Right Out Back

Setting forth, out the back gate.

The girls and I slung our heavy packs onto our backs and headed out the back gate. How can it be that I live someplace where I can literally head out my back door and hike and hunt and backpack? My what privilege I have stuffed into the pack along with my tent and sleeping pad. No wonder it feels particularly heavy.

There is an ease and a freedom in heading out back to an unknown destination. No trail, no destination, no problem. We know that we would be called to the right place and that our feet would not lead us astray. I love not having to drive to a trailhead. Hell there ain’t even a trail here. We follow our own path out back and that is a beautiful thing.

We started out by hiking across an old alfalfa field, which had been part of a large ranch, when such things were the norm around here. Weedy, scratchy and annoying could be an appropriate description of it, but soon we reached what we call the “shrub-steppe,” that is the beginning of mostly native plants and natural habitat. At this point, the land rises at a 30 degree angle up to a flat, glacial terrace. Our little side valley of the Methow Valley, is called Booth Canyon and gets more “canyony” farther up. Booth canyon is hemmed in by two nearly identical terraces created by huge continental glaciers that were several miles thick in this area. We paused at our the up on top of the terrace, where we often gather during Friday homeschool days and just sit and pay attention to the world around us. We call this our “Sit Spot.”

Gazing down the Methow valley from our Sit Spot.

After a short snack break, we continued up canyon, winding our way through sagebrush and bitterbrush. Not much was flowering except for some lovely little daisies and buckwheat. This is rattlesnake country so we paid attention, listening and looking as we stepped.

A bit farther on, we encountered an old two-track road that led back down to the valley bottom. It got weedier again as we neared the old ranch houses and areas where cattle grazed most heavily. Our dog was alert to something, which turned out to be a dead western racer, a bit stinky and already covered with flies. We named this road “Dead Racer Road.”

A bit farther on we neared the creek and found the campsite that we were looking for. An open grassy glade right down to the creek with nearby apple trees that provided a perfectly cozy spot, which my daughters immediately loved. We shared flowers from the shrub-steppe with this spot as a way to thank it for welcoming us in and then quickly set to trimming back dead apple branches so that we could set up the tent underneath their boughs. Before I even had the tent out of my backpack, the girls were climbing the tree and the dog was exploring the creek, lapping up its cold water happily.

Creek Camp

A small campfire, tended by the girls crackled away as I cooked a simple dinner. The fire provided the right amount of heat to make ‘smores and, more importantly, gave the girls a chance to learn about fires and how to take care of them. We cut marshmallow sticks from an apple tree, which the girls mostly did themselves. It brought up childhood memories of doing this very same thing with my dad on one of our many camping trips. Before bedtime we made sure we put out the fire completely. They learned to check for hot spots by holding their hands over the coals.

This past winter, Maddie and I camped beneath a ponderosa pine in the snow. We called it the Sheltering Tree and that campsite, “Winter Camp.” This new spot, right on the creek, was given the name “Creek Camp.” Naming things is powerful and should not be done lightly. I feel the connecting power of getting to know places so well that we have our own intimate names for them. Our Sit Spots, the Sheltering Tree, Winter Camp, Eagle Rocks, Dead Racer Road, and now Creek Camp. These are our names for the places that have meaning to us. Come on out and visit and we’d be happy to take you to these places. They’re just right out back!


By David LaFever

Ten Years On

Kristin and I in Morocco, during our final months in the country (2009).

Ten years ago, yesterday, Kristin and I left Morocco, a place that had become home to us, and returned, exiles in part, to a land once called home. I remember an absurdly early departure from Tounfite, our small Atlas Mountain town, which was still sleeping and quiet except for the feral cats and dogs that roamed quiet streets looking for scraps and mostly getting scrapes. The taxi driver, who I can picture but whose name I cannot recall, loading all our belongings while we hugged and kissed and hugged again a host family who had truly become family. Many tears were shed and words failed to express our love and gratitude for these more than kind women and a place that had seeped into our very being. Transformation is a trite word to describe how Morocco, the Eastern High Atlas Mountains, the Amazighen (“Berber”) people, and this family in particular changed us.

A different, and perhaps greater, change was to greet us upon our return home.

