This Happened

I was drawn in.

My daughter asked me to help her choose a sari for a wedding celebration. In our quest for a store that sold saris, we wound up at a Hare Krishna temple. I haven’t been to a Hare Krishna temple since I left the movement over thirty years ago. My daughter saw that I was visibly shaken.  “I’m okay,” I said, “let’s go,” and we walked inside. My daughter was five when I left the Hare Krishna movement. She doesn’t have a conscious memory of that life.

img_3419The Govinda gift shop and the ladies who worked there were lovely. Their faces were welcoming and effulgent, and they were kind and helpful to my daughter. The shop was filled with saris and cholis and dhotis and kirtas.  Brass dieties. Incense. Dr. Bonner’s soaps. Baby Krishna.

I asked if there were discounts for devotees. I found myself compelled to tell them I was a twice initiated disciple – by Srila Prabhupada – a devotee like them! I had this odd longing to belong again to so much memory.

We heard music in the temple room, so we slipped our shoes off and went inside. A devotee was leading kirtana. Another devotee was placing an offering of food at the feet of a life-size statue of the guru, Srila Prabhupada. I stood with my daughter wrapped in my arms against my chest, remembering ten years of this life. We both wept.

And then I was angry. I remembered the children who were separated from their families and sent to the Gurukula schools, and who were abused and mistreated. There are so many deeply disturbing stories. I remembered the corrupt behavior of the leaders that we all rationalized as acceptable because we believed everything they did was in the service of God. I remembered the tricks we were taught to play on non-devotees to coerce money from them because we were convinced that taking from their pockets for the service of God would only benefit them. I remembered the cruelness inflicted on me and how vulnerable and devastated I was. They will say things are different now. If they are, where is the apology?

I Have Lived in This House


Whenever I am on the streets of Capitol Hill in Seattle, I am drawn to a corner, one of memory, as if by standing before this old house, I will unravel a clue to reconciling a past I love and a past I hate. 

This house is where I learned to cook large vats of ghee, yogurt, and dahl, and make piles of chapatis. I learned to meditate, and I sewed clothes and made flower garlands for the deities, Radha and Krishna. My marriage was arranged here, and this is where my wedding ceremony was performed. I lived here when I became pregnant with my first child.  

I am inside this house.

I am upstairs, inside the second story porch, my sari neatly pleated and tucked around my head and body. I worship the Tulasi plant, circling her with offerings of flowers and a ghee-lamp burning with camphor-soaked cotton balls. I sing, “vrindayai tulasi-devyai, priyayai keshavasya cha.” I kneel to offer obeisance.

In the temple room, I am among the women, submissive and entranced. We sway before the altar, arms lifted, devoted, chanting to the hauntingly beautiful trilogy of harmonium, cymbals, and drums. Musky incense smokes the air.

I wonder if the new residents sense a vibration in the walls and floors. Do they smell the lingering spices? Do they feel the hum of early morning meditation?

I do.

No Kidding. My Children. Not Yours.

“We’ll find a wet-nurse for it.  We’ll put it in a basket and keep it in the attic.”

Padyavali followed me into the kitchen, and before I could stop myself, I turned and said, “No.  No one is going to be my baby’s wet-nurse. I am not giving up my baby.”  Padyavali reached up and slapped me, hard, on the face.  I heard the clap of her palm against my cheek, but somehow, I did not feel the sting.  I was stunned, but what was most surprising to me was that I said ‘no.’  I had never said ‘no’ to her before.


Padyavali was older; she did not have children, nor had she ever been married.  She was our headmistress, the overseer of the women and girls of the Seattle Hare Krishna temple.  Rocan, our temple president, had hired her as his right hand ‘man’ so he wouldn’t have too much direct contact with us.  Women, according to the Hare Krishna philosophy, were the downfall of men.  We were full of lust, and our brains were half the size of a man’s.  We were simple minded, and if supplied with enough children, jewelry and saris, we would be satisfied.  It was unusual for a Hare Krishna woman to have any position of authority, but Padyavali was not woman-like; there was not an ounce of femininity about her.  She was short and skinny, and her movements were jerky and rigid.  She was pinched and tight-lipped, her forehead lined with deep furrows, a permanent scowl chiseled into the middle of her dark eyebrows.  Her wide, black eyes darted behind thick-lensed glasses that constantly slipped down her hooked nose.  Despite her size, she was powerful and foreboding, and we all feared her.  Padyavali hovered around Rocan constantly, her white-widow’s sari engulfing her small body, her arm hooked up like a princess to prevent the folds from falling.  I suspected she had a secret crush on Rocan, that she was jealous of me and the other women because we were young and pretty, but I chalked this up to my own sinful thinking and wiped it away.  I had learned to be good at that — ignoring any doubt that entered my mind.  I remember the way Rocan looked at us, though, tilting his head back slightly, fluttering his eyelids and rolling his eyeballs in their sockets as if he was experiencing some sort of ecstasy, oddly flicking his tongue around in his mouth while he led chanting sessions and preached inaudible sermons.

