life lessons from muir woods

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In July, our girls were off to Europe for two weeks to visit their best friends so, Neal and I, decided to visit California. It’s been a long time dream to visit San Fransisco and Muir Woods. After three days in San Fransisco, we headed out to Muir Woods and Napa Valley.

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I knew Muir Woods was going to be a magical and sacred place to be in. What I didn’t expect was the deep silence and stillness that descended upon us as we entered the forest. I don’t think I can find the words to communicate what it feels like to walk among 1000 year old trees that can be as tall as 350ft. Humbled doesn’t begin to describe it.

As we began our hike, we stumbled upon a small group of people listening to a park ranger explaining about the redwoods. We stopped to listen and that’s when I learned about the life secrets that have allowed redwoods to live up to 2000 years.

  • A large redwood tree needs 500 gallons of water each day. Sounds like a lot? Well, it is and the trees get their water from the rain and fog which is prevalent in the area.
  • The root system of the redwood tree is surprisingly shallow – no deeper than 6-12 feet – but the major roots can typically spread 50 to 80 feet. One of the ways the trees are able to remain upright is by growing close together with other redwood trees and interlocking root systems.
  • Their bark which can be 6-12 inches thick contains tannin which provides protection against fire, insects, fungus, and diseases. There is no insect that can kill a redwood.
  • One of the keys to the survival of the redwood is its regenerative abilities. When a redwood is damaged or injured, it develops a lumpy outgrowth at its base. Saplings may sprout from these burls.
  • Fallen redwood logs serve as nurseries for the growth of new trees.
  • Most of the height of a redwood tree is gained during the first 100 years. The mature redwoods tend to lose their lower limbs. This creates a canopy which is characteristic of the redwood forest. These canopies provide support for a variety of creatures and prevent loss of moisture.

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The more I listened the more I could see timeless messages for well being and growth emerging. It appears that what works for redwoods can definitely work for us.

  • Finding the environment that supports us and thriving in it – Every gardener knows that certain plants thrive in certain conditions. We too need to find the environment that supports our growth and development. Feeling stunted and held back? Let’s take a look around. Is our environment supporting what we’re trying to do and who we’re trying to be?
  • Developing a strong community we can lean on – We’re not meant to be alone and do it all by ourselves. Finding our tribe and learning to give and receive makes us stronger and resilient.
  • Giving back – As a member of a strong community we need to do our part. What are our special gifts? What makes us valuable members of a community? Sharing our strengths and wisdom, becoming a mentor, and seeking opportunities to help and give back; that’s what it’s all about.
  • Hydrating – Health and well being are priorities. A strong body will allow us to do what we want. Drink lots of water throughout the day and eat healthy, nutritional food.
  • Standing Tall – To maintain our perspective we need to stand tall and look at a situation from above. We can’t let challenges and daily irritations bring us down. Stand tall at the center of your life and take the view in. How does your world look from above?
  • Protecting ourselves; developing “thick skin” – Our heart may be in the right place but this will not always protect us. Do not fall victim to your sensitivities. Develop strong boundaries and keep saboteurs away. Being kind, generous, and open doesn’t mean that all is welcome through the doors. Use discrimination. Choose wisely.
  • Regenerating often – Things will not always work out the way they were intended. Stuff happens. We may feel weakened, hurt, demotivated. Let’s give ourselves the chance to regenerate often. Let’s use our resources, inner and outer, to heal and strengthen.

Now . . . Tell us! What rings true to you? Which one of the life secrets of the redwoods are you ready to adopt? What are your thoughts on the subject?

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morning meditations

Early morning and I heard rain was coming. The peonies are in full bloom and already weighed down. They’re going to get damaged by the rain so I’d better cut some and bring them in the house. Off I go, clippers in hands when I see a ladybug sitting on one of the young, unopened peony blooms.

Change of plans. Running to get camera. What a treat!

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I begin to notice the magical activity taking place in the garden early in the morning. The bees are working hard already. Nepeta and the roses seem to be their destination of choice.

