The Life of the Party is Closer than You Think

the world needs more open arms1
“She is like a sun,
Shining over me
She makes the good things better,
Better than I ever dreamed.”
-Green River Ordinance

The other night, my friend and brilliant writer Alexandra Rosas shared a glimpse into her life. With short, non-descriptive sentences, it wasn’t intended to be profound. With text structure unpolished and informal, it wasn’t meant to evoke an emotional response like the well-crafted essays she writes. But yet her words brought me to my knees. I read them three times and then I cried. This is what Alexandra shared:

I fell asleep on the couch at 7 last night. Woke up two hours later at 9, looked around, everyone gone. I popped in to check on littlest, found him in bed reading. “Where is everyone, honey?” He looked up and answered, “We all went to bed, Mom, because you’re the party.”

That’s it, I thought to myself. This woman has achieved life’s highest honor. She is the party. She is the heartbeat. She is the reason for gathering. She is the celebration. If there is a more important role in life, I do not know what it is.

For days, I thought about that ultimate compliment spoken by a little boy about his mother. In fact, I became a little obsessed with it. Could I be the party? The question frequently popped into my mind in the following days …

As I played Frogger with my younger daughter at the orthodontist’s office and we both squealed when my frog made it safely to the other side …

Could I be the party?

As I talked to my eleven-year-old daughter at bedtime and she said, “Just put your arms around me and stay a little longer” …

Could I be the party?

As I congregated with old friends and we laughed, cried, and shared our difficult truths …

Could I be the party?

As I participated in the silly “Furry Language” my daughter made up to communicate with Banjo the cat …

Could I be the party?

As I spent the morning playing with my little nephews and happily agreed to “more jelly beans and more stories, Aunt Wachel” …

Could I be the party?

DSC_0445

As I hoisted my growing girls over my head to do an “underdoggy”, their favorite move on a swing …

Could I be the party?

It wasn’t until I pulled the car into the garage after picking up my older daughter from swim team practice that I finally had an answer. Our latest favorite song was playing on the radio. We had the bass pumping and the windows rolled down as we belted out the lyrics. My husband happened to be entering the house at the time. But when he saw us, he stopped for a moment and just smiled at me. The way he smiled with such joy—like he was happy to see me happy—made me catch my breath. He was happy to see me happy. He was happy to see me being the party.

And that’s when I knew why Alexandra’s words had affected me so.

There was a time in my life when I wasn’t the party. I could plan the party like a boss. I could clean up the party without wasting a moment. I could wow the partygoers with beautiful presentation and decadent treats. I could make my family look picture perfect for the party. But when it came time for the party, I wasn’t really there. I was not a present and joyful participant.

I was not the party.

After all, how could someone who wasn’t emotionally present be the party?

When I saw my husband’s wide smile as he stood at the garage door, I remembered what he looked like when he was most worried about me. It was during the height of my overwhelmed life. I’d blown up when he said I needed to slow down … to stop doing so much … to smile once in a while. I locked myself in the bathroom and squeezed myself into the dusty corner between the powder blue wall and the toilet. I rested my head against the cold porcelain as my body wracked with sobs.

“I don’t want to be here anymore … I don’t want to be here anymore,” I whispered over and over and over.

I was just so tired. I was just so empty. I was just so stressed. I was just so sad all the time. I envisioned running away from it all, and then I felt like a monster for even thinking that.

My husband kept knocking on the door and insisting that I let him in. But I stayed in my little corner, tucked into a ball until my tears ran out, wondering if I’d ever feel life in my heart again.

I wasn’t able to articulate it then, but I can now. And it is always something I tell others when I have the privilege to share my story in person. I say:

Life is meant to be lived …

not managed,

not controlled,

not screamed,

not stressed,

not hurried,

not guilt-ridden,

not regretted,

not scripted,

not consumed by distractions, big or small, obvious or subtle.

Life is meant to be lived … and sometimes we lose our way.

