I know. Connecting Solo. Doesn’t really make sense, does it? Yet look at our language. Tuna fish. Hot fire. Civil war. Current history. Those don’t make sense either if you think about it.

And so yes. Absolutely. Connecting Solo is a thing. I know it’s a thing because I do it all the time. It’s one of my favorite things and it comes so natural to me that I sometimes forget or struggle to relate when I talk with people who say things like, “But how do you do that on your own?” or “I can’t imagine going somewhere by myself” or “I’ve never been anywhere by myself before – don’t people stare at you?”.

Connecting Solo is the art of going somewhere, anywhere, by yourself and making connections. It could be the grocery store or a place to walk or a spot to eat or in the case of one of my more recent experiences, Taos, New Mexico.

I unabashedly admit I am over the smartphone phase. No offense Steve Jobs – you were a Pisces who shared the same birthday as me – but I often think if someone from our past were to hover over us at any given moment, they would wonder what the hell is wrong with us. Couples sitting at restaurants with their heads in their phones – not engaging with one another but having to check social media and to be available on-demand. Are we really that busy? My concern…are we that empty? If you read closely, you’ll learn that Steve Jobs was concerned about those things too, and he discussed the disconnect just before he died.

And perhaps that’s why Connecting Solo is making my world a better place to be. My recent example had me in Taos to write a couple of stories on the merits of solo travel. It was at Michael Hearn’s Big Barn Dance that started a ripple effect of Connecting Solo.

I’ve blogged about J.J. Basil, the little plastic bird that has brought kindred spirits together and helped to create meaningful relationships. That was one of the dozens of Connecting Solo experiences I had. I also met Kellie, a woman who lives in Wimberley, Texas, who invited me to her house concert – kindred spirits, experiencing an immediate connection.

And then there was Chrissie. We were staying at the same place. Each morning as I was up early with Gracie to do all the important dog things which included standing and sniffing the same blades of grass for seven minutes (she is helping me with patience), and moving to another section of yard to walk and circle and circle and walk for four minutes before deciding on the optimal place to release last night’s meal (she is really helping me with patience), before bolting off to say good morning to the kind soul sitting in a rocker reading a book on the porch nearby.

Chrissie and I forged a friendship and she introduced me to her boyfriend Spider who happened to be in town to play harmonica at the Big Barn Dance. And did he play. Spider plays the harmonica with such talent and depth that it makes your heart move and your mind think about it. At some points as he played, it almost sounded voice-like with the subtle shifts and nuances. His ability to make that tiny instrument sound like whatever he wants it to, commanded the attention of a packed house.

Are you picking up the Connecting Solo theme? I was in town, alone, with my dog. And that led me to get to know one person who connected me with another who connected me with more. Would I have noticed the tall, Scottish guy playing the harmonica alongside Michael Hearn? Perhaps. But through connecting with people, I received far greater gifts.

Later, Chrissie and Spider came to Austin and by the end of their visit, we had not only enjoyed a night of jazz but I had also enjoyed another harmonica concert in downtown Austin where I got to know an all-new group of friends, with like-minded interests. The bonus for me? Just like the Big Barn Dance, everyone was there to hear the music. To listen. To be. I was surrounded with people who wanted to hear the music and to simply, be present. What a present!

And ultimately, what started with a dog who wanted seven minutes to sniff the grass and an additional four to circle around to find the optimal poop spot brought me to sitting with new friends under a dark sky dotted with bright stars listening to Walt Wilkins, one of Texas’ finest.

Our lives are rich with opportunities. I’m learning more each day that when I stop and allow myself to be present in the moment and open to those around me that I am rewarded time and again. I’m learning to unplug so I can connect.

Thanks for reading,

~ Haven

This is not just another article about homelessness; neither is it about the challenges, nor who’s to blame. Every day, much of our nation sees a person experiencing homelessness or someone who is panhandling. And if we don’t see them first hand, we read or hear the latest opinions on what one city is doing compared to another or the latest notion from a group of policymakers. This article isn’t about any of those things.

This is a story about a man who we would call homeless. But was he? Would he have said he was homeless? He lived yards away from a busy four-lane road in Austin, Texas, for more than two decades – almost no one saw him.

Who was he? What made him laugh? Did he like to read? What kind of music did he like? What did he eat? Did he have friends? Family? Did he ever fall in love? When was his birthday?

He chose his home place well and built it with meticulous craftsmanship. Tucked in-between and underneath heavy-growth trees and shrubs, the small, solid lean-to is as he left it – clean with only leaves for debris with intricate locks and pulleys to close the front door and secure it whether he was inside or out.

You have to look hard to find it. And you have to look even harder to see his life laid out in front of you. Like most things, when we open our eyes and allow ourselves to be present, we see.

