Real Life Blue Sky

Juni in smoke mask

“A mind full of questions and a teacher in my soul.”
~ Eddie Vedder

 

She awoke, looked out of the bus’s tiny windows and exclaimed, “It’s real life blue sky!” Then she jumped up and ran outside to more clearly see this amazing sight!

How many days do you or I not even notice how beautiful the blue sky is? How many times do we wake up and not even think about what a gift a new day is or how remarkable the world around us is? I can speak for myself – it’s far too many days.

After several weeks of moderate to heavy smoke in our valley, it was amazing to wake up to clear skies. It was amazing to see the landscape again, especially the mountains. And it was amazing to see clouds again, just ordinary, glorious clouds!

This August has been called “Smokust” and it has been much August 2017. We think of this as the “new normal” but Cliff Mass (WA meteorologist) says that it’s actually the “old”normal” which we are just not used. Apparently, this many fires and this much smoke was much more common in the early 20th Century and before, or so says Cliff Mass (http://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2018/08/northwest-wildfires-are-we-seeing-new.html).

Whether or not this is the new normal, old normal or something else altogether, we are strongly affected by weeks of smoke and it’s having its psychological and emotional impact. The impacts are not only physical, but also mental. People tend to go out less and so suffer from a feeling of isolation. We tend to do less of the physical things that make us feel good such as running, biking and hiking. And we suffer from the loss of seeing and connecting with the places that we love. It is being called the “Lost Summer”, and it does feel as though summer just suddenly ended. No more swimming in rivers and lakes, no more trips to Black Pine Lake, no hiking or backpacking. There is a great article from The Narwhal that discusses this further:

https://thenarwhal.ca/the-lost-summer-the-emotional-and-spiritual-toll-of-the-smoke-apocalypse/

For myself I ran for the first time in weeks this morning before the smoke came back. It felt great and I connected with a promontory above the Methow River that I have not seen in weeks. I love this spot and it’s like connecting with a part of myself. In that way, the Smokust is keeping me from feeling my sense of self in this place. And that is always distressing.

So what do we do with this “new-old normal?” What do we do when our habits and passions are suddenly put on hold? And what do we do with this sense of self when the places and rhythms that define it are altered so greatly? Questions are thick like the smoke, but answers may come suddenly and miraculously like the “real life blue sky,” which is always there shining through the haze.


By David LaFever

 

Where there is fire there is smoke

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Society, your a crazy breed. I hope you are not lonely without me.
~ Eddie Vedder “Society”

I step out into the smoky morning street and make my way along the wooden clapboard sidewalk of the old western town. I am wearing a mask, an N95, which is the best cheap one you can get to keep the tiny particles of air pollution out of your lungs. I feel self-conscious and am uncomfortably, literally from wearing a mask, although I am getting used to it, and socially because I am the only one wearing a mask. Tourists go about their day – poking in and out of shops and stopping at Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe for ice cream and candy. They seem unaware and oblivious of the smoke and its harmful effects.

The air quality here has been rated as “unhealthy” or “very unhealthy” for weeks now and I am surprised at how few people, locals and tourists alike, are wearing masks. Today seems clearer than it has been lately – I can almost see sun and sky – yet the WAQA (Washington Air Quality Advisor, which is more stringent than the EPA’s Air Quality Index or AQI) for Winthrop is 198, which is just two points shy of moving into “very unhealthy.” It smells like smoke outside and you can’t see the mountains. We should all limit our time outdoors, and need to be wearing masks if we do.

I have a book waiting for me at the library and so I am walking over there to pick it up. I feel very self-conscious about wearing the mask and find myself actually walking with my head down and not making eye contact with anyone. Wow, I am shocked by how strongly I feel and am affected by social pressure and the need to “fit in.” No one is probably even judging me but I act as though they are. I walk fast, head down, eyes averted. It is so interesting how the need to be a part of the crowd can influence us so strongly, even when I am someone who has often done things my own way and a little bit out of the norm. I mean I live in a freaking bus for crying out loud!

Yet, we are a socially adapted and dependent species and so I too feel that wearing a mask around town.

