A spiritual journey

A Walk In The Woods


Money has been a little tight at the Shaffer house for the past year or so.  I am restarting a career and Richard is changing direction within his industry.  We have been putting 4 kids through Solomon Schechter Jewish Day School and then Ida Crown Jewish Academy for many many years.  So things are tight.  I get accused of making understatements, but let’s just leave it at that.

I am starting to wonder if there aren’t some real blessings in this for all of us.  As a free activity this week I took my kids to the forest preserve by our house.  It is actually a place I love to spend time running.  I call it the path to Eli’s house.  Eli is a name I have for God that comes from my favorite children’s book by Max Lucado.  It is where I feel Eli the most.  But I haven’t been taking the kids there so much.  And if money weren’t so tight, we probably wouldn’t have been there this week!

I packed a picnic, herded my 3 younger ones to the car and off we went.  It was one of my favorite experiences this summer so far.  We found a perfect spot to practice balancing, bear crawling and jumping on and off a log.  We climbed trees.  They were wild, loud and joyful.  I didn’t have to say ‘no, don’t’ even once.  After a few face plants in the dirt from all the jumping, we recovered and proceeded to spend another hour exploring the trails.


There were squeals and shouting every time we came across a bug, spider, dragonfly, or any other little creature.  They picked up rocks and threw them into the river.  We passed lots of dogs with their owners, and horses with their riders.  Their little bodies jumped, skipped, raced, ran and moved in every way they knew how.  It was like they had been set free from some type of bondage we don’t even know we are in until we are out.  When they began to get tired, they took off their shoes and walked, ran and carried each other the rest of the way back.  There was not a single whine the entire time.  It seemed to meet each child’s needs regardless of age difference.  There was no gift shop at the end to cause conflict.  We got in the car to go home worn out and peaceful.

Not having money to spend whenever I want is teaching me a lot.  I have been learning what my parents went through at this same time in their lives.  I had no idea.  I thought they just didn’t want to have heat in our bedrooms growing up!  That we didn’t eat out because they loved their own cooking.   I thought my mom made all our clothes because she just liked to sew.  I never thought we were poor.  I actually thought we had more than most.  I am learning that having or not having money is not a character judgement.  The two things are not related.  And I am being reassured that it is temporary.  Money ebbs and flows in our lives.  What we do with that information is character development.

So maybe we are walking this path in our lives right now for good reason.  Maybe we are learning how to “be” and be thankful for what we have.  Maybe it is us parents that need to learn this more than our kids.  Maybe we just have to keep our kids from unlearning it.  Hopefully we can hang onto this lesson of what we don’t need…to always accumulate more stuff, when money is easier.  Maybe this is the real path to Eli’s house.  We are definitely becoming more humbled in our shoes.  Our worn out one pair of shoes.

Maybe my kids will look back and think that their mom just liked taking them to the woods instead of the mall.  They will be right.



Sunday morning, April 1, 2012 at 6:30 a.m.,  I left my still sleeping family a note that I would be out for a run.  A 26.5 mile run, it turned out.  A 5 hour 40 minute run.  My first marathon.

Was I planning this?  Nope.

First had the idea the day before.

Had I been training for a marathon?  Nope.  

Ran a mile for the first time in my life just six months before.

Was it a formal marathon race?  Nope.  

Just me, all by myself, out on the horse trails of Harms Woods, Skokie IL.

Ok,…then um…WHY?

Well, that might take some explaining.

I am a mother of 4 children.  My oldest will leave home in two years.  At that same time, my youngest will start school.  I have spent the last 16 years in a deep fog of “little kids.”  I love my children more than life itself.  They are the biggest blessing I have ever received.  They are also the hardest job I have ever done.  I had to set aside my own needs so many times to take care of everyone else.  I became accustomed to not showering, not using the bathroom by myself, not even hearing myself think.  I have spent countless hours rocking crying children, changing diapers, breastfeeding, wiping butts, playing Rescue Heroes and Polly Pockets.  Sixteen years later, I am still wiping butts and playing Rescue Heroes and Polly Pockets.  Yet, I am now also teaching Noah, my oldest, how to drive!  Faithfully going to every basketball and soccer game that is played.  Not to mention, all the daily chores I grind out, like laundry, bills, groceries, meals, making lunches, etc.  