I know I’m not alone when I share these difficult truths by the reactions I see. When I spoke these words to a group of people recently, I saw the look of recognition … the tears of pain … the sighs of relief knowing we are not alone. The cause of our overwhelm might be different from person to person, but our desire to live a fulfilling life is not. It took many, many small, daily steps to free myself from my distracted state and get to the place where I woke up excited and happy … where I could turn off the outside world and turn toward my family … where I could offer my undivided presence and attention … where I could take time to love and be loved.

I do not need to hide in the bathroom anymore. I am able to deal with struggles and challenges by staying present, communicating, and forgiving others and myself. I feel a new sense urgency in my life now. It is no longer about how much can I accomplish in a lifetime, but rather how much living and loving I can do each day.

Last Sunday afternoon I felt that heart-stirring sense of urgency so I said no to an outside request. I said no to a pile of laundry. I said no to my dinging devices, my full inbox, and my dirty kitchen. I said yes to hiking up a mountain with my family.

mountain climbing

We got to the top of the glorious summit feeling triumphant and connected. After we ate our picnic, I stretched out on a big slab of rock. The sun relaxed me as the spring breeze blew back my hair. The next thing I knew, there was one daughter on each side of me. With no space between our bodies, we laid in silence warming our dry winter skin in the sun’s nourishing light.

That’s when my younger daughter turned and looked straight into my soul. She said, “This is the life, Mama.”

But what my joy-filled heart heard was, “This is the Life Mama.”

I am the party.
I am the gathering place.
I am the heartbeat.
I am the celebration.

By the grace of God and many, many tiny steps toward the light of love and connection, I am fully alive and well with my soul.

My friends, where do you find yourself today? Far from where you want to be? Missing the joyful person you once were? Huddled in a tight corner with weary bones? Wherever you are on your own personal journey, I want you to remember it is not the grand gestures, the glowing accolades, or the perfect presentation that make you the party. It is something you do every single day whether you realize it or not.

When you squeeze his hand as he walks into that new building and smile bravery right into his heart,
You are the party.

When you answer every single question with an inordinate amount of patience,
You are the party.

When you wait and wait and wait so she doesn’t have to wait alone,
You are the party.

When you think of one nice thing to say when no one else does,
You are the party.

When you sing softly when he’s frightened and say, “It will be okay,”
You are the party.

When you give up what you desperately want so she can have what she needs,
You are the party.

When you take a deep breath and choose love,
You are the party.

When you tearfully delight in the wonder of your precious ones,
You are the party.

You are the party because of the love you offer in small, daily doses.
So don’t worry about how you look.
Don’t worry about what you did or didn’t do yesterday.
Don’t worry about that long list of flaws and failings no one is keeping but you.
Your love and presence are the highlight of someone’s life—the highlight of someone’s life.
Keep waking up.
Keep showing up.
Keep picking yourself up from off the floor.
You are the party—the Life of the Party.
Your daily doses of love and presence make it so.

the world needs 2

For more HANDS FREE LIFE inspiration, please consider my NEW book now available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes & Noble! Details below …

For more HANDS FREE LIFE inspiration, please consider my NEW book now available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes & Noble! Details below …

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Friends of The Hands Free Revolution, my second book, HANDS FREE LIFE: 9 Habits for Overcoming Distraction, Living Better, & Loving More is now available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Whether you are just starting your journey toward a life that really matters or have been at it awhile, this book will create life-altering habits that will allow you to invest in what matters most to you. HANDS FREE LIFE hits bookshelves on September 8th! I’d be so grateful if you’d help spread the word. It is my greatest hope for this book to reach those yearning to feel a new sense of urgency in their lives—an urgency to live, love, dream, create, forgive, flourish, and thrive. Thank you for your faithful support and encouragement! It is such a blessing to me.

