Campfire Stories

04/23/2015 05:06 EDT | Updated 06/23/2015 05:59 EDT


I just returned from the amazing Light Your Fire Retreat given by Jill Farmer ( If you know me at all, you know that my idea of camping is staying in a two star hotel. I wouldn't say that I was a princess, but my family and friends would (sidebar: the parents on my daughter's volleyball team were in stitches when they thought I was staying in a tent; thanks guys)! To say that the retreat was life-changing would be an understatement; Jill guided us on a journey through our self-imposed limitations to a place of contentment and gratitude.

One of the exercises was building a one-match campfire with Margaret Webb, a phenomenal nature coach ( I was a Girl Scout a hundred years ago, so one match was enough. But the experience was so much deeper than the thrill of success.

Without further ado: 9 Things I Learned While Building a Campfire

1. It's okay to use an existing structure that has a track record: I used the same basic structure from when I was 10 years old, and it worked just fine. However, I had to adjust to the types of available fuel and the application thereof, depending upon what was required in the moment. The process was a constant tending and adjusting with a willingness to try something new. Doesn't this sound just like getting a teen out the door in the morning?

2. Put the little stuff in first: when you build a fire, the center is filled with delicate grasses that will easily burn, so that the flames can ignite the bigger stuff. Notice, I said the word "easy". Start small and focus on things that will work easily. Also, you need a lot more of the easy stuff than you think you do!

3. Size matters: when you're building your fire, you can't jump to a bigger stick too quickly. The more sustainable fires have a graduated size of material. Jumping ahead to a bigger stick, without using smaller material first, will ensure that your fire will go out. Yes, this is a lot like baby steps!

4. But you won't know the piece is too big until you try it: since I hadn't done this in so long, I couldn't remember how big was too big. I got caught in analysis paralysis for a bit, weighing different sizes, to determine what was "just right". Then, I thought, "Just try it, Terri! What's the worst that can happen?" With a few attempts, I found the size that worked, and now I had a blueprint for what works right here and now. Or, more simply, if it isn't working, try something different!

5. Gather your fuel first: I built my fire with what I thought was enough material, but it was so successful, that it used all my wood in about five minutes. Since I was rushing to prove how awesome I was as a Girl Scout, I forgot to think about sustainability. I built a great fire that burned easily and quickly, but I didn't gather enough material to keep it going. Gather love with self care; if Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy!

6. If your fire goes out, it's okay; the coals are still underneath. As I panicked, running around for more material, I realized that my earlier efforts were not a failure. They resulted in burning coals that helped me re-ignite my fire. So, in a nutshell; don't worry, you've got this!

7. If at first you don't succeed, go smaller: when I rebuilt the fire, I forgot to start from scratch, so it kept going out. In order to rebuild the fire, I had to go back to the delicate first steps; lots of easy materials were necessary before I could add in the bigger stuff. Then I needed to blow on the coals, so they would get hot enough to ignite. When confused, go back to the basics.

8. It begins with the breath. Sparks need lots of air, delicately applied, to ignite coals. Blow too hard, and you blow them out or scatter them. If you blow too softly, they don't glow at all. It's a delicate process that requires faith, attention to what is actually in front of you (rather than what you think SHOULD be in front of you) and the flexibility to get more basic or more sophisticated, depending upon what the real circumstances require. If you're not willing to be flexible, save your breath (insert teen mirth here).

9. When faced with a challenge, don't be afraid to unravel: after my one match fire, Margaret gave me some jute string and a flint to play with. At first, I was wailing away on the flint, trying to make the string burn. I forgot that Margaret told me to unravel the string in order for it to ignite. As I kept pulling it apart to its most delicate and basic form, I didn't have to work so hard at the flint. One strike and one spark was plenty to ignite the flame. Sometimes we're wrapped too tight; unraveling is the way to success.

When I returned home, I took some time to apply these lessons to my daily routine and my real life family. I realized that I had been trying to burn big sticks without gathering enough easy stuff to sustain myself. I saw that my new direction was built on coals that I'd been building with all my earlier efforts; I wasn't really starting from scratch with each unsuccessful attempt. To light a flame, real or figurative, all it takes is the right tools, deep breaths, and a willingness to be flexible.