The tree with the lights in it

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It took many months for me to finish reading this book, as I could only manage it in small doses. Dillard writes with an intensity level that starts around 7 or 8 and cranks up to 11 by the end of each chapter, and as thrilling as that is, it can also be difficult to bear. She is a mystic of the sort who finds the divine in nature; her explorations combine close observation of her neighborhood ecosystem, reading obscure 19th and early 20th century entomology texts, and citing Heraclitus, the Desert Fathers, and Martin Buber. There is humor, in flashes, and a really stellar use of language ranging from popular (childhood rhymes and cowboy movie references) to extremely erudite phrases that will send you to the dictionary.

Overall the book’s mood is alternately tormented and ecstatic. One comes away feeling that Dillard is struggling, hard, with the aftereffects of some kind of deeply traumatic experience, of which the frog being sucked dry by a giant water bug — the book’s most disturbing, recurring motif — is just a pale reflection. Sometimes I felt her angst was arising only because she had her framing wrong and was looking at the situation backward, leading her to anguished conclusions (the chapter on “Fecundity” for instance: “Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me.”). Other times I was grateful and amazed for her ability to describe transcendent/immanent experiences in which the self disappears and life shines forth in all its blinding presence (the chapters on “Presence” and “Stalking” for instance).

Overall, an undeniable classic of nature literature, of course, but also a reading experience I wouldn’t recommend to just anyone. Don’t come here unless you like having your hair set aflame.

Note: This overview and assessment of Dillard’s work by William Deresiewicz is useful, insightful, and sharp.

The tree with the lights in it

Zen, death, love, and an exorcism.

Book cover image, with a photo of a round black rock next to a small bud vase containing a single white flower with two leaves, on a plain beige table.
Cover of Love and Fear by Renshin Bunce.

Love and Fear: Stories from a Hospice Chaplain by Renshin Bunce

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Zen Buddhist chaplain’s memoir, with many stories shining light on what it means to die, and some of the many different ways it can happen. Written with a gentle, understanding, open heart, and a knack for telling detail and flashes of gentle humor. Also, embedded in these many moving personal stories are some core life lessons, about the importance of connection, the power of ritual, and how love helps draw meaning out of the onrushing river of life.

ALSO: If you ever wanted to know what an exorcism performed by a Zen priest might look like, this book has an amazing account.

Zen, death, love, and an exorcism.

I have heard the toadfish singing.

Midway between humble and fabulous. Photo from Elkhorn Slough

The toadfish sits on the bottom of the sea, singing a song of love.

It is a creature midway between humble and fabulous. It is small enough to fit into a person’s hand, and has a bulbous, grey-green, wet look. It is quite ugly, except for the luminescent dots (photophores) running along the length of its body, which give it a spiffed-up, dance party look, like the buttons of an ensign’s jacket, thus giving the toadfish its other name: the plainfin midshipman.

I have never seen a toadfish, but I have heard them singing.

Ordinarily the toadfish lives in the deep, dark sea. But when it is time to seek a mate, the toadfish swims up to the shallow, intertidal waters of a bay or slough. The male burrows into the mud at the bottom, and begins to sing, hoping by his song to attract a female to his burrow. Vibrating his swim bladder, the toadfish emits a clear, resonant tone — a steady drone, a hum. Other toadfish nearby tune in, and they synchronize their pitch with one another, so the water column fills with a continuous humming note. It can be quite loud, penetrating the hulls of boats and ships, keeping their occupants awake at night. It may even be loud enough to awaken those on land. It is often mistaken for a sound of mechanical origin: A distant ship motor, a generator, or some other machinery operating on the shore. But no: It is a sound the toadfish have been singing for probably millions of years, since long before humans existed.

On a recent swim along Muni Pier, aka Aquatic Park Pier, I heard the toadfish singing, each to each. I did not think they sang for me. But their song sounded, to me and my swim friend Zina, like a chant, really, a steady, clear, “OM” sound, somewhere around low A, and it was a song I felt I could join. The deeper I put my head into the water column, the clearer and stronger the sound became. If I could swim deep enough, I thought, I could enter into the sound completely, but I might never return. So instead, from the surface, I tried matching the note with a sound of my own, floating there with my face in the water, chanting my own OM into the water, bubbles blowing out of my mouth as I chanted along with the toadfish.