After my pilgrimage to India, when it was deemed I needed special attention  and guidance because of my lack of surrender, because I could no longer meet my daily quota of collecting $250,  I was informed that it was time for me to be married.  My future husband, Hrsikesa, had flown to the Seattle temple from New York seeking a wife, and we were betrothed.  “Please,” I begged, “Please don’t make me marry him.”  I sat on the floor, cross-legged, my head bowed in a gesture of humility, while  Padyavali and Rocan sat on satin pillows on the other side of the room, stone-faced and cold: “You need your own personal guru.”  I was usually good at forcing myself to be submissive and quieting my mind, but I was concerned about marrying this man, and submitting to the idea was difficult. Hrsikesa was a stranger to me, a man with a thick Brooklyn accent and anxious, tense expressions.  Even though he had a handsome face, with soft blue eyes, and he appeared strong-bodied and healthy, something about him made me uncomfortable.  We were discouraged from knowing each other, from becoming attached to each other, from even liking each other. During our betrothal, we were allowed to interact for one hour each day, and then only to read scriptures together in the temple room.  I didn’t want to get married, but I was not given a choice, or at least I believed I had no choice.  If I didn’t follow the plan, I would be forced to leave the temple.  For me this was terrifying because it equated to going to hell and being damned for life.  “We know what is best for you,” Padyavali said, and she forced me, fully clothed, into a cold shower and berated me until I agreed to surrender.  I had witnessed one of the other women refuse an arranged marriage, and she was shoved down a flight of ceramic-tiled stairs, out the door, and into the street.  I pushed away my thoughts, my feelings, and my unhappiness about this arrangement.  Hrsikesa and I were married less than six months after our betrothal.  A few months after we were married, I was pregnant.  I was twenty-one years old.

My husband and I stayed in Seattle up until a month after I gave birth to my daughter.  For much of the first year of our marriage, I wasn’t permitted to live with Hrsikesa, even while I was pregnant.  Padyavali continued to control my daily activities, so I remained in the temple, living with the other single women and working in the kitchen.  On the weekends, I looked after the young girls who lived at the boarding school and whose parents did not live close by.  We took trips to parks and playgrounds, but I always asked the girls to keep our activities secret.  They were not supposed to be having fun, and we would all be punished if anyone found out.  One Saturday, we took a trip to the beach on Lake Union.  It was an early Spring day, the air crisp and chilly.  As soon as the girls were out of the car, they romped and raced toward the water, hooting loudly, stripping off their saris and slips. They jumped into the frigid lake, swimming and splashing until their lips turned blue and their teeth chattered, but they seemed immune to the cold — they were having too much fun.  I suspected this Saturday’s adventure would be impossible to keep secret.  In her excitement, one of the girls told her mother about the day, who in turn told Padyavali.  I was called to the office and severely chastised for having been such a bad influence, for having allowed the girls to be so unchaste as to frolic around in their panties, in public. “But, they need exercise,” I said quietly, trying to defend myself and the girls.  Padyavali sneered, clenched her teeth and proclaimed, “They get exercise going from one building to another to attend classes!”  I was no longer permitted to care for the children.

I worried, for not only were the children prohibited from being children, but abuse and horrifying punishments were being inflicted on the little girls.  These were children. Padyavali and Rocan rationalized and attempted to hide the abuse, but it was impossible to hide it all.  One day, I found a little girl in the basement standing before the washing machine, waiting for the wash cycle to complete, her urine-soaked panties pulled onto her head like a hat, sobbing while she chanted the Hare Krishna mantra at the top of her lungs.  She was a shy and sweet little girl, with curly reddish hair, her cheeks and nose spotted with tiny, red freckles.  She tried so hard to be pleasing, and she seemed always anxious and remorseful.  Her mother lived in a temple in another state, so she could not see what was happening to her daughter, and her father did not know where she was.  If I tried to help the little girl, she would be punished even more.  The most I could do was to gently rub her back and whisper, “It will be okay.”  How sad she was!  Despite her punishment, she could not stop wetting the bed, so she was locked inside the basement’s dirt-walled root-cellar, behind a heavy, metal door, too heavy to push open, her chanting so loud and desperate you could hear the anguish all the way on the third floor of the building.  “She’s a bed-wetter!”  Padyavali condemned the little girl, her lips curled in disdain, when I expressed concern.