Recommended Resources:

  • If you feel hopeless like nothing you do will ever work, or if you or your child(ren) are experiencing depression, anxiety, grief, trauma, attention problems, self-inflicted injury, suicidal thoughts, or are simply wishing for healing, please click her name to contact my gifted colleague, Theresa, PhD, licensed psychologistOn her site, you will see a special welcome message to Hands Free Mama readers. She has helped many readers of my blog overcome challenging life issues. 
  • My friend Nicole bravely shares her story about losing her mom along with life-saving resources in this beautiful piece of her heart: I am a Survivor of Suicide.

Before You Predict a Child’s Future, Try This Instead

chalk“Love… What is love? Love is to love someone for who they are, who they were, and who they will be.”
–Chris Moore

To the person who said my child would set a world record for longest period of time any human has gone without brushing the back of her head …

To the person who said she’d get her driver’s permit before she learned to ride a bike …

To the person who said she’d always move at a snail’s pace …

You were wrong.

 

To the person who said my child would never enjoy running unless it was to the ice cream truck …

To the person who said it would take a miracle to get her to dive off the starting blocks …

To the person who said she’d be sucking her thumb during the SAT test …

You should see her now.

 

To the person who said she’d always be a bit of a loner …

To the person who said she would probably get married in stretchy pants …

To the person who said she would live happily ever after among clutter, knick-knacks, stuffed animals, and snack wrappers …

I’d like to give you a piece of my mind.

But then I’d have to give myself a piece of my mind. Because it was me. I was the one with these future-diminishing thoughts about my child. I was the one who had her pegged from an early age, as if I had a crystal ball that predicted her destiny. Good thing I never said these things out loud … or so I thought. At a recent swim meet, I learned that my thoughts had the power to influence, and it wasn’t necessarily for good.

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The One Thing We All Want to Know

all want to know 1“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”

- Walt Whitman

I recently attended an informational meeting for fifth grade parents at the middle school my daughter will be attending this fall. After swallowing the lump in my throat caused by the undeniable reality of why I was sitting there, I settled in to absorb everything the staff had to offer about parenting a middle schooler. But within the first five minutes of the presentation, I got stuck. It was something the assistant principal said.

“You might think opening their locker or having seven teachers is the greatest worry for sixth graders on that first day of school—but it’s not. In general, their biggest source of angst is knowing how they’re getting home.”

The administrator proceeded to explain where bus routes could be accessed during the summer months, but I was only half listening. All I could think about was this:

They just want to know how they’re getting home.

My mind returned to one particularly trying day in my own middle school career. I’d forgone the city bus and made a long walk home, crying all the way. I’d gotten my first C, and I was devastated. When I got to the door, my grandma opened it. I’d forgotten she was spending the week with us. I quickly wiped my snotty face and forced a smile, but Grandma couldn’t be fooled.

“Rachel, what’s wrong?” she exclaimed. Despite the prominent wrinkles on my grandma’s heart-shaped face, I saw worry lines appear between her eyes.

“I got a C on my math test, Grandma,” I confessed between sobs.

Grandma immediately pulled me to her chest. Her shaky hands smoothed my hair lovingly. And then she said the words I needed to hear. “Rachel, no one is going to be mad at you. Your mama and daddy love you, no matter what.” And then she looked directly into my red, puffy face and said, “I love you.”

They just want to know how they’re getting home, the school administrator had said.

And I would add:

They just want to know there will be a welcoming smile and two open arms waiting for them, no matter what they’ve done, no matter what kind of day they’ve had.

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The Kind of Mothering We All Need

“To Mother, to me, means to nurture. To heal, to help grow, to give. And so anyone and everyone who is involved in the healing of the world is a Mother.  Anyone who tends to a child, or friend, or stranger, or animal or garden is a Mother. Anyone who tends to Life is a Mother.” –Glennon Doyle Melton photo by the talented Amy Paulson www.amy-paulson.com

“To Mother, to me, means to nurture. To heal, to help grow, to give. And so anyone and everyone who is involved in the healing of the world is a Mother.  Anyone who tends to a child, or friend, or stranger, or animal or garden is a Mother. Anyone who tends to Life is a Mother.” –Glennon Doyle Melton
photo of Rachel & Glennon by the talented Amy Paulson www.amy-paulson.com

 

*name has been changed to protect privacy

I recently went outside my comfort zone and made a ninety-minute drive in unfamiliar territory to hear one of my favorite authors speak. My hesitations about leaving the comfort of my home on a Friday night at rush hour in the pouring down rain all were abruptly silenced by three words, “I need this.”

