Spit Out the Rest

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Re-examine all you have been told

At school or church or in any book,

Dismiss what insults your soul,

And your very flesh shall be a great poem.

~Walt Whitman

 

My Dearest Madeleine and Juniper,

Taizan Maezumi-roshi, an influential Zen Buddhist teacher, once said to his students, “Taste as much of this as you can, swallow what you need and spit out the rest.” Your mom and I don’t know exactly what is the best for you but we do know that a life lived according to one’s values resonates in a way that a life lived with someone else’s values does not. Dissonance and distortion exist when a life is lived by someone else’s rules. Education is one of the key ways to teach a core set of values but this is not something that we usually talk about in schools and other learning centers. The learning environment that we plan to create will be imbued with our core values of family, home and creativity. We will help you taste as much of life as possible, but it will be up to you to swallow what you need and to spit out the rest. Please don’t worry if you need to spit a lot out and remember that sometimes our tastes change so retry things every now and again.

We envision a life where there is “No distinction between teacher and student – all are learners, advanced in some areas and woefully ignorant in others” and where “Growing and developing are lifelong activities – one of the most pleasurable and exciting experiences of life, at all ages” (William Coperthwaite).   While this kind of learning can take place almost anywhere, I believe for the best growth of the individual it needs to be done in relationship with others, and occurring in the bright light and fresh air of the outdoors.

This style of homeschooling is often referred to as “unschooling” has been described as “self-directed, adult-facilitated life learning in the context of one’s unique interests” (Ben Hewitt).  Educating this way is, at its core, a way for us to live intentionally together with family, home and creativity at the center.  We strive to create a learning environment where there is “No distinction between teacher and student – all are learners, advanced in some areas and woefully ignorant in others” and where “Growing and developing are lifelong activities – one of the most pleasurable and exciting experiences of life, at all ages” (William Coperthwaite from “A Handmade Life”).  In a nutshell that is what we are hoping to do, although in truth we are already there. I now want to share with you some of the hallmarks of such a life, as outlined by William Coperthwaite:

True tests of a successful learning (educational) system are:

  • Freer spirits
  • Greater self-confidence
  • Heightened intellectual curiosity
  • Increased creativity
  • Wider cultural perspective

 

Freer Spirits. In order to cultivate free spirits, we unhook ourselves from arbitrary and meaningless educational requirements and the tyranny of competitive learning environments where grading and testing determine our self-worth. Your learning will mostly be up to you, while your mom and I will act as guides, mentors and co-travelers on your learning adventures. We will be like “fingers pointing at the moon” – please do not confuse us for the moon itself. Your educational journey will most likely occur outdoors – in the woods and mountains of our home watershed – where Mother Nature herself will teach much of what we need to know. We will cultivate the freedom to roam, explore and “ramble out yonder”, to explore and engage with the world with open hearts, curious minds and free spirits.

Greater Self-confidence. By allowing freedom of spirit and by decoupling learning and competition, we will cultivate great self-confidence. By self-confidence I don’t mean the superficial kind that is sold to us via advertising and that we see all over mass media. I mean the kind that is deep like the ocean and that can only come from knowing ourselves really well and understanding how you fit in the world. We seem to have this idea that children are too incompetent to contribute to our society, which is something that we want to debunk. You already do contribute so much to our family and household and by extension our society. You bring laughter and joy into it, creativity and openness, compassion and love. You help with cooking and cleaning, chicken chores and gardening. Why just this morning I came home from early morning meditation to find you (Madeleine) at the stove flipping pancakes. How amazing and ordinary! We will continue to include you in the daily life of our family from doing farm chores and growing our own food, to cooking our meals, creating small businesses, and designing and building our own homes. You already contribute to all of this and we will continue to encourage the blossoming of your self-confidence in this way. In addition, we will encourage the trying out of things and the celebration of our failures as much as our achievements in what we describe as “practiculture.” This way of being in the world creates a culture around practice and is process oriented rather than goal obsessed. What this means is that we will all learn as we go with the full recognition that we learn more from our attempts than we do from our successes. Too often I see that someone doesn’t try something because they don’t “know” how to do it. I myself suffer from this lack of self-confidence and hesitate to do something new because I don’t know how to. But there is no better way to learn how to do something than by simply doing it. Our school bus is a perfect example of this. Your mom and I don’t know how to convert an old school bus into a tiny home. We don’t know carpentry, electrical, plumbing or much else to be honest. But we know that we want to do it, that we want to learn how, and we are willing to just do it. We are making mistakes along the way but we are also learning so much and having a lot of fun! Self-confidence comes from the doing, not the achieving, and this is something we hope to cultivate in our family. The goal, if there is such a thing, will be the practice. Yogi Berra once said that, “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.” We can’t know really where we are headed so let’s just enjoy the journey and be open to the possibilities that free spirits, creativity and curiosity provide!