My baby, Zeke, is 3.  We think he can walk but we are not really sure, because we have never seen him do it.  He only runs.  Since he was upright and in motion, he runs from point A to point B.

Last summer, my Dad brought me the book, “Born to Run”.  He explained that it was crucial for me to sit right down and read it.  He went on to say that as far-fetched as this book seemed, it would help me understand Zeke, my child of speed.  

What my Dad did not know, at the time, was how much I was struggling.  

When we moved to Chicago, 10 years ago, we were on a path to becoming more observant and religious Jews.  My husband, Richard, was taking the lead on this, and it was a path I embraced.  We learned about Shabbat.  We began keeping kosher.  We converted our kids.  I studied with a Rabbi and converted.

Five years ago, this led us to move a few miles down the road to a more religious community for our kids.  It was the natural next step on the journey…

But things don’t always go according to planned…

I am still not sure exactly what happened.  I have my theories, but to this day, all I can say is, it was a  hurricane that almost took us out…

I never saw it coming.  

When you don’t see it coming, there is no time to run and hide.  

There were signs, though.  When a big storm is near, the atmosphere changes.  Strange things began to happen.  Mezuza’s began falling off our doorposts.  Hundreds  of flies filled our basement.  Richard had 2 emergency room visits in 1 month, due to our house attacking him!  

What was happening?  Was this new house haunted?  I called a Rabbi to come and say the proper blessings over the mezuzas.  Maybe I had been in a hurry and hadn’t done it right?  He happily obliged.  They didn’t fall off anymore.  Maybe he had prayer super powers.  (Maybe it was the super glue he brought along to back up the blessings.)  

Looking back, I see it was just the wind before the storm.  

The storm (Hurricane Skokie) hit our shore almost immediately after our move.  Because I never saw it coming, I was caught in a small boat in the middle of the sea, nowhere near the shore.  My main goal was to keep us all alive, and not let anybody fall out of the boat.  Each time a wave almost capsized us, I held on to everybody for dear life.  

These waves consisted of:  Richard’s mid-life crisis (although he prefers the term awakening), a full family orthodox conversion to Judaism (yes we were already Jewish), starting a business (refer back to mid-life crisis), money lost (refer back to business), crash of the market (more money lost), a shot gun wedding (yes we were already married), our fourth baby born (only days after shot gun wedding), surgery for this new baby boy, a job loss (more money lost).  A bar mitzvah, mortgage and private school to pay for during all this job and money loss.  Then I came down with shingles.  Something you only get when you are old or REALLY stressed out!  I did the only thing I knew how to do.  

Hang on!…for four years…it takes a toll!

My marriage was on the edge of a cliff.  My husband was ‘finding himself’ and I had gotten lost!  Where did I go?   What happened to the girl who had dreams of her own?  The light hearted, playful, fun, person my husband married?  I was afraid she had disappeared forever.  In her place, was this out of shape, stick-in-the mud, super stressed, middle aged cook/chauffeur/maid/soccer mom.  ugh!  No wonder my husband wasn’t sure he wanted to be married to me anymore.  I wasn’t even ‘me’ anymore.  I had to find a way to get strong again.  I had to find my way back to myself.

The answer came last summer when I sat down and read.  My Dad, in his attempt to help me understand my son, had unknowingly,  given me the inspiration I needed for myself.   I could not put it down.  The stories of strength and determination moved me.  The case made that running is not “dangerous to your health” opened my mind.  A seed of possibility began to take root.