You see, my friend Glennon writes words that offer me refuge. With hope spreading like my grandma’s arms, I feel understood and unalone in her space. I knew that hearing her speak her truths would be like an I.V. of pure goodness flowing straight into my blood stream.

Sure enough, the experiences and revelations Glennon shared from a comfy couch, shoes tossed to the side, made me laugh out loud, clap enthusiastically, and cry unashamedly. But when Glennon was asked what advice she’d give people trying to be the best parent, person, or human being they could be, I became completely still. Glennon said, “Find something that fills you up and then do it.” During a painfully low point in her life Glennon followed an intense urge to sit at the edge of the ocean for hours and hours. She realized that sound, that smell, and that feeling was vital to her ability to thrive. She knew that she needed to sit by the water’s edge once a week and so that is what she did … that is what she does. “Find beauty that is just for you … find beauty that will fill you up,” she encouraged.

Much to my dismay, the program came to an end. I began heading for the exit when someone tapped me on my shoulder. “Excuse me, but my friend loves your blog and was wondering if she could talk to you.”

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When’s the Last Time Life Excited You?

hug life 1“With arms outstretched I thank.
With heart beating gratefully I love.
With body in health I jump for joy.
With spirit full I live.”
~Terri Guillemets

I honestly could not remember seeing my child this excited about something in her whole life. She exploded off the school bus gripping the American Heart Association Jump Rope for Heart information sheet in her hand and never let it out of her sight. She studied it while eating a snack. She kept it right beside her while she did her homework. She read over it multiple times while I made dinner as if she’d be tested on it.

“Every $50 we earn can help a child with a heart problem,” she explained to me during a rare glance up from the paper. “If we earn $5, we get Splatter. He’s the duck with the paint splotches. And I really want to earn Sky Dude. See him, Mama?” Avery pointed to a green duck wearing an orange helmet. “I am going to ask people to sponsor me. Then I am going to practice jumping.”

My daughter ran off to get started on her plan, nearly forgetting her colorful brochure—but not quite. When she ran back and snatched it up like a rare diamond, the oddest statement came to my head.

“I want to get excited about ducks.”

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‘Choose Love’ 21-Day Challenge

21 day challenge

 I never know where interviews are going to take me – but I can almost always be sure they will take me back—back in time. And although most days I try my best to look forward, sometimes it’s enlightening to reflect back and see something I can only see with time. This is my story, as well as a challenge, should you choose to accept …

It was this, the second to last question during my interview on Better Worldians Radio that stirred something inside me:

“With the success of your book and popularity of your website I imagine you could be busier than ever. How do you keep the balance and keep living Hands Free?” asked Gregory, one of the show’s hosts.

I briefly described several strategies I used when I began my journey that are still in practice today. Wanting to place emphasis on what I feel is the most important one, practicing daily distraction-free rituals, I shared this story …

The night before the Hands Free Mama manuscript was due to my publisher I was working furiously to meet my deadline. My parents had come from Florida to help me any way they could.

It was around 8:30 p.m. and I was bent over the keyboard surrounded by empty soda cans, crumpled papers, and used sticky notes.

I felt my mom gently touch my arm. She’d just come from my older daughter’s bedroom. “Natalie requested her nightly Talk Time, Rachel,” she whispered softly.

Without hesitation, I got up from my work and headed straight toward Natalie’s room.

Suddenly my mom called out after me, neither of us knowing that what she was about to say would become one of my greatest Hands Free motivators. “I tried to tell Natalie that you had a lot of work to do tonight but she adamantly said, ‘Grandma, Mama always comes.”

Mama always comes.