I reach the library and take it off as quickly as possible. I leave it dangling around my neck and there is a part of me that hopes people see it and think that maybe they need to wear one too. There are a growing number of us wearing masks and I think it is important to lead into my discomfort and wear one anyway. By me wearing one, I give “permission” to others to wear them also, to make it “normal” or at least not super-weird. So while I am wearing one for my own personal health, I wear it for others as well.

Are there other places in our lives where this is true as well? Places where we can embrace the discomfort in order to encourage others to act appropriately, or to say that a certain behavior is not okay? I am thinking of times when someone says something that just isn’t cool. Do I say so or just shrug it off to keep my position as part of the in-crowd? Do I wear the mask or not, and who am I wearing it for?

These questions rattle around in my brain as I pull the strap over my head, securing the mask for my walk back from the library. My eyeglasses fog with each exhalation and I can’t see the strange looks that I imagine I am getting for walking through the discomfort on this smoky, hazy summer day.


by David LaFever

Is there anything more lovely?

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Have you every seen
anything
in your life
more wonderful
than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon
~ Mary Oliver “The Sun”

 

I teach at a tiny little community school in a tiny little town in north-central Washington. Each Friday my students and I explore the farthest reaches of our home in the Methow River watershed and probe the depths of our souls through poetry, photography and more. This morning, as is common, we began by sitting in a circle and settling ourselves down. After five minutes of this (sometimes we do ten minutes), I read a Mary Oliver poem as a prompt, after which they wrote for ten minutes. Free writing is what we call it and they really seem to enjoy this way of beginning our day together.

For a few moments our creative juices were flowing or as one student put it, “the faucet had been turned on.” Each came up with a moving expression of their inner world, a geography that was at once both personal and interpersonal. Each personal geography melded into a collective geography while remaining true to itself, like soil layers becoming bedrock over eons of time. I wish I had their words to share with you because, as is always the case, what they wrote was beautiful. One of the students, a twelve-year old with long brown hair, said that she thought is usually wrote about the present moment. “Hmm…” I said, “you are probably right.” Here is mine for what it’s worth. I am no Mary Oliver.

Is there anything more lovely
     than the sunrise this morning
A flaming light reflecting off
     billowy clouds and snow-capped peaks,
As though a wound had opened up
     in the very cosmos itself,
Bleeding forth light
      and beauty and love?
Is there any love more wild
     unhindered, unobstructed and free,
Like running wildly through
      a field of wildflowers or laughing
Uncontrollably at nothing in particular
      until your belly aches with delight?
Is there any moment more pure
      than right here, right now
Pens scratching out words,
      wild thoughts on a spring day?

 


by David LaFever

 

Simple Sustainability

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The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.

~ Robert Swan

Reading the local paper I was stunned into puzzlement by one sentence tucked deep into the article about the local brewery expanding. The article said that the average U.S. household uses approximately 250 gallons of water a day. “Whoa, how is that possible,” I wondered. I looked over at the five-gallon jug sitting on a counter in our kitchen and couldn’t fathom how that was possible.  With some internet sleuthing, I found out that an individual uses 80-100 gallons per day. I continued to be shocked and needed to estimate how much our household uses. Here is the run-down for our household (all estimates are just that, estimates of actual water use):

Dishes/cooking/drinking: 20-25 gallons/week
Compost toilet: 1-2 gallons/week
Showers (adults only, 10 minutes shower, 4 times per week): 200 gallons/week
Baths (girls only): 15-30 gallons/week
Laundry (1 time per week which is likely an over-estimate): 15 gallons/week
Total = 251-272 gallons/week for our household = 9-10 gallons/person/day

Only 2.5 percent of the planet is freshwater and yet we Americans use 100 gallons a day. Even if I am off by a long shot on my estimations, I still don’t use anywhere near the U.S. average. Most of you shower much more frequently than I do and I would join you if it was feasible or more convenient, so it’s not that I am some angelic human being. What I did do is design an inconvenient home which means I work harder for my water and therefore don’t use as much. And maybe that is the key to sustainability – design your life so that it’s at least a bit inconvenient and you will use less water and energy and produce less waste. We are talking about convenience and comfort here, not anything close to survival, so why not give it a try. Walk instead of driving. Jump in the river instead of showering today. Pee outside instead of into a toilet. Not only will you find a little bit of sustainability, you may also find joy and fun in it as well!


by David LaFever

 

A Cold Rain Starting

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A cold rain starting
And no hat –
So?
~ Matsuo Basho

 

Its thirty-four degrees outside and raining. The snow on the ground is both crusty and slushy. Not my ideal of winter weather and I wish it was both colder and snowing. Madeleine awakes, hears the rain on the bus roof, looks outside and exclaims, “It’s raining!” She is excited and thrilled and adds, “It’s really raining and hard,” although I don’t think it is raining very hard. I catch myself just before I say, “Yup and I wish it was colder and snowing.”