 

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The Tradescantia is sparkling.

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The evening primrose shines among the blue Nepeta and the pink peonies and roses.

 

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It all started with the idea of bringing some blooms in the house. It’s now evolving into a walking meditation; a gift and a reminder to tune in and pay close attention. That’s how beauty reveals itself to us.

And, yes, I do bring some peonies in. I arrange them in a vase and make myself a cup of tea. I sit on the porch to enjoy . . . while I still can.

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on driftwood and other finds

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It’s been raining today on the island. I went for my morning walk a little later than usual. The girls had asked us to wake them up so they could go for a run while Neal and I took our walk. Not the best idea, in retrospect. I found myself getting pulled into a long conversation about the day. As expected, the girls are less than excited about the prospect of a rainy day.

I find myself going down a familiar path; trying to make them happy and help them discover the gift of a rainy day; not the easiest task with two sixteen year olds.

I feel my mood changing and I stop on my tracks. It doesn’t have to be this way today. The girls are old enough to be alone and find their way through this morning. This is their big chance to practice that independence they’ve been talking about lately.

Today, I’m making a different choice and decide to go my way.

When I’m on this island, every moment is a precious moment. I put my raincoat on and head for the beach. Not many people here today. The water is rough and soon my shoes and pants are wet. Fine by me. One less thing to worry about. Off with the shoes. I usually walk barefoot anyway.

Yota

I spot a large piece of driftwood taken by the waves from the shore. Of all the finds on a beach, I think I like driftwood the best. As I watch the waves pushing it here and there, I’m reminded of Tolkien’s words . . . “Not all who wander are lost.” This piece of driftwood seems to be left at the whim of the sea and waves yet, one day. it will find its corner of beach to rest, transformed, smooth, whitewashed, and light. People will walk by and look at it with wonder. “How beautiful,” they’ll say. “Look at the intricacies of its bark, it feels so smooth!”

Having being battered by the sea, the piece of driftwood will finally claim its place on a stretch of sand and bear witness to those who come by.

This beach will never look the way it looks today. The transformative power of water and shifting sand won’t allow it. Each moment is unique. That’s its nature.

My footprints are erased as soon as I make them. Each step a new step. I’m walking on the edge, where the waves meet the sand. As the landscape changes, I’m given the choice to walk on higher ground and avoid getting wet. As in life, I can decide when to engage with what comes my way. Sometimes, I don’t have a choice but more often than not, I do. Sometimes, it’s OK to avoid getting wet, if you can.

The rain becomes stronger and I pull my hood over my head. It falls low on my face and I can’t see ahead as well. I focus on what’s right in front of me. One step at a time, waves in and out, rocks and sand, seaweed and a few broken shells. Rocks of all sizes everywhere. I lift my head to look ahead. It all looks so different than yesterday morning; clad in grey mist and falling rain.

On my way back, I take a few moments to sit on a large piece of driftwood and just be. A young couple comes by. They stop to take some pictures and soon they’re on their way. I dry my feet as best I can, shake the sand of my wet shoes and head for the bakery. Time for a hot cup of coffee and a chocolate croissant. I may go visit the library. It looks really inviting today and I love the sign by the entrance.

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a time for me

Waking up on the first morning of our vacation, I was greeted by the view of the sunrise over the harbor. Mary Oliver’s words came to mind:

“Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who made the morning and
spread it over the fields . . .Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.”

I sat for meditation as the sun traveled up the horizon, its warmth increasing, coming through the open window. After meditation, Neal and I head to the bakery; a ritual we repeat every time we visit. We wake up early, go to the Old Post Office Bagel Shop, grab a cup of coffee and head to the beach for a long walk.


There are very few people on the beach this early in the morning. Some faces are familiar – having crossed paths with them before – most are friendly; we smile and wish each other a good morning as we walk by. Older people appear to be more inclined to making eye contact and smiling. Sometimes, we cross paths with someone who’s lost in thought, lips tight, looking away, removed. We all bring our stories with us.

