Category Archives: Mindfulness

Learning to Build Walls

In the early mornings, I take my dogs for their walk on the Baxter Preserve in North Salem, New York.  We dog owners are permitted to let our dogs run off leash before 9 a.m., before the horses and their riders take precedence over the dogs.  My dogs love romping and running with their friends;  they benefit from socialization and exercise,  and I start my day with an invigorating walk.  These are pensive moments, and even though I often run into fellow walkers, it is a time of reflection and solitude.  I am grateful for this, for the time to slow down and contemplate.

The Preserve, also known as the ‘Racetrack’ because horses used to race there decades ago, is a large expanse of donated land with open fields and endless trails.   It is beautiful in the morning when you can witness, at the same time, the sun rising from the east and the moon setting to the west.  You can walk for miles and miles along the trails, passing by black cherry, cottonwood, maple, apple, walnut and oak trees.  A great pond is in the center of the old racetrack, and nearby is the grandstand where people used to watch the races.  There are ancient rock walls everywhere,  still standing, constructed by former landowners hundreds of years ago, sectioning off squares and rectangles of property.

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I think of Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall” as I pass by and over these ancient rock structures, and I find myself reciting, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”  I imagine the farmers rebuilding their walls each spring, reforming the boundaries between each other, a wall high enough and solid enough to define what each considers his, but not so high that it completely blocks out the other.  It is a wall that protects the neighbors but also leaves them open.  It is a wall that continually needs maintenance because the earth shifts, weather beats down, an animal skitters across, knocking down a boulder or two.  There is something to be learned about constructing such a wall.

Lately, I have been considering the idea of walls and boundaries.  I was talking with a friend once, and she asked, “and how is that working for you?”  I couldn’t answer.   For me, the question was perplexing because most often I don’t know.  It is difficult to judge when something is working for me or not, on any level.  I haven’t known when to say yes and when to say no, and I tend to be more worried about how my actions and choices will affect another.  Now, when I reflect on relationships I have had with friends, bosses, co-workers, boyfriends, and family members, I can see how my inability to understand personal boundaries has negatively impacted these relationships to the point of permanent damage.  I do believe that most of us struggle with boundaries to some extent.  We want to be pleasing; we want to be loved.

For almost a decade of my life – most of my twenties – I was involved in a destructive, religious cult where I was not permitted to have any sense of self.  Destructive cults negate a person’s individuality; members’ personal boundaries are seriously and deliberately stripped away.  Members are programmed to ignore their own wants and needs but instead are told what to do, how to do it and when to do it.  There was no point in asking if something ‘worked for us’ or not.  We – ‘I’ – didn’t matter, and it was considered selfish – even sinful – to consider our own wants or needs.  It takes tremendous work to recognize and repair the trauma brought on by cult involvement; there are layers of damage.  I, personally, have suffered serious consequences because of not understanding the simple concept of personal boundaries.  I’ve believed people when I should not have, even when it’s been proven that they are not to be believed, and I’ve been extremely sacrificial about my own needs while putting others’ needs first.  This has left me depleted in every possible way.  I have assumed that those for whom I have sacrificed would do the same for me, and I have been wrong.  This is a dangerous assumption.   People will accept what we offer, but nobody really loves the sacrificial lamb.

As I have slowed and my life has become less frantic, I am learning to pay attention to what works for me and what doesn’t.  In this way, I am becoming more creative, energetic, healthy and happy.  I am learning to say, “I don’t care if he/she likes it or not.  This is what works for me.”  I am reading and working through Sarri Gilman’s book, “Transform Your Boundaries.”  Sarri tells us that boundaries are about yeses and noes, and that “no is life saving.”  I believe this to be true.  I said a resounding “no” a long time ago when the cult  leaders insisted I send my oldest daughter away to school.  I was not going to send my daughter away; I had seen too many bad things happen to the children in the schools.  I said “no” to protect my daughter and my children, and thankfully, that “no” ultimately helped me to leave the cult.  Now, my work is to find the “no” that works for me, that protects me in my daily life.

In “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost playfully questions his neighbor about the need for walls, and his neighbor answers, “Good fences make good neighbors.”  Despite his questioning though, it is Frost who calls on his neighbor when it is time to rebuild their walls, to make sure the rocks are in place, to “set the wall between us.”  I like the idea of a mending wall, and I am building my own boundaries, slowly and carefully.  My wall formations may be a little awkward and crooked, but I have drawn a line, and I am strong enough to pick up the fallen boulders and place them back where they belong when they do fall.

