Cabin in the Woods


“You have to stay in this cabin for the entire month of January. You have all the food and water you’ll need. You have enough firewood to keep a fire going until the 31st. You have no access to Internet , cell phones or TV. On the 31st of January, you walk out of the door with $100,000. Would you do it?”

Did you see this image and the challenge floating around on the Facebook over the holidays?  I saw it in those slow, dark days between the bright and shiny of Christmas and the supposed-to-be bright and shiny of New Year’s Day.  The darkest days, literally, of the entire year.

“Would you do it?”  The answer seems like a no-brainer.  Who wouldn’t want to have all of their basic needs met, and make a crap-ton of cash for one month out of the year?  But when you dig a little deeper, you find out the challenge means so much more.  Everything usually does.  You think to yourself, maybe I would shrivel up at the thought of no human contact.  Maybe the idea of living without my favorite form of entertainment would scare me into forgoing the challenge.  Perhaps the monotony of the same view for 30 days wouldn’t be worth it.  Not worth $100,000?  Whatever.  You must be doing alright for yourself if that doesn’t cause you to stop and think for a minute.

So let’s be realistic.  No one is offering you $100,000.  There is no cabin.  There is no stockpile of firewood.  There is no peace and quiet in which to rest.  Except… there ARE all of these things.  You have everything you need to FOCUS and FINISH the tasks you set out for yourself.  You can be well on your way to success and complete engagement with the world.  When you focus on what really makes you tick, even if it’s only for a short time each day, the clarity of what you should be doing with your WHOLE life comes into view.  You learn your most enticing distractions, and work to minimize them.  You feel the energy that comes from doing the things you love.  You like it.  You want to feel that way ALL OF THE TIME.  So you find more cracks in the day in which to squeeze your art.  Your “me time.”  Your time to connect with others.  These cracks can become wide enough, with enough practice, to become your whole day.  Your whole way of being in the world.  And as the world starts rewarding you with your noticing it, it becomes easier and easier.  It becomes who you are.

What’s interesting is that you find out that those really ARE your needs- to have an escape, and to have your most basic needs provided.  To feel supported and challenged, to have warmth, to have no distractions, to have no communication with the outside world. For the challenge to be for a respectable but limited amount of time.  (Let’s face it, you would miss your family.)  And, don’t be ashamed, how nice would it be to have a CRAP-TON of CASH?!  What would you do if you had financial freedom, if only for a short time?  The possibilities are wonderful to consider.

It is January 27th.  I don’t have a cabin in the woods.  I have many obligations and distractions.  But I have holed up in the one room of my house that makes me feel away from it all, and I have FOCUSed on my heart’s desire, which has led to me FINISHing several challenges I set for myself to start the new year in a positive way.  On Sunday, the last day of the month, I won’t have a pile of money waiting for me.  But perhaps the things I have set into motion will begin to “pay off.”  In terms of my way of being in the world, they already have.

Peace to you.  And go find your cabin in the woods.







Witness, 01/21/2016

If we are paying attention, we are granted many beautiful moments in life. These moments are like witnessing a soap bubble floating through the air, the iridescent colors swirling on the surface so perfectly, but only for a moment. You can retain the feeling of the moment in your mind and in your heart, but communicating that moment to others takes real work. Writing down a story is like painting a portrait of the soap bubble. It is like laying down a brushstroke of paint that leaves a perfect blend of color on the canvas,the exact desired effect you could not have dreamed. Yet, after years of practice and with deep concentration, sometimes you get it just right. It is the result of years of practice, yet it feels like a gift you have been given. Here is a soap bubble I painted for you. I hope I got it right…

I opened the door to the book store, and stepped inside. Underneath the sign bearing the owners’ names, it says Rare, Vintage, Used. I heard the jingle of the bell on the door as it closed behind me.  Behind a fortress of books, sitting at a table, a man was intent on his work.

I tentatively say to him, “I’ve lived in this town 16 years and have never been inside here.  I guess today was the day.”

He barely looks up.

“I was wondering, do you buy used books, or could I trade them for store credit,” I ask, holding a plastic shopping bag of my offerings. I have a small collection of almost-new paperbacks that need a home. They are not worthy of my bookshelf, but I don’t want to give them away either. I want to turn them into other, better books.
“Oh no, we only buy books by appointment, and we have 15 appointments a day for the next 36 days, with 40 calls a day from people wanting to sell books.  We mostly buy hardbacks and…”

I finish his sentence for him, a little dejected, “…rare, vintage, I get it. I’ve just got some paperbacks from Target.”