Today, we meet a young man from Chicago. His dog decides to adopt us and walks with us, so he too joins us for a while.  He shares that he visits every summer with his family. His wife’s mother has been coming here since 1948.

I wonder how the island looked back in 1948. Change happens slowly here. There is a warm familiarity to this place; it reminds me of a lovingly used old chair; the most comfortable and welcoming one in a home. You can count on it receiving you in a warm, uncomplicated manner, time and again. Every time you sit on it, it feels just right. That’s how I feel when I’m here; like I’ve never left. Over the years and through many life changes, I’ve learned to treasure this feeling.

 

 

Maybe that’s why I come back. There are no expectations or pressure for me to be anything other than who I choose to be in the moment.

There’s no history and no emotional barb wires here. There’s the watery expanse, sunrise and sunset, friendly strangers on the beach, the hours succeeding one another, leisurely. I can be as quiet as I please and observe my mental patterns.

Gone are the days of jam packing my vacation with things to do and places to visit. These days, I’m content watching the world go by, preferably as I listen to the waves and feel the warm sun on my skin.

My sixteen year old daughter will have none of that. She thinks I’m quiet and boring. How can I possibly avoid making plans and wish to enjoy time alone? Why on earth do I wake up at the crack of dawn to go to the beach and why, oh why, don’t I want to be there when the crowds descend? I have tried to answer her questions but I think it’s wiser to stop trying. She’ll have to find her own answers when she’s ready.

These days, it’s quiet time alone I crave the most. As I walk along this quiet stretch of beach, it’s my own inner voice that takes front seat. I want to hear what this woman has to say to me. There isn’t much time for her usually.

My attention is constantly drawn outside of myself. For now, I’m grateful for being a stranger among strangers. No one expects anything from me. I choose to believe that, the smiles my fellow travelers and I exchange this morning, are smiles of recognition and welcoming. We share the same secret.

“Isn’t this divine? Just us and the sea doing her thing. Enjoy!”

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the way through

It was the summer of 1991 and I had just obtained my teaching certification. The previous years had been quite busy and stressful; going to school, working two part-time jobs and going to Greece to be with my mother who underwent bypass operation.

There wasn’t much downtime and, by that summer, I was burnt out.

Neal and I were were actively involved with a retreat center in upstate New York. We decided to celebrate my transition by spending the summer there; volunteering as we had done many times before. Our goal was to unplug, focus on our spiritual practice and gain a new perspective on life.

It was a bustling summer. There were thousands of people coming through and my job was to welcome people and help them navigate the center and its workings.

During one of the weekend meditation retreats, I was one of the people responsible for facilitating the flow in and out of the meditation hall. There were more than two thousand people in the center that weekend and, by Sunday afternoon, I was feeling tired and overwhelmed.

The wooden doors to the meditation hall were big and heavy and I was standing outside making sure people were entering quietly and at regular intervals. Our meditation teacher and head monk would come join the meditation sessions once everyone was settled.

All was quiet. Suddenly, a group of people appeared out of nowhere, lining up to enter the hall, when our teacher arrived. I stood by the doors, ready to open them so people could enter. I don’t remember the exact details, but there were people surrounding me and I was trying to create space for the teacher to enter.

Somehow, I positioned myself with my back supporting the heavy doors and trying to push them open. It wasn’t easy and I almost lost my balance. That’s when my meditation teacher reached out, took the door by the handle and opened it for me; effortlessly! Then, she looked me in the eyes and said . . .”You don’t have to make it so difficult for yourself!”

Suddenly just as all these people had appeared, they went through the doors and into the hall and I was left alone and quiet in the foyer to contemplate what had just happened.

Did I really make things more difficult than they had to be? How often was I doing that? What were some of the situations when I made things more difficult for myself? Did I really tend to get in my own way? How? What did it all mean?

The answers came loud and clear. Yes, for the natural tendency of making things a lot more difficult than they had to be. Yes, to complicating things for myself and, a resounding yes, for often getting in my own way.

