A December Creed (For Those Who Wish to End a Hard Year on a High Note)

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To smile so warmly people can’t help but smile back

To be so present in the now that long-held regrets fall off my radar

To have so little expectation it’s commonly exceeded

To have so much compassion it commonly spreads beyond boundary lines

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To be so generous with canned goods, warm clothes, and spare change, that my hands become empty and my heart becomes full

To say all the loving words there are to say so nothing gets left unsaid

To breathe so deeply some might think I’m a yoga instructor.

To laugh so hard my kids might think I’ve lost my mind.

To invite so openly and spontaneously there’s no time to clean or prep or make a fuss

12 vows not to fill with stuff

To be an encourager not a critic

To be a soul builder not a dream crusher

To listen so closely I hear the hurt behind the words

To look so closely I see similarities instead of differences

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To listen more than I speak

To love more than I fear

To hope more than I doubt

To fill the air with so much positivity, negativity has no room to breathe

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To be so attuned to my heart that I obey when it tells me to take a moment to cuddle or pray or appreciate the sky

To forgo the mirror so often I forget it’s there

To be so focused on what’s good in my people that I overlook their messiness, their mishaps, and their mild annoyances

To be so still and available my beloveds use me as home base.

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To spot the silver lining so vividly even the naysayers can see it too

To practice so much self kindness, self compassion, and self acceptance it ripples beyond self

But most of all … yes, most of all … my December creed is this:

To remember 2016 is not over yet.

Yes, it was hard.

Yes, it had many disappointments.

Yes, it broke my heart too many times to count.

But there are still 31 days left of this year,

And that means there is still time …

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Still time to heal brokenness

Still time to salvage the pieces

Still time to love one another well

There is still time for hope, healing, and love to make a late entrance to the party so we can embrace them and whisper, “I knew you’d come.”

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31 days, my friends. We’ve still got 31 days.

Let’s make it a grand possibility.

Starting right now.

Starting with you.

Starting with me.

Together, there is still great hope for 2016.

© Rachel Macy Stafford 2016

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Dear ones, thank you for being part of The Hands Free Revolution. If you enjoyed this creed, please know I have written several others that are available as hand-lettered prints:

The Hands Free Pledge

Get Off the Scale Manifesto

The Presence Pledge

(new item) Love Prevails Over Failures, Flaws, & Imperfect Days

Both of my books, Hands Free Mama and Hands Free Life contain truthful storytelling and doable, daily strategies to bring more presence, love, and grace into your life. My third book, ONLY LOVE TODAY, is currently available for pre-order and releases on March 7. Thank you for your unending support of my work.   

 

How to Sit at the Table with Those Who Hurt & Offend You

dsc_0807-2“And I’m fractured
From before
And I wanna go home
Now it takes two
And it used to take one
It takes two
And it used to take only one”
-Ryan Adams, Two

*name has been changed

*Steven was one of twelve students in my classroom for children with severe behavior disorders. These children had been repeatedly kicked out of regular education classrooms and alternative schools. My classroom – that I taught with a co-teacher – was their last hope. To call this class of twelve students “challenging” was a severe understatement, but I’d accepted this challenge after reading through twelve massive educational files. Although I tried, it was unimaginable how twelve children could endure so much heartache in such a short time on earth.

Because of the trauma these children had endured, my heart was sympathetic to them. When they tried to hurt me, I held them. When they cussed me out, I did not take it personally. When they ran away, I ran after them. I knew they needed love more than anything, and that is what I vowed to give them while they were in my presence.

Their parents were another story. With every documented incident of abuse and neglect in their child’s file, my sympathy diminished. I found it impossible to love and accept the parents as I did their children, no matter how hard I tried.

Stephen’s mother was the hardest. Her beautiful, blue-eyed child came to school harboring such hatred in his heart. He used vile terms for anyone who was different than him—and difference was abundant in my classroom.

