The World is Full of Positive Surprises!

You just have to practice identifying them. It’s not so hard once you get started.

Andy Smallman
Nov 19 · 12 min read
The Give and Take Garden is one of my magical places, proving to me that there are wonderful things in the world just waiting for people to find.

Melinda, my wife, and I got a puppy three years ago. He is a super sweet little guy, a Maltipoo (Maltese-Poodle) by breed.

As is her style, Melinda did a LOT of research about dogs and settled on this mix because the dogs are small, hypoallergenic (don’t shed), friendly, and easy to train. She also wanted a predominantly black dog, despite most Maltipoos being white or off-white. Her thought was since she likes to wear black, if she did happen to get some dog hair on her clothes it wouldn’t show up.

That Melinda, she’s always thinking.

To find an actual dog who met these criteria, Melinda located a breeder in Texas. We live in Seattle, so, yes, she flew to Texas to pick him up. And given our attraction to the Texan politician Lloyd Bentsen’s dig of Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice-presidential debate, we named our puppy Senator Lloyd Bentsen.

Bentsen for short.

There we are, Bentsen and me.

I started taking little Bentsen on long walks in and around our neighborhood in Seattle. These would range from shorter walks, which are a mile or so, to longer walks, which could be up to 3 miles.

I saw the walks as good for both of us. They got me some useful exercise and time to quiet my mind. As for Bentsen, I hoped to tire him out so we could have some quieter time at home. As a puppy, he was basically a bundle of lovable energy, energy that was more subdued after a healthy walk.

One evening we were on one of our shorter walks. I directed us east from our house and up a hill, not an uncommon start. Typically on this route, we can do about a mile loop in 20–25 minutes, depending on how many things Bentsen decides he has to check out with his nose (which can be quite a few).

But instead of doing the typical loop, I decided to head south on a residential street we hadn’t walked on before. A couple of blocks down, something attracted Bentsen so we stopped. This was a pretty serious review on his part, which gave me time to stop and look around.

Something caught my eye on the ground between the sidewalk and the street, a little patch of land called the parking strip. On our walks, I had noticed that some homeowners really took pride in making these small patches look great with some serious landscaping — a variety of plants and flowers, decorative rocks, that sort of thing. Others had built planters and had made the parking strip into little gardens.

This one was different, and by quite a lot. It had been landscaped to create a small rise, and sculpted with small rocks, pieces of wood, and unobtrusive plants. Of significant difference, there were several small toys, specifically cars, trinkets, and figurines, placed in what seemed to be strategic places. To me, it looked like the design for this parking strip came from the imagination of a child, but with supportive construction from an adult.

And here we are at the Give and Take Garden!

This little magical place of planet Earth also had a sign that in its simplicity made the whole thing make sense. The sign said: Give and Take Garden. And below the words was a big smiley face.

I knew that Bentsen and I had been guided to a magical place.

But just what is a Give and Take Garden? More directly, what does it mean to GIVE and what does it mean to TAKE at a Give and Take Garden?

Seeing the toys and trinkets placed within it, I quickly concluded that the idea came from the imagination of a child and was one of sharing. If you see something in the garden you like, take it.

Make it yours.

And if you have something that you’re ready to pass along, give it. Place it in the garden for someone else to find.

The day Bentsen and I discovered the garden, I didn’t have anything with me to give. As such, I decided that I wasn’t ready to take anything yet, either. I’m sure that the garden’s creator would have been fine with me taking something before giving, but in my mind it just didn’t feel right, especially for my first transaction at this magical place.

So once Bentsen had completed his investigation of the garden, we continued on our walk.

The following weekend, Melinda and I were having a friend named Mina over for dinner. She and our niece, Stephanie, were friends from high school, both growing up to the east of Seattle, across Lake Washington, in the city of Kirkland.

When both enrolled at the University of Washington for college, Stephanie regularly came to Melinda’s and my house for Sunday dinner, and often brought along a friend or two, Mina being one. Melinda and I had grown fond of Mina, who at this time was a pediatric nurse at Children’s Hospital.