When I found the right pitch, my whole torso resonated with the sound. I had joined the chant, the chorus of the toadfish. It felt like the all-encompassing, penetrating tone of pure love. It was the sound of the universe singing to itself.

I have heard the toadfish singing.

Walking through a shitstorm.

So last week I went for a walk before starting work. It was a simple, small walk, just around the block. I was enjoying the sunshine and the blue sky and paused to appreciate the gnarled, massive pepper tree on the street parallel to ours, which I don’t see nearly enough because I usually don’t walk that way. And then, as I was rounding the corner towards home, I walked past a truck.

It was a vacuum truck, with a hose snaking down into a manhole at the corner, cleaning out the sewer. I walked past, taking care to keep at least six feet away from the two workers at the controls behind it.

As I passed the truck, I realized I was walking through a fine mist. I put my head down, held my breath, and walked until I was clear of the mist, then turned around.

I saw that the mist was coming from an air vent at the top of the truck. The mist had now turned to a spray, and the spray was turning dark gray, almost black, in color. It was blasting against a traffic sign, a yellow diamond warning trucks about the height of the train bridge just ahead, and the sign had turned almost completely black.

It was then I realized I had just walked through a cloud of aerosolized sewage. A literal shitstorm.

I walked straight home, took my clothes off directly into the washing machine, and jumped into the shower. After thoroughly scrubbing myself off and then rinsing my mouth with Listerine, I got dressed for the second time that morning and came downstairs to explain to my family what had just happened.

I called the public works department to complain, and then went off to my office to start preparing for the half-dozen Zoom meetings I had that day. But no sooner had I sat down than I heard the sounds of the vacuum truck, closer this time, and over its machine noise, the sounds of my wife yelling.

I ran back to the front of the house to find that the vacuum truck was now parked right in front of the neighbor’s house, and here it was spraying the black sewage mist all over the neighbor’s car and lawn. The mist was also drifting across our front yard and porch. The workers were trying to control things by spraying their truck with clean water, to no effect.

The truck was too loud for the workers to hear our yells, so we called public works again, and I also called up the number listed on the truck’s side. Eventually the men stopped their work and gave us some lame excuses. A little while later a supervisor showed up so we could yell at him for a bit and — between the yelling — give us the back story.

The truck’s fill sensor had malfunctioned, so its tank overflowed, which caused the first spraying incident. The workers dumped half the tank back into the sewer, and then came down the street to try and vacuum up the overflow that was, by then, going down the gutter, past our house, and towards a storm drain, where, if they let the sewer water flow in, the company might be facing significant penalties, thanks to the Clean Water Act. Unfortunately there was still some kind of clog in the pump, so even though the tank was nearly empty, the shit was still hitting the fan.

I appreciate the work these men do — it’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it — but, as I told the supervisor on the phone, they might need to take better care of their equipment, and train their workers on how to handle a malfunction like this. After getting a new truck and cleaning up the gutter properly, the men washed off the neighbor’s car and hosed down our porch (twice). And while I was nervous for a few days, it seems clear I didn’t get sick from the sewage, nor did any of our family members. It’s possible, if it contained coronavirus, that I could still be incubating it. But the black water was from older sludge on the bottom of the sewer line, not fresh sewage, so I think my odds are pretty good.

Still, walking through a literal shitstorm is not what you want to be doing during a pandemic.

Your Zen teachers will have a field day with that story about the shit mist, my friend Susan said, reminding me of the story about Unmon and the shit stick.

I suppose this is a chance to cultivate equanimity. It’s not easy. But in the meantime, it makes for a good story.

Ordinary mind, Buddha mind. Shit stick, shit mist. What’s the difference?

Can you see the Buddha in a cloud of shit? In the middle of a pandemic?

Buddha mind ::
the doctor holds up a nasal swab

Walking through a shitstorm.

Either way, you get your pet back.