The one time Stephen’s mother came in regarding a behavior issue, she blamed two students for reasons that revealed deep-seated racism. When I pointed out the facts of the situation, she said vile things about me, my teaching ability, and my beliefs. The assumptions she made about me were so far off base and untrue, I was left speechless … and angry … and deeply offended. I hoped I would never have to be in the same room again with her as long as I lived.

Around Thanksgiving time, my co-teacher was inspired to provide the children with a memorable experience. With our help, the students would each make a traditional Thanksgiving dish. We would use the life skills and social skills they’d recently learned to enjoy a meal together.

I can’t remember the conversation exactly, but I believe my colleague and I talked about inviting the students’ parents. If I had to guess, I think I said something like, “Most of them won’t come anyway. That will just disappoint the kids. How about we let them invite their favorite school staff member instead?”

I would like to say I did that for the kids. But truthfully, I didn’t want to be around Stephen’s mother after the way she had offended me. I didn’t want to be around someone with beliefs so different than mine.

A few weeks later, our twelve precious students proudly revealed a long, colorfully decorated table of food to their beloved principal, associate principal, music teacher, and occupational therapist. Miraculously, the students had prepared the feast with only a few minor blow ups and breakdowns. As we dug in joyfully, Stephen leaned over to me.

“If y’all didn’t do this, I would never know the taste of turkey.”

I swallowed hard.

“My dad hates Thanksgiving so we don’t have it,” he continued. “My mom said to be sure and thank you.” And with that, he wrapped his arms around me and squeezed me with all his might.

“Well, I sure wish we would have invited her,” I squeaked out, feeling about two inches tall.

“Next time,” Stephen said. “We’ll do this every year, Mrs. Stafford, and Mom can come next time,” he smiled.

Unfortunately, there was no next time.

Steven’s family moved that spring, but not before his mother came in to say goodbye.

“You’ve been good to him,” she told me as she wrung her hands together nervously. “He never liked going to school ‘til this year.”

“Well, Stephen is very smart. If I need help fixing anything in the classroom, Stephen always offers to do it! He’s been such a good helper to me.” I said. “I know he is going to be just fine in Ohio.”

“He cried about leaving you,” she confided about her tough boy. Then she looked down at her shoes. “I know this is probably not appropriate, but can we have your address so we can write back and forth?”

I felt a tinge of worry. I thought back on the violent incidents I’d read about in his confidential file. I hoped and prayed this mother’s intent was good and wrote my address on a piece of paper and handed it to her.

For nearly five years, I received two and three-page letters from Stephen and his mother. Bit by bit, his mother shared with me her story; she showed me her scars; she revealed her pain and insecurities; she asked for guidance to be the best mother she could to her three children despite very challenging life circumstances.

I wrote back to her with advice, encouragement, and love. Each time I sealed the envelope and put it in the mailbox, I felt hopeful. I felt certain this divinely orchestrated connection would prove to be far more than an understanding between two very different women.

And it did.

You see, I think about Stephen’s mother a lot – particularly when my beliefs and opinions clash with someone else’s … when I have a choice to engage with or dismiss someone whose beliefs offend my own. I think about her when I have a chance to invite or exclude people who minimize or belittle issues I deeply care about. Stephen’s mother helps me choose love … effort … understanding … compassion.

Because honestly, I will forever live with the regret that I did not invite her to my table.

But all hope is not lost.

I have more chances … and one of them is coming up on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day 2016.

And so do you, my friends.

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Perhaps you’ve realized you have the same choice – and maybe it’s weighing heavily on your heart … creating angst and dread … causing you to consider cancelling altogether.

I would encourage you to sit down at the table …

With the person who offended you

With the person who doesn’t see who you really are

Sit down at the table …

With the person who can’t see past his or her own beliefs

With the person you find impossible to love.

Take a seat across from the person with whom you’ll most likely never see eye to eye.

Bring extra patience and extra openness, if you must—but sit down at the table.