Heightened Intellectual Curiosity. This approach to learning which we call practiculture encourages heightened intellectual curiosity by promoting the full engagement of the body, the mind, and the body-mind together in our daily life. Through a broadening of the “classroom” to include our entire life, you will be allowed the freedom to engage with whatever you are interested in, and when you do that, curiosity deepens. Our life will be the curriculum and your curiosities the lessons themselves. Learning objectives will not be thrust upon you but will emerge out of the very act of learning itself.  In addition, you will be allowed to learn in the style that fits your bodies and minds best whether that is a visual, auditory, verbal, kinesthetic or other learning style. What you learn and how and when you learn it will mostly be up to you. We won’t tell you that it’s time to learn a certain thing in a certain way but rather encourage the natural unfolding of your learning and share in the joy (and frustration) of it all.

Increased Creativity. With freer spirits, deep self-confidence, and a whole lot of curiosity, creativity will flow. You both have already exhibited an immense amount of creativity – the art work that you do, the books that you write/illustrate/”publish”, the jewelry that you make, and the stories and scenarios that you create are so deeply creative that I really just want to get out of your way and let you continue to be the creative beings that you are. I believe that through unschooling we can continue to allow the kind of freedom that will allow you to continue to engage fully in various creative pursuits. I envision a life where you both will continue to engage with it in the amazingly creative way that you already do, whether that be through artistic endeavors, writing, acting, music, science, and the like.

 Wider Cultural Perspective. Homeschooling is often seen as a narrowing of view but I believe that it can be the very opposite. By freeing your spirits, and unlocking the power of your innate curiosity and creativity, we will engage with wide spectrum of our society. Rather than spending your days inside a classroom interacting with individuals your same age, we will craft a life that engages all of us with as many different members of our community as possible. This lifestyle and way of educating will allow you to find mentors and role models from various walks of life including those that are older and younger than you. This could include a mentorship with a local artist, writer or musician, or an apprenticeship with a craftsperson, builder or farmer. This life could also allow us to take extended trips to other countries where you will learn about new peoples, cultures and languages and in so doing understand your own culture more deeply. This widening of perspective will have rippling affects throughout your entire lives.

 We hope to cultivate the fertile ground for a creative, curious and learned lifeby doing all this ourselves and by being examples of “healthy, curious, and creative adults in action” (William Coperthwaite). Through engaging wholeheartedly and fully with our own lives, we will continue to be living examples of this kind of adult and we look forward to seeing you both continue to being the spirited, curious, creative and engaged human beings that you are!

 

With love,

Papa


Written by David

The Practice of Simplicity

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Living the simple life in the Eastern High Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

 

My Darling Daughters,

Continuing with writing you a letter a month for the next year, I hope in this letter to explain our decisions and the thinking and values they are based upon. I hesitate to say that we are embarking on a new great adventure but to some people it may seem that we are changing our lives quite dramatically. I think it is more accurate to say that the change is dramatically different from the way that some believe we should live our life. In reality our life is constantly changing, has always been, and has been tending towards this path for a long time. Each letter may have its own theme but I think the following quote from William (Bill) S. Coperthwaite nicely summarizes the overall path of our life as:

….the great adventure of seeking solutions as to how best to live.”

In this letter I will write about what Bill Coperthwaite called “the search for simplicity”. His book A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity is one of the most influential books in my life and much of my thinking can be credited to him. Rather than calling it a search for simplicity, because just as with all aspects of our lives it is not an end state but rather a continually unfolding process, I want to call it the practice of simplicity. Practicing is a process of perfecting and that is what we actually do. It is not something to achieve or obtain; rather it is both a pathway and a manifestation. As such we will always traverse this path, perfecting the perfection (practice) of simplicity. And the thrust of this practice is to simplify the laws of the universe because as we simplify things so too is our life simplified. This was eloquently spoken by Henry David Thoreau in Walden when he said, “…in proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.” Having few wants, desires and distractions is at the root of the practice of simplicity.

This practice, for me, has at least three main components: not harming others, creating freedom for oneself, and cultivating resilience for all. Bill Coperthwaite encapsulates this well in the following quote:

When we have more than we need while others are in want, we certainly thieve. But in addition, we enslave ourselves. As we learn to live with fewer and simpler things, and are able to live with fewer expenses, we become less vulnerable to social upheaval. We have great freedom – visual, mental, and spatial – and far greater freedom of movement. And we spend less time maintaining and stumbling over things – physically, mentally, and visually – and worrying about loss. (from A Handmade Life).