One of the last decisions we had to make when my father was in hospice care was whether we wanted a teddy bear made out of one of his shirts. It was just a day or two before he died, and we didn’t know exactly when it would happen, but it was clear he was getting close to the end. The hospice nurse, on one of his regular visits, asked us if we wanted this free service, as it was included in the hospice fees. (If we wanted extra bears, we could order them for $60 each, but the first one was free.)

I imagine there are people for whom this kind of thing would be a great comfort. But for anyone who’s in this situation and doesn’t already have a clear sense of how to answer, my advice is simple: Do not request a teddy bear made out of the shirt of your deceased loved one.

I don’t know what I was thinking when I agreed to let them do this. I was grieving, my father was dying, and I was so focused on his and the family’s needs that I could hardly be bothered with something as remotely relevant and tacky as deciding whether or not we wanted a bear. Or what to do with his body — another awful question the hospice nurse asked us during the same visit. The man is still alive, and he’s lying right there between us, I wanted to shout. And you’re asking whether we want his body cremated or embalmed? Fortunately, my stepmother K. knew how to answer this question.

But for the hospice shirt bear, nobody knew what to say. K. joked about it, because it reminded her of an old Car Talk episode that she and my dad had a good laugh over. In this episode, a caller had described a shared office building in his town that housed both a veterinarian and a taxidermist. Click and Clack had suggested that the two could buy a shared billboard with the slogan “Either way, you get your pet back!”

This hospice shirt bear offer was the equivalent of this veterinarian-taxidermist joke: Either way, you get your loved one back.

But while we chuckled about it, there were looks going back and forth between K., my brother, me, and my wife — and nobody seemed to be actually making a decision. So I said to the hospice nurse: OK, we want the bear. Better to have it and not want it than not have it and wish we did. So K. gave the nurse one of my dad’s blue checked button-up shortsleeve shirts, the kind of shirt he had a dozen of in his closet and which he always seemed to be wearing, with a couple pens and other stuff in the pocket. And I filled out the shirt-bear request form, and gave it to the hospice nurse.

Dad in one of his omnipresent blue checked shirts.

And then my father died, and I forgot all about the bear.

Eventually, though, it arrived. The hospice nurse had to mail it to me because K. refused it. So it arrived wrapped up in tissue paper one day, lovingly packed into a box, along with some sentimental printed notes from the hospice shirt bear maker. And the maker’s business card (in case we wanted more, I suppose).

It was ghastly.

This bear was made out of Dad’s shirt, all right. It had two little button eyes, a button heart, and a ridiculous pair of ribbons tied around its neck. It was just like a child’s teddy bear, except, horribly, made out of my dad’s old shirt.

Nobody would want a bear like this. Those who loved my dad would not be able to see past the absurdity of his shirt being made into a teddy bear. (Not a big teddy bear guy, my dad.) Anyone who didn’t know him wouldn’t want a weird blue bear made out of biology-teacher plaid. There are no small children in our family at the moment and at any rate, with those buttons, it is probably not safe for babies or toddlers. And would you really want your baby snuggling and drooling on a bear made out of Grandpa’s old shirt anyway?

The only member of our family who seemed interested in the bear was our dog Lucy, who was eager to tear apart a new stuffed toy. I wasn’t letting that happen either.

So I set the bear on a shelf next to the stairs, out of reach of the dog. And every time I went up or down the stairs for the next two weeks I saw the bear, and sighed.

Then the shelter in place order came down and we all started living at home all the time. I saw the bear about twenty times a day now. It was really getting to be too much.

Fortunately, the solution soon arrived. My brother pointed out an article from Australia about how people are putting stuffed bears in windows (and hanging them from fences, roofs, etc) so that children who are out on walks with their parents can spot them, as a kind of find-the-bear quarantine game. A few days later, I saw a similar headline in the Chronicle, which confirmed that it was a thing here, too.

So now I knew just what to do. I got some string, and an index card, and a Sharpie, and I put the bear in the window.

It solved the problem. The bear has found its purpose. It makes me laugh, now, instead of grimace. And it’s still out of reach of the dog.

Either way, you get your pet back.

Grief and gratitude.

moonrise over Beatty, Nevada

I’m not entirely sure I know the difference between grief and depression.