I never thought I could run.  I was a competitive horseback rider as a child.  I began seeing a chiropractor at age 12!   Pain management for back and neck injuries I sustained at this sport.  I saw people run.  I heard about marathons.  But I NEVER considered it for myself.  I was flawed.  My body would let me down just getting through the day.  But I was searching for a life-line.  I needed hope and inspiration.  I had lived through a hurricane for pete’s sake.  Maybe, just maybe, I could run.      

I asked my chiropractor (who is an ultra-runner, I later found out) if he could teach me how to run.  Safely, so I didn’t end up worse off than I already was!  He said, “yes”.

That was August of 2011.  I was 42 years old.  

I began to run.  It was hard.  When injuries happened, even though it was the normal adjustment of my body, it made me afraid.  Afraid I didn’t have what it takes.  Afraid my body would fail me.  Afraid I didn’t have the right to go after my dreams.  Yet, I couldn’t stop.  I was running for my life.  

March 23, 2012 I did my first 10 mile run.  It was pouring rain and really hard, but it was a tipping point.  Double digits.  I never dreamed I could do that!  

Two weeks later, I ran 12 miles for the first time.  Reading Dean Karnazes, “Ultra-Marathon Man” the same weekend, created the perfect storm.  

The more I read, the more I got fed up.  Just plain fed up with being afraid.  Afraid of always feeling like I am too much or not enough.   Fed up with all my ‘plans’ and baby steps.  Fed up with this label of ‘just mom’.  Fed up with buying into the myth that ‘just mom’ means ordinary, invisible, boring!   No career, no identity, no paycheck …..just mom.  My claim to fame is being able to change a diaper anywhere, any position in under 30 seconds flat.  And frankly, I had enough.  I started thinking about all the super strong women in my life, who go around quietly holding the world on their shoulders, with a smile on their face.  Their strength is phenomenal.  They do marathons everyday with their love and endurance.  They have heart like no one else on earth.   That was it!  It was time to run my marathon…tomorrow.  Just like that.   Because all of us moms are stronger than we look, and it was time to prove it.   Maybe mostly to myself.  And why should this Dean Karnazes guy get to have all the fun anyway?   

Before going to bed Saturday night, I tested it out on Micah, my oldest daughter.  

Me:  “What if I run a marathon tomorrow.”
Micah:  “Oh my gosh, that would be so cool mom!!!  You should definitely do it.”

She did not doubt.  She was not afraid.  She was simply excited about the adventure of chasing down something significant.  Sure enough, my own doubt and fear stepped forward.

Me:  “I don’t know if I can.”
Micah:  “So go as far as you can go!  See what you can do!  Even if you did 20 miles that would be amazing!”

This I will never forget.  The kind of moment that changes the course of things.  I was so struck by this child.  She only knew the sky as the limit.  She believed, if you wanted to chase a dream, you had the right to do it.  I wondered, what happens in between?  What happens between the girl who knows how to dream, and the woman who gives up so much of herself she begins to disappear?  What do we do to that girl?  And how can I keep from doing it to my girls?

I realized, that while she was an inspiration to me, I had to also be inspiration to her.  I had to stop being that woman willing to give up her dreams.  I had to show my family what a woman possessed looks like!  I had to lead by example.  They needed to be reminded of the beauty of feminine strength and will-power.  I had held our family afloat during a horrible hurricane, and we had survived.  I knew I had endurance.  I would go as far as I could go, and see what happened.  

April 1, 2012, I left my still-sleeping family a note, “I will be out for a run”.  A 26.5 mile run it turned out.  A 5 hour 40 minute run.  Out in the woods of Skokie, IL.  All by myself.  My first marathon.

I don’t know why I needed to do my first marathon out in the woods by myself.  I just know it was right.  My body was not quite ready for the journey, but the rest of me was not going to wait any longer.  Call it a rite of passage, at 43.  The first thing I came across going north was a big coyote.  She was just standing in the path looking at me.  Her look said, “I get it….You gotta do your thing….so get after it.”   And then she was gone.   It seemed like some kind of blessing, a confirmation that it was right.  