 Not harming others becomes the practice of not taking more than one needs and doing well with what one has already. The more resources I take for myself, the fewer there are for others. And if my life deprives another then it is inherently a violent life. The practice of simplicity and non-violence go hand-in-hand. Often the root of greed is the wish to fulfill a desire that doesn’t even need to be fulfilled and which will not be fulfilling even if it is. So our practice here is to limit the distraction of desire and to ask ourselves, “do I really need this and does it take from another?”

Creating freedom for oneself, in the practice of simplicity, allows others to be free also. The more things, desires, and expenses we have the less freedom we have because the more things we have the more time and energy we spend maintaining them, caring for them, fixing them, cleaning them, and worrying about them. This worry is most often a concern about the loss of things. I call this the surface area of stuff to volume of life ratio. This relates to a fundamental rule in ecology surface area to volume ratio. What it means in relation to simplicity is that the more stuff we have in our life the more time we spend relating to that stuff and not to each other and the rest of our life. I don’t think that most of us want to be managing our stuff all the time and not actually living our life. So in this practice we simplify in order to open up the space, time and energy for our life to unfold and for us to be an active participant in it. With desires, we are constantly creating them and then chasing after them. Much like the things in our lives, we can end up spending most of our time and energy with desires and not with the people, places and things that we truly care for. And desires seem either impossible to fulfill or when fulfilled dissatisfying. “Desires are inexhaustible, and I vow to exhaust them all” is one of the four great vows of Zen Buddhism. While it is impossible to exhaust them (because they are inexhaustible), the practice of simplicity can allow us to not get caught up in them like a dog chasing its tail, which leaves us dizzyingly dissatisfied. With desires, we seem to be always searching for something better which sets us up for never being satisfied. Simplicity can free ourselves from (too many/much) desires, allowing ourselves to settle – settle into the moment and settle into our lives.

Practicing simplicity cultivates resilience to change for myself and others. When we are able to live a simpler life we are less vulnerable to great upheavals. Resilience is created through the simple act of happily living with less – fewer things, distractions, desires and expenses – and through the empowerment that comes with the ability to design, create, build, maintain and fix the few things that we do have. While there is strength in the connections between community members, this can only be true when the individuals themselves are resilient. If you need a new chair, for example, and you cannot go down to a store and by one, you had better know how to make one yourself or know someone who does. The same is true for food, clean water, shelter, clothing, tools and so forth. Simplicity is simple to sustain, whereas complexity is not. The practice of simplicity cultivates the resilience of the community through empowering individuals.

So the practice of simplicity is a multifaceted and never ending process that allows us the freedom to enjoy what is before us, to live out our values as much as possible, and to do so with limited distractions. While it is necessarily focused on the individual, its ultimate aim is to create a resilient and happy community. As thus, we recognize that this path is “simple in means, rich in ends” as Bill Duvall said, and deeply interconnected. Ultimately, the practice of simplicity is, as Gary Snyder put it, “light, carefree, neat, and loving.” This is a path that I vow to follow and to return to when I inevitably wander off.

 

Go forth light, carefree, neat and loving, and with all my love for you both,

Papa

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~written by David

Values – Family, Home and Creativity

My dearest girls,

As we embark on a year of transformation, Papa came up with the idea of writing letters to you, so that someday in the future, if you ever wondered how we chose the direction to take our – and your – lives, you could have these letters. As I sit here on our couch, in Arcata, California, I am not sure where to begin to tell you how we got to where we are – readying ourselves for a major life change, moving out, quitting a permanent, stable job (in Papa’s case), simplifying, downsizing.  Beyond those changes I don’t know what will happen – I don’t know what we’ll do for income, or where exactly we will find our home place (we think it’s somewhere in the Methow Valley of Washington, so we’ll start looking there!), or how our lives together will unfold after this change.  What I can tell you is why we are doing it, and perhaps, in this first letter, that is the best place to start.