My father died on February 7, and for the past two and a half weeks, I’ve been grieving his death. This is normal and expected. It’s exactly the kind of ordinary devastation that people all over the world feel every day, that we will all feel eventually.

We saw it coming from a long way off. I spent two weeks in early January caring for him at his home in Nevada, and then helping him move into a hospice care facility; I spent another weekend with him in late January; and then I spent the last few days by his side as he declined towards his last day on Earth. And the grief was still a surprise when it hit.

I then got sick almost immediately after returning home — my immune system almost certainly weakened by the grief I was carrying — and it was the nasty cold/flu that seems to be going around all over this year, with about three days of complete exhaustion and fever, followed by ten days of somewhat milder symptoms, varying day by day: coughing, eyes running, nose running, sneezing. KJ got sick too, and even the 13-year-old had a couple days of illness.

And then, with the grief and the sickness, I started to feel like I just couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t get going. I didn’t do laundry, I could barely read or talk with my family, I hardly wanted to eat. I lost all of last weekend to a sleepiness and weariness that is only now just starting to lift. This weekend has been somewhat better, but still low.

So whatever I’m feeling now, it’s almost certainly a mixture of grief, sickness, exhaustion, and depression.

These feelings don’t fit well into the narrative of Silicon Valley, or really any part of the working world, as far as I know. I’ve been fortunate that my bosses have been incredibly understanding of my need to be with my family, and of my subsequent sick days. I’ve had nothing but support at work. I would have taken the time to be with my father during his last few weeks anyway, but to know that I don’t have to find a new job after returning certainly makes things easier. I’m grateful for that.

But it’s not support, or the lack of it, that I’m talking about. It’s something more existential: A sense of not fitting. It’s the matter of trying to put one foot in front of the other, to keep the fingertips moving on the keyboard, to keep smiling at my coworkers, when the trap door of grief is opening up under my feet.

I’m not fully concentrated at work. My sense of time is a little off. Everything seems far less important than it did before. And really, is there anything that Silicon Valley wants to hear about less than the inevitability of death?

What to do with all these feelings? All this perspective?

My answer for now: I’ve been caring for myself as best I can, and taking it a day at a time. When the energy levels permit, I do yoga and qigong exercises that I’ve learned can help with feeling centered and happy. I stretch. I try to fit as much meditation as I can into my waking-up routine, although some mornings it’s just ten minutes at the kitchen table, cradling a warm cup of coffee in my hands. I’m a long way from regularly doing an hour of yoga and meditation every morning, as I was before.

I reached out to two Buddhist teachers I know this weekend. Each of them was very generous with their time, and spent over an hour talking with me, pointing things out and helping suggest some practices I can follow. More time on the zafu. Some helpful rituals for the memory of my father. Recognizing how lucky I am, how lucky we all are, to be alive. Seeing the lesson of my father’s death as a gift, an awakening, as something to be learned from and remembered. That, deep within the grief, there is also a reason to be thankful: Gratitude for the time I did get to spend with him, gratitude for his parenting, gratitude for his example, and for the chance to learn from his passing, this transition that we all must eventually make.

And most of all, the teachers remind me, remember to breathe.

Inhale. Pause. Exhale, slowly and deeply, as if you were sighing. Notice that pause at the end of the out-breath: That emptied-out moment, when you let go of everything just a little bit more, and the body settles into itself just a little bit deeper. That moment: A glimpse of the last breath, of the peace that might be possible when you let go with both hands.

And then: The in-breath, as natural as can be, filling the lungs again.

Grief and gratitude.

Ryan D. Tweney, 1943-2020

Ryan D. Tweney

Ryan D. Tweney, professor, book collector, husband, father, and mentor, died February 7 in Pahrump, Nevada, aged 76. Born in Detroit, Ryan was raised by his mother Helene Tweney and grandmother Viola Marciniak, and educated at Cass Technical High School, the University of Chicago, and Wayne State University, where he earned a Ph.D. in psychology. He taught psychology at Bowling Green State University for over 35 years, inspiring and educating generations of undergraduates and graduate students, particularly with his history of psychology course, which has been described as “legendary.”