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A Time For Resolve

Today is the first day of 2015.  This is the time of year when resolutions are made, when intentions are set, when we start fresh.  Many of us are reflecting deeply on the past year as we look forward to a new year. We think about what we might have done differently, and we resolve to do better in the future.  We make commitments about exercising, dieting, drinking less alcohol or drinking none at all. We promise to save money, floss every day, be perfect recyclers.  We decide we’ll volunteer every week.  We vow to get more sleep and to be more mindful of our bodies.  In the days and weeks leading up to this first day of the year, we contemplate change and look forward to new beginnings, we plan our goals and compare ours with our friends’.  We make lists, we spend money on gym memberships, we join weight-loss programs, we buy exercise equipment, even our grocery shopping shifts in preparation for our new life, which begins today.

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In truth, our new life – a new day – a new year – begins every moment.  Our new life is now.  We are as good as we are at the moment, and honestly, that’s plenty good enough.  For me, when I am intent and determined to forcibly change something I am doing or some thing about myself I am not happy with, I know it won’t work.  I’ve tried enough times to know this.  Maybe, a few days or a few weeks will pass with success, but it won’t last.  I will fail, and then I will flog myself for my failure, and then I will flog myself even more because this is yet another failure to add to my pile.  When I am focusing on the failure pile, I somehow forget anything good I have done or accomplished.  I neglect to remember the simple goodness in my heart.  I start to believe I am unlovable.  So, now, I don’t commit to unrealistic resolutions.  I try to set my goals in the spirit of kindness toward myself rather than with the idea that I am not good enough and I need to make myself better.

This year, I want to work toward living in the moment, lamenting less about the past and worrying less about the future.  I want to gain a deeper sense of gratitude for what I have and for who I am.  My goal for this year is to be attentive, to listen, to be present.  When I pay closer attention to the world around me, I experience a greater joy.  If I am joyful and smiling, I am more apt to spread that joy to others.  My aim is to be kinder to myself and be less judgmental about my imperfections.  In this way, I find it easier to be committed and resolute about my goals and life in general.  I will keep it simple this year.  I hope to maintain some semblance of balance and peace — even when I feel waves crashing against me.  I will write, I will sew, I will create.  This is simple.  This is what I love.

Cellular Memory

A few years ago, my daughters and I attended an all day writing workshop, a Spring Salon at Hedgebrook, the community of women writers located on a beautiful farm on magical Whidbey Island in Washington State.  As Susan and Lila and I rode the ferry from Seattle,  we felt the power of our friendship and of our kinship.  The mist of the salt-air blew across our faces and into our hair as we stood on the ferry’s deck, arms locked together in unity, silently watching the Island come closer as we crossed Puget Sound.  Susan was seven months pregnant, and we were keenly aware that the next generation of “Schaffler women” was with us.   Lillian’s story had begun months ago, and she was writing it now, even while in the womb.  Hedgebrook’s mission is to “support visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come.”  We were eager to experience this day as three generations of women, to tell our stories amongst other, strong women writers.  The Hedgebrook farm setting is serene and tranquil; you can feel the energy, and you can sense the spirits of the thousands of women who have written there, who have communed there and who have been brave enough to tell their stories.  You can perceive the potency of these women’s words as they continue to affect millions of readers.  The women of Hedgebrook author change.

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My daughters and I decided to sign up for the same workshops, one with Storme Webber and the other with Kathleen Alcalá.  We loved taking the workshops together; we were eager to share the results of our work, to hear one another read out-loud to the group, to listen for similarities and differences in the results of our assignments, to marvel in the spontaneity of our writing.  We intuitively knew our unified energy could be felt by the other women in the group.  I have participated in many writing workshops, and never did I experience the level of intensity as I did on this day.  There seemed to be so much more at stake for us; we knew each other intimately.  Our life stories are not all bright and cheery; I have made my share of mistakes as a mother; sister relationships can be brutal.  Though my daughters and I trust each other, we are careful not to inflict pain.  We bare our souls when we write, and sometimes our truths can be painful.  We dive deep into our memory banks, conscious and unconscious, and we try to free the memories that live deep within our cells because this is how we write the truth.  My daughters and I felt safe, un-judged, supported and loved at Hedgebrook.  We took Lillian’s presence seriously and marveled when she danced in Susan’s belly.  We knew she was listening.  We knew she was excited to share her story with us.