Awkward silence.

“Okay then, if you don’t mind, can I just look around?” I was disappointed. I wouldn’t be getting any new books today. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to stay. His slightly gruff, resigned manner didn’t exactly make me feel welcome. Having taken the first step, however, I decided to keep going.

“Yes, sure,” he replied.

I notice the signs above the shelves- Gardening, WWII, and many other categories of non-fiction. Not what I came for. “Do you have any fiction?”

“Center of the store.”

Do I need to describe the interior of a used book store? They are all exactly the same. Faded couches, antique cabinets, repurposed furniture, old tables, stacks of books everywhere. Usually cats. Bare wood bookshelves, mismatched. Dark and light. Organized and chaotic. No discernible order, except to the owner. A maze, a labyrinth, a place of discovery. Used book stores are an oasis in a desert, a balm to the soul, depository of our dreams. Holding treasures our eyes will discover, but that our hearts have always known. Do you dig and search, or do you let the prize come to you?

I make my way to the middle of the shop, and immediately spy a novel I have been wanting to read on top of a pile of books stacked on a table. I feel it’s meant for me. I wasn’t planning on buying anything, but books call out, like old friends asking to be let back in your life. I pick it up. After searching through the shelves, I come up with two other books I have read before, and would like to own. One of them was signed by the author, like my copy was before it was loaned out and never returned. It feels like a piece of my soul has been gently put back into place.

I wasn’t going to spend any money today, so I had left my purse in the car. Placing my selections on top of another pile of books at the checkout, I said I needed to get money and that I’d be right back. He barely acknowledged me. I had decided to blow all of my “mad money” for the week on books in this man’s shop, and he barely lifts his head. Okay…

Jingle of the door bells out, then back in. He rings me up, and my total is $20.33 with tax. I hand him the crisp twenty dollar bill from my wallet, and start to unzipper the change purse to dig out thirty-three cents.

“I’ve got the change,” he announces, quite proudly. “I bring it in from home, and we always have so much of it lying around.”

Since it was more than a few pennies, I acknowledged his generosity.

He mentioned that he didn’t have a family, so all of the spare change he and his wife collect goes to take care of their puppy. He comes around from the counter and starts talking about his toy poodle, Monkey, and how she’s usually at the shop, but not today, and how everyone just loves her, and she them. He shows me a framed article about the shop, with a picture of Monkey, with a cast on her leg. He explains that she was so excited one day to see someone, she jumped out of his arms and broke her leg. The man is becoming animated, rising up on his tip- toes several times, telling me about Monkey. And how, even with a hurt leg, she could run as fast as ever. I listen to his story, becoming fixated on his accent.

I am reminded of a beloved aunt and uncle on my husband’s side of our family. It’s almost like this man is the embodiment of the two of them. And when he speaks, it’s in that slow, Southern way that I immediately recognize as intelligent and thoughtful. Where the person really takes the time to find the right word. I say I’m pleased to meet him and I’ll be back, and we introduce ourselves. I am about to leave. He says quite candidly that he has owned the shop for twenty years and no one knows his name. Upon hearing my name, however, he launches us into a conversation about Dr. Seuss books, Julie Andrews movies, signed copies of books, obscure TV shows, The Los Angeles River, and somebody’s wedding at Notre Dame. The Notre Dame. In Paris.

I am starting to feel awkward standing there, but my feet feel fixed to the spot. I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to. I’m a little confused, so I ask, “What’s your connection?”

“Oh, it’s my business partner’s daughter.” His business partner, he explains, who gave up her prestigious career after earning two degrees from excellent schools, to raise her children. His partner, whom he had to regularly reassure as to the importance of being completely attentive to her children. His partner, who sacrificed so that her daughters would have dance lessons. So her son could pursue a medical career. His partner, expressing her doubt at the folly of opening a book store when she could have had a lucrative career. His illustration of the financial benefit she gained in raising them by their scholarship money- totaling $1.8 million when it was all said and done. Scholarships they wouldn’t have been able to attain without her support and encouragement. I understand in the moment that their partnership is deeper than that related to business. Sometimes, we are given the people we’re meant to have in life.

