It happened again. This time, I thought I was prepared. I went into it lightly –  there would be no surprises. I did all the usual things first. I built a fire and lit the candles. I had beautiful music playing in the background and I made a pot of my best green tea and filled the beautiful teacup. I sat in front of the fire and emptied the contents of my Gratitude Jar.

This was Year 5 of committing to filling a jar with something I was grateful for each day of the year. I knew the routine and I thought I knew what to expect. I was wrong in the biggest, best way. In years past, I zoomed through the entries, consuming the words as fast as I could take them in, feeding off the memories. This year was different. It was a slow-motion version of seeing something for the first time – something I thought I had been feeling. It was as if the sun began to ever-so-slowly rise and as it dawned, I realized I was opening one of the greatest gifts I’d ever received. I gave it to myself but it had been there all along.

That’s probably the summation of it all. I could stop here. One of the greatest gifts that came from the Gratitude Jar came from something I already had inside me. Just like all the books and memes, the religion of choice or practice of the day tout…happiness, heaven, peace of mind – however we want to describe it, is within us.

As I look back on last year, some could have said it was a rough one. There were broken bones and broken things, an end of a job, the death of my precious 18-year old cat, and the loss of two horses who had in all certitude, given me a sense of purpose and deeper meaning. It was a year that I conscientiously shifted toward a life of intention and shifted away from a life of obligation.

Like many of us, I could list dozens of things why 2019 could be labeled a bad year. Yet the jar, my magic jar didn’t label the year good or bad – it was simply a year – I gave it no more power than that. There was gratitude for being helped when I was hurt and in need of a doctor, for the time my vet spent on the phone talking with me at no charge, the lightness I felt in distancing myself from someone else’s anger, the resilient beauty of nature, and my response to the heartbreak I felt when Max and Sunny moved away. Neither bitter nor angry, my cracked heart overflowed with the gratitude for all that I had experienced rather than what I had lost. My jar was full of examples of the compassion I had received day after day after day all year long.

As I sat reading the entries and the cards and letters – words I wrote to myself throughout the year, I saw evidence of the peace, acceptance, and contentment that emanated from me regardless of the outside circumstances. Sitting there surrounded by the little pieces of paper, it occurred to me. Perhaps the jar isn’t really a jar at all. Perhaps it’s a mirror. The thing that holds me accountable for not succumbing, not reacting, and not taking the bait of the day. The thing that sits prominently in my home to remind me that by feeding the jar, I’m feeding my heart. Perhaps it represents the notion that if we take care of our inside, the outside will fall into place.

It may just be a Gratitude Jar, but perhaps it is a Magical Mirror – one that allows me to see what’s on the inside.

Thanks for reading,

~ Haven

Driving along backroads the last week of the year, in my 1976 Volkswagen Westfalia, or as I’ve always known it, “Granddaddy’s van”, memories of camping with Grand and Granddaddy were on my mind. As I wound through the beautiful Texas hill country, I wondered what they would have thought of the landscape – so different than the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountains we traveled and camped in when I was a kid.

I also thought of the crack in my heart. 12 moons had passed since saying goodbye to the two horses who still own a part of it. As I struggled with the thin, antique sun visor that barely shielded one small ray of the piercing morning light, I remembered something Leonard Cohen had written. There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. I stopped struggling with the sun visor that had two futile positions: down that didn’t provide any shade and up that didn’t provide any shade. You win Texas…the light was determined and I stopped fighting it – I was seeking light anyway.

Arriving anywhere after driving Granddaddy’s van is its own celebration. Unless you’ve recently driven an antique, boxy stick shift, without power steering, without padded seats, and without any remotely modern inventions such as large mirrors to help with visibility or a visor that can be used to shield more than one small ray of the sun, it’s impossible to imagine how fatiguing it can be. Climate control consists of rolling the window up or down. If there’s a steep incline there is no choice but to go slowly as the small engine is only going to do so much regardless of the traffic behind you and you need to always be prepared for the slightest change in conditions such as breaks in the pavement, gravel, or debris. You must be aware of headwinds and crosswinds in the light, top-heavy vehicle, you have to anticipate when to shift just a second before you need to – you can’t stop quickly or maneuver easily – there’s no such thing as slamming on the brakes or gunning the engine and you have to be very mindful of everyone and everything on the road. There is no USB or a CD player or radio to distract you from your thoughts which is good because driving is an actual task. We mostly steer our vehicles today – you have to drive Granddaddy’s van. It demands that you are present and rewards you with driving in a quieter, slower-paced, softer time.