I am soon caught by her excitement and find myself hastily putting on my rain jacket in order to keep up with her as we head outside to play in the rain and slush. I am soon having fun and enjoying the sound of the rain as it falls to the earth. Plus warmer snow is much better for building a snowman.

 

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So why was I not simply and immediately excited by rain as she was? Seems that I, like all of us, exist too much in our heads and in the realm of “wishing for something else.” I find myself all too often wishing for something other than what is actually happening and searching for something just a little more perfect. Do you feel that same way?

Rain is okay, but wouldn’t snow be so much better? What then….

Plop! a large rain drop falls from far above and hits me right on the rim of my glasses, ricocheting into my right eye. Wow, that sure woke me up from my mental reverie! Instantly I am surprised out of my mind and into the body and mind that is larger than myself, namely the present. This exact moment and for a moment I am here. Right here! Now! Rain!


written by David LaFever

The Color of Snow

I had forgotten how the colors change.  We have spent years in a place where the color of the landscape stays roughly the same throughout the year – various shades of greens and browns in the forest; the various shades of green and blue and grey of the ocean, depending on the sun or fog conditions; the color of fog and raincloud, the brilliant blue sky or blazing red sunset.  Subtle variations, but always green and vibrantly alive.  And so you forget.  You forget how overnight the world can change from a color-filled place to one that is almost mono-chromatic, a world that looks like an Ansel Adams photograph, except that there are colors – muted greens of pine needles, barely visible beneath the hoarfrost that coats each needle and twig, and the dark brown of tree trunks, appearing almost black in contrast to the pure white snow.  The sky itself can be almost white, too – it would be hard to tell where the land ended and the sky began except for the black dots of trees and shrubs that are dotted right up to the top of the mountains.  So different from the vibrant green of coastal California – not so lush, but still alive, just lying dormant and resting.  As I drove to work the other day I was mesmerized by the colors – or really the lack of colors.  It was all so stark and so overwhelmingly beautiful, and I realized that this first winter in the Methow may be a very special time indeed – an opportunity to appreciate how different this place is from where we were before.  As the years pass we will remember what winter looks like, we will have expectations of what winter is, what it “should” be, when it will snow, how much it will snow.  We may try to fight these accrued expectations, but they are often unavoidable.  We have a blank slate here this winter, our first winter, which can be a really amazing thing.  I feel open to what is happening around us, without having any history in this place to compare our experience with.  I didn’t lament the cloudy days of late November (perhaps because I just moved from a place where rain and overcast weather is the norm in late November!), or the less-than-usual amount of snow we received in December… it is all new for us, and each day comes and we see what it brings.

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About a week before Christmas it did snow, the first significant snowfall since before Thanksgiving.  People in the valley are happy for the snow, because now everyone can get out and ski!  The trails are groomed and open, the downhill ski resort will open soon, and all just in time for Christmas – a joyful time all around.  The first morning after the storm we all went out to play in the snow, shoveling a big pile for the girls to play in, fall on, roll down.  The wind was blowing a little, and every now and again a branch of one of the tall Ponderosa pines would shed it’s burden of snow.  The snow would start to fall and then get caught in the breeze, which would stretch out the snow into a long plume, like a flag waving.  It was sunny today, and the “snow flag” would sparkle and drift down, slowly stretching out more and more in the wind, until it disappeared.