As I stood there, in the silence of that hall, a myriad feelings washed over me. There was the overwhelm and exhaustion of the last six years. There was the fear and anxiety about my mother’s health and an uncertain future. The sadness and guilt that stemmed from the life decisions and changes I had initiated. And then, constant self-doubt and an overarching sense of responsibility, fighting me from the inside out.

Finally, there was peace and calm and a deep sense of sinking into silence.

“You don’t have to make it so difficult for yourself!” Stop pushing the heavy doors of life with your back and gain some leverage. Step behind them and take hold of the handle. It’s easier this way. Be gentle with yourself. Ask for help.

Deep breath! Yes, I can do this. I can be kind to myself. I can stand behind the heavy doors and stop trying to push them open. The hard way isn’t always the best way.

I’d like to tell you that this experience transformed me overnight. It didn’t. But it gave me a good head start. Recognizing and accepting a situation are the first steps to transformation. After that, it’s all about practice.

I’m still practicing. I’ve given up thinking that I should get it all perfectly figured out. Some life lessons take a lifetime to learn and that’s all right; as long as I’m learning and practicing, that is!

These days, I can catch myself in the act and step backwards. Am I always successful? No, but I’ve made great progress and I know myself. I can bring me back.

Sometimes, the best way of going through the doors isn’t the hard way. Or, at the very best . . . not the only way!


All images and content Copyright ©2012 Yota Schneider | the art of pausing

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same lesson . . . time and again

About twelve years ago, when I was trying to decide which direction to steer Open for Success towards, the message that kept coming to me was . . . “Keep it simple!”

Over the years and through many trials, when I’d find myself plagued with doubt, I would remember and set myself straight. When in doubt, keep it simple!

About two weeks ago, I facilitated a retreat for nine women at my home. It was lovely and profound for all of us. As I was preparing for the retreat, I decided to create small card bookmarks with words and phrases printed on them. The retreat participants picked randomly and used the messages they received for contemplation. It was great! Everyone seemed to receive the perfect message.

At the end of the day and as I was cleaning up, I noticed there were two bookmarks left on a table. Since I hadn’t picked a message for me, I took them and placed them on my altar in the kitchen.

They were . . . “Keep it simple!” and “There are no wrong turns!” I took a deep breath as I was confronted with the synchronicity and the realization that even though I facilitated the retreat, I was a participant too and there was a lesson for me to contemplate.

“There are no wrong turns” is my husband’s favorite catch phrase. He reminds me of this often. As I have already confessed, I am the one who works really hard to have things be just so whereas he tends to be more casual and light footed. I love that about him! It’s a gift and I’m happy he’s willing to share it with me.

I remember, when we first met, twenty eight years ago, he wanted to show me around  and we would take long rides and try to discover special places we could share. Invariably, we would get lost and I’d start to worry and he’d say . . . “Don’t worry love, there are no wrong turns.” It always felt right when he said it to me and it still does.

I’ve been sensing a shift this last year in my work and in my life. At times things move fast and other times I feel as if I’m walking through molasses. It’s been confusing and often frustrating. When I get overwhelmed, I tend to push myself harder and make things worse for myself.

What I can do instead is . . . “keep it simple” because “there are no wrong turns!” It’s counter intuitive, isn’t it? Most of us push harder when we should relax into a situation.

Well, I now have my marching orders . . . again! One day at a time, one step at a time, stay present, open up to your experience, keep it simple and stop worrying. There are no wrong turns!

All images and content Copyright ©2012 Yota Schneider | the art of pausing

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at home again

When I was sixteen I was given my first camera. It was a 35 mm Nikon FG. I still have it. I remember when I first held it in my hands – filled with anticipation and excitement. I lived in Greece back then.

A good friend of mine was a professional and passionate photographer. He took me under his wing, taught me how to use my camera and helped me develop a different kind of vision.

I remember a lazy Sunday afternoon. We went downtown Athens, cameras on hand. We walked around and got lost in side streets and neighborhoods I hadn’t known existed. I began to look around me with a different eye and pay close attention to the light, texture, color and character of a scene.