I kept running.  The more I ran, the more I realized I was not alone.  I was running with all the people who supported and inspired me.  I kept hearing their words of encouragement in my head.  It gave me strength.  I wanted to finish, as much for them as for me.  I wanted to prove that us moms can be bad ass too.  

A few days later, even though I could not walk very well (had to crawl up and down stairs), I was hit with the enormity of what I had done.  All the fear that I should have felt before this little adventure, hit me hard.  Then came a profound sense of gratitude.   The same kind I have felt after giving birth.  Maybe it was kind of like a birth.  

The birth of me.  

I am so deeply thankful for the strength of my body to accomplish something like this in one piece.  

I am so thankful for the opportunity to reveal myself…to myself.  

And I am so thankful for the realization… that I was by myself, but not alone.  

June 10, 2012, I ran my first official race.  A half-marathon.

October 7th, the day after I turn 44, I will run the Chicago Marathon.  

Running has not just changed my life, it has transformed it.  I found a life-line.  My only wish is that I had found this earlier.  I would have had running to hang onto along that painful path of growing up.  

My first marathon was for me.

My second marathon, I dedicate to my kids.  

May they always see themselves clearly.  May they always dream.  May they always have the strength to chase those dreams.  And while they may sometimes be by themselves, may they always have the knowledge that they are not alone.                                                     





Watching my kids pretending in the tub tonight, I noticed something interesting………

The answer was always “yes”.

It went something like this:

Hannah:  “hey do you have a lollipop for me?”

Zeke: “yes, honey here you go”

Z:  “Can we be on a TV show about killer whales?”

H:  “sure”

Z:  “Can my whole family be on it with me?”

H:  “Yes”

(and then when an evil octopus named Ursula showed up on the scene wreaking havoc)

H:  “Get him!  He is trying to eat me!”

Z:  “Don’t worry!  (chomp, chomp, phooey) I chewed him up and spit him away”

They didn’t seem troubled by the fact that lollipops aren’t allowed within 2 city blocks of our house.  A TV show with killer whales was never out of the realm of possibilities.  And when faced with imminent danger from an evil octopus, no one complained that there were no octopus killing weapons to be found.  I mean what are teeth for if you can’t take out a few octopi, right?

The answer was always a “yes”.  By the time they got out of the tub, I felt compelled to say “yes” myself.

H:  “Can we read 4 books instead of 2?”

me:  “sure”

H:  “really?!”

me:  “yes”

H:  “can we read 7 books?”

me:  “yes”

Z:  “Can we have snacks?”

me:  “sure”

Z:  “can I sleep in your bed?”

me:  “Don’t push your luck”

Hannah and Zeke have not lost the ability to imagine.  The sky is the limit.  If they can imagine it, it is possible.  I think this must be the closest t0 a God like attitude as we get down here on earth.  I mean we ARE his imagination.   He imagined, and then we WERE.  We definitely lose this gift of imagination as we get older.  I probably think in terms of roadblocks more than what is possible.  Sometimes when I am alone and it is quiet (almost never), I will let my imagination take me to my dream; “What if I could run a marathon one day!”   But, of course,  I immediately stomp that sucker out with “Are you crazy?”  It would be more likely that I will drive my car to the moon next Tuesday!

Yet, I know that no one who has ever done anything really meaningful in the world did it with ease or little effort.  Those people who are especially amazing and inspirational overcame “impossibility” to live their dreams.   So maybe letting my imagination go wild is exactly what I SHOULD be doing.  And more of it!

Ben Davis is one of those inspirational people.  A friend told me about his blog: bendoeslife.com and it is truly worth watching his inspirational journey from obesity to marathon!  He has a great line at the end of his video.  He says, “If you want to do it, all you have to do is do it.”   That simple.    I had never even run a mile before this summer.  So running a marathon seems like a pretty impossible dream.  But I have been taking it one mile at a time, and I think I might be ready to let my imagination go there.    Richard’s birthday was yesterday.  (Happy Birthday Babe) We ran 8 miles!  Yay!!!!  I have signed up for a half marathon in June……………  So maybe I can just do it too.

