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

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

Magic in this world

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Here are two moments from my day, both shared with one of the most amazing people in this world:


Sitting across the wooden table from each other, quietly eating our lunch – mac-n-cheese for her and leftovers for me – and she turns to me with a deadpan look and says, “There’s magic in this world. I know because I saw it.”

Like a hammer striking the sky, I was stunned by such a revelation, which of course I know to be true (but all too often forget due to being a “grownup”) and hoped she did as well. The world is full of magic but we seem to forget to see it.

Her eyes were ablaze with magic, excitement and wonder. They were twinkling like stars on a moonless night, like so many nights here in this valley. We looked at each other, smiles slowly emerging from within, creeping up from the corners of our mouths and spreading across our faces until we were both laughing. We laughed because we knew – there is magic in this world!


She’s sitting at the table, both elbows resting on its wooden surface for stability,  a purple marker in her right hand. She is drawing and concentrating so hard on what she is doing that her tongue is sticking out ever so slightly. A quintessential act of concentration. Her map, of trails, campsites, lakes and rivers, is really coming together and now she is adding footprints to the trail.

I sit watching her, enjoying the look of concentration on her face and how it changes ever so slightly from moment to moment, especially the tongue, its position and how much is exposed beyond the lips. I guess I could be distracted by something – a book, dirty dishes, a smartphone or this journal – but this is far better than all that and more. Just here, just watching her drawing is enough and I am at peace.


Written by David LaFever

Taking Care

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Compassion is the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things.
~Thomas Merton

I heard her young voice, clear and articulate for a two-year old saying something about a spider and a skirt. There wasn’t fear and anxiety in her voice, just matter-of-factness and wonder, like “Hey look at what I found in my skirt.” I shouted down the hallway, “Did you find a spider in your skirt?” “Yeah, come look,” she replied.

I walked down the hall, where she showed me a tiny spider hiding in the folds of her pink skirt, while her eyes glowed with warmth in the fading light of evening. She wanted to take this small creature outside to let it go safely, so that is what we did, gently dropping the arachnid onto the ground beneath a huckleberry bush.

How many kids or adults for that matter would have screamed and then smashed the spider? Where does this reaction come from? Arachnophobia, the extreme or irrational fear of spiders, is one of the more common and uncontrollable fears.Most people don’t suffer from arachnophobia, yet the automatic reaction to kill a spider seems ingrained. We have never taught that fear nor the wonton killing of spiders or any other insects, whether inside our house or not. Sometimes we let them be, like the daddy longlegs in the corners of the bathroom, while other times we capture them, usually with a mason jar, and kindly release them outside. Our kids’ behavior parallels ours, illustrating the importance of acting the way we want our kids to act. They observe, imitate, see what happens and then either change their behavior or repeat it. Over time imitation can become habit and we often rationalize our habits to make them normal or necessary. In this way our fears can become the next generation’s rationalized behavior.

Who cares about spiders you may be asking. All ethical consideration aside, which there are many in the case of killing anything, taking care of spiders is pragmatic in our household and is perhaps a matter of practice more than anything else. How we take care of anything, especially the supposedly lowliest creepy-crawlies, not only says something important about our minds and hearts, but also says something about how we take care of everything. Cheri Huber once wrote a book titled, “How You Do Anything is How You Do  Everything.” How we wash the dishes says something about how we take care of everything else. Are we mindful, mindless, caring or careless? Do we look down upon this kind of domestic chore or do we look upon it as an important contribution to the household? And finally do we see the importance of practicing our deepest values, vows and intentions even (especially) when doing the mundane?

Back to the spiders and the girls. When I see my daughters treating spiders with care, respect and gentleness then I know that this is who they truly are inside and that they are likely to treat the rest of the world with equal compassion and respect. And despite all the times that I feel inadequate and insecure in my parenting, moments like this show me my true self as beautifully reflected in the kind actions of small creatures.


By David LaFever

It Very Well May

Here is a poem that I wrote. Hope you enjoy it!

Witless Wanderings of Nibbling Sheep

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I love you more with each passing day

I don’t know what more to say.

Is there an way to convey

There is no place where we can stay?

So lets jump and romp and play

Or lie quiet and watch the branches sway.

Lets love and live as if this were our final day;

Which is very well may.


by David LaFever

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When Nothing More is Just Right

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Zen isn’t extra time, extra effort or extra attention. Zen is nothing extra.

~Karen Maezen Miller

 

The ballerina enters, does a pirouette and then a small jump before arching her back gracefully. She looks at the audience for a moment and her eyes glisten with happiness and excitement as if she can’t believe her great fortune of being able to dance, just dance. A second ballerina, in pink leotard, enters and begins spinning and spinning, graceful in her own way and intent while she spins in ecstasy. I don’t understand how she doesn’t get dizzy and fall down. I am dizzy just watching. As the music comes to a close, the two dancers bow to the audience, smiles radiating from their beatific faces.