At dinner, I told Mina about the Give and Take Garden and asked if she’d like to go see it with Bentsen and me. I knew she would, actually, so the question was more a formality. Leaving Melinda to do the dishes, the three of us, Mina, Bentsen and I, started the short walk.

For this visit, Bentsen’s and my second, I knew I wanted to bring something to give. And with Mina along, I decided to give a special rock that was given to me several years previously by Stephanie. Etched into this rock were the numbers “143,” a reference significant to me because of a project I had initiated over 15 years previously with a group of high school students I taught.

The backstory begins with me trying to explain Abraham Maslow’s concept of self-actualization to the students. I was looking for a human example, someone with whom the students might be familiar, and I settled on Fred Rogers.

Yes, that Mr. Rogers, he of the famous children’s TV show on PBS.

I had recently read “Can You Say… Hero?, a brilliantly written article by Tom Junod that was both an interview with and biography of Mr. Rogers that appeared in Esquire Magazine in 1998 (FYI, the new Mr. Rogers movie starring Tom Hanks is based on this article).

The article convinced me that Mr. Rogers was a self-actualized human being, and that using him as an example might make the concept of self-actualization more understandable for the students than the exemplars often used, people like Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the article, Mr. Rogers tells Tom Junod that for as long as he can remember he’s weighed 143 pounds. Getting on the scale each day, he’s looked at the dial and seen 143. Being Mr. Rogers, he decided there was some meaning for him in this.

He told himself, there is 1 letter in the word I, 4 letters in the word LOVE, and 3 letters in the word YOU.

1 4 3 = I love you

So each day Mr. Rogers saw a message of self-love on his bathroom scale.

I read the article to my students and while reading it got intrigued by an idea. We’d recently been talking about how things were going “viral” online. Now like I said, this is over 15 years ago, before “going viral” was as common of a phrase as it is now.

I asked the students what they thought it might take for something to go viral and if they wanted to try to start a little movement of positivity to see if somehow we could make something go viral. I brought them back to the 143 section of the article.

A mom of one of the students had a button maker and used it to make all kinds of fun buttons, things she gave away or sold as part of her crafts business. I thought she might make some 143 buttons for us, things we could wear and give away.

My suggestion was we promote 143 as a simple reminder of being loving and loved. And so our 143 movement began.

The back of one of our hoodies.

Before we were done, we were wearing t-shirts and hoodies with 143 printed on the breast, dozens of buttons had been distributed, and 143 messages were part of people’s signature files. Under the 143 print we had added Mr. Rogers’ initials FMR (Fred McFeely Rogers) as an acknowledgement of him, and the back of some of the shirts included one of our favorite Mr. Rogers quotes and a picture of a sweater.

We even created an online store that sold our 143 shirts. I can’t say the idea ever went viral but it sure touched a lot of people.

One person touched was Stephanie. She, herself, was a high school student at the time and tried to promote the 143 idea at her very large public high school in Kirkland.

I don’t think it got too far there, either, but Stephanie tried. She created posters and decorated lockers, among other things. In the midst of this, she found the 143 rock at a shop at the Pike Place Market. It had the same font I had chosen, yet it wasn’t something my students and I had made. What a wonderful coincidence!

Stephanie gave me the rock for Christmas.

So this was the 143 rock that I wanted to “give” to the Give and Take Garden, feeling it had the kind of magic worthy of the garden. And Mina, being Stephanie’s friend (and now roommate), seemed like the right person to accompany Bentsen and me while this happened.

Mina tidies up the Give and Take Garden and places the 143 rock.

As expected, Mina was touched by the garden, even got down on her knees to tidy it up. We left the 143 rock in a spot that made it feel like a bright light was shining on it. Then we returned to Melinda’s and my house, soon thereafter saying goodnight to Mina.

All in all, it was a pretty ordinary day, meaning it was lovingly wonderful.

A couple of days after we left the 143 rock at the Give and Take Garden, Bentsen and I were again out walking in our neighborhood. Not far from our house is a storage facility for National Barricade, a company that builds and distributes road construction signs and equipment.

1 4 3 at National Barricade.

Parked along the sidewalk was a huge piece of road equipment, the kind with a display board that can be programmed to deliver a specific message to drivers, alerting them to roadwork, that sort of thing. There are many of these pieces of equipment scattered all over the area, of course, and each comes with its own number.