Ten years ago, my mom was nearly killed in a car accident that she had nothing to do with. Well, actually she had a central part in this drama, but sometimes our most important role happens when we are just sitting still. She was hit broadside on the driver’s side while waiting at a stop sign. As we hurtled out of the mountains and on across the vast Moroccan coastal plain toward the airport in Casablanca, she came within an inch of her losing her life, saved by the miracles of modern medicine.

The next day, this day ten years ago, we found out this terrible news upon our arrival in New York City. Blown away and shocked would be understatements. I didn’t know what nor how to think, it seemed, during the long drive from the city upstate to my hometown. Culture shock within culture shock. We immediately began spending our days in hospitals, malls (there was a branch of public library in it), and lawyers offices. Not places anyone wants to spend much time, except doctors and lawyers I suppose, much less two triumphantly returning Peace Corps volunteers. No parade for us it seemed. Just long days and troubling affairs.

Fast forward ten years. The sound of my girls, ages 8 and 5 can be heard. Talking, giggling and the occasional high-pitched scream as they splash and play in a cattle tank that we use as a pool. It’s big enough for a kids kayak, three pool noodles and two girls (or more when friends come over). What more do you need?

It is a hot early summer day. The irrigation is spraying happily away. I hear the soft clucks and sweet chirps of our mother hen and her four week-old chicks. An ochre ringlet butterfly flits and fluts by, and a robin sings sweetly from down near the river.

My mom and I in Copenhagen, our only trip overseas together (2006).

I sure miss my mom and I’ll probably never “get over” Morocco. Both changed….nay, both sculpted my life in such strong ways that I cannot separate out where they end and I begin, like mycelium and tree roots. They have and continue to nourish my life in ways unimaginable and seldom imagined. Life sure is a trip and you just never know what’s going to happen. Pay attention, appreciate it and live it well.

Who Am I Anyway?

Spring rain —
Coming down on me again
This hood I’ve been wearing.

~ Yosa Buson

Hobby– an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure

I have been thinking about hobbies today, which is not something that I have thought about in quite some time. Last night Kristin and I were going through some relationship cards (Gottman cards app) and one that came up was “Name two of your partner’s hobbies.”

A “hobby” is defined as an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure.

This sparked a discussion not so much about our hobbies, but rather about what are hobbies and why don’t we seem to have any. Are we boring? Too much TV watching? No leisure time? Too busy working all the time for that tech company that you didn’t know we worked for?

The last one may be the closest to the truth. Our life seems just a little too full to have much “leisure time” and yet that isn’t quite it either. When we were younger we seemed to have time for hobbies or rather we had distinct work-time and leisure-time, whereas now we seem to have just one time. Being-time you could call it (which happens to be a writing by 12th Century Zen Master Eihei Dogen, called “Uji.”)

Most days or weeks I play the guitar, read and write, garden, bird watch, spend time in nature, run, hike, and the like. In the past I may have thought of these as hobbies, but now I just see them as integral parts of my life. And then there is meditation, Zen study and practice. Could I possibly think of that as a hobby or separate that from my moment-to-moment life? I don’t think so. Not possible.

And now I realize that this is how I view my “hobbies,” they are simply some of the activities of my life. Nope that isn’t quite right….they are (in part) my life. My life flows through them and they color and energize my life. Not separate from who I am and yet not exactly or only who I am. How could I call them hobbies? Many of us think of ourselves as our hobbies and create a self-identity from that partial-view of who we are. I saw partial-view because how could our hobbies be the sum total of who we are.

Who am I anyway?


by David LaFever

In Every Place


A mountain always practices in every place.
~ Eihei Dogen (12th Century Japanese Zen Master)

It was cold but not too cold when we woke up in our tent beneath a lone pine growing in a mountain sea of sage and bitterbrush. Snow was lightly falling from a gray sky, which muffled all noises, giving a hushed tone to the world around us. We had a small fire, which crackled and stirred, and breakfast of oatmeal, hot coffee and hot spiced cider. As we took down the tent, I asked her to help stuff a sleeping bag, which she tried but couldn’t. “She is just not trying hard enough,” I thought to myself and may have said something to that effect. Not my nicest words but also not my worst.