Extending love to someone with a differing opinion does not mean you are agreeing with her or forsaking your beliefs – it shows you’re committed to moving toward a positive future.

Extending love to someone who revealed an unbecoming side of himself doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten – it shows you’re willing to see his story and scars within.

Extending love to someone who offended you does not mean you’re accepting such treatment – it means you realize you cannot thrive in a place of anger and resentment.

Extending love to someone who holds ill will towards you does not mean you don’t care – it means your life is not based on the opinions of others.  

Sitting down at the table despite past hurts and current turmoil shows you’re willing to see what an open heart can do to mend wounds, break down barriers, and create positive change for yourself and future generations.

Sit down at the table.

It might be your only chance to acknowledge that yes, you’re coming from vastly different places, but where you want to go is virtually the same.

Sit down at the table.

It might be your only chance to find out what the most unlikely, but truly extraordinary type of love tastes like.

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Friends of The Hands Free Revolution, thank you for being a mighty force for love, hope, and acceptance in the world right now. If you would like to gift others this holiday season with visual reminders to choose love, please enjoy FREE SHIPPING to anywhere up to $9.95 with the code THANKFUL (includes international shipping). Offer good today through Nov. 26, 2016 on all items including: metal cuffs, leather wristbands, and silicone reminder bands inscribed with these healing mantras:

ONLY LOVE TODAY
COME AS YOU ARE
SEE FLOWERS NOT WEEDS
TODAY MATTERS MORE THAN YESTERDAY
I CHOOSE LOVE

Check out the hand-lettered prints for:

GET OFF THE SCALE Manifesto
THE HANDS FREE Pledge
Only love today
XOXO BEFORE YOU GO

And one final note, gifting someone with one of my books is a huge blessing to me. It helps my publisher know my work is valued and should continue. My books include HANDS FREE MAMA, HANDS FREE LIFE, and ONLY LOVE TODAY (releasing 3/7). Thank you for being part of this community. I count you among my greatest blessings. 

An Empowering Way to Respond to Hurtful People

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“Cause peace and love ain’t so far
If we nurse our wounds before they scar.”
Alicia Keys

I can vividly remember certain times in my life when I have been deeply hurt, shamed, excluded, or violated by someone.

I clearly remember wanting the violators to understand the pain they caused, offer me a genuine apology, and hear them pledge to never do it to anyone else.

That happened once.

All the other times, there was either no resolution or no remorse. I walked away from the painful experiences feeling angry, conflicted, hopeless, and confused.

When my daughters began coming to me with their own hurtful experiences, I felt a familiar wave of unsettledness. In a few cases, there was somewhat of a resolution. But most of time, resolution did not happen. The person who inflicted the pain was either unremorseful, unaware, or unchanged. My children’s hurt was their hurt to bear and to deal with as best they could. As we talked through it, I wondered, is this it? Is this all we can do when someone hurts us?

[Read more…]

I Stood in Line to Vote & Saw Something Everyone Should See

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* Written while standing in an early voter line for two hours on Friday

The one standing behind you—she’s nervous and wonders if you notice her fidgeting.

The one in front of you—he’s desperately hoping he’s not going to be late to work. He can’t afford to be late.

That one in the yellow sweater—she just had a fight with her son. She’s practicing what she’ll say to him tonight.

The one wearing the Cubs ball cap is still riding the victory high. Gotta love that guy’s permanent smile.

That one in the floral scarf – she’s almost finished with chemo. Never has she been so grateful to be exercising her right to vote.

That new mom two rows over saw her baby’s first smile last night. She had no idea a smile could change her entire outlook on life.

Sunsets make that guy in the plaid tie weepy. Probably because his mom always pointed them out when he was a kid.

The gal with the curly ponytail is obsessed with that new show, This is Us. She DVR’ed it and is going to watch tonight.