What is your dream?  Let your imagination go wild, and maybe you can just do it too.


coping, running

Some Thoughts on Breathing

As a part of our New Year’s celebration we all came up with 3 words to focus on this year.  Mine were:  faith, connect, and BREATHE

I know every one breathes.  But as I have been focusing on these words, I find there is a depth to breathing that I didn’t realize.

I am coming to believe that our emotional journey; is linked to our spiritual journey; is linked to our physical journey.  Many people don’t link them together.  For instance, most therapists really focus on the emotional journey.   I know people who go to therapy for everything.   Most religious leaders focus on the spiritual journey.  We all know people who use religion for everything.  Fitness Centers, work out programs and personal trainers primarily focus on the physical journey.  Certainly there is benefit in developing one at a time.  Sometimes we need to really target one specific area of ourselves.

It is not so easy to truly integrate all three areas.  I think many people are like me, and they target all the areas simultaneously, without being able to weave them together.  At one time, I thought the emotional journey was the most important.  I got a masters in Marriage and Family Therapy when I was 22.  I just knew that if I could figure out how to have the best marriage and family, then I would have the secret to the universe.  That was all I needed to get there.  WRONG!

I  have always been conscious of my physical journey.  I always attempted to stay healthy and fit.  I thought it was about having a low heart rate, living longer and looking good in your jeans…..WRONG!

I definitely got tricked into thinking that religion was all I needed to find my way on the spiritual journey. You want more spirituality?  Just plug in more religion!……..WRONG!

I was very conscientious.  I worked all the right formulas and did all the right equations!  I still ended up as a 40 year old, flabby, burned out, broken down mom of 4 with a marriage on the rocks.  How could this happen?  I worked out!  I had converted (twice) to Judaism!  I moved my family to an orthodox community!  I had a masters in Marriage and Family Therapy for pete’s sake!  I did everything right!  …………WRONG AGAIN!!

I wasn’t really connecting the dots.  I hadn’t found a way to address body/mind/spirit together to get a fuller picture of what was holding me back.

We talk about breathing all the time.  It seems to be linked to one’s perspective and state of mind.

“breathe easy”

“take a breather”



Big deep breathing is positive and linked to someone who is healthy, relaxed and happy.  Someone who doesn’t know how to “breathe” is seen as anxious and high strung.  As I have begun to focus on this word, I realize how much I am NOT breathing.   Every time I feel overwhelmed and suffocated by my life, I find I am holding my breath, or just taking small shallow breaths.  I am physically suffocating as I am emotionally suffocating.  If I am thinking about God at those times, it is basically “Where the hell are you?”

Learning to run has led me to learning to breathe.    As I have tackled the physical challenges, I have had to face the emotional challenges.  Things that had been buried so deep that I didn’t even know I was suffering from them.  They took on a 3-D characteristic that made them impossible to ignore.  (Not that I have ever been accused of denial).  I couldn’t grow physically until I was willing to grow emotionally.   As I faced the physical and emotional challenges, I had to then examine my spiritual framework to see where it was stunting my progress.  It sounds kind of complicated but really it just came down to hanging on to myself while I focused on breathing.

So, more and more I am looking at my life as a body/mind/spirit journey.  Each part is linked to the other.  Each area of growth has to include the others.   Running has become much more than just a work out.  I am physically increasing my lung capacity by running.  Yet, I am now aware of the carry over into the other areas.   I “breathe” a little easier with my husband and children.  I have more patience and perspective with them.  I feel claustrophobic and suffocated less.  This has significantly raised the “happiness factor” in my marriage and my family.  Sometimes, my life does feel like it is crashing down around me (usually Friday afternoon).   I now try to “breathe” and not panic.  I have adopted the motto:  As long as I can still breathe, I can do it.