A bit later, I could see that she was upset and crying. I immediately felt guilty about my harsh words and was hit by a rush of shame. My mind raced between blaming myself and weakly justifying my poorly chosen words. Then I took a couple of deep breaths and stopped. I just stopped and looked at her, and then wiped off her tears before they froze to her cheeks. I just looked at her and then I listened. Often in these moments, she clams up, especially if I push her to talk, so I just sat with her and did nothing.

“My feet are cold,” she said. “Oh,” I replied. “Do you want me to warm them up?” She nodded, I took off her boots and socks and held her small cold feet against my very warm belly. As her feet came back to live so did she. “Was this why you were crying, sweetie,” I asked. She nodded again.

The wildlife biologist George Shaller once wrote while trekking in the Himalaya to study blue sheep that “The condition of ‘homelessness’ is the maturity of relying on nothing and responding to whatever turns up at the doorstep.”

We may not be familiar with this concept of homelessness whereas many eastern religions like Zen Buddhism are steeped in this idea. Leaving home, literally or figuratively, are important parts of a monks pathway, yet we can embrace this in our everyday lives as well. If I had continued to assume that she was upset because of my ill words then I would not have been able to respond to the actual moment, to what turned up on my doorstep. I may have reacted from a place of inadequacy or feeling bad about myself, which is never a great place for me to react from.

This much I know and have experienced enough times to have learned from it. Respond with openness and inquisitiveness, don’t react from fear, inadequacy or habit. By not-relying on what I thought was going on, I was able to be open to what I didn’t know, which allowed me to respond to what was actually going on. Responding rather than reacting is crucial. When I react, it is habitual and usually not very wholesome. When I respond, however, I root my action in not knowing what is going on and remain open to the endless possibilities that each moment offers. From here, I can welcome anyone or anything that shows up on my doorstep and then just see what happens. This is the mountain (myself) practicing in every place. No matter what happens, from here may I respond to the moment.


by David LaFever

A Little Practice

Practice

noun

  1. the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it.
  2. the customary, habitual, or expected procedure or way of doing of something.

verb

  1. perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to improve or maintain one’s proficiency.
  2. carry out or perform (a particular activity, method, or custom) habitually or regularly.

It’s approximately seven miles on a paved road from town to our land. The road winds it’s way around the hulking block of McClure Mountain, in whose shadow lies the town of Twisp. We seem to drive this road everyday, following the Methow River downstream, which is just a part of rural living these days. Driving the same road can be boring, habitual, something to ignore. Our bodies seem to do the driving while our brains wander aimlessly. Mindless. But it can also be a chance to re-engage, to pay attention and to be mindful. The ever-present possibility of a deer running out in the road should make us pay attention, if nothing else. And yet it is all too easy to be lost in my thoughts as I drive this stretch of known road.

When I was growing up in rural upstate New York in the 1980s and 1990s, people waved to each other on rural roads. This was certainly true on our road which was not properly paved until much later. I remember watching my dad wave at neighbors and seeing them wave back. Sometimes it was a full wave, emanating friendliness in its fullness, while other times it was simply raising the hand or a couple of fingers in habitual movement. I vividly remember old man Donny Driscoll, who lived down the road from us, in his white Ford pick up truck driving basically down the middle of the road, two hands on the top of the wheel. He was pretty near-sighted as I recall his coke-bottle thick glasses. He just raised his index finger, nothing more and nothing less.

You always waved on our road, that’s just the way it was. On other roads, however, the rules of engagement were a bit different. Perhaps you waved at everyone, if you were particularly friendly. You always waved at tractors. And if you were driving a pickup truck, you waved at other pickup trucks. Such was the culture, at that time, on the back roads and byways of upstate New York.

Since moving here to rural North-Central Washington, I have re-engaged with this practice. As I drive the seven miles to and from town, I wave at everyone I meet, and I do it for two reasons. First, I want to cultivate rural friendliness and neighborliness, which I do not want to see go away in our country. It is a simple way to connect with each other, like saying hi in the post office. Secondly, I do it as a practice of both mindfulness and connection.