Yesterday it snowed again, and now we have a couple feet on the ground.  Several times in the night I heard the soft thunder of snow falling from the trees – miniature avalanches right outside the window!  None of us have been under one… yet!  And with all the snow and cold weather we are learning about the new season of life in the bus – much different than roasting in the summer!  As we meet more and more people in the valley, we are getting to be known for being the family that lives in a school bus.  There aren’t many around.  Now that winter is fully here, we are often asked if we are staying warm – fortunately the answer has been yes.  Around Christmas we experience our first true cold “snap” with lows around -10 Fahrenheit.  We were cozy in the bus, between the wood stove and the propane wall heater, but it’s also been interesting to see how the cold creeps in around the edges so much.  We have some insulation in the floor and walls, but left the windows as they are, which is something we love about the bus – it has lots of light and you feel very connected to the outdoors when you are in it.  There is not much separating you from the outside, and so now is the season when we try to make more of a separation – thermal curtains, insulated “skirting” that goes around the bottom of the bus to keep the wind from whistling underneath, plastic over the windows.  I am thankful we went for a propane wall heater that can really crank out some heat – we have a wood stove installed as well, and both are important for keeping the Cozy Turtle cozy during the winters!  With all that, the Cozy Turtle warms up quickly, but it also cools down fast too.  Water condenses on the inside of the windows, and on very cold mornings there is ice on the inside of the window sills.  I have a theory that we could tell how cold a night it was based on how far up the window the ice gets… during the cold snap the ice was halfway up the lower bus window, and then a thick layer of frost all around the bottom edge of the window too!  The floor of the bus is pretty cold too – around freezing when we put our little indoor thermometer down there, while the ceiling of the bus is often around 75!  Quite a range of temperature inside, and I’m glad that we didn’t try to have anyone’s bed too close to the floor!  Perhaps the most annoying winter-time bus living thing is the front door – the roof is warm, so the snow on top slowly melts, and the melting snow drips off the side and makes some awesome icicles.  Next to the front door we have a major water runoff spot, and it pools at the bottom corner of the hinge-side of the door.  So some mornings the door is hard to open and we have to chip off a bunch of ice.  Someday there will be a covered entryway that will hopefully solve the problem, but for now we keep a rubber mallet and chisel handy.  And this might all sound just terrible to people reading this!  But really, how recently has forced air heating revolutionized our indoor living environments?  Is it truly a hardship to have the floor be cold enough to warrant putting down rugs and wearing slippers?  Our children are warm in their beds at night (oftentimes too warm  when they go to bed to have more than one little blanket on), which is really the most important thing I suppose!  We are feeling very fortunate to have warmth in abundance (so thankful for wood to burn and that we can afford to fill our propane tank!), and have a pretty comfortable home to live in!

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What do the girls think of all this?  A friend was visiting last week and asked the girls if they liked all the snow – both of them instantly screamed “YES!!!!!” and howled and made a lot of noise.  That pretty much sums it up.  They love the snow, and spend a lot of time outside in it.  During the cold snap we spent more time inside – it’s hard to be outside when it hurts to breathe.  But fortunately that only last a few days.  Now the temps are back up around 20, and I really did not anticipate that I would actually have the thought “Wow, 20 degrees is really comfortable” but there it is.  The girls can play outside for a long time before needing a break, and they don’t need the break to warm-up, but just a chance for a snack!

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Some friends have asked for more details on what life in the bus is like – and really it’s just like life in a house was but with a lot more “excuse me”s, toes being stepped on, and time spent waiting for someone to get in or out of the entryway so that you can have a turn to put on/take off your boots and coat.  It seems that children are often credited for being very adaptable, which I have found to be true for the most part – but I think adults can be just as adaptable if the mind is open and ready.  Life in the bus is just life – we all get along the way we generally always have.  We still cook dinner every night.  Having our water come from a 5 gallon jug on the counter is shockingly normal (although come spring I have plans for getting the faucet running – but right now we don’t want to have to worry about the water tank freezing.  We do spend a bit more time cleaning up after ourselves, which is good practice for the girls anyway – space is tight, so if you want to start a new crafting project, well, you gotta clear off the table first!

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In September we got a puppy – a little border collie/heeler/corgie mutt who has really only improved life in the bus.  Shocking, I know.  I think I expected to regret getting a puppy on some level, and am still surprised at how great a fit the little pup is into our life.  Her name is Stella.  She is mostly black, a bit of white on the paws and chest, and she takes after her Corgie ancestor in many ways – short legs, small stature (great for a bus!).  And also has the brains of the border collie – she learns things so fast, and is extremely connected to her people.  She does not wander far, which is great since we don’t have a fenced yard, and she hardly barks – when she does bark we know there is something to see, whether it is a biker coming down the road or a couple coyotes running through the meadow 50 yards away.  The girls love her more than just about anything, and she sleeps snuggled on the end of one of their beds every night.  She was an unplanned addition to the family, but one that has been much appreciated by us all!