A lifelong lover of books, learning, and discovery, he was a scientist at heart, and devoted much of his research in cognitive psychology to the study of other scientists, helping to shape the field of psychology of science, and elaborating and exploring theories of confirmation bias, hypothesis formation, scientific creativity, and more. Author and contributor to countless research papers and several books, a large part of his studies focused on the work and diaries of the 19th-century physicists Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell.

In later years his love of the American Southwest and geology led him to the great Mojave Desert, Death Valley National Park, and eventually to retirement in nearby Beatty, Nevada. There he divided his time between his ongoing academic pursuits, including occasional teaching, and his love for taking to the backcountry in his 4×4 with his wife and friends to collect rocks; to explore the desert, the mountains, and the trails running through them; to search out history and old, long-abandoned sites of human habitation; and to marvel at the mind-numbing complexity and sheer beauty of the geology he saw everywhere he looked. He also supported the local fight to save the endangered Amargosa Toad and joined the board of the Beatty Public Library, offering his organizational and writing skills to help with grant applications, community meetings, and planning.

Always generous with his time and advice, Ryan was a beloved mentor to many students, colleagues, and family members. He is survived by his wife, Karin “Kit” Hubert; two sons, Dylan and Chris; a stepson, Seth; and three grandchildren whom he adored: Clara, Curtis, and Vivienne. The world is smaller for his passing.

Ryan D. Tweney, 1943-2020

November chill.

Photo of police in front of the "Dreamforce National Park" installation on Harrison Street, San Francisco
Welcome to Dreamforce National Park

It’s November, and in the seasonal ebb and return of the San Francisco economy that means it’s time for Dreamforce, the annual tradeshow hosted by It’s one of several annual conferences large enough not only to occupy all of the Moscone Center’s three massive buildings, but to spill out into and take over the adjacent street, occupying a full city block of Harrison Howard Street. As a demonstration of corporate power’s dominance over civic power in the 21st century, you don’t get much more vivid than this: A heavily used street is closed down and given over to private use, traffic is redirected at great inconvenience and cost, and the police are called in to protect and preserve this now-private space for the duration of the weeklong conference. Plus there is most of a week before given over to setup and a few days after for teardown.

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In this privatized city block, Salesforce will erect pavilions, roll out Astroturf, set up food kiosks and stages for entertainment — and all for the benefit of its paying customers. Last year there was even a private “park,” with temporary trees and greenery, with signage that echoed the National Park system’s. At a time when the real National Parks are being starved of operating budgets and their irreplaceable natural wonders are being reconsidered as concessions to be developed by the gods of capital — hotels! amusement park rides! Wi-Fi! — the irony of a miniature “National Park” popping up in San Francisco, but designated for the exclusive use of Salesforce customers, struck me as more than a little ironic.

Yes, Dreamforce brings dollars to the city, and to its hotels and restaurants in particular. Such is the deal: Give us temporary use of your public spaces and in return we will pay you, while those who are paying us will also pay you. 

At least it’s temporary, and the expenses (extra policing, traffic control, etc.) are paid for by Salesforce, so unlike, say, a publicly funded sports arena there is no economic hangover after the circus leaves town.

Photo of temporary "park" installed in front of Moscone Center for Dreamforce 2019

This year, Dreamforce again includes a group of monastics from the Plum Village community founded by Thich Nhat Hanh, the second-most famous Buddhist in the world. These brown-robed Zen monks and nuns are offering meditative walking and mindful eating sessions to Dreamforce attendees, in and around a Plum Village Center within Moscone. Again, it’s complicated: “The practice of mindfulness is deeply rooted in Salesforce culture,” the website tells us, and that no doubt helps the company and its employees be more present and aware of the world and their effects on it. The addition of a meditative, spiritual component within a conference that Dan Lyons called a “triumph of vulgarity and wasteful spending” seems like a beneficial balancing element, a beacon of hope for the lost souls stuck in the pit of Mordor. To have a place of refuge, where people can escape the teeming, noisy, busy halls of the tradeshow, is certainly a relief. It may even help make the attendees better people, as meditation and the practices of the Plum Village community have undoubtedly made me a better person.