Before we left the farm that day, my daughters and I purchased three little silver bracelets stamped with the words “Women Authoring Change,” one for each of us.  I have not taken mine off since I put it on my wrist — except for when Lillian wants to wear it.  This is the only bracelet of mine Lillian wants to wear.  I have other beautiful bracelets, but the only one Lillian ever wants is the Hedgebrook bracelet.  She puts in on her wrist and on her feet.  She plays with it in the bathtub and holds it tightly in her fist while she goes to sleep.  Somewhere in her cellular memory, I am certain Lillian remembers her day at Hedgebrook when she was cocooned in her mother’s womb.  When Susan was in labor, she absolutely refused to take her bracelet off, despite it getting tangled in tubes and tape. Our day together at Hedgebrook helped to drive a profound sense of authorship within the world Susan creates for Lillian, a world of empowerment, focus, and possibility in love, adventure, and crazy fun.

Lillian is now two; she will be three in June.  She is a serious little girl with a great sense of humor and style that is simply astonishing.  She is an old-soul, a kindred spirit; she looks at you with knowing.  Lillian is writing her story.  She is the next generation of women authoring change.  Between my daughters Susan and Lila, and my son Kana, there will be other granddaughters and grandsons who will write their stories and change the world, whose voices will be loud and strong.  I look forward to witnessing these generational forces, and I am certain their stories will be influenced by conscious, unconscious, and even by ancestral, cellular memories.

Learning to Listen

Several years ago, I realized I needed to hone my listening skills.  I was enrolled in a high-residency full-time MFA program, working full time at a demanding job, and commuting about 100 miles to work and back.  My teachers warned me that working full-time while pursuing my MFA would be difficult if not impossible.  “You are juggling too many balls,” I was told.  “They are all going to come crashing down.”  To me, it didn’t seem impossible at all.  I had accomplished my BA while raising three children by myself and working at least half-time.   I was good at juggling; even though an occasional ball would drop now and then, I always got the rhythm going again.  Quitting my job wasn’t an option, and I was determined to complete the thing I had journeyed from Washington State to New York to do: finish my BA in writing and complete my MFA.

My time was limited. The reading lists were long, and my writing assignments filled every spare moment I had.  In order to complete the assigned readings, I had to be creative and utilize every minute.  I discovered audio books, and I started listening to the audio version of any books on my reading lists I could find.  I was sure to have the printed books also, but if I could find the audio version, I listened.  During my commute,  I listened. Any time I was in the car, I listened.  I listened early in the mornings and late into the evenings when everyone was asleep.

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The first book I listened to was Moby Dick by Herman Melville. What a challenge it was to have twenty-four hours of intense, dense listening ahead of me!  I would be driving along and suddenly realize I had missed an entire section – pages of reading.  My unfocused mind wandered, and I daydreamed.  I couldn’t navigate my way back to the place where I had stopped listening, especially while driving.  I usually didn’t even know at what point I had drifted off.  I couldn’t push the ‘rewind’ button because there wasn’t one.   Starting from the beginning was not an option because I had no time.  I had to learn to listen.  I had to keep my mind from straying.  It took practice and discipline, but I have learned to love this form of ‘reading.’  Now, almost every book I buy is in audio form.  Sometimes I also buy the printed or Kindle version, but I continue to listen.  My favorite way to experience a book is to listen.  My mind still wanders, and I find myself daydreaming, but I have become more attentive and am quicker to notice my mental wanderings.  I don’t miss as much.  I am able to reel my attention back and focus.

Listening to books has helped me to be more attentive to the world around me.  I pay closer attention to the things I hear.  I am an eavesdropper.  When I walk into a store or go to a flea market or take a walk down a busy street, I listen for interesting sound-bytes.  I love listening to the things people say.  I have a Twitter feed where I ‘tweet’ the things I overhear @laurieschaffler.  This motivates me to listen.  Plus, I want to record and remember what I hear.  Maybe someday I can turn my listenings into a beautiful poem!

 

 

Gratitude

I have a friend who is almost eighty-three years old. He refers to himself as an octogenarian. My friend has lived a long life of giving — both of his time and of his money. He gives to charitable organizations regularly. He is an active member of his local Kiwanis Club and continues even today to participate in their community and charitable activities. He has supported homeless shelters, college scholarship programs, and animal shelters. He himself has adopted dozens of dogs and cats, and he has provided them all safety, food and health. He mentors kids and helps them with school work, he buys blankets for the homeless, and he donates food for food pantries. He also gives to his church.