In Genesis, when God created Adam and Eve, he “breathed” life into them.  He put his breathe inside of them.   When I am running, about the only thing I CAN focus on is breathing.  I get to a deep quiet place inside myself.  That is where I seem to find God waiting for me.  This is where I find myself waiting for me.  Hopefully I am finding the piece of God inside of me that IS me.  And this is probably what actually saves me.  This is what keeps me coming back for more.


Waking Up

This summer my Dad gave me the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougal.  He thought it would help me understand Zeke.  He didn’t realize the effect it would have on me!  I have never tried running in all my 43 years.  I just assumed I did not have the body type to run long distances.  I also had picked up a belief from somewhere that running was inherently bad for you.  After reading this book I definitely had more insight about my high energy son who runs everywhere at 90 miles an hour.  But the unintended consequence is that I also began to wonder if I was selling myself short.

Thanks Dad, for always planting seeds for personal growth.  (even unintentionally)

The next step I took was to go the most trusted expert I could find on running……Drew Deppen.     Drew is a Chiropractor in Chicago with a very fresh unique approach.  He is also a very accomplished runner and now my trusted running coach and wonderful friend.   I asked him if he could teach an old lady how to run.  He simply said, “yes”.  The following letter was from me to Drew as he was gearing up for the Chicago Marathon.  It also sums up the affect his “yes” had on me.

Hi! Hope you are getting excited about your run this coming sunday. I was looking at my e-mail and I am wondering if you got sent a double e-mail by me. Sorry if so. We could safely blame Zeke if that is the case. Whenever it gets too quiet at my house I usually find him “fixing the computer” or something along those lines. We have a saying in our family that: if it gets too quiet; it is already too late. 🙂

Yesterday was my 17 year wedding anniversary! And this Thursday I turn 43. I had Noah when I was your age. I have spent the last 15 years in a deep fog of “little kids”. I love my children more than life itself. They are the biggest blessing I have ever received. They are also the hardest job I have ever done. I had to set aside my own needs so many times to take care of everybody else. I became accustomed to not showering, not using the bathroom by myself, and not even hearing my self think. I have spent countless hours rocking crying children, changing diapers, breastfeeding, then wiping tushies, playing rescue heroes and polly pockets. I5 years later, I am still wiping tushies and playing resue heroes and polly pockets. Yet, I am now also teaching Noah how to drive! And faithfully going to every basketball and soccer game that is played. Not even including all the daily chores I grind out: like laundry, bills, groceries, meals, lunches etc.

This past summer as Zeke has turned 3 and you have started teaching me how to run (for the first time in my entire life!) I feel like I am waking up out of this deep fog of the last 15 years. I had no idea how much of myself had disappeared in that time. Parts of myself are starting to show up again. I swear to God I have really missed myself! I love the feeling of being strong again. And I realized how much I need adventure and nature in my life again. I have always tried to work out. I knew it was important, yet it really just felt like another chore to grind out that I never had enough time for. Now all the other work outs have taken on a greater meaning for me too:…. To be able to run farther and faster!

Richard and I ran through the forest preserve yesterday on our anniversary and it felt significant. It was a hard workout as the ground is mushy from all the wet weather. But we had so much fun together. It felt adventurous. We were able to see deer and horses and not so much cars and asphalt. We are finding something that we can do together that we both love. And I am realizing that I have to get balance back in my life. My kids will only benefit from seeing me take on my own challenge and growing from it. I am having so much fun doing it. I think that running is going to be a wonderful stepping stone to me gaining my own life, as my children stop needing me so intensely and begin to become their own independent people.

So I thank you and Richard thanks you (he has missed me too). And I hope your run Sunday is the best one yet.


P.S. Dumb question but: How do you watch a marathon? We have considered coming down to watch and all of us have looked at each other and asked: How do you watch a 26 mile race? You will have to educate us. 🙂