The guy rubbing his chin is hoping to get some time off so he can take his dad fishing. He’s smiling to himself just thinking about the serenity of the water and their special connection that requires few words.

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That puffy-eyed woman really wishes she’d had time for another cup of coffee.

The guy with the pensive look is thinking about how he could better organize this entire system.

The one staring off in the distance noticed her mother’s memory has been slipping.

The one biting his nails is thinking about starting an exercise routine to take him through the holidays. He’s feeling determined not to add an extra ten pounds.

She feels like she’s constantly pulled in too many directions; this long line is not helping the situation.

He loves to watch his kids sleep. The divorce has been rough, but the bedtime tuck in brings him unexplainable peace. He’s grateful they’re with him tonight.

She battling pain. It’s worse than ever today, but she is here. She is here.

He’s overdue for a physical. Maybe he’ll make the appointment while standing in line. He knows his wife would be happy if he did.

She’s voting for the first time. Her excitement is palpable.

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Have you noticed?

 We are more alike than we are different.

We all have similar longings, similar worries, similar fears, hopes, and dreams.

Yes, the details of our stories and struggles are different, but our desire to live a meaningful life is not.

The one about to enter the voting booth wants prosperity, freedom, and safety for his children and grandchildren,

just like you.

The one with her hands tightly clasped together is looking for a glimmer of hope,

just like you.

Smile at her.

Ask her how her day is going.

Commiserate about the long line.

Compliment her sweater—yellow is her color.

See the one holding a toddler on her hip? Encourage her. Tell her gorgeous brown-eyed boy how patient he’s being.

See the one in the Kindness Matters t-shirt? Tell her how much you love her shirt, and ask her where she got it.

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Her heart beats, just like yours.

Her burdens get heavy at times, just like yours.

Her laugh is uncontrollable at times, just like yours.

She cries quietly in the car at times, just like you.

That father in the blue shirt will go home to his kids tonight. He will hold them close and hope for the best, as we all will.  Because essentially, we all want what is best for our country and our world.

Although it hasn’t felt like it lately, we all want to move in a positive direction – to gather ourselves, begin healing our wounds, and walk away from this election stronger than we’ve ever been.

It starts right now, right here in this line—the line of humanity.

Where we stand shoulder to shoulder, flaws and all, hearts broken but still beating.

The line of humanity …

Where that one over there is looking for a glimmer of hope, just like you.

And maybe, just maybe, your smile will be the hope she’s looking for but never expected to find at the polls.

Written by Rachel Macy Stafford while standing in an early voter line on Friday. #onlylovetoday

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What do hope someone sees in you when you stand in line at the polls? We can learn so much by noticing and listening to each other. If this post inspired you, would you kindly share it with others? Through you, this message has the potential to change more than just the atmosphere at the polls tomorrow. Let’s flood the world with kindness today and in the days to come.  Use the hashtag #WhatISawAtThePolls if you see something hopeful or make a new friend while standing in line. 

If you would like a wearable reminder to choose love like the one pictured above, please see the ONLY LOVE TODAY metal cuffs, leather bracelets, and silicone reminder bands. My new friend in the poll line told me we can find Kindness Matters t-shirts here

Thank you for being part of The Hands Free Revolution. I cherish all comments spoken & unspoken  Together, there is hope.   

Who I Was Behind Closed Doors Offers Hope for Negative Times

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“We all get to see
Who we grow up to be
And anchor when in doubt
An ocean when in drought
We aim for it all
We lift of these walls
To make this house our home.”
–Blue October, Home

While visiting New York City recently, my daughter lost her wallet. It contained babysitting and pet-sitting money she’d worked hard to earn over many months. While in the midst of her trying moment, a good Samaritan eating breakfast with his family stepped in. Although my daughter only knew his first name, city of residence, and occupation, we hoped it would be enough to let him know the impact of his loving action. I wrote the following public post:

Dear firefighter Gary from Phoenix who helped my 13-year-old daughter in NYC yesterday:

Last night my daughter got home from her special trip with her Grammy and Pops. She had so much to tell us about the memorials, the statues, the skyscrapers, the shows, and the people she saw. But once we were alone in her bedroom, her suitcase still untouched in the corner, it was you she talked about.