Salesforce founder Marc Benioff is a longtime supporter of Thich Nhat Hanh, and even offered up his San Francisco home as a residence for Nhat Hanh and his monks and nuns after the latter suffered a stroke in 2015. For months, Nhat Hanh received treatment at UCSF, while dozens of monastics resided in Benioff’s house, accompanying and supporting their teacher. Such relationships, between wealthy patrons and famous monks, have been essential for the continuation of monasteries throughout millennia.

But what is the function, commercially speaking, of a group of Zen monastics in the heart of a tradeshow? What benefit does Salesforce receive for including these monks and nuns? Are they merely a distraction? Another form of entertainment? A way for Salesforce to convey how hip and “different” it is? 

Like the word “Dreamforce,” the effect leaves me a bit confused. The combination of something diffuse and spiritual — a dream — with the hard-edged charisma and implied threat of “force” — is a bit like an iron fist in a velvet glove. It’s easy to take it superficially, and be calmed and reassured by the fuzzy exterior, only to be brought up short by the solid material realities: The street is closed, Salesforce owns it this week, and they’re using it for a festival of sales optimization, data collection, customer tracking, and revenue generation.


November is also the time, in the Bay, when the water takes a turn toward the cold. After hovering in the mid-low sixties (Fahrenheit; 60F is equivalent to about 16 degrees Celsius) throughout September, the temperature drops to the high fifties in October and then hits 55 (13C) and keeps dropping in November. This is where things get real. Every degree colder is a noticeable, uniquely different experience. Going from 55 to 54 feels bracing, 53 starts to feel painful, 52 is difficult to face, 51 shockingly cold, and anything at or below 50 (10 degrees C) starts to feels positively icy. We’re not yet at the lower end of that range, but you can feel it coming, the cold, lurking out there beyond the Golden Gate like a massive, liquid mountain of anti-heat, drawing closer every week and bringing cold currents with it. For the cold water really does originate out at sea, welling up from the depths, and as fall advances into winter the tides pull more and more of these ribbons of cold into the Bay, mixing them and swirling them around before flushing them back out to sea. Meanwhile there is less sun every day to shine on the waters in the shallow parts of the Bay, so the warming that happens in the summer is curtailed. It’s as if the front door has been opened to the cold and the heater shut off at the same time: Very quickly the house gets to be the same temperature as the outdoors.

For those of us who swim in the Bay, a regular schedule is key to maintaining one’s cold-water acclimation during these waning months of the year. If you were swimming comfortably without a wetsuit in September when it was 65, you can continue comfortably at 55 provided that you kept swimming at least a couple of times a week during the month that the temperature was dropping. Twice or three times a week is plenty for your body to adjust — and it can and will adjust magnificently— provided you are relatively consistent about it. Unfortunately for me, I have only managed to swim once every week or two for the past couple of months, so I’m not having an easy time of it. I have enough cold water experience that I’m not totally unprepared, and my body adjusts quicker than it did a few years ago when I first started swimming in the Bay, but I still exercise caution. I’m not spending much more than half an hour at a time in the water, and I’m keeping to the safer waters inside Aquatic Park rather than venturing further away from the shore, the showers, and the sauna. I’ve already heard a couple of stories about swimmers experiencing hypothermia, one of whom had to be taken to the emergency room, and I’m not about to put myself in that situation if I can help it.

So there I am, when I swim, diving into “bracing” water and reminding myself how good it is for my heart, my brain, and my mental attitude. It takes my breath away, every time.

November chill.

The Institute, by Stephen King

The Institute

The Institute by Stephen King

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“The Institute” is a dark vision of psychic power and how it could be abused by a shadowy organization that transcends any one government — people who believe they are doing massive good for the world while actually inflicting tremendous evil on the children they are using.

Like most of Mr. King’s work, it’s a page turner. Once the story picked up speed I got obsessed with it and felt compelled to read the last third of the book as fast as I could. Unfortunately, the first half of the book is oppressive. I believe King really wants us to feel how miserable the conditions are for the kids — but this part is so long, it drags a bit, and I found it was making me frankly depressed.