Another time, I found a little girl locked inside a dark, basement closet as punishment because she could not control her energy.   She was impish and giggly, but her sense of humor was considered defiant and disrespectful.  She bounced even when she walked, and her laughter was infectious.  I heard scratching behind the door, so I quietly unlocked it and snuck in.  She was humming to herself, scribbling little cartoon characters on the walls with a crayon she had smuggled in with her, a little mischievous smirk on her face.  We whispered and read together for a while, and I only hoped she would not feel alone and frightened.  A few of the children’s parents lived near the temple, and they were able to spend time together with their girls on Saturdays, but even they seemed helpless when it came to their own children.  A mother asked me one evening to come to her house.  Her six-year-old daughter slept in her lap while she stroked her hair.  Tears streamed down the mother’s face.  She showed me her child’s bruised and swollen lips.  “Look,” she whispered. “What do I do?”   A protective, maternal sense was waking inside of me; what I was seeing was deeply disturbing.  I would have a child soon.  I could not fathom any child being treated so badly.

During my seven-year marriage, Hrsikesa and I had three children – two girls and a boy. The Hare Krishna standard was for parents to send their children away to boarding schools when they reached the age of five, and it was encouraged to limit contact with them.  It was not unusual for parents to only see their children a few weeks out of the year.  Children were considered material attachments, we were told, and material attachments were impediments to spiritual advancement.  We were expected to procreate, but we were also expected to hand our children over to others to raise.  We were discouraged from loving our children and our spouses; we were told that love was a perverted sense of lust and kept us stuck in the material world, impeding our spiritual advancement.  As my oldest daughter was nearing the age of five, pressure was mounting to send her away to school.  I had seen too much abuse, and I was not going to allow this to happen to my children. Even if Hrsikesa tried to force it, I would not send my daughter to a Hare Krishna school.

This, in my Hare Krishna life, was the second time I said ‘no.’  I was not going to give my child to someone else to raise.  I was not going to send her to a boarding school, away from me, where I would not be able to protect her.  With a great fear of the unknown, I snuck away with my children, finding refuge in New York with my mother and father-in-law, who were kind and offered protection for us.  After leaving, I received countless threats, and I spent many sleepless nights, staying awake to protect my children from their father, worrying that he would sneak into the house, kidnap them, and drive with them across the border to Canada.  I feared if I fell asleep, I would never see my children again.  My fear was not unfounded.  There were cases like this:  Hare Krishna members kidnapping children and hiding them from estranged spouses, taking them to other countries where they would be impossible to find.  There were cases of young runaway teenagers hidden from their parents by the Hare Krishna movement, and even a case of a father who committed suicide because he could not find the daughter who was taken from him.  I can imagine nothing worse than having my children taken from me.

Prior to being recruited into the Hare Krishna movement, I did not see myself as a mother. I was fairly certain I did not want to have a family.  But, my indoctrination into the group was complete and overwhelming.  I lost all sense of self, and I surrendered to a group of people who told me they knew what was better for me than I did, even to the point of telling me who to marry.  As a Hare Krishna wife, my role was to be submissive and follow my husband, to serve him and to bear children, and I did just that.  Ultimately, my children saved me.  These three people are the greatest gifts of my life.  Even if it were possible, I would not turn back time and eradicate the Hare Krishna experience despite the incredible pain and abuse I endured over nine years because it would mean I would not have these three wonderful people in my life.  My children saved me, they gave me purpose, they protected me, and they helped me to grow up.



