3 Happiness Boosts, Let There Be Thorns

This week I was transported to a secret garden that is both very public and very accessible. So what is this secret? It carries the answer to happiness in three easy answers so this magical reveal of a magical man will begin with some no-nonsense secrets about joy.

ANSWER #1 – Look outward. While self-reflection is valuable, often the bigger picture seems overlooked. Somewhere, out there – within walking distance most often – is a need. Reach out and connect. There is little – to no – monetary cost and the reward is great.

ANSWER #2 – Do it now. Today. Don’t wait for some perfect scenario to appear. Take your beautiful, imperfect self and make a connection today. If a true commitment seems overwhelming, start by picking up trash in your neighborhood or take a basket of your old postcards to a senior citizens center or donate clothes to a battered women’s shelter and then – go ahead – sign on to volunteer.

ANSWER #3 – Passion. Take something you love and see if there is a way to make it a giving experience. Call the library and ask if you can offer to host workshops, connect with a friend who gardens or a gardening club and pick a blighted spot to beautify, crochet hats for homeless children. Grow your passion into something that is shared.


The cacti photos featured today are an example of one man’s talent for giving and for doing it on a dime.


A decade ago, my community was graced with a  wealthy individual’s decision to landscape a big swath of city property for no apparent reason other than the fact that the public property was adjacent to his. The stunning and very professionally landscaped garden turned out magnificent and the entire population benefited but it was another – more humble undertaking – that caught and held my attention.

One day, several blocks away,  I came upon a weed-filled easement and happened to catch a glimpse of a gentleman holding a shovel and squinting at the gravely lot. Clad in a plaid shirt, straw hat perched on his head; he went about placing a couple of thorny cacti cuttings in the ground. These cacti had not been sourced from a garden center; they actually looked like cuttings from perhaps one of the man’s plants. I remember thinking to myself, “hmm… isn’t that sweet, hope the thorns are worth the trouble”. I envisioned the plants dying as many of mine had when I haphazardly dropped them in the ground.

Over the next few months I would see the man continuing his seemingly random placing of little cacti cuttings here and there. He’d be out in the blazing heat with a watering can, which looked truly grueling, however, it seemed there was no other way to water the dry, rocky lot. And this went on and on, little by little. Months passed with a few cacti, appearing here and there, sitting askew. Numerous times I would admire the professionally landscaped plot with glorious plants rising and flowering effortlessly and then come upon the man with what looked like his orphaned cacti struggling to take hold.

A few years elapsed with the landscaped garden growing lush enough that the city allowed two additional patches of land to be planted to match the original. Through all of this, the little garden that could was also hanging in there, the cacti defying the elements and multiplying, gradually morphing from very iffy to something out of Where The Wild Things Are. I would’ve sworn this metamorphosis happened overnight but more likely I simply had not been paying attention.

Cacti shift

The garden was now large and no longer a question mark – this harum-scarum place was making its own statement. I could not remember how long it had been unfolding. How often had I passed and seen the man out there? Had it been five years or a decade? I did know that several times I’d been embarrassed by my earlier judgment and considered getting out of my car and approaching him. I thought I’d make amends by thanking him for his creation but I drove on, always in a hurry to get from point A to point B.

And then suddenly he was no longer there. It flitted across my brain that perhaps he’d moved but I shrugged it aside until time wore on and life rearranged my priorities. I thought about the man and his garden more often and came to feel I’d missed something important so one day I pulled the car over and got out. I climbed the thorny little hill and walked through the maze of assorted cacti. I was struck by the fact that it was entirely anonymous. No sign or plaque with the name of the man or maybe someone he’d been honoring while putting in the work. There was no agenda, no title, no community development action committee or house of worship. There had simply been this quiet little man working away for… a nondescript period of time until he seemed to disappear.

I felt a little silly choking up over such obvious poetry as thorns and blossoms but the simplicity of the garden was good for my ego. It had no interest in whether I was intellectually absorbing it in a “correct” manner, it just was. And that was perfect.

The only imperfection I wrestled with was that I’d never thanked the man. I hoped others had but then I wondered if that would have been important to him. And in that thought came an idea. I realized that possibly what would have mattered most would have been that the garden be cared for. So one night I found myself, kitchen tongs in hand, reaching into the tenacious thorns to retrieve wind-scattered trash caught in the plants. I filled a trash bag and started back to the car only to stop and stare at a sunny yellow house that was landscaped liberally with cacti.

On a whim, I decided to see if the current owners would know anything about the man who’d lived there previously so I knocked. The door swung open and to my surprise, there he was, the cactus man. I stammered out an explanation as to what I was doing, standing on his porch with a bag and kitchen tongs in hand, and he smiled, a little perplexed, and introduced himself. He confirmed he’d planted all of the cacti from his own cuttings including the many that now reached in excess of ten feet. He had planted them twice, once twenty-five years previous only to have the city tear them out and then he planted again about eight years ago and this time, they remained.

At eighty-nine years of age, Harold Vanger, a retired school teacher, relies on his own labor to maintain the garden and spends about a hundred dollars a year on weed control.


Harold w: cacti

When I asked why he’d done it, he simply smiled and said because the lot had been an eyesore and he just wanted to make it better. A number of items that I discovered about Harold’s life seem heroic, the fact that he is a veteran of World War Two, that he started an ongoing used book sale at a local hospital that raised two hundred thousand dollars, and that he – ever so serenely – takes small cuttings and teeny-tiny seeds and creates a mosaic of unbelievable beauty. For Harold, a life of contribution is a life well-lived. Where the rest of us might see blight, Harold sees possibility.

The previous eyesore is now a magical garden – Harold’s garden, to me – and it represents life’s thorny moments as well as life’s blossoming ones but perhaps most importantly it represents the knowledge that life is completely available if you just walk across the street. One man and one little garden that could, let there be thorns.

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*Harold’s garden is located in the city of Woodland Hills, on Mulholland Drive, between Canoga and Topanga. Grab some gloves and pull some weeds, he’d be most appreciative. 🙂

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