Lots of fun to read by the end though, and plenty of spooky (and exciting) action to keep the story charging forward in the last couple sections. And the reader is left with some interesting thoughts about the power that psychic abilities could have, if they were real — as well as some chewy moral considerations about what’s acceptable and what’s not, when your goal is to save the world.

View all my reviews

The Institute, by Stephen King

A Zen family vacation

A Zen monastery isn’t the kind of destination you’d typically think of taking the family on vacation, but that’s what we did this summer. I got up very early one morning in late June, shoveled the 18 year old and the 12 year old into the car, along with some basic camping gear, and drove south for approximately 8 hours, until we arrived at the gates of Deer Park, a Zen monastery in the Plum Village tradition, founded by Thich Nhat Hanh. (My wife didn’t come with us for the retreat, but she joined us later that week in Los Angeles.)

Deer Park is in Escondido, in the San Diego area, up in the hills. The family retreat takes place over a long weekend: You arrive on Thursday afternoon and leave Monday morning, giving you four nights and three full days, plus two half days, at the monastery. Is that a five-day retreat, a four-day retreat, or a three-day retreat? I don’t know. I do know that it was enough time for a little transformation to happen.

I was a little nervous going in, because I’d never been to a Plum Village retreat before and had no idea what the weekend would hold. But over the course of the retreat, we all relaxed and became a bit more mindful. I started to touch a deep feeling of peace and had a few insights that extended my meditation practice. And the kids had an awesome time and were begging to come back even before we had left.

The monks and nuns who run the monastery wear brown robes and shaved heads, and they’re supported by a team of lay volunteers who seemed to be everywhere, doing everything. There’s just enough formality to the schedule to make you realize you’re on retreat, but on the whole it doesn’t feel strict or repressive or excessively “religious.” The monastics are cool, and approachable, and amazing with the children. All the kids were divided up by age groups — the 12-year-old went with the tween group and the 18-year-old with a teen group — and each age group had its own, age-appropriate program. Songs, mindfulness, activities, hiking, talking … I don’t know exactly, as the kids didn’t tell me much about what they were doing. Within the first hour or two of arriving, it was clear that both of my children were going to be very happy staying with their groups and that they needed no help or support from me, except for waking them up in the morning.

We stayed in a tent, although dorm or small room accommodations are also available. The camping area was a large sheltered area under some trees, with many other tents — nothing special, but convenient to the bathrooms and reasonably flat.

A few notable aspects of life on this retreat:

