Delmus, a mountain of joy and mischief sauntered by me as he left the classroom and muttered, “I’ll be calling you when they toss my butt behind bars.”

“Jail would be a great place to do this exercise!” He yowled and wagged his finger at me. Then he reminded me that I was not black and he was.

“What?” I retort, “Angels can’t be black?” Delmus fluttered his hands, a mammoth finch, a rasta-sparrow; he flew out of the classroom.

Each week during the quarter I’d assigned a homework “experience.” Usually the assignment was an adventure requiring them to engage with others in ways that challenged their assumptions. It usually necessitated a step toward their discomfort. They always had the option to opt out but had to know why they stepped away from the experience. I also asked them to write about the experience. This week’s assignment was to be a stealth angel to someone. For three hours, without revealing their intention or angel-identity, they must do what angels do for people, whatever that meant to them. The chorus was predictable:

“What’s an angel?”
“What kind of an angel?”
“What do you mean?”
“What if I don’t believe in angels?”
“Yes, but….What do I have to doooooo?”

Their questions in translation are, “tell me how to get an “A!”. They are masters of this survival tactic – a strategy carefully schooled into them; at an early age they come to believe that learning is a game of discovering what teacher wants and then providing what is expected. Getting an “A” is proof that something was learned. It is the seed to the tragedy that drove them from education in the first place. Now, as adults, they feel disconnected from something vital deep inside, there is a ‘void” yet they can’t quite find it and have stopped trying to fill it with drugs or sex or buying something. They are on a quest, looking for answers but are looking in the wrong place. It’s a pattern and I feel it’s my job to break the pattern and redefine learning for them. I have a dear friend, a retired educator, that said, “public education is meant to torture the curiosity out of you.” It is systemic, unconscious and unnatural.

What they seek is the experience of expansive being. They want to step off the path and get lost. They want to see what happens if…. They want to put down the ruler and stop pretending that learning has anything remotely to do with absolutes, right and wrong. They want to reclaim their curiosity. They want to flip the paradigm and use their quantifiable knowledge in service to their imaginations. When they were children, this is what they knew as “play.” In the world of adults it goes by the name of “innovation.”

Play and innovation are not the realms of the special, those gifted few that invent Google or the automobile or the flush toilet. Creativity is not the realm of the painter or the dancer. It is the natural state of every human. Each person you pass on the street or see on the news or sit with in a traffic jam is, in their nature, creative and playful.  And this principle is at the heart of the angel exercise.

The class reconvened a week later, giggling and sheepish. They want to tell their angel stories.

Tom: “I was an angel to my wife. She came home and I had dinner made and the laundry done. You should have seen her face! She asked me if I was okay! The entire evening I made it my intention to make her life easier. That’s what I decided an angel does, an angel makes life easier for someone. But here’s the thing: I didn’t stop after 3 hours. I was her angel all weekend because, without knowing it, she started doing things to make my life easier. I still haven’t told her that this was an exercise for class because I like us so much better this way.”

Rebecca: “I was an angel to this woman in my office. I have real problems with her and we generally don’t like each other. I think an angel is above all the personality stuff so I tried it. I brought her coffee because she really likes coffee in the morning. I helped her with a task that she was dreading. At first she didn’t want my help because we don’t like each other but after a few minutes, when she figured out that I wasn’t going to fight with her or belittle her, we worked well together. It was hard but near the end of the three hours we had a good talk and I learned a lot about her. She brought me coffee the next morning and its’ like we have a totally different relationship. I don’t think we’ll ever be friends but it’s like, I see her differently now and I think she sees me differently, too.”

Delmus: “I cheated. I didn’t do just one person. I stood in the plaza downtown because I thought I’d get off easy that way but, Oh my god, you should have seen some of the faces! I opened doors and helped people carry bags and held up a bus once so a guy running could get on it. It scared some people. Being nice to them scared them! Except there was this one older woman who let me help her and she told me that she was all alone and having a hard time. She really needed an angel that day and there I was! She called me an angel and I felt like one. I felt it! It made me bold and had a great time. By the end, no one was afraid of me I think because I wasn’t afraid of them.”

They compared their experiences and came to these conclusions: When you become an angel to others they become angels to you. When your intention is to serve, to make life easier for others, life becomes easier for you. People really want to play and are afraid. Someone has to make the first offer and then anything becomes possible. Like all things, learning, working, playing is more fun when you do it with others, or even better, when you do it for others.