We arrived in Delhi, India in the mid-afternoon.  As I stepped out of the plane, a waft of heat blasted my face and whirled into my nostrils, waking my travel-weary senses.  The surrounding horizon was dry, dusty, and shimmering with a reddish-orange radiance as if on fire.  I am certain I heard the trill of melodic, ancient mantras resonating from somewhere in the far distance. Dark, leather-skinned, black-eyed men grappled and fought each other to help us with our bags, chattering loudly in Hindi, studying us curiously — these white people dressed as if they belonged in India.  We wore our best saris and sandals, and we marked our foreheads with sandalwood-paste tilaka as is worn by Vaisnavites.  We wore strands of beads made from the sacred Tulasi plant looped around our necks, and we carried our japa mala, sandalwood prayer beads, in little cotton sacks marked with Sanskrit letters.  We looked like we could be Hindus, save the color of our skin.  We weren’t tourists, but we definitely were not from India either.

Laurie Schaffler, 2015
Laurie Schaffler, 2015

We followed our leaders down the stairs, across the tarmac and into the terminal like little goslings.  We had been chosen for this trip as a reward, a respite from the hard work we were doing in America —  distributing books and soliciting donations.  The pilgrimage was part of our spiritual journey, to expose us to the temples of India, to witness the culture, to visit the places of Krishna’s pastimes.  The idea was for the excursion to help us gain a clearer understanding of what we ourselves were trying to emulate, to give us a better view of why it was important that we spread the word and help purify the rest of the population.  As Bhakti Yogis, it was our role, our duty, to be of service to God and spread the Hare Krishna movement.

We were the young women of the Seattle temple, the girls who scurried back and forth across the linoleum floor of SeaTac airport to distribute literature and collect money.   Six days a week following our morning rituals of chanting, worship, and scripture class, we dressed ourselves in civilian clothes, grabbed a quick breakfast, and piled into the Winnebago camper to hurry south.  By 6 a.m., we were ready to welcome the first incoming passengers:  Alaska pipeline workers coming home for a break and G.I.s traveling to and from tours of duty, all with pockets filled with cash, flattered by the attention of a pretty, flirtatious girl.  We waited as the wave of passengers approached, picking the most likely givers out of the crowd, and we swooped in to pin flowers on their collars before they could protest.  We handed the travelers a book, saying, “We’re with ISKCON,” pointing to our badges, then told a story about feeding starving children and printing books in thirteen different languages. “You know, the International Society for Kri——— Consciousness,” I would say if they looked quizzical, being sure to blur over the word ‘Krishna’ and hoping it sounded more like ‘Christian.’  We had been taught tricks.  We would ask for large bills, explaining that it was unsafe for us to carry so many small bills in our satchels.  Most often this worked.  With a little coaxing, the traveler would hand over a twenty, a fifty, or even a hundred dollar bill, and we would give change slowly, stopping every few dollars.  With a tilt of the head and a little smile, we would say, “You can leave it at that, right?”  Each of us was assigned a minimum amount of money we were expected to bring home every day, and we took this seriously.  Lately, I hadn’t been meeting my quota.  I was tired.  People were starting to catch on.  They knew who we were despite our disguises and pretenses, and it was exhausting to be pushed out of the way and called a fraud.  For me, the leaders hoped the trip to India would cure what they perceived as my lack of surrender.  If this didn’t work, I would be matched with a husband.

In Delhi, we spent a few days shopping for saris, raw-silk fabrics, jewels for the deities, and temple paraphernalia.  We rode around the city in a rickshaw, well-fed Americans pulled by a thin, barefoot man.  The city buzzed with taxis and bicycles and rickshaws crisscrossing and running into each other, horns honking, bells ringing, and shouting people everywhere.  Vendors whistled and called to us, luring us into their alcoves, jingling bangles and ankle bracelets, snapping open colorful saris and silks, offering sodas with ice.  A snake charmer played his punji, coaxing a cobra out of its basket.  A smiling woman offered areca nuts wrapped in betel leaves, her lips and teeth stained a deep red from chewing the nuts.  Just on the outskirts of the marketplace, cows roamed freely, and women followed them, collecting piles of warm dung, forming them into large patties to dry in the sun, later to be used as fuel for stoves.  Holy men clad in loincloths, their bodies painted with ash and oil, dreadlocks piled high on their heads and beards dyed yellow with turmeric, sat crossed legged on the stoops of temples, watching us pass by with deep, knowing eyes.  The atmosphere was dizzying.  The food was spicy and pungent, even for my sense of taste which I thought had acclimated to Indian food and spices over the past couple of years.  Though we were careful about the water, we didn’t think about the ice, and I developed a mild case of dysentery.  For several days, my diet consisted of white rice, Coca-Cola, and buffalo-milk yogurt that smelled of the dry, grassy field.