  • Bells. Whenever a bell rings you are supposed to stop whatever you’re doing, hear the sound, and let it bring you back to the present moment. No matter what you’re doing, you just stop for a few moments and just stay with your breath. Then you resume whatever you were doing or saying. And there are a lot of bells! I realized after a day of this just why this organization’s magazine is called The Mindfulness Bell.
  • Silent meals. When you line up for food and when you’re eating, you’re supposed to remain silent for most of the time. Kids and families are not too good at maintaining perfect silence, but for the most part we ate without talking (or with minimal, occasional whispering), at least until a bell sounded that signaled it was okay to speak. I thought that was awkward at first but it actually worked, and I wound up making friends with some table mates anyway.
  • The food. Almost totally vegan. It was filling and delicious. For my daughter, a revelation: She didn’t even realize she had been eating vegan (as opposed to vegetarian) all weekend until I told her. Ice cream is also available for purchase at the bookstore during limited afternoon hours, though they are vegan, coconut “ice cream” bars, which my kids complained lightly about — but not enough to say no to them. Pro tip: Buy some wooden ice cream tokens at the bookstore and keep them in your pocket — that way your kids will be forced to return to you if they want these treats!
  • Walking meditation. If you’re not used to this style of meditation, it might feel like nothing more than painfully slow walking. The idea is to walk slowly enough that you can be fully aware of each step. When you’re doing this at home, on a city street, or in a park, Thich Nhat Hanh advises walking at a normal speed, so you don’t stand out too much and make other people uncomfortable. But at a monastery, if you do walking meditation in a group led by a monk or a nun, you’re going to be walking much slower than you’re used to. Feel free to enjoy it — while you’re supposed to pay attention to your steps and your breath, you’re not actually supposed to stare at the ground ignoring everything around you. Quite the opposite: Once you get into it, this is a good way to become open to all the wonderful sights, sounds, and smells around you, and even the feel of the air and the sun on your skin. The landscape of Deer Park opened up for me on one of these walks and I was stunned by the variety and beauty of flowers, trees, birds, and other things all around.
  • Deep relaxation. You don’t spend a ton of time in meditation at a family retreat — there’s a morning meditation session and an opportunity to meditate at the end of the day — but several afternoons there was a chance to participate in “deep relaxation,” which is a guided meditation you experience while lying down on flat cushions in the meditation hall, sometimes with gentle music playing. This is extremely relaxing and just the kind of thing most parents need.
  • Service meditation. Every day we had to do an hour or two of working meditation. The group I was in got assigned to cleaning up the bathrooms, which was not hard. I heard that sometimes you might get assigned a job, like scrubbing pots after meals, that is harder. I didn’t have that experience — the work our group did was pretty light. At any rate, I found it was quite possible to do the work in a mindful, meditative way, much like walking meditation.
  • Dharma sharing. Every day the small group I’d been assigned to for working meditation spent an hour or so in a circle, talking about our meditation practice or our experiences at the retreat. I valued this aspect of the retreat but I can see how, for someone not familiar with the Plum Village tradition, this might be uncomfortable. 
  • Dharma talks. These lectures, by senior monastics, gave me lots of food for thought and for meditation practice. My kids didn’t attend most of these, and I wish they had — especially one on the last day of the retreat that was actually aimed at tweens and teens, which the 12 y.o. showed up for but the 18 y.o. skipped. But they were busy doing their own things, and were free to choose what they wanted to do — which was something else.
  • Practice songs. There’s a whole repertoire of Buddhist songs that people in this tradition like to sing. At the retreat these songs came alive. They’re essentially camp songs, and they’re a little goofy, but they’re fun, and they embody important ideas about the tradition and the practice and make them easier to remember. I came away having learned quite a few of them and their tunes even got stuck in my head a bit. It was a nice feeling.
  • Noble silence. After the last dharma talk of the evening, or after 9pm at any rate, you’re supposed to keep silent — until after breakfast the next morning. In reality nobody’s too strict about this but it does keep things pretty quiet during sleeping hours. In a camping area filled with children all in tents in close quarters, that’s something to be grateful for.

I had a few experiences during the retreat that were especially intense. There was an evening hike up to the top of a hill, where we ate our dinners and then watched the most amazing sunset — with a simultaneous double rainbow in the opposite direction — that was an almost mystical, nearly transcendent experience of too-much-beauty for me. I wrote about this elsewhere.

There was a moment while I was eating lunch where I had a strong vision of how the food was being consumed and would soon be transformed into my body, but also how the food had started out as something else (dirt, rain, air) before being transformed into that food, and that after it had become me (and poop) it would eventually become something else again. It was a powerful sense of existing as a temporary “node,” or a process, among a bunch of interwoven streams of things-transforming-into-other-things.

I missed my kids. While I was happy they were so involved in their groups I also wished I could have connected with them a little more often. But they didn’t much want to eat meals with me, let alone go to a dharma talk or hike. I saw them at night, when we were going to sleep in the tent, and it was clear they were happy, so that was enough. And later I learned that the retreat had a powerful effect on both of them, teaching them ways of relaxing and giving them a strong sense of peace and belonging.

On the last day of the retreat there was a ceremony for a transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, which is this tradition’s version of the Buddhist five precepts for lay people. Anyone who wants to receive this transmission is welcome to sign up for it, and there were 12 or 15 people who did so that morning. This ceremony doesn’t require you to become a Buddhist but it does involve monks and nuns lined up in rows in their formal yellow robes, and there’s a lot of bell ringing and bowing, which gives it some gravity. I found it beautiful and moving. It was a nice way to end the retreat.

After that we packed up our camping gear and reluctantly drove away from the gates of the monastery. Almost instantly the kids, who were terribly sugar-deprived after a few days of such healthy eating, were clamoring for Jamba Juice, so we stopped there before heading on to pick up KJ at the airport and spend a few more days of vacation in and around Santa Monica. But that’s a completely different story!

A Zen family vacation