What do you value? A question that is rarely asked, and difficult to answer sometimes, because we so rarely stop our busy lives to ask this very simple thing. Honestly, I don’t know if I’d have stopped to ask myself this question if your Papa hadn’t asked me!  I find that in answering it I am always a bit hesitant – it’s almost as though the answer is precious to me alone, and that sharing it somehow makes me vulnerable.  I suppose it makes me feel that I’m showing someone my “soft spot” to tell them what REALLY matters to me.  So now I’m finding that the more I can share this with others, the more confident I feel about what my values truly are at this point in my life.  Right now, today, what I value most is Family, Home, and Creativity.  Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  I feel like the values we have is really more like a web – where everything is connected somehow, and there are no clear categories or separation. My three core values are all attached to each other, and to the greater world around us, it is hard to talk about them individually.  I value you girls so much, and so we are choosing to change our life so that you can live in a way that we believe will foster your confidence, creativity, and understanding of yourself and others. My sense of family has deepened so greatly since having children, and I find at times I am so intently focused on you both I can almost forget that there is so much else happening in the world. Luckily for all of us, the world has a way of getting our attention, otherwise I may become far too tunnel-visioned! The world we live in is such a dynamic place, perhaps now more than ever, as we watch the very climate we live in begin to change in ways we cannot ignore any longer. It is this world that draws me out of becoming entirely focused on my family, and brings in my sense of home. Home refers to both our individual place where we feel connected to the earth, as well as the earth itself. At the small end of my sense of home, I want to live in a way that makes anyone who comes to our home feel welcome and to be a place where we can all feel free to be who we are. In the broader sense of home, I want to live in a way that minimizes our negative impact on our beautiful world. I have always loved nature, and from an early age I was concerned and troubled by the way in which we humans have treated our planet and the fellow beings that inhabit the earth with us. Having children has only intensified these feelings, because now I imagine what the world will be like for you as you age – what kind of world will it be when you are my age, perhaps with children of your own? The over-consumptive lifestyle that has become the norm in today’s culture is completely unsustainable, and at some point we will run out of resources to support such consumption. We can choose to change our habits now, however, rather than having complete resource depletion finally force us to severely limit our consumption. In today’s culture, houses are bigger and bigger, while families are smaller than ever; people have more stuff, gadgets, toys, clothes, devices, etc but far less happiness and contentment. I want to explore the boundary where “not enough” meets “just right”, and find out how little stuff we can have that allows us to live simply, yet also richly. The riches will not be expressed in new cars, the latest cell phone technology, and unnecessary gadgets, but rather in the relationships we have with friends and families and our connection to the earth. Our riches will show in the food we grow, the skills we learn, the network of people who we have worked with throughout the years to build our lives. To have this dream realized, we will draw on our creativity. Our innate creativity is often untapped, or maybe it’s been squashed down over the years, as we are told in subtle and overt ways that we should all act a certain way, according to some assigned values that are given by Mother Culture which change depending on the color of our skin, the amount of money we make, and who our parents are. What Papa and I hope to create is our own life, apart from what our Mother Culture is telling us we should be doing with our lives.  According to Mother Culture in the early 21st Century, Papa and I should both be working full time.  We should have a couple car payments and credit card debt.  We should have a TV.  We should buy all our food at the supermarket.  You both should be in full-time daycare/preschool.  And we should most definitely never question why we all live this way.  So instead we are being creative – starting with the way we think.  And once you start to think creatively and questioning…, it’s like going down the rabbit hole – there’s no going back!  We want our life to be of our own making, and this idea spills over into so many different things.  We want to grow our own food, raise our own meat, build our own houses.  And we want you to help us in all these things, and by doing all this, to learn about the world around you, to be confident in yourselves and your creative gifts, whatever they might be and wherever they might take you.

We are only in the beginning of this adventure, at the point where we have realized that the role we’ve been assigned to play by Mother Culture is not one we feel moved to perform. So we have begun to question why we have to do all the things that white, middle-class, educated Americans have to do. What happens if we don’t? What happens if we go a completely different way? We do not want to move away from people, away from communities, and be hermits in the woods. But we do want to take a step back from the current status quo, and then maybe another step or two after that. This path we find ourselves on has been years in the making, and now we find ourselves on the brink, making preparations for taking the big leap, and having faith that the net will appear. How exactly this will happen is the adventure, the journey we are on together, as we take the “road less traveled by”. For a long time now I’ve been excited to think about my future with Papa, and now, as your Mama, I am even more excited that you will be along with us on this adventure.

Your loving,

Mama

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written by Kristin

Letters to our daughters: Values

A note to the reader: Kristin and I have started an endeavor whereby we are writing a letter a month to our daughters, who won’t be able to read these letters for many years. Our desire is to capture some of what we are going through and thinking now and to pass that along to their future selves when it’s the right time to do so. What a gift to give our kids – (some) of the understanding of why their parents did what they did way back when. Kristin and I are writing separate letters and we wanted to share them with you all. This first one is from me but there will be others to follow. I must admit that I am a bit nervous about hitting the publish button as this is a seriously transparent window into who we are. “Leap and the net will appear”, it has been said, so here goes!