He had buckets that he likely used to carry water from the nearby stream that could also be used for chairs. A plastic container expertly positioned in a tree held supplies off the ground yet blended into the environment. The inside of his home shows no signs of leaks and the surface is smooth. It is neither warped nor rusted from rain or inclement weather.

He had a cat named Miss Kitty who, according to the metal embossed placard over her gravesite, lived with him for 18 years. Her bowl sits bolted in place to the platform of his home so it wouldn’t blow away or get carried off. Her grave has a statue of a cat precisely bolted in place. How did Miss Kitty die? Was he with her? Did his heart break when his companion was gone?

He made a metal embossed placard that hung over his front door. It’s hard to make out what he called his home, but it had a name and it was established in 1994. And it is there, on top of the sign, that he placed his Vietnam Vet tag (worn almost smooth) along with what is likely a couple of lucky pennies. Where did he get the pennies? After serving our country in war, they must have had deep meaning.

The man in the woods has not been seen for more than two years. Despite heavy traffic buzzing by just yards away, reverent energy envelopes the space – his space. There is no trash – not so much as a bottle top or a shred of plastic. He lived there for 22 years and left not a trace of trash behind.

He loved his home and the woods that protected it. He loved his cat and honored her when she died. He honored the land that he called home which will soon be bulldozed. 22 years of memories and a small gravesite for a cat he loved will soon be shoved aside for the next big thing.

Who was he? What was his name? Was he homeless? Did his life matter? Or when did it stop mattering? When does someone’s life stop mattering?

Thanks for staying open,

~ Haven

Margery Williams’ fairy tale, The Velveteen Rabbit, about toys loved so much they become real, has held a special place in my heart for years. I had not heard or read the story until well into adulthood and it took working in a bookstore to get to know what, today, is arguably my favorite book.

The story resonated with me because just like the worn, floppy-eared rabbit in the story, I have a stuffed animal who has been loved so much that he is real. I don’t remember life without him. He’s been repeatedly sewn, washed and patched, he’s lost his eyes and they’ve been drawn and redrawn in place with a magic marker. He has traveled the world in my old, leather backpack, and if he had a passport, would have filled at least three of them by now. Perhaps it’s due to my real stuffed animal that I recognized another such toy.

I was fortunate enough to be on a weeklong travel writing trip to write about the community of Taos, the art scene, the restaurants, the Native American influence, and the three-day music festival known as the Big Barn Dance. It was there, sitting in the back with my dog Gracie, writing notes and taking in the scene, that I noticed the woman and the yellow, plastic toy.

Many of us are familiar with the song, ‘Mr. Bojangles’, I certainly was, although I could not have told you that Jerry Jeff Walker wrote the song. (I can now.) The country music singer has amassed a loyal following and each year that loyal following gathers for music and fun. It was at one of these gatherings where J.J. Basil came to be.

The group decided to have a ‘Yankee Swap/White Elephant’ party and what seemed to be a silly bottle opener in the shape of a bright, yellow bird became the most coveted item. J.J. Basil got his name from the singer, the man (Jay) who initially brought him, and Basil – the name of the restaurant where the party was held. J.J. Basil has been making the rounds ever since – staying with a host or hostess until the next gathering, posing for pictures and traveling in a hand-sewn case.

As I sat listening to music at the Big Barn Dance, I noticed the woman with the plastic bird – seemingly posing the bird with the stage in the background.  Intrigued and less-than-shy, I leaned over to the stranger and asked, “What’s up with this bird?” And Tommie began to tell me J.J.’s story. I listened to the story, met her husband, and her friend who had flown in from Maryland and realized I had not only met some genuinely, authentic people but I had also met another toy who was every bit as real as the one sitting in my room. The fact that my Grand and Granddaddy (James Basil) gave me my toy who became real, was not lost on me…two toys, both real, and both shared a connection to an uncommon name.

Over the course of a couple of days, I was honored to make new friends and become enamored with J.J. and the story. Like everything in life, our thoughts make up our experiences and we are all searching for a connection and a purpose. Through the love that this group shows the little toy, traveling around the world, photographing him and even creating his own Facebook page – I witnessed a kinship that we all need. I also witnessed the compassion and unbridled generosity among friends and saw a dear, broken heart heal just a little bit more through these genuine, nurturing friendships.

Devices and technology are, literally, taking center stage in our lives and science has proven that screen time and device distraction has begun to change the way our brains function. Many of us are searching for authenticity in a world that is becoming lost to the latest techy treat. Yet I witnessed a group of people bound by a kinship that stays connected by using technology to come together for something greater than the sum of their parts.

What started out as a plastic, yellow toy in the shape of a bird to open bottles with its beak became real through the spirit of human connection. Just like the Velveteen Rabbit and all the real toys who live in our hearts, J.J. is real enough to help broken hearts mend, to turn strangers into friends, and to form lasting memories. That’s real enough for me.

Thanks for reading,

~ Haven