What used to go unnoticed before or taken for granted, came into focus. As I lingered, through the lens, I noticed nuances and details I had never noticed before. Nothing could be taken for granted. Each moment that I captured on film, would never be repeated, in the same exact way. There was magic everywhere.

The man selling ice cream off a truck in the corner, the old lady outside her run-down, pre-war house, wearing a floral, blue house dress and a yellow kerchief, trying to talk her black cat off the tall, stone wall, the green wooden shutters spray painted with graffiti, people standing, waiting for the bus, talking, walking . . . these people that I’d never meet again at that same spot, on that time of day . . . all was captured and preserved . . . I can still see them without looking at the photos.

Was that the day I began to understand how paying close attention reveals a vastly different world to us? Maybe!

One thing I know for sure . . . there is magic and beauty everywhere, even in the most mundane and worn out. Paying close attention and noticing what goes on in a single moment, makes life richer and a whole lot more interesting.

This year, on my birthday, my family gave me a brand new Nikon as a present. They had noticed me going around with my iPod Touch taking pictures of all kinds of things and sharing them with glee. I have long been the official photographer of our family, but this time they sensed that I was starting to engage with it in a more personal way.

As I stood there, holding my new camera in disbelief, ready to admonish everyone for buying me such an extravagant gift, my daughter put her hand on my arm and said . . .”Mom, your pictures deserve a better camera than your iPod. It’s time! Have fun with it!” Did I cry? You bet!!

You see, my daughter, instinctively, knew something I never shared with anyone. When I left Greece, my sense of connection with a physical place was altered. For as much as I love it in the US and as beautiful as I find this country, it’s not the same as the place I was born in and the place I developed my vision and my senses in. Or, maybe, I didn’t allow myself to develop this deep connection because I didn’t want to betray my birth place. Who knows?

A couple of years ago, we vacationed on an island and I got into the habit of taking long walks on the beach, very early in the morning. It was then that I felt the shift. I found myself connecting deeply to this place and something in me stirred. I was home again. That’s when I started looking through the lens again with the vision and excitement of that sixteen year old in midtown Athens.

There’s a whole world out there waiting to be seen. Like Mary Oliver reminds us in Wild Geese . . .

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”

All images and content Copyright ©2012 Yota Schneider | the art of pausing

 

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endings and new beginnings

Last night, we took down our Christmas tree. We tend to leave our tree up as long as we can. There’s something about the glow of twinkling lights that warm up a room and make everything feel cozy and safe.

When we put the tree up, the girls, Neal and I work together. We always do. It’s our family ritual. We put Christmas music on, string the lights and debate on whether to use fairy lights – my personal favorite – or colorful ones – the girls’ and Neal’s favorites. It’s a battle I loose every year. The girls find fairy lights boring.

Once the lights are strung, we begin to unwrap the ornaments. Each comes with a story which is told in many variations every year. It’s amazing how much history and emotion an item can carry.

Finally, once the ornaments are up, we place our favorite angel on top of the tree, and flip the switch. We step back, giddy and proud of our handy work and pause to take it all in. We make hot chocolate and bring out cookies, we sit around our tree and bask in its glow. Let the festivities begin.

When the time comes to bring closure on yet another holiday season, we all drag our feet. We debate as to when the tree should come down and take our sweet time. The tree lights are turned on first thing in the morning. The four of us have breakfast, then off they go and as the daylight takes hold, I flip the switch and go on with my day. In the afternoon, the girls come back from school, they walk into the living room and go straight for the switch.

Yesterday, I noticed that our tree was looking sad. The time had come to let go. I brought the boxes up and started taking down the ornaments. I handled each ornament carefully, dusting it, wrapping it and putting it away. I left the lights for the girls to do. I knew they’d want to be part of this ritual. Plus, I don’t want to hear – one more time – how controlling they think I am:-)

All was quiet in the house and I found myself retracing my steps through time, remembering holidays past, people I haven’t seen in a while, my childhood, the first years of my marriage, my last Christmas in Greece and my first holidays as a newcomer in this country.

