Free Hugs and The Art of Burning Like Fabulous Yellow Roman Candles

I’ve always been enamored by idealists, the dreamers. The mind-speakers. The norm challengers and status-quo re-writers. The people of second and 99th chances.
IMG_0060The ones who stomp in puddles and sing in the rain while everyone else is inside dry, waiting for the clouds to pass. The ones who sled down hills shouting “wooo hoooo!” as loud as they can while everyone else is inside warm, complaining about how cold it is outside.
It’s not easy to live this way. Sometimes it gets rainy AND cold and life hits us with all sorts of unfair double whammies that send us grumbling or shouting colorful words we wouldn’t otherwise exclaim.
And I can’t say that I always fall symmetrically into any one of these categories, though they’re identities I strive to emulate as a way to find meaning and enjoyment in life.
This ethos is full of pitfalls, sure- sometimes we all need a healthy reality check to send us into action, away from pollyanna naivete that can trivialize the challenges so many face in a world with injustice.
It’s also hard sometimes to stay positive when there is disparity and oppression visible in many shades and tones in our day to day experiences.
But lately, instead of being a hard, toilsome experience to stay on a bright path, I’m grateful to be able to say it’s been relatively easy.

Easy because everywhere I go lately, I encounter people who initiate random acts of beauty and cheerful exchanges of kindness. Easy because I don’t feel alone anymore; I’m finding community popping up all over like the daffodils that scatter the parks these days. It wasn’t always this way, and it’s been a hard journey to ‘find my people.’ But now that I have, I’m amazed at the creativity that each of us feed to one another. I’ve been meeting people who dress up in costumes and parade on bikes every month, high five-ing any kids who happen to be watching from the sidewalk, inviting them to join along, as if to say, “Come pedal with us! There will always be more room!” I’ve been learning the names of folks who make music from trash cans and art out of “junk.” People who dance to “Jump on It” outside of city cafes. Activists who raise hell and create heaven with every breath, not afraid of disturbing the privileged and befriending those who’ve been marginalized or misunderstood.

And today, I encountered another one of those random acts of beauty through free hugs at the farmers’ market. After a friend and I meander our way through most of the vendors’ stands, we’re ready to head back on our bikes to go home. But I have a coffee in my hand that I still need to finish before I can ride hands-free.

“Take your time- no sense in chugging it. Wanna walk around some more while you drink it?” my friend asks.
“Sure,” I reply.

We wander through a section we hadn’t been past earlier and something catches my eye. Two folks just ahead holding cardboard signs high in the air. “FREE HUGS,” their three signs read in big, capitalized bubble letters.
I run up to them. “I LOVE when people do this!” I exclaim.
“Oh yeah?” one of them comments as she gives me a hug.
“Yeah! It just makes me want to restore my faith in humanity when I see people willingly take the time to stop everything and hug a stranger.” I share.
“Ok then, well where’s my hug?” the other one asks lightheartedly as we share an embrace.
“So what brought you out here today?” I ask.
“Well I’m moving to California soon and this was on my Baltimore bucket list,” he shares, mentioning a couple of other bucket list items he’s completed recently.
“Wow, that’s awesome!” I reply.
“So do you wanna join us?” he asks, offering me an extra free hug cardboard sign.
“Sure!” I respond, ecstatic and embarrassed at the very same time.

He hands me the sign and begins prepping me. “So I recommend you hold it high over your head like this. And then start making eye contact with people. Try to find one person and stare at them as if to invite them over. See– look at that guy there- in the blue,” he shares, motioning to a man in hospital scrubs, but the guy walks by a bit too far away from us and then out of view. I take off my sunglasses, as if to make my eye contact more intentional and directed.

Soon, two kids with their mom come close to us. The boy smiles at us with a melt-your-heart kind of smile. They look at their mom as if to ask for permission, and she nods in our direction, “Go on ahead!” she tells them, and soon the three of us receive hugs from an eight year old boy and his younger sister. The brother gives us a tight embrace, as though unembarrassed and unafraid to be out here affectionately hugging strangers.

“Wanna hold a sign?” my new friend asks the boy.
“Sure!” He replies enthusiastically, reaching for the sign.

Because perhaps even more empowering than giving or receiving a hug is inviting someone to stand there next to you, to initiate even more hugging and paying it forward through the gift of touch.

I had a professor in college who once told our class not be offended if someone brushes your shoulder in tight quarters down a hallway. She believes that most of us are touch-deprived, and even bumping into someone can be a sign that we are alive, our extremities are capable of feeling, and we are not alone in this world. And standing in the middle of the farmers market holding this sign, I think back to my professor’s musings, and am convinced she’s right.

freee hugs

We collectively hug and hold signs up in the air, while the kids’ mother watches this uncanny scene with a smile on her face and asks to take a picture. The bucket-list crosser-offer friend, Ian, scoops up the boy in his arms, and the boy holds the “FREE HUGS” sign proudly over his head. His sister holds up another sign, covering almost her entire body, with just her chin upward visible from over the sign.

I see and feel love and kindness emanating from the hands and hearts of these two young kids. That’s what Ian would tell me later that it was all about: “I think the single most important thing in life is to fiercely, recklessly love others and find in them the beauty that animates all of our souls. To me this is what giving free hugs is all about: two people throwing away all that could possibly divide them, their skin colors, creeds, social backgrounds, stereotypes, prejudices, and coming together in a moment of joyous, untainted embrace. What more could we want in the world?” He shared.

The kids soon wave goodbye, a departure I don’t want to happen, but know that someone else needs to see their smiles today, and it would be selfish of me to want to hold these kiddos captive.
So I stitch their faces into the tapestry of memories I’ve created that speak to me of unending beauty in this world. I capture their laughs in my brain, next to the homeless woman I danced with outside of a cafe last month. Next to the man who high fived me on my bike as I passed by Healthcare for the Homeless on the way to work last week. Next to my banjo and ukulele-playing friends who create the soundtrack of our laughter and hootenannies.
All of these faces and places send me into a dizzy, fierce love, suddenly feeling like Jack Kerouac, lusting after people who embrace this kind of lifestyle because once you find your people, you collectively create a place you love and go forth to set the world on fire with a vision of love and inclusion.

Says Kerouac, “They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

I don’t know how to dance like a dingledodie.
I don’t know your name, your experience, your history. But I’d like to.

Because I think we can all find each other out here in these open spaces. Find our people, our calling, the things that get our hearts pumping faster and legs running, jumping, wiggling upsidedown in the air via headstands.

And so let this be an ode to each of us- and to finding each other. Jack Kerouac likened it to burning like yellow candles. Kermit the Frog equated it to the Rainbow Connection. What say you, friend?

To the people who make me believe in happily falling in love without fear or hesitation.
The people who make me believe that anything is possible.
The people who inspire me to speak the words I really want to say.
To be playful.
And hopeful.
And not let go of my ideals or convictions.

To each of you, to all of that- I say you are my joy.

Thanks for the inspiration. You teach me to love and live creatively, free as a bird, grounded by community in which feeling alone is a distant memory and feeling alive, a daily, contagious habit I cannot confine.

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