What if it was your job to help everyone else succeed?

Deb house At our recent LIAV retreat, at the end of our very first session, just after everyone met, we asked each person to identify two other people in the group without letting anyone know who those two people were. “During the course of the weekend,” David explained, “your job is to be an angel to those two people, to give them what they need without telling them who it is coming from.”

Deb house2 One of the participants wrote me after the retreat:

“I loved the exercise. It stumped me at first because I thought, ‘I barely know these people, how am I supposed to know what they need?" And we have nothing here (i.e., no access to stores) to ‘buy’ for them.  But then I really got it.

In fact, it was so easy that I gave more than 2 gifts. I didn't want to stop.

For me, the anonymity and the lack of material resources made it a joyful task--a real contrast to the dread I feel at Christmas time when I feel obligated to buy the perfect gift for everyone in my life and end up wandering the malls on Christmas Eve in despair.

This felt completely different. I loved imagining the recipient's reaction when s/he got the gift. I loved that I wasn't there. Didn't get credit for it. It wasn't about me at all.

Deb house2 I got such joy out of making that gift and knowing how much ‘home’ meant to Deb. I was amazed at how I knew what she needed after hearing her stories.”

Deb house4 What that angel created for Deb was a tiny house. Hearing Deb’s stories led her to understand that what she needed was a house. And so, a tiny beautiful thoughtful amazing structure was left on Deb’s pillow near the end of the retreat. Deb came to me in tears on Sunday morning, thinking I had done it, but I hadn’t.

As Deb wrote afterwards, “heartfelt giving to others is an expression of thoughtfulness and knowing the giving IS THE gift  - at the core, it is all about LOVE and that is why the ‘angel’ project is so powerful. I kept thinking of monks who, each day go out with a 'begging bowl'- I do not think they see it as begging and certainly whoever gives them 'anything', does so with a sense of desire. Whatever, be it food, money, kisses, blessings, is received with gratitude and the understanding that ‘it’ is a most precious and perfect gift. Anyway, we all can feel the same joy the gifter and the recipient feel if we only let the magic take place!"

What if there is an angel lurking among us who can provide us with the very house we deserve and need and want, if only a tiny paper house that signifies “I heard you” and “I see you” and “I open myself up to you by being in service to you or by accepting your gift."

37days Do it Now Challenge

Rtist Be an angel every day for even just an hour. See how the experiment changes you, changes others. Or be a magical fairy for someone. Mr Brilliant recently noticed a third grader being reprimanded at school by being sent to sit in a kindergarten class with the “babies.”

“He was drawing,” Mr Brilliant told me, “this incredible drawing.” He talked to the teacher about the unusual artistic vision of the boy, someone the teachers had come to see as a problem child. Since then, Mr Brilliant has become the boy’s angel, anonymously providing art supplies because he has none at home. (I love the fact that the boy, just under his name in the upper left corner, has identified himself: "rtist.") That’s one kind of angel.

Tess recently got another letter from Llilleloo from North Fern Pond. Inside was a tiny glass key, frosted blue, that Tess put in a very special place in her room so she could look at it every night before going to bed. Another fairy named Jodi Cohen sent her a key ring with beads and WITH A REAL KEY! A REAL KEY!

What would it take for you to be an angel for someone, a fairy? What would it take to believe that Delmus was being your angel, and to accept his help?

Go out into the bamboo thicket every once in a while to leave something for someone else—there’s a gift for you there, too. Magic is as magic does.


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Hi Patti,

How absolutely sweet. I would love to be someones Fairy godmother. I will have to be on the lookout! I love your book, thank you for the inspiration! I think you are coming my way soon!


Oh, this post was so delightful! It really has me thinking about "gifting" others in a thoughtful way that has nothing to do with being acknowledged for it -- so beautiful. And of course I knew faeries were real. :)

stupendous blog post!yes! I know just the little boy who needs a fairy in his life--thank you for the suggestion...I love your blog ;-)

absolutely fabulous!!! i vividly remember being assigned and doing an angel project of my own. it truly changed my life and continues to do so each day. thank you for this amazing reminder.

This is a treasure of a post- thank you.

