They say Prokofiev wrote pieces so difficult he had to ask his buddy Rachmaninoff to play them. I composed a cabin too difficult to finish. Perhaps that's the story of my life. When I think of things that have turned out, a helping hand is involved. The cabin would have been an unfinished symphony were it not for a young man I wrote to overseas. When he came back from the Marines, he offered to help. He brought along his extra-large carpenter dad, and they framed it up in two weeks. I learned many things from them, including that it is possible for a human being to throw a 4- by 8-foot sheet of plywood onto a roof. Friends with master skills in plumbing and electricity took over after the brute work was done, providing the harmony to a lyrical construction project.

My cabin is in a wild, sparsely populated area north of Hwy. 8 in Wisconsin. When I'm holed up there, I am more isolated than Thoreau was on Walden Pond. A 1-mile hike along the railroad took him into town to eat with the Alcotts. A hike that length gets me no farther than the middle of a cedar swamp, 15 miles from the nearest town, which is smaller than Concord was in 1850. I'm kind of neutral on religion, but I take the whisper of wind through tall pines as an eternal message. The sounds of the woods in harmony with nature make a soothing music. At the cabin, I sense infinity in myself and those I love.

In 2006, they told me, with little warning, that I was going to die if I did not have major heart surgery. When stressed, I tend toward impatience and anger. As I saw how this was affecting my wife and friends, I went to the cabin. Alone. There was deep snow. I remember carrying firewood from the woodshed. As I climbed the porch steps, I felt the arrhythmias they promised would take me down if not fixed. Weakened, I stopped to catch my breath and wondered if this was the last winter I would drink tea by the stove and look at snow falling through cedars. It seemed as if the evergreens were flaunting their life, verdant needles starkly contrasted against the snow.

There is a stand of birch outside my porch. As the day transitioned to dusk, moon shadows of tall trees appeared on the white hillside. I opened the door and stepped out into the moist, chill air, breathed deeply and became one with the stillness. What had seemed so unnerving back in the suburbs no longer was frightening. I slept well, and a few days later drove to Mayo with my wife, Beth. When I woke up post-op in the ICU amid the green and red glow of tubes and beeping technology, I was drawn away to the sweet sounds of my cabin in winter — the rhythm section and soul to the music of my existence.

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