Doing this everyday gives me the chance to see my own mind, my own preferences and my own prejudices more clearly. Because I try to wave at everyone, I notice more astutely when I do and do not wave. When I don’t wave at someone, I realize that my mind has been wandering. I am lost in thought and this practice helps me to return to the present, to what I am actually doing. Driving and being neighborly.

I also notice who I do and do not want to wave at, which shows me the subtle and, I have to say, idiotic, judgments I make based on the car that someone is driving. Do I wave at that big-ass redneck looking truck? Do I greet the all-too wealthy looking BMW-driving liberal city slicker? You betcha I do! I get to see my prejudices and how quickly I make distinctions and then let them go with the wave of a hand. Yes, I get to say, this car too I will wave at. This person too, regardless of my opinion, I connect with ever so briefly as we zoom past each other. Getting to practice with myself in this way, everyday, is an important way to see myself more clearly and to let go of it with a kindly gesture. Some days I just go through the motions while others I am more kindly.

What I am realizing is that simple acts, like waving on rural roads brings me more fully into this very real and present moment. It shows me where I am dividing the world apart and where I am reconnecting it in its natural wholeness. Awareness and present-mindedness are cultivated and most importantly practiced. Over and over and over again, the never ending practice of being human.


by David LaFever

Beautiful Questions

The soul lives contented

by listening,

if it wants to change

into the beauty of

terrifying shapes,

it tries to speak.

excerpt from David Whyte “The Souls Lies Contented”

If your life is anything like mine, you have your good days and your bad days, great days and so-so days. There are moments so miraculous that you wish they would last forever and some so mundane that you hardly notice there passing. As a parent the highs are often really high and the lows full of despair. Having children seems to be the ultimate in vulnerability. I am often besieged with the insecurity of wondering if I am doing the right thing for my children followed by moments of pure bliss with a depth to love that I did not know was possible.

Last night as my older daughter was falling asleep I heard her say, “Mama, what are some of the things that you think are most magical?” And with a wisp of a pause she said, “Waterfalls, art, and paintings.” And then she said some others things, including “our family.” To say that I am overjoyed by my daughter thinking that our family is magical is a gross understatement. My heart melted at these words, not only because of the sentiment but also because she is asking such beautiful questions.

The philosopher and poet David Whyte said that what is needed in our world is to sculpt a more beautiful mind. How do we do that? He said that we do that by asking beautiful questions.

So, dear reader, what do you think are some of the things that are magical? Do you see magic in the extraordinary and the sublime, or ordinary and everyday? Is there really a difference between the two?

While we seem to always look for answers and to find comfort in them, most important of all is to just ask the beautiful questions. What is my life and what do I want it to be? What do I think is magical and where do I see it? What are the beautiful questions?


By David LaFever

Presence

*I must begin with a warning: this post includes a discussion of our bathroom, yet again. I don’t know why this seems to be a theme for me right now but if this bothers you, be forewarned and don’t read on.


There are many wonderful things about living in a tiny home – closeness to one another, simplicity, less stuff, being outdoors often, and sustainability to name a few – and there are some annoying things too – bumping into each other, quick to clutter, lack of indoor space to be alone. One of the positive things about living in a tiny home is having a bath house that is separate from our living space. The irony is that separation is actually promoting connection and here is how.

Several months ago now, my younger daughter, Juniper, who just turned five a few days ago, told me that she likes going #2 more than #1. Slightly surprised, I asked her why, and she replied, “because we get to talk.” I smiled, and said, “yeah, you are right.” And she still feels this way. So do I.

So why is this important and why does she appreciate it? This very natural of human processes allows us to have time and space together to talk or just quietly be with one another. If we lived in a “normal” house, with indoor plumbing, then I would be more likely to just ask her to call me when she needed help, and off I would go to do all of the “important” adult things that I think I have to be doing all the time. What are these anyway?

But because we have a bathroom that is separate from our house, I go with her to do her business and then I just hang out. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we don’t, sometimes we just think, and sometimes we think about nothing at all. The magical part is that with nowhere to go and with nothing else to do, I can relax and just be with my daughter, and in that ordinariness is the most magical thing of all. Presence.


by David LaFever