We ventured by train to Vrndavana, the holy land and place of pilgrimage where millions of Hindus visit yearly.  Vrndavana is the town where the Krishna stories are based, where it is said that Krishna grew up and played with his cowherd boyfriends and girlfriends, where he danced on the head of the great serpent, Kaliya, subduing him and saving the villagers from the deadly poison.  We stayed at the Hare Krishna temple that had been built there, one of many of hundreds of temples, but it was a temple revered by local townspeople.  It was grand and opulent and clean, having been built and maintained with American and European money.  It had become a tourist attraction, and parts of the temple were off limits even to us.  The air in Vrndavana felt magically ancient; it was hot and filled with the smells of incense and cooking fires and spices.  Peacocks fanned their iridescent blue and green tail feathers, whirring and singing to the peahens, their calls like the meowings of cats. Hundreds of little monkeys clambered up and down the roots of banyan trees and ran at us, grabbing at our belongings, hoping to snatch something from our hands.  Beggars squatted on the roadside with tin cups held out, pleading.  During the night, sentries sounded from rooftop to rooftop, signaling to each other that all was well.  In Vrndavana, we were treated as Vaisnavites, as authentic devotees of Krishna, and we were permitted to enter places that were normally restricted from ordinary tourists.

We walked up the hundreds of steps to visit the temple of Radharani, Krishna’s favorite girlfriend.  As we climbed, we stopped at dozens of tiny temples dug into the side walls along the stairway.  These temples had dirt floors, cleanly swept, and were dark, lit only with candles, their altars displaying brass and marble deities of Radha and Krishna colorfully dressed and bejeweled.  The priests offered us morsels of prasadam, food that had been offered to the deities, in exchange for donations.  We visited the Radha Kunda, Radharani’s bathing pond, and touched the water, placing our wet fingers to our foreheads.  It is considered to be the supreme of all holy places, containing the most pure and sacred water and is said to contain magical properties to heal.  While there, we were accosted and circled by village children who were bartering strings of beads made out of mud from the base of the pond.  They pressed the beads into our hands, signaling for something in return, pointing at our bracelets and hair clips.  These children were happy to receive anything we might have in our possession.  I gave a button with a picture of our guru, a bobby-pin from my hair, the rubber band that held my braid together.  One of the women I was traveling with became indignant when she realized she was expected to give something in return for her gift, and she chastised the child, raising her voice and pointing her finger, “I’m not giving you anything.  You gave this to me!”  The child tried to pull the strand out of her hand, breaking the string and scattering beads everywhere.  Within seconds, the adult villagers circled around us, pulling the waif-like children toward them, scolding us in Hindi.  How ironic!  This was the exact tactic we used at the airport at home.

It took a while to readjust after arriving back in Seattle from our pilgrimage to India.  We were given a couple of days to get used to the time difference and recover from jet lag, but soon, we were expected to get back to our airport duties and fulfill our quotas.  For me, this was impossible.  My trip to India had jogged something in me, something deep and unnerving.  I had a lingering and nagging awareness that, although I wore a sari every day, applied tilaka to my body, chanted the maha mantra, worshipped the Tulasi plant, sang in kirtans and studied Vedic scriptures, something about my practice was ingenuous, distorted, contrived, and forced.  My deep-down sense was that I was brainwashed and imprisoned by a force I didn’t know how to battle.  The life I was living as a Hare Krishna in America was nothing like what I had witnessed in India.   I was a foreigner trying to be something that I was not, stuffing myself into someone else’s culture.  I had been well programmed to push away any negative thinking, though, or any thinking at all, so I did as best I could.  My days at the airport were becoming filled with more and more hours of hiding in bathroom stalls, trying to get my nerve up and force my concentration, but secretly I fantasized that someone would come and save me, deprogram me, and help me to think clearly and on my own.  The temple leaders were becoming dismayed about my quota not being met.  They forced me into cold showers, yelled, accused, and belittled me relentlessly.  They gave me personal lectures about my inability to surrender and told me I was going to hell.  When nothing worked, a marriage was arranged.  But that is another story.