So what number was on this one?

143, of course.

What were the chances of that?

And then a few days after that, Bentsen and I were walking and found the number 143 painted on the sidewalk!!

What’s going on here?

Messages reminding us that we are loved and are loving, that’s what!

Bentsen contemplates the 1 4 3 message we found on the sidewalk.

Later that week, Bentsen and I returned to the Give and Take Garden, curious to see if the 143 rock was still there. We were joined by Melinda’s and my daughter, Ella, who at age 20 had come to appreciate experiences of this sort and wanted a first-hand look. She brought along a little toy car to give.

I was pleased to see that the 143 rock was gone! My imagination really kicked in as I visualized the 143 rock now in a prominent place in someone’s home. I wondered: Were they familiar with the 1 4 3 = I love you concept? If so, what thrill would they have had when finding the rock?

This was fun!

Bentsen and I went back a few days later and noticed that the toy car Ella had given was gone. Another successful transaction at the Give and Take Garden!!

Still, to this point, we hadn’t taken anything… The truth of the matter is that I was hesitant to take something.

While I knew there really were no “rules” to the giving and taking at the garden, at least no rules that were written out to see, I found myself thinking that this was the kind of place that could be ruined by too much adult involvement.

Part of its magic came from the child-like wonder it offered people lucky enough to find it. I already had dropped things off and visited several times, the garden having become a specific destination for Bentsen and me on our walks. Maybe that was enough engagement.

Maybe it was time for me to let it go, to leave it to others, to children.

In other words, was I, an adult, spoiling the Give and Take Garden?

Out for a walk one day, I purposely guided Bentsen on a path away from the garden and used the time to consider this thought in more depth. What came to mind was a documentary film I had seen a couple of years earlier called Caine’s Arcade.

In the documentary, the filmmaker, Nirvan Mullick, told the story of randomly coming across a cardboard arcade created by a 9 year-old boy named Caine. Offered by Caine the opportunity to play, Mullick became Caine’s first customer.

Photo of Caine from cainesarcade.com.

Deeply inspired by the boy’s dedication to create the arcade and learning he was Caine’s first customer, Mullick had the idea to fill the arcade with customers and film the experience. The resulting documentary was what I had seen when it went viral, which led to Caine’s and Mullick’s lives both being changed for the better.

Caine ended up with a college fund of nearly $250,000 and Mullick started a nonprofit designed to support childhood creativity. All because one adult was inspired by the imagination of a child. I was sure that as long as my motivation remained rooted in wonder, I could not spoil the Give and Take Garden.

The next day, Bentsen and I returned to the garden. We brought along another toy car to give, having remembered that the toy car Ella had given was gone. And to my delight, I found something that I was pleased to take, a red plastic Wonder Woman ring, the kind of toy you might find in a box of Cracker Jacks.

The Wonder Woman ring as we found it at the Give and Take Garden.

For the rest of our walk, I wore the Wonder Woman ring on the third finger of my left hand, and found myself exploring it with my thumb. It was like I was rubbing it for luck.

Back home, I put it on a shelf next to figurines I have of two of my other favorite superheroes, The Flash and The Tick.

I have this belief that the universe is wonderful place filled with surprises just waiting for us to find them. These surprises are always there, right in plain sight. Sometimes, though, we get so busy with our lives that we don’t recognize them.

I encourage you to test out my theory. You don’t need a dog to do this but I will say that it helps. Go for a walk in whatever you consider to be your neighborhood. As you start off, cultivate “fresh eyes,” which means to see the familiar as if you are seeing it for the first time. Slow down, even stop every now and then. Fill your lungs with a deep breath, taking time to smell the air.

Throughout, be open to what surprises are looking for you. Let them find you. Find them.

Change Your Mind Change Your Life

Read short and uplifting articles here to help you shift your thought, so you can see real change in your life and health.

Andy Smallman

Written by

I work to promote ordinary activities that awaken kindness, helping people connect to their true nature and increase peace in the world (andysmallman.com).

Change Your Mind Change Your Life

Read short and uplifting articles here to help you shift your thought, so you can see real change in your life and health.

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