The other day, while organizing some photo albums, my daughter looked at some pictures as if for the first time. She then turned to me and said . . . “Wow, you and dad have lived for quite some time. You guys are strange but it’s been quite a life!” Need I say more?

The holiday season – the celebration of lights – has ended, snow has began to fall and it’s really cold. We’ve entered the darkness of winter, transitioning into the next stage. I don’t know how cold this winter is going to be or how much snow will or will not fall. I have no idea what challenges lie ahead or what waits for me at the end of this cold, dark period.

The tree is off to the compost pile, the lights are put away and the ornaments are safely tucked in, until next year. Friends are coming to dinner tonight and I have to get ready. The cat is sleeping – what else is new? I have my fuzzy socks on and a hot cup of coffee next to me. I lit a candle while writing this because I love seeing its glow even in the daylight.

Thank you for being here. Stay warm. ♥

 

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connecting the dots

“You have to be able to be happy in your own company” he says. He appears to be in his seventies and he’s sitting with a younger woman. We’re at the mall where I brought my daughters and a friend of theirs for shopping. I’m not interested in shopping but I don’t want to drive home and back again. I decide to stay, have a cup of coffee, watch the world go by and maybe write.

As I sit down and make myself comfortable I can’t help but listen to his words. Maybe I hear them because they hold meaning for me. I know people who are terrified of being alone. Solitude is a curse for them. “You have to be able to be happy in your own company!” Some people get that, don’t they? To be able to tune out the noise of the world and the distractions that come our way. To embrace silence and become comfortable with solitude. A gift!

Distractions beckon. People have become hypnotized by speed. We have turned into an ADD society. Our attention moves from one thing to another and refuses to linger. Images and messages are coming our way faster and faster. We think and communicate in soundbites. Meanwhile we profess to crave deep, meaningful relationships and connections. Well, it takes longer than a few milliseconds to create deep, meaningful connections and nurture fulfilling relationships.

I’ve grown to like my own company. I welcome solitude. I like to observe human nature, starting with myself. The intricacies of our relationship to self, the way we talk to ourselves, the choice of words, the feelings that follow thoughts. How easy it is to fool ourselves into believing one thing as we do another.

We think and talk in cliches. We revel in other people’s wise words but do not allow the essence of the words to penetrate the surface. We buy into the personality ethic and forget to look for the truth.

My daughter held my face in her hands, this morning, examining it closely. She noticed my lines and then came up with suggestions about “taking some years off.” “This is the 21st century,” she said. “Does it bother you not looking young anymore?” “It doesn’t bother me,” I answered. “I accept it. This is who I am today. I’m not twenty anymore and I like it.” She shook her head. How is that possible?

We are confusing ourselves to no end. We want to freeze time and look young –  forever. We want to speed time when we don’t like something. We want to stretch time because 24 hours in a day are never enough. Yet time is time. It keeps flowing, unconcerned, detached, unaware of our little dramas. We can’t grasp, alter, hasten or slow time. Time is the great equalizer. It just is.

There is one thing we can control and that’s our relationship to time. It’s like any other relationship. The more we try to control, shape, avoid, or manipulate, the more elusive the object of our obsession becomes.

We can choose what to do with the time we have. We can choose to let go of the illusion of control. We can make different choices and we can accept what is. We can stop yelling at the weather and see what we can do with what is given to us. That would be a good first step to nurturing a healthy, mutually supportive relationship, don’t you think?

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rising waters


The gates are now open.
But how? When? You ask,
who wants to know?
Who is doing the asking?
The heart wants to feel
the rising of the waters,
rushing through the gates,
sparing nothing.

Where are the waters taking me
I don’t know.
The swelling of something
long awaited for –
a deep longing.
It has no name or shape,
this wave of anticipation.

Do not let the flood waters
scare you into hiding.
Do not think.
Breathe!
Through the rising waters,
this wave of your so-called life
gaining strength;
gearing up.

Breathe!

Copyright ⓒ 2011 Yota Schneider – the art of pausing / Photo by Yota Schneider

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