His Last Christmas

Billy was ten years old when he celebrated his last Christmas with us.  He was brought home from the hospital in an ambulance so that he could be with his family.  The driver knew what this trip was about.  He flashed the ambulance lights and gave an occasional siren whistle as he drove my little brother home.  How excited Billy must have been!  My parents had ordered a hospital bed and set it up in the dining room to ensure Billy’s visit was as comfortable and safe as possible.  My other brothers and I were filled with anticipation to have Billy home for Christmas, but we were also anxious.  We hadn’t spent much time with our brother recently, and we didn’t know what to expect.  Billy had spent the majority of the past year in the hospital; he had been diagnosed with lymphosarcoma, an acute form of leukemia.  My mother had taken him to see the doctor one day when she noticed some strange lumps on his shoulders, and she came home without him.  His prognosis was bleak.  There wasn’t a cure, and the disease was aggressive.

During earlier visits, Billy had been different from the brother we had known only a few months before.  He was bloated and glassy eyed, and he spent much of his time sleeping.  He couldn’t go out and play with us.  His hair had thinned, and one side of his face sagged because it was paralyzed.  For this Christmas visit, our parents warned us to control our wild behavior and roughhousing, to be careful not to knock into our brother and cause him to fall.  Billy was in pain.  He was fragile, sick and dying.  We were told it was his last Christmas with us, his last trip home,  but we were just too young to understand.  The magnitude of this information was beyond our comprehension.  Our excitement for the holiday season, for school vacation, Santa Claus and presents under the tree, was subdued by the mysterious melancholy and sadness that filled our home.  I can’t imagine the  helplessness my parents felt over those many months of watching their young son die.  I can’t imagine how it felt for them to know this Christmas was his last, how they possibly could have found even an ounce of holiday spirit.  They did all they could to celebrate– for us, for them, for Billy.


Over the thirteen months of his illness, Billy fought like a brave little warrior.  At one point as he neared the end of his life, he said he didn’t know it was so easy to lose a life.   Billy’s little body was simply giving out.  His doctors and my parents agreed that nothing more could be done.  It didn’t make sense to continue the barrage of medications he was taking; he was administered morphine instead to relieve the pain and help him through his last days.   Billy wasn’t expected to live much longer than a week.  I think he knew he was nearing his end.  Our parents wanted to make this a special time for him and for our family.  He was a feisty little boy with a big heart, and they wanted to bring him home.  Billy’s caregivers had grown to love him, and though they are trained to deal with disease and death every day, they were deeply saddened to witness his dying.  Nothing more could be done to save him.  I am grateful to those caregivers for devoting their lives to helping our family, to helping families like mine who suffer through the terminal illness and death of a loved one.  They give us strength and guidance, and they hold us when we grieve and mourn.

It has been forty-six years since Billy’s last Christmas.  Often, I ask myself why I still feel that gloomy little cloud over my head during the holiday season.  Billy’s death was so long ago, but no matter how hard I try to shake off the sadness, it’s still there.  For me, it’s more than grieving the anniversary of a loved-one’s death.  Of course, I mourn deeply the loss of my little brother.  He would be fifty-six years old now.  I miss having known him.  I wonder what he would be like, who he would have married, if he would have had children.  I wonder what he would have done for a living, if he would have loved music or the arts or hunting or flying.  There is something far more profound that I am saddened by, though.  My brother’s illness and death was the beginning of the eventual demise of my family.  My family did not survive this loss.  My parents relied heavily on alcohol to mask their pain, and they eventually divorced.  My older brother killed himself through extreme alcohol abuse and drug addiction; I believe he suffered survivor’s guilt.  I turned to religion and joined a religious cult, hiding from my family and from society for almost a decade.  My younger brother dangerously started down a wayward path, but luckily caught himself.  My younger sister, who was conceived a year after Billy died, was born into a shattered and broken family and grew up alone with a heartbroken mother.

I will never forget that Christmas Day.  My young parents did the best they could and tried hard to create a Merry Christmas for all of us.  My brothers and I romped and played with our new toys and  gifts, fighting and bickering as we normally did.  Billy was brave; he intuitively knew he was dying, yet his excitement and joy filled the air.  He couldn’t participate in most of our crazy antics, but he loved watching us.  We did somersaults and cartwheels in the living room, driving our parents crazy, and we sang and danced for Billy while he sat on the couch and laughed at our silliness.  He watched us with smiling, soulful eyes because he was so happy to be home with us.  My every Christmas is touched with memories of our last Christmas with Billy whose gift was his presence, his love, and his joy.  I write this in memory of my brave little brother.


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.


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.