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My friend has been a church-goer since he was a little boy, and he started tithing as a young adult. If I conservatively calculate how much he has given to his church over time, the sum is well over one-hundred thousand dollars. Even as a conservative estimate, this is a significant sum of money.

In a recent conversation, my friend told me he is becoming bitter, and I asked why. He explained that he had forgotten a monthly tithe. It must have been the month when he had gone to his sixtieth college reunion, he told me, and it slipped his mind. Unfortunately, the church sent him not one, but two dunning reminders about the oversight. I was sad to hear my friend is not attending church as regularly since receiving these notices. Church is a sanctuary for him.

It is understandable that the church relies on the tithes of its community. Charitable and not-for-profit organizations rely on the contributions and pledges of their supporters. Sometimes people need to be reminded about these commitments, it’s true. I don’t think my friend expects a pat on the back for all he does, but perhaps a gentler reminder along with a note of gratitude would have been a better way to communicate about the oversight. He certainly would have felt more appreciated.

My guess is that organizations are more successful with fundraising efforts when they ask for help in the spirit of appreciation and gratitude. The holiday season is a time of giving. We typically receive many fund-raising appeals for great causes during this time. We are reminded about the importance and benefits of giving. I wholeheartedly believe, as I said in my last post, that the more we give, the better we get. Let’s remember also to appreciate the giving and to thank the giver. A little pat on the back never hurts.

Today is Giving Tuesday

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Black Friday begins the mad flurry of shoppers shopping for the holidays and taking advantage of retail sales. Stores and malls open earlier and earlier, and shoppers flock in droves to go buy stuff. There have been reports of violence and mob scenes, deaths and injuries, as shoppers shove and fight to get their hands on the things they want. Some retailers are even opening their stores on the evening of Thanksgiving, creating an earlier shopping opportunity called Gray Thursday. Then we have Small Business Saturday, a valiant effort to encourage us to do more shopping in support of small businesses, and come Cyber Monday, we can all stay home and shop for deals online.

Sometimes and often, we shoppers buy stuff just because we think we are getting a bargain. Honestly, who can pass up a 50% off sale? I am certain most of us have rationalized the purchase of a bargain, whether needed or not, by telling ourselves, “I’m sure I can use this thing.” I know I have. I’ve come to believe that it’s important to be mindful about the difference between need and want, to pause before making a purchase and ask, “Is this thing really necessary?”

A fair amount of effort goes into analyzing and speculating about the results of Black Friday sales. If it is true that sales are down by about $7 billion this year – that’s 11% less than last year – I wonder if this is because we are becoming more mindful about our spending and about what we are buying. I really hope so. We are expected to consume in order to bring our society to economic health. I want our economy to be healthy, but I’m not convinced that we need to buy, buy, buy in order to achieve this goal. The more we buy, it seems to me, the more we have to store and the more we are willing to waste.

Today is Giving Tuesday. I like this concept – a day dedicated to giving. This day came to life as a direct response to the commercialization and consumerism that takes place during the post-Thanksgiving Day season. I wonder if we will spend as much time, energy and effort analyzing the giving data as we do in crunching numbers reported on sales. Maybe this is an impossible set of data to measure, though. How does one measure giving? Maybe it’s as simple as this: the more we give, the better we get.

Stitching as a Meditative Practice

Hand stitching is a slow and deliberate process.   A particular idea or project may seem like it will take forever, and we might choose not to begin because we are so worried about the time involved.   We might stop before we start because we convince ourselves that we will never finish.  If we decide, though, to embark on the stitching journey, we might slow down so much that we really feel the impact of the story we are telling, and the story becomes that much more powerful.

The practice of hand stitching can be rewarding and surprising when we turn it into a meditative practice.  I find it reassuring to listen to the needle popping through the fabric, to hear the glide of the thread as it follows the needle, to quiet the mind and listen.  I like the slow work of sewing stitch by stitch.  I like reveling in the unraveling of a story that wants to be told.

This is a piece I started months ago. The canvas is a denim jacket I found at the Salvation Army Store, and the stitches are entirely chain stitched. I started with the word “Trust” as I continue to contemplate what this means in my life – to “trust the journey” – to “trust life”.

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As I have moved through the process with this project, I’ve not had a pallet nor a particular plan.  I am trusting the process and doing what I love.  The piece continues to evolve.

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This is a really convenient project to take with me wherever I go – it fits my body – so I wear my work in progress! I just have to carry my needle, scissors, and thread.

There are literally tens to hundreds of thousands of stitches, and it all started with one.

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