“Do you have kids?” he asks eagerly.

“Yes,” I say, “you’re speaking to my heart right now. I’ve been home with them for almost fourteen years and I get where she’s coming from. It’s hard to feel the value of it sometimes.”

His voice goes into a hush, “But raising children, giving them your time- that is the most important thing.”

I nod.

“Oh, you’re crying.”

“Yes, you’re speaking to my heart.”

I look up, seeing a giant stuffed dog on top of a bookshelf at the far end of the shop. It is the exact same as one my son, then daughter, and now dog have slept with for twelve years. I point it out, share the connection, and he says that the kids play with it with Monkey. We cover many more topics of conversation: terminal illnesses of parents, siblings, cats. Counseling. Weight loss. He spoke of the government work he did in the Middle East and Africa- the horrors he saw.

“You were a witness,” I said, having never used that particular word before.

He paused, took a breath. “Yes. Yes I was.” In that moment, I saw him and his pain. I was a witness to him.

As we were talking, it occurred to me that we should be sitting at one of the sofas, having a coffee. Instead, we’re standing, awkwardly, anxiously. “What kind of coffee do you like? Next time I come, I’m bringing us a coffee and we’re going to sit down and have a proper chat.”

He looks down, embarrassed, humbled, “Oh, well, anything really… So, your kids…?”

“I have an almost 14-year-old son and a daughter who is eleven. They’re fantastic.”

“So see, if they’re fantastic, well, that’s what you want. You need to talk to children like they’re one of us. It’s easy to raise children. It just takes time…”


“…and commitment.”

We volley back and forth, filling in the blanks. He knows.
And now I’m really crying. We’re standing eight feet from each other, but our connection is so strong. Trying to hold off The Ugly Cry, I say how embarrassed I am.

“Then you’re missing the whole point.”

But I’m not. I haven’t. I’m simply trying not to dissolve into a puddle on the floor. I was seen today. I was valued today. He was a witness to me as well. I was able to express myself with a total stranger, who I imagine may become a lifelong friend. How many times did we hug each other?

“Here, let me give you a hug.”

“Now it’s my turn to give you a hug.”

I am learning how to take better care of myself- my needs, my wants, my values. I am learning what that means for me. I have been on a path of self discovery since the new year. I can see that it is opening new doors every day. Doors into a world of which I only scraped the surface for most of my life. A life of full attention rewards us in ways we couldn’t predict. “We get double for our trouble,” a phrase I picked up recently. This was my reward for going to the doctor earlier that day. I decided to treat myself by visiting a new place, taking care of my innate need to have adventure and freedom in my life. I had no idea that to which I was about to be treated. It seemed like a small step, walking into that book store. But it feels important. It feels like the start of something new.

Our conversation ends, and as I open the door, I manage to say, without blubbering, “You gave me a gift today.”

“You just made my month,” he states, very matter-of-factly.

“Ok, I’m going to go cry in my car now.” As I am really walking out this time. Tinkle of the bell on the door again.

Driving home I think, “What just happened?” Was this a 10-minute conversation? Twenty? Had an hour gone by? How long had I been in there? I had the intense desire to retain the feeling, document the memory. I lost all memory of the words we spoke, and remembered that the real communication was from heart to heart. I felt a tingling in the back of my neck as I walked into my house and tried to recall every word, every feeling. I wanted to retain the feeling of ears listening, eyes seeing, hearts connecting. Being a witness to each other’s lives.

These moments come along in our lives, unbidden. Moments of intense connection. Clarity. Usually, these moments are with a friend or a family member. And we may connect in smaller, more consistent ways over time, so there are few epiphanies. Sometimes, a moment can happen with a stranger who- in the time it takes for a soap bubble to form, grow, be released, float up, then pop- becomes a friend.

We are given the people we’re meant to have in life. We only need to pay attention.

It is Thursday. I am going back on Monday to visit my new friend. I think I’ll take him a coffee. It doesn’t matter what kind.