This show didn’t cost much, just a little bit of time really and I didn’t have to drive far or wait in line. In fact I was able to see this from the comfort of my own home, just by turning around in the same chair from which I ate dinner. Yes this was my own sweet girls doing their thing and it was spectacular.

For a brief moment as I watched Maddie’s intent and purposeful movements I thought she could be a dancer. But then as quickly as the thought arose, it passed away and I was left wondering where it came from and why I would jump to the conclusion that she should be a dancer. To be a dancer would require hours of practice, fancy outfits, competition and achievement. As I let this percolate, I realized that I had made something out of nothing. Here she was just dancing, naturally and freely and I had created fiction from something actual and real. We seem to do this all too quickly with our children and ourselves. Whenever we see some nascent talent or glimmer of interest, we jump to it being someone that they become. Oh you love animals, we think. Perhaps you will be a veterinarian.  We seem to have an insatiable drive for making something out of nothing, for more, bigger and different. Intoxicated with the notion that bigger is always better, that better is always better, we are left incapable of actually enjoying our lives in all of its ordinary beauty. Can’t my girls just dance for the joy and fun of it?

As I sat next to the most beautiful woman in the world watching and grinning from ear to ear, I understood that in fact Maddie is already a dancer. No stage or big lights needed; no years of practice and bettering oneself; and no fancy wardrobes (well, I will be honest, a pink tutu goes a long way). The reality is that no amount of striving could ever improve upon this moment, this dance, these girls; and no amount of polishing this tile could ever make her shine more brightly.


by David LaFever

Float On Okay

In loving memory of Jane W. LaFever – February 1, 1948 to November 18, 2012

Her small hand, that was once so tiny, tentatively inches towards the fire holding a slip of notebook paper. If you could zoom in and see what was drawn on the piece of lined paper you would see what appears to be a green light bulb with two small figures inside. And if you could zoom in deeper, into her mind perhaps, you would know that the two figures are her and her Granny sitting in the basket of a hot air balloon. And zooming in still further, into her heart, you would see (or feel perhaps) the love she has for her Granny, a granny she only met a few times when she was so small that she does not remember. She loves her nonetheless, proving that love does not need to come from knowing. Her hand releases the paper and she quickly pulls it away from the heat while the small sheet quickly catches fire, becoming ash.

On November 18th, 2012 my mom passed away at the age of 64. “How do I keep her alive?,” is a question always in my heart. I am loath to admit there are many days that I do not think of her at all which is all too easy because I live on the opposite coast from where I grew up. This place doesn’t speak much of her. This day, however, is not one of those days, but this is not only due to it being the anniversary of her death but also because we intentionally reconnect with her on this day. How do we do that?

The first year after her death, as I struggled to make sense of it and how it related to my life, we started doing a small ceremony which involves writing notes to her and then either speaking them out loud or not and tossing them into a fire. Usually this occurs outside over an open fire where there may or may not be marshmallows involved. Due to tonight’s rain, however, we decided to stay indoors instead and started a fire in our woodstove.

Ceremony is often said to be how we remember to remember and there is something powerful in our simple ceremony. Firstly, it connects us to her because writing her a letter or small note is incredibly ordinary and deeply intimate. It really does feel like we are talking to her, which is something that we always did so easily with her. Secondly, it serves as a way to connect our kids with the granny that they will never really meet. Madeleine was there when she died but quite young and Juniper was not yet born. Tonight as I told Maddie what I was going to do, she asked if she could write something to Granny. It was touching. “Of course,” I said. Thirdly, this ceremony allows us to keep death a part of our life. I know that may sound contradictory but so often we feel deep sadness at the passing of a loved one and then we move on (or not) and never really speak of it again. We seem to want to forget what a big role death plays and that its inevitable. Death is such an important, and mysterious, part of living that I think it’s imperative that we talk about it and live with it. A ceremony like ours is a way to frame it and make it a part of our life. Lastly, it’s cathartic to engage in this ritual because it provides an opportunity to give voice to things deep within and to let them go. For me, this may be in the form of fears or insecurities that I may have. An example of this is that I worry about how I am going to ever explain to my daughters what an extraordinary woman my mom was. Illustrating the power of ceremony, what we do on this night helps me talk with my kids about her allowing me to let go of some of that fear.

I am grateful for this ceremony, both the connection and release that I feel from it. Robin Wall Kimmerer said that, “Ceremony focuses attention so that attention become intention” and I suppose that is really what this ceremony does. By focusing our attention on my mom we remember to remember her and by paying attention to death we remember that it is a part of life.

We watch Maddie’s piece of paper for a moment and suddenly it lifts off the burning wood and floats upwards before falling back into a charred pile. In that moment I knew that Maddie and Granny were up in that hot air balloon and that they were laughing and enjoying the ride!


Posted by David LaFever