With almost 250 people filling Deer Park Monastery, the 6th Annual Family Retreat was a great success. Leslie and I (with kids) arrived a couple days early to help setup and plan for the arrival of many friends. From July 2 through July 6, the monastery was transformed into a time of families practicing together. It was very nourishing to see many old friends from past retreats and to share, learn, and grow together. The Dharma is deep and lovely and it was very present in those attending the retreat. How wonderful to spend time with parents on the path who have similar values and interests as we do in our family. About half the people camped while the others stayed in the simple dorms. The weather was hot, but not unbearable. This Retreat was the most culturally diverse I’ve experienced at Deer Park (having never attended the People of Color Retreat) and I was happy to be sitting and practicing with friends on the path. So, some readers may wonder what happens at a monastery with 80 children.
Parenting is a huge responsibility and it will affect our children’s (ages four and eight) future in ways we can only guess. We make decisions for our children on a daily basis, but are we are making the right choices? Two particular choices we have made in our household pertains to media – we don’t own a television and the kids have only seen three movies to date (Cars, March of the Penguins, and Horton Hears a Who). Though the kids see television when they visit grandma (cooking shows!), it isn’t a presence in our home and they don’t seem to miss it. At a recent social gathering of friends, I was surprised to hear of a 7-year old watching Hotel Rwanda and the latest Indiana Jones with her dad and of a 5-year old who watches an hour or two of television or videos daily. This came days after Leslie and I went to a PG-13 Hollywood blockbuster and noticed some very young children in the audience. It makes me uncomfortable but at the same time makes me question our choices.
We have exciting opportunity here in Ojai to participate with a group eating locally for one year. Of course, this could happen anywhere but Kristofer and Joanne Young have challenged our community by seeking 100 (or more) volunteers willing to do this together. The group is just getting off the ground and has met once with about 50 interested people – people from Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Saticoy, Ventura, Santa Paula, and Ojai. Though I am not 100% certain this will happen for our family, we are giving it some serious thought. The idea came from Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle where her family documents eating locally for one year. The idea is to eat food within 100 miles of our home for one year.
I’m exploring the joys of being busy and taking a close look at the commitments in my life. What does it mean to be busy? To have commitments? Is it possible to have to many? I’ve heard Thich Nhat Hanh talk about something called busylessness, or businesslessness, [the correct term is “businessless” invented by Master Linji – added 4/26/08] but I’m not exactly sure what that means. I think it is a word just for those of us in the West who strive all the time. Who pursue something outside of ourselves. We work so hard that sometimes we don’t allow space for openness, for rest. We don’t allow enough space for doing nothing. Let’s take my life as an example (since I’m the one writing). As I look beyond my permanent commitments of being a partner and a parent, I see myself involved with many volunteer activities.
August 28, 1943 – April 14, 1998
It is hard to believe that it has been 10 years. In late 1997, I had started a new job as the Head Librarian/Technology Director at a Bay Area high school. The dot com era was getting into full swing and my mom was dying of some unknown disease. How could this be, she was only 55 years old? It was difficult to grasp all that was happening because she and her partner had moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico; someplace very far away. My new employer was extremely accommodating and I flew to Santa Fe often over a period of six months as my mom’s health deteriorated, spending many hours with her as her body gave way. Mom was a strong, determined, willful, loving, opinionated woman. She had created a life for herself and she was happy.
Over the past seven years, I have spent many days/nights at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, but usually it is for a weekend or even just a day. On two occasions our family have spent 3-weeks at the monastery (once at Deer Park and once at Plum Village in France). These times are always nourishing and provide a nice time away from our regular environment. After our last long visit, in January, the children both said they’d like to stay longer the next time we visit. And though we only spent this past week at Deer Park, it was better than no time, and the children loved the visit especially since the Abbot Thay Phap Dung was available to play silly games with them.
The first question people often ask us about time at the monastery is – what do you do there? What about the children? My best response is that we participate in the activities of the monastery as best we can. For things like sitting meditation, dharma talks (teachings) and dharma discussion, Leslie and I must take turns. Aside from that, we join the community in eating together, cooking together, walking together, playing together, and working together. It is a time to slow down. How often can you take 45-60 minutes for every meal? How often can you take a 45-minute walk in the middle of the day with friends? Or, to sit and have tea for two hours in the afternoon while the children play?
We have been experiencing some warm weather the last few days and the flowers are all blooming. The mountains look great. The sky is blue. And a full moon has greeted us at night. Today was in the upper 80s and we hung out around the pool with family for an Easter lunch. Jasper and Mazzy had a blast searching for eggs and then taking a swim in the pool. Of course, the sugar rush was a bit much.
Ironically, tonight is our last night at the Ojai Valley Family Shelter because it closes for the warmer season. Jasper and I have spent the past two seasons staying in a church kitchen with 15-20 homeless. Our night is Sunday and we usually arrive around 6:30pm, eat some dinner, put out the mats, and then serve breakfast around 6:00am.
One person, James, is in 5th grade in a local elementary school and Jasper has enjoyed playing with him. On our last visit Jasper realized that James doesn’t have a home to go to like him. That he doesn’t have a room with toys and his own bed. James’ mom has a few other children, but she only comes to the shelter with two of them. Most people are pretty regular and I have gotten to know names and experiences over the past two seasons. Some are in transition, others have mental health issues, many have day jobs but simply can’t afford to cover rent (much less first and last month). My hope was gain a better understanding of this community and generate more compassion in the world. They are good people with real stories. Bill, for example, sleeps with an oxygen machine and yet he continues to smoke. His friend/partner, Joyce, takes him to the hospital, cares for him, and wishes he’d quit smoking.
We are very fortunate, and that in itself, creates separation. How to remain real and to remain compassionate knowing that I have a home, a job, a savings account. There is so much poverty, so much suffering, so much injustice. It brings me back to the 5th Mindfulness Training where it says, “I am committed to living simply and sharing my time, energy and material resources with those in real need.” Are we doing this? What more can we do?
Joy, friendships, and love all exist, even here in the shelter.