 

Dearests Madeleine and Juniper:

Mama and I have decided to write a letter a month to you both for the next year or so. The reason we are doing this is two-fold: First, we want to do something that forces us to write more frequently creatively, and second, we want to explain a bit of our thinking that is going into our decision to take what we are calling the Great Plunge. This Great Plunge is our term, although we will use others also, for making seemingly dramatic changes to our life that will include me quitting my job and all of us all into a bus that we are converting into small home. We also seek out land to live on and a rural community to become a part of. On the one hand these changes are not all that dramatic because they are based on our core values and include changes that we have already begun to make. On the other hand, they are a radical shift away from mainstream living in America (the “Industrial Growth Society”, as Joanna Macy coined), and toward what we hope is a more life-sustaining way of living.

I am writing to you in an attempt to explain to your future selves the why behind the life that your mom and I are intentionally deciding to live. It’s a life that we hope to design in the best sense of that word, not to control but rather to cultivate and culture. I hope that through these words you will understand that a lot of soul searching and thinking has led us to these next decisions. Because nothing is static, everything is always changing and everything is connected, we don’t and cannot know where this will all take us. Each decision causes myriad effects, which then become causes themselves. We don’t know what’s going to happen but we do know that our actions radiate outwards in never ending circles like a pebble dropped into still water. It is our vow to act in ways that cause positive ripples throughout the world.

In a single sentence, the following quote from Gary Snyder (poet, teacher, Buddhist and mountaineer) sums up how I want and vow to live: with simplicity, boldness, gratitude, strong and generous work and play, and with lots of walking and laughing:

Practically speaking, a life that is vowed to simplicity, appropriate boldness, good humor, gratitude, unstinting work and play, and lots of walking, brings us close to the actually existing world and its wholeness.

In the following paragraphs I will attempt to explain and weave together our core values with the life that we envision. This is no way means that this is how it will always be because even our core values will change over time. Above all else we envision a dynamic life that will evolve with our changing selves and the changing conditions around us – a life that will be responsive to the conditions and needs of the world around us and that is part of “….the great adventure of seeking solutions as to how best to live” (William S. Coperthwaite).

Harmony. We are doing this both for ourselves and for you with the full recognition that we are not separate. We cannot simply make self-centered decisions without causing harm to you and everyone else; and we cannot sacrifice our own lives solely for your benefit without causing great harm to ourselves and others. We aim for a balanced and harmonious life and will use that, perhaps more than anything else, as our yardstick for a life well-lived.

Simplicity. We endeavor to “live among the enchanted: enchanted by the possibility for simplicity and beauty for all” (William S. Coperthwaite). Living a simple life opens up a world of possibilities for all of us. By not letting our life be taken over by too much debt or too many things and by limiting unnecessary distractions, we open up a world of possibilities for ourselves and others. When we take too much from the world we take away the possibility for others to live healthy, vibrant and fulfilling lives. And the same is true for ourselves; when we fill our lives with unnecessary stuff, we limit ourselves. Living simply means to live a less distracted and more wholesome life where we can discover the wonder and joy that exists both within ourselves and throughout the world. And to allow others this same possibility.

Adaptability/Resilience. In addition to cultivating harmony, we aim to create a resilient existence that is highly adaptable to current and future change. It is also an existence that encourage grace, beauty, joy and love in the world and that ensures others have this opportunity as well. Resilience is characteristic of strong individuals, families, communities and societies and this is something that we foresee as crucial in our rapidly changing world. We don’t know what the future is going to entail but things are changing so quickly that I don’t think the past will be much help in predicting the future. Our hope is to create a resilient and strong family by learning ancient skills in living that we have forgotten, by re-wilding ourselves in thought and action, by knowing how to grow food and tend the land, by learning to build housing and by honoring our interconnectedness with the world. By learning how to provide for our own basic needs and encouraging others to do the same, I believe that we can create resilient communities that are self-supporting and that add to the world rather than take away from it. Another aspect of resilience is adaptability which very much includes the ability to think for oneself. I do not want to cultivate the mentality of a sheep, looking for a shepherd to follow. I would rather encourage free-thinking and inquiry as practices of adaptability and resilience. The ability to change with changing conditions and to bounce back from setbacks will be crucial in this rapidly changing world. Through building relationships, honing practical living skills, and tending the earth we can ensure that the world continues to take care of us, all of us, while we continue to take care of it.

There is so much more to say and not time enough to say it all. I hope that future letters will give you a window into my actions and the thinking, feeling and core values behind them. For now, simply know that I love you more deeply and widely than I knew was ever possible and that this love continues to grow each and every day!

Your Loving Papa

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Written by David