I got out, stretched and relaxed my shoulders, tense from the 90-minute drive, and walked into the small state park office to buy a park pass for a day of hiking. I was immediately struck by the noise. The cars and SUVs, the loud trucks with extra-large nuisance mufflers, the crowds with their music and phones, the barking dogs, and the sounds of life revved up to 2019 levels. I had just stepped out of a humble 1976 and was thrown into an aggressive 2019.

I asked a ranger for directions to the most remote trails and that’s when I met Lyndon Johnson. He was named after one president and looked like another (still not sure how his last name isn’t Bush). With that polite Texas draw (or is it drawl?), I heard someone say, “Ma’am?”, as I was despondently climbing back into 1976, unsure if I would be successful in finding the remote woods I was seeking. He offered to show me the way to what he already seemed to understand I was searching for. I followed his truck through the busyness and crowds and we pulled into the two remaining parking spots – apparently saved for us, side-by-side. Within a few minutes, my dog, Gracie, and I were walking alongside Lyndon Johnson and his grandson, Quail. And so began my presidential day as we, as if pre-planned, started hiking together.

From the beginning, I felt her presence – a feeling I couldn’t explain. There was something about Lyndon’s magnetic energy. He was 76, yet I would have bet my arm he was maaaay-be early 60s. He was spry, just like she had been regardless of age. He was enthusiastic and clearly happy to be spending time with his grandson, hiking in the woods. There was an ease about them as if they were together every day – but Quail was only visiting for the holidays.

It was as if I was watching the male versions of my memories of Grand and me. Lyndon was reminiscent of Grand and in many ways, Quail reminded me of myself – young and trying to keep up with Grand as she hiked across the Appalachian Trail as if it were her own. His light steps reminded me of how she used to dance on the rocks as we crossed the creeks – Quail and me joking that we were having to work to keep up.

Throughout the day, we shared stories and created others. We marveled at the bright green ferns hanging from the large, wet rocks and I would think back to when I was Quail’s age hiking with Grand, as she pretended to be Ms. Perkins, the woman who lived in the woods…a game we played for hours. Ms. Perkins would decorate her make-believe house with ferns and leaves and tell stories all along the way. We’d find a hollowed-out tree and Ms. Perkins would pretend it was her closet. We’d see a natural cave in the brush and that would be Ms. Perkin’s library. I’d forgotten about Ms. Perkins and all of our experiences but on that day, the memories were alive and vivid.

Hiking with two people I hadn’t known before driving into that park, inventing tales about the wild hog paths we were on, and their bedrooms and spa rooms – there was a familiarity so palpable that there was never an awkward moment – it felt as though it had been planned in advance.

I learned that the park and the trails we were on had helped his heart heal when it was cracked open many years ago. His grandkids, Quail’s family, had moved out of state and while they were still in touch, he and his wife no longer had them in their daily lives. He described buying a year-long park pass and explained how he came every day – driving in each day from his ranch, the one with the name Haven in it.

Lyndon’s ranch has my name on the gate.

As he shared his story, he had no way of knowing that I was there that day for the same reason. My heart was cracked, not from the distance of family, but from horses who had moved away and I was seeking nature to help me heal and to give Gracie, who no longer got to run and romp on the ranch, the opportunity to run and explore.

The day was a highlight reel of present experiences and fond memories blending together. There was Grand playing Ms. Perkins along the river’s edge blending into Lyndon poking his homemade walking stick with the shotgun shell base into an armadillo hole, convincing me it was coming out. There was Quail skipping rocks with his grandfather watching closely – or wait, was that me skipping rocks with Grand standing nearby searching for the flattest rocks for me?

When I commented that I wasn’t buying some of their fish tales since we weren’t seeing many fish – Lyndon and Quail spotted, almost simultaneously, a 3-foot-long needle nose gar who practically put on a show for us as it lingered near the shore.

The hours flew by and we headed back to civilization. I felt as though I had spent the day with Grand in an oddly, non-Grand, but rather very Lyndon and Quail sort of way. Preparing to leave, we exchanged contact information. I leaned against Granddaddy’s van and looked over at Gracie, my little dog, happy and tired and jotted down Quail’s number. I turned to close the van door and said, “Oh, if you don’t mind Quail, what is your last name?”

“Perkins”, he replied.

I stopped writing and thought, ‘Of course his name is Perkins, what else would it be?’

I climbed back into 1976, to start the slow journey home and remembered something I had read that morning, before leaving the house: Understand more than you can explain. A lot of light came in through the crack in my heart that serendipitous day and I understand all of it. But I can’t explain any of it.

Thanks for reading,

~ Haven