I am worried that not everyone at the retreat had someone choose to be their angel- did everyone get loved by someone that weekend? Although I'm sure this was so, I seem to need reassurance on this point.

Thanks for inspiring us all.

I haven't enjoyed reading such a long blog post in a long time as much as I did this one...this reminds me of Kelly of Kikipotamus The Hobo does in her "normal life"... I love the annonymity of the giving suggested here. I do a lot of giving as grandma, but now I want to teach my grandbabes about faireys and angels. And about doing nice things just for the doing of them, not for recognition. Thank you for the lessons/ideas/suggestions...I no longer need the "A", but I know I'll enjoy the rewards of other's happinesses.

this post made me smile ear to ear. so full of magic and inspiration. thank you, patti!!

Delightful and touching--thanks so much. It's given me lots to think about and made me smile, too. Surely fairies and angels are related.

Dear fairy,

On this wet morning, the first real autumn morning this season, this was like a warm hug. What's the address? Serbian fairies, too, want to send a package to THE Ashville fairy.
But, hush, it's a secret, ok?
Love, Vera

i love that there is a blue mailbox at the foot of the stairs. with a red flag. it is morning and the start of my day. i will carry the image of the blue mailbox with me all day. here is what i wonder: what if there was a special blue mailbox at the foot of the stairs of my heart? what would i put in it? when would i put the flag up? how long would it take me to notice if the red flag was up after walking by the blue mailbox day after day without seeing it? what would be inside the blue mailbox at the foot of the stairs of my heart? who are my angels already?

Wonderful post about fairies and being a fairy for someone else. It is a wonderful thing to do. A few years ago while volunteering at a school breakfast club, a girl in grade 4 came to breakfast in a sleeveless shirt, cold in the middle of a Canadian winter. I went straight from breakfast to our local Walmart and purchased some warm shirts for her, brought them to the principal with instructions to give them to the girl without telling where they were from. The following week when I was preparing breakfast, it warmed my heart to see this little girl dressed in one of the shirts when she sat down to eat. She was a good little detective, as she wouldn't let it rest as to where the clothes came from and eventually figured it out. With that came a huge thank you.

Patti, you can look for a little package from me, already on its way since last Thursday to your P.O. box address. It is addressed to you, but the contents are for Tess, so you may want to put it in her awesome mailbox and raise the flag!

This may be my new favorite essay of yours, Patti. Beautifully told, and with such a wonderful message. You've left me sitting here itching to find a little girl to sprinkle fairy dust upon.

Thank you for such a wonderful post. I will read it again and again as there is much to "unpack" from this essay. I'm so glad that you're back to writing again.

The fairy story really touched the child within me, the very real me. And the angel stories were so inspiring. I wish everyone had a teacher like that.

Not really related, but I just read this quote from Steve Pavlina - David's quote reminded me:

"Don't think about outdoing other people in (your) field. Just think about helping people improve their lives. If you can do that, you can succeed. Creating a better world isn't a competition."

I'm moved beyond words by this post. The blue mailbox! The fairies! David Robinson *teaching that class*! Mr. Brilliant's third grader: he *sees* him! It all makes the world a happier place - thank you, thank you, thank you.

First time visitor...I love this post. It's beautiful, inspiring, magical, fun, playful, and totally up my alley. I'm in! Where can I get fitted for my wings?

Reminds me a lot of "pay it forward" but a bit more thoughtful and provoking. Time to start brainstorming!

another wonderful story with a powerful lesson.

have you seen this video of a talk by daniel goleman on compassion? this essay reminded me of goleman's point in this interesting talk.

This is a beautiful post Patti. The entire piece simply tugs at my heart strings.

My copy of Life is a Verb finally arrived last week. The book is beautiful, and I am enjoying every page.

Have a wonderful weekend.

This is one the the longest stretches in my life of not having done something or been called something. The longest previous stretch was from 1959-1999, which was how long it took for me to be on TV again. (I was on the Johnny Jellybean Show, in NYC, in 1959, when I was a baby; then I was on with my doppleganger Rob Reiner at Emma's grade school in DC for sumpin sumpin in '99. I think that Johnny Jellybean was played by Hugh Hefner's brother or something like that.) I think that the last time I was called "an angel" was when I was 10; this I'm pretty sure is the first time since 1966 that anyone has called me an "angel", and believe me, it feels so not right. I mean, *LOOK* at me!

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