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.

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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.

Yoga then Yoga

After an hour of careful breathing and the gentle coaxing of my body into various positions, an hour of twisting, bending, and sweating at the local yoga studio, I am laying flat on my back in the Savasana pose, palms facing upward, eyes closed, breathing, calming, relaxing, reflecting. The yoga instructor has changed the music for the last five minutes of our Vinyasa practice, and we listen to a beautiful voice, accompanied by a tamboura and a harmonium, singing, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna . . . . . .” The lights in the studio have been dimmed, and all is silent save our breath and the music. I am new to this yoga. I am stiff and heavy and physically inflexible. I feel as though I have just painfully wrung years of toxins from my cells, and my inner organs have shifted and feel a bit revived. But something else has happened in this wringing. I find myself suddenly flooded with unexpected emotion, with deep cellular memory of a past life, of a life I have rejected and feared, a life I have loved, and a life I have hated. As I bridge decades, I am moved to tears. I was a yogi, once.  I was a Vaisnava, a Bhakti yogi.

I have chanted the Maha Mantra over 5,676,000 times.

I have meditated for over 7,000 hours.

I have blissfully danced and sang in over 6,500 kirtanas.

I have recited the Bhagavad Gita, in Sanskrit, from memory.

I have studied the Vedas and the Upanishads and the Mahabarata.

I have worshipped the sacred Tulasi plant.

I have taken pilgrimage to Vrindavana and washed my face with water from the Yamuna River where it is said that Krishna subdued the great serpent, Kaliya, and where he played with the cowherd boys and girls.

I have bowed on the banks of the holy RadhaKunda, the bathing place of Krishna’s favorite girlfriend Radharani, and I have worn mud-beads from its banks made by little girls who bartered for buttons and bobby-pins.

I have been welcomed into temples where no tourist has ever set foot only because I was a Vaisnava, a devotee of Krishna.

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I joined the Hare Krishna movement when I was just eighteen, and I spent nine years in the group. I loved the philosophy of Bhakti Yoga, the food, the saris, the music, the meditation, the idea of serving God and being committed to the greater good. I still love these things. What I didn’t love, though, was the abuse, the overwhelming lack of freedom, the brainwashing, and the destructive and narcissistic behavior of the leaders. Unfortunately, the group distorted the philosophy and used it to control and manipulate its members. I was brainwashed, and I could not see what was happening to me. Even to the point of having an arranged marriage, I believed the group leaders knew what was best for me. It was only when I had my first child and was instructed to give her to another woman to wet-nurse that I said “No.” Then, when it was time to send my almost five-year-old daughter to a Hare Krishna school, I rebelled. I had seen children abused and mistreated. A spark of independence stayed with me thanks to my mysteriously acquired maternal instincts, and I made a terrifying decision. With my three children in tow, I left my husband and the Hare Krishna movement. I have always believed that my children saved me.

After leaving, it took a long time to re-acclimate to the mainstream having been insulated and isolated from society. I was totally unprepared to be responsible for so many little people’s lives. It frightened me that I had allowed such abuse and manipulation to affect my life so significantly. At the time of leaving, these nine years made up an entire one-third of my lifetime. Being quite naive as I adjusted to ‘normal’ life, I was compelled to reject my involvement in the movement and the philosophy. I was determined to put as much of it behind me as I could. I can still see, in slow motion, my beautifully burnished sandalwood meditation beads in their little saffron cotton sack soaring up and into the dumpster where I tossed them. Nine years of burnishing gone. Or so I thought.

Today, I am happy to be learning how to be a new kind of yogi, a yogi who respects her body, her mind, her spirit, and all of everything that makes up who she is. My hope is to maintain balance. I can be mindful, wise, graceful, compassionate and kind without living a life of austerity and deprivation. I am happy, after all of these years of reluctance, to confidently enter a yoga studio, to sit on my own yoga mat in a lotus position, and to practice yoga. I am grateful that my past-life cells are waking up and bringing to the surface positive memories and a sense of pride for those nine years. I am willingly embracing the idea that many of my strengths and uniquenesses are directly related to my past life.

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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