Christmas in the bus is a bit different than in a house – there is no space in the living area for a tree!  The girls cleaned out a bunch of toys and folded down their little craft table in their room so we could squeeze a tree in there – a tiny 3 foot high tree, and we picked out only our favorite ornaments to put on the tree.  There is very little space for presents, so most are still packed in their boxes, which is far less tortuous for the girls anyway!  We did decorate with lights on the exterior, which is fun (although I inadvertently made the bus kindof look like Mater… it has lips now….), and there has been some great cookie making on the interior while watching our favorite Christmas movies, so some things haven’t changed at all!

As we quickly approach the end of 2017 I am looking back on the past year and thinking about what a busy and eventful year it has been for our family.  I am proud of how our girls have handled the transition we thrust on them – both have adapted so quickly, and are blossoming!  I have personally felt more stress in the last year than I think I’ve ever felt in my adult life, but I am so grateful to be here and to have taken this leap that we dreamed about for years.  We all are feeling at home here and are happy we made the move to this beautiful place.  I hope you all are feeling peace and contentment wherever you are!

Happy New Year!

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Dense Peaks Thick With Snow

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Always it’s cold on this mountain!
Every year, and not just this.
Dense peaks, thick with snow.
Black pine-trees breathing mist.
It’s summer before the grass grows,
Not yet autumn when the leaves fall.
Full of illusions, I roam here,
Gaze and gaze, but can’t see the sky.
~ Han-shan (“Cold Mountain”, an 8th century Chinese poet and wild mountain sage)

 

I step outside into a cold, clear dawn. Its crisp and the world is very still. Frost covers anything left outside and the dark green pines are delicately frosted like wedding cake. I breath in and feel the cold air hit my lungs, hurting my nostrils which is a sure sign that it is cold. I set up my meditation spot in its usual place – the porch of the abandoned double-wide next to where our bus is parked –  and wrap myself in a sleeping bag, settling in to meditate. Breathing in and breathing out, counting breaths, I focus and settle down. Quickly I become focused on my finger tips and toes which are cold and getting colder, at least that is what I feel. After fifteen or twenty minutes, I bow, get up, put my cushion and sleeping bag away and head back into the bus. Damn my toes and feet are cold and hurting. I wonder how cold it is outside as I plop down on a stool (an upside down five-gallon bucket) next to the woodstove. Cozy and warm.

While I didn’t know how cold it was in terms of degrees Fahrenheit or Celsius, I sure knew how cold it was in terms of body and sensation. As I sat there warming up, I wondered, “Did I need to know what the number was or could this experiencing of cold be enough?” My mind kept wanting to look up how cold it was, which would come from a local weather station and might not represent how cold it was at our place (known locally as one of the coldest places in the valley). “Well I could just go and buy a thermometer at the hardware store,” I thought.

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Our minds or at least mine anyway is always searching for an answer, for an explanation for things. Where does this come from? Is it a hallmark of human consciousness or is it a vain attempt at making sense of a world that is ultimately unknowable? Do we seek out the “truth” because we are scared shitless about both the uncertainly of our lives and the certitude of its finality?

I found that I had to make an effort to just let go of the impulse to know just how cold it was. Andy why did I need to know? Probably just so that I could congratulate myself or boast to others about how tough I am.

The search for understanding and knowledge is not a bad thing and in fact it’s a wonderful characteristic of humanity. What I am discovering, however, is that I can know in a lot of different ways including what I think is the deepest way – not knowing. This not knowing is an open-hearted way of being that allows our life to unfold naturally, with us as co-conspirator rather than absolute controller. The insatiable drive to know everything combined with the fact that we cannot possible know everything means that we are left always feeling a bit dissatisfied. Did I really need to know what the temperature was when I already knew, in a very direct way, just how cold it was? What would this knowing do that not-knowing could not?

I pondered these thoughts as I held a hot cup of coffee in my hand and then I just put another log on the fire, letting go of desire to know how cold it was that morning. The subsiding pain in my fingers and toes told me all I really needed to know anyway.


written by David LaFever