How you helped them look for her lost wallet when she was so distraught

How you expressed deep concern when you could have just gone about your day

How you somehow knew she’d lost an amount she’d worked hard earning for many months

How you looked into her tear-stained face, pressed money into her hand, and wished her a happy birthday

How you insisted she keep it when she said that wasn’t necessary

Her exact words last night were: “Mom, I was just kind of speechless. I just couldn’t believe a stranger would do that.”

This is the girl who prepared for this trip by watching 9/11 documentaries. This is the girl who was struck again and again by the way people helped each other. She said, “Look how people are running TOWARDS the pain and suffering instead of running away.”

Firefighter Gary, thank you for turning toward my daughter in her moment of despair. You did more than redeem a moment, a day, a trip … you redeemed humanity in the eyes of a 13-year-old girl. You confirmed that the helpers on the screen fifteen years ago still exist today. You confirmed that despite what she sees and hears on the news, good people of the world are still out there spreading hope like it’s their job.

My daughter was speechless yesterday, but last night she was not. And I wanted you to know what she said about you and what she will remember about that trip forever because of you. I hope this message reaches you.

With love and admiration,

Rachel Macy Stafford, an eternally grateful mother

#onlylovetoday #livelikegary

Six hours.

That is the brief amount of time it took the post to reach Gary. I’d severely underestimated the power of good people to deliver good news, and that gave me hope.

[Read more…]

The Best Advice for Loving Those Who ‘Feel It All’

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“Life is better when you open your heart
You don’t always have to act so hard
Just be as you are.”
–Mike Posner, Be As You Are 

*name has been changed

“I had a terrible dream last night,” I told my 10-year-old daughter Avery on a recent Saturday morning. “I dreamed Annie* passed away.”

Annie is a seventy-nine-year-old old woman we met at a retirement home last spring when Avery played her guitar in a music therapy session. Upon learning Annie had not had a visitor in years, Avery asked if we could “adopt” her. We’d been visiting Annie for several months now.

The news of my terrible dream caused Avery to abruptly cease her morning waffle-savoring process. She knew “bad dream” for me meant vivid images, tearing-from-your-bed panic, real tears, and racing heartrate. Avery knew my nightly dreams were more intense than my everyday reality.

“Well,” Avery said, her face softening. “We better go see her, Mama.”

It did not surprise me Avery knew exactly what I needed her to hear.

[Read more…]

I Was Perpetually Angry Until Joy Became My Goal

 

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“If I could say anything, anything
What would it be?
A good question for a distant reality
I would tell you that I love you
Even when it didn’t show.”
–Tristen Prettyman, Say Anything

I typically don’t read many Facebook status updates—and I especially don’t read them multiple times—but this particular one stopped me cold. It was an observation shared by my friend Nicki Salcedo. Whether penning a novel, an op-ed piece, or a Facebook status update, Nicki’s words never fail to provide enlightenment and introspection. This was Nicki’s informal, yet powerful observation:

“Nighttime soccer practice. I see a family I know. They have back-to- back practices for their girls. That amounts to three hours of soccer on a Tuesday night. 

Me: “Wow, you guys have a long night.”

Dad: “Yeah, but I’ve got to head over and cut my son’s hair. He has cancer. He’s in the hospital. I’m going to Northside.”

It is 7:30pm at night. We live across town from that hospital. The dad leaves. He calls his daughter the best nickname when she plays. He admits he doesn’t know much about soccer, but he’s learning.

I think about all these angry parents. Angry people. For what? They have everything and want more.

The quiet ones simply enjoy seeing their kids kick a ball.” –Nicki Salcedo

It was no mystery why I read Nicki’s observation three times.