52 Questions

I have kept a jar of conversation starters in my kitchen cabinet for the past few years.  The kids at school use them, call them Chat Pack or something catchy like that.  We also have a game called Loaded Questions, which has inspired many of the questions I use in my jar.  Even in my own family, I am not great at starting conversations.  It feels awkward and forced.  So to combat that, I made a game out of it.  Every once in a while, we pull the jar out and take turns answering a few questions.  My only rule is that everyone has to answer the question.  Even my poor husband, who HATES this game.  🙂  It has helped me become closer to my kids and ask the hard questions without having to really ask them, you know?  My kids are11 and 13, and this is the list I have used most recently.  I suppose I’ll update it as they move deeper into the teenage years.  A friend of mine asked me to make her a jar to use with her family, and I did so gladly.  Anything that fosters communication and understanding in our families is worth our time and attention.  So since I had typed out the list, I thought I’d share it here.  What questions would you ask?


What are you the most afraid of right now?

If you could meet any famous person living right now, who would it be?

Who is your best friend?

What makes you really angry?

What do you love the most?

What is the best thing about you?

Coke or Pepsi?

When you are feeling sad, what makes you feel better?

When you are feeling happy, how do you show it?

What is God?

What is your favorite movie? Why did you like it?

What is your favorite childhood memory?

Who is a celebrity right now who least deserves it?

Describe your best day ever. It can be real or imagined.

What’s a great idea that you have?

What is your biggest worry or fear?

Favorite season- spring, summer, fall, or winter? Why?

If you could travel back in time and visit any period in history, which one would you choose?

What is your favorite board game?

What is your favorite color?

What was your most embarrassing moment?

What do you believe?

What do you know for sure?

What is your favorite TV show? Why?

Who is your favorite book character? Why?

What do you think would be the worst job ever?

What is/ was your favorite subject in school?

What is/ was your favorite toy as a child?

What do you see that inspires awe in you every time?

If you could only wear one outfit for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Cheetos or Doritos?

What are you really happy about right now?

What is the best thing that happened to you today?

What is the worst thing that happened to you today?

What is your favorite restaurant?

What is your favorite meal?

What is your favorite dessert?

If you could design a vehicle for travel, what would it include?

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?

My idea of peace is…

Love is…

What is your favorite household chore?

What is your least favorite household chore?

If you could design your dream house, what would it include?

If you could have anyone come to visit your house, who would it be?

Beach or pool?

What do you think would be the best job ever?

Who is/ was your favorite teacher? Why?

Who is/ was your least favorite teacher? Why?

If you could travel to the moon or another planet, would you go?

The best thing that ever happened to me was…

The worst thing that ever happened to me was…

A Tree Dies in the Suburbs

A longleaf pine tree has decided to die in the wetlands behind our house. I used to get upset over death and loss and change in any form. I like my view the way it is. I first noticed the needles fading to yellow. The tree also seems to have an abundance of pinecones. None of the healthy pines surrounding it have nearly as many. Did the tree know it was dying, so this was its last-ditch effort to survive beyond itself? Or is it simply that I can see the pinecones better without the cover of foliage?

Instead of getting upset over the imminent loss of the tree, I was ecstatically happy. I knew that it would become a perch for the giant Red-tailed Hawk that sometimes flies over- only briefly- in its search for food and shelter. Now I can get a good look at it. I can watch the hawk survey the land, puff up its feathers, fend off the irritation of screeching Mockingbirds.

Crows now also make a landing spot in the highest, thinnest branches of the tree. What makes crows so menacing? Why do they make me feel afraid? Why could they not have been given a sweeter song?

Three Pileated Woodpeckers land on the side of the tree and start tapping away at the bark that falls away so easily. Their bright red heads move up, up, up into the highest branches. I am so curious. Are they endangered, and therefore special? Are they looking for a spot to build a home? Are they making holes to speed the decaying process to attract insects? Or are they eating the insects that have already invaded the carcass of the tree? My binoculars are not so strong. But the woodpeckers are simply fun to listen to and watch. In the realm of backyard birds, they are huge and beautiful. My guidebook says they are “often shy and hard to observe,” yet here I have an unobstructed view of their movements. After they have made it to the top of the tree they fly away, bobbing up and down, yet straight as an arrow.

A different pine tree in front of our house died following a lightning strike and must be removed. It is too close for comfort. We estimate the distance between the dying pine in the backyard and our roof. If it fell in our direction, would we survive? More and more it looks like it will simply shed the needles, pinecones, bark, and branches that no longer serve their purpose. It was once an entire universe for the animals and insects that depended upon it for survival. It is now a snag in the forest. And eventually it will be consumed by the creatures that it once housed, protected, and sheltered. Still giving life, long after death.