Nor was it any mystery why her words made me cry.

I was that angry person.

I know because my husband had the courage to tell me. Something along the lines of: You walk around the house looking angry all the time. Your face is always set in a scowl.

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What The Kid Sitting Alone Wants You to Know

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“Everything’s in line
But I am bruised
I need a voice to echo
I need a light to take me home
I kinda need a hero
Is it you?” -Demi Lovato, Nightingale 

One of my very first students as a special education teacher was Annie. She taught me so much about living a “feeling” life, and her parents were some of my greatest encouragers. Over the years, I’ve kept in touch with this special family, but especially since Annie’s dad John was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago. John recently began a new medication and he’s felt better than he has in years. Much to my surprise, they asked if they could visit my family and me. To them, the 500-mile drive was irrelevant; John had something he wanted to say to me.

Within minutes of arriving, John thanked me with tears in his eyes. He said Annie would not be where she is today without me. I wanted to point out that Annie was the one who changed me, but it was not the time. Perhaps now is the time.

When Annie became my student, I was fresh out of college, just beginning my master’s degree in special education. I’d never had a student with autism. I did a lot of listening and observing. What I saw in Annie amazed me. I wanted her peers to see it too. I often sat with her in her classroom, in the lunchroom, and on the playground to help her use the social skills we worked on during our sessions together.

I remember how Annie and I would find a place at the empty lunch table and children would gravitate towards us. Little girls with bouncy ponytails and brightly colored socks eagerly squeezed in. I wasn’t naïve; I realized the children wanted to know this new young teacher who always wore a warm smile, gracefully mastered platform wedge heels, and coached the high school girls’ tennis team. Although I was the initial appeal, it was Annie who stole the show.

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“I Hurt With Her,” She Said & I Took Note

dsc_0841Imagine if you asked yourself for a minute,
What if I had your heart?
What if you wore my scars?
How would we break down?
What if you were me?
What if I were you?
-Five for Fighting, What If

“Did you see the girl with the big smile, Mama? I hope we’re friends someday,” my daughter said as we walked away from the lemonade stand just days after moving into our new neighborhood.

I saw her. Oh yes, I saw that beaming of ray of light. My heart did a summersault when my daughter was introduced to L. The girls were going into the same grade, and they both were new to the area.

Within a few weeks, the girls were inseparable. Their shared love of music instantly bonded them. For hours, they’d sing and dance in the basement—their voices more confident and assured together than alone.

The quickly developing bond between two friends was solidified on a painful bus ride home shortly after our move. I took note that fateful day, occurring exactly two years ago. I knew it was important to remember what I witnessed. So when my husband sent me a photo of the two girls on the football field the other night, I knew it was time to share their story and the photo.

Let me just say, this is more than a friendship, and it’s more than a photo. It is a goal … a model … an aspiration of what we could be if we collectively agree to take note.

This is their story …

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Your Saving Day

fullsizerender-2“I can’t stand to fly
I’m not that naive
I’m just out to find
The better part of me.”
-Five for Fighting, Superman

When my daughters and I arrived to do our volunteer duties last Sunday, we noticed a new cat in one of the shelter cages. When I began reading Sheryl the cat’s story of how she was rescued from a maintenance man threatening to terminate her and her six kittens, I knew exactly who this cat was. We fostered her babies all summer long! I hurriedly unlocked the cage and pulled that sweet mama to my chest. I was not expecting to become emotional, but I did. I could not stop the tears.

I was holding a four-legged miracle.

When this cat was rescued from the apartment building, she was close to death. It took her three months to recover from anemia caused by a parasite—but here she was, happy and healthy.

When my daughters and I told Mama Cat Sheryl how we found loving homes for all her babies, she purred even louder. She nestled in and rested her head on my shoulder. Perhaps she could sense we had stepped in to love her precious kittens when she couldn’t do it herself.

[Read more…]