I stopped midway up the stairs in an effort to wrap both my brain and hands around those sacred words and accept them as mine.

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A Moment Longer Than Necessary

“Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.” ~ William Arthur Ward

 

While growing up, I periodically told my sister something I never told anyone else. 

“I think I’m going to die young,” I’d tell her matter-of-factly long before the popular song made such a dismal fate sound glamorous.

“Don’t say that, Rachel!” she protested the first time I said it. But after that initial disclosure, my sister seemed to get used to me saying it, especially around my birthday each year. By my twenties, my sister’s reaction to my depressing prediction was always compassionate and often inquisitive.

“Why? Why do you think that, Rachel?” she asked me as we drove to the mall on a bitter cold January day to shop for my 22nd birthday gift.

I didn’t know why. All I knew is that I could envision my demise like an intense movie trailer. In my 30-second preview, I could see I was around 33 or 34 years old and it happened on an Interstate.

Much to my dismay, my husband and I moved from Indiana’s slow country roads to Florida’s six-lane super highways right before I turned thirty. Naturally, that time in my life held a subtle sense of foreboding. To add to my worries, it was necessary to travel on I-75 to get to many places I needed to go.

I’d driven on plenty of Interstates in the Midwest, but this particular thoroughfare was different. It was faster. It was bumper-to-bumper. There was no shortage of intimidating eighteen-wheelers barreling past. And no matter what time of day it was, I could always count on seeing numerous roadside accidents. By age thirty-two, I had a precious baby in the backseat of the car as I drove that 12-mile stretch. I remember my hands becoming so sweaty that I could barely grip the steering wheel. I remember praying the entire way, hoping that particular trip would not be my last.

But here is where the goodness came in …

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One Word That Can Bring Us Back to What Matters

name HFM 1For the past six months, my 11-year-old daughter and I have been preoccupied with baby names. You see, when my sister-in-law invited Natalie and I to offer name suggestions for her third baby, we embraced it like a full-time job. At swim meets, we scoured the heat sheets for lovely names. At the doctor’s office, we exchanged knowing glances when we heard a name we thought my sister-in-law might like. My daughter and I searched baby name websites and when we found a good prospect, we’d pronounce it with the last name. If it had a pleasing sound, we’d write out the initials to make sure it didn’t spell anything inappropriate or odd. If the name passed all our tests, we’d send it to my sister-in-law hoping to make the monumental decision a little bit easier.

I’d nearly forgotten how both agonizing and exciting the name selection process was for my own two children. Tucked inside their baby books are lists of beautiful names that for several days or even months represented so much more than a name—they represented a future.

“I cannot wait for Natalie to be borned,” my fair-haired student, Morgan, would say every morning when she came to school and hugged my growing belly. I joked with my students that Natalie would be a very smart girl someday because she attended nine months of first grade before she was even born. Deep down, it wasn’t really a joke. I felt as if I could see her future, or at least envision grand possibilities, simply by saying her name.

Upon arrival, Natalie instantly lived up to her name. She had a full head of jet-black hair and was content and alert. Upon arriving home from the hospital, I made up a song using her name so we both could hear the beauty of her name over and over. Through her early years, Natalie’s name remained a sacred word spoken with immense love and care.

But somewhere along the line, that changed.

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The 3-Second Pause That Can Save a Morning & Spare Some Pain

"What becomes available to us when we greet one another as fully human?
" - Margaret Wheatley

“What becomes available to us when we greet one another as fully human?
”
- Margaret Wheatley

 

I wish I hadn’t taken my husband’s coffee pot and smashed it in the sink. I knew it the moment I steadied my shaking hands against the metal basin filled with jagged slivers of glass.

Regret hurts.

I wish I hadn’t peeled out of the gravel parking lot simply because things weren’t going according to plan. I knew it the moment my baby in the backseat began to cry.

Regret burns.

I wish I hadn’t run through the pouring rain, cussing and screaming about not being able to find my vehicle in a lot of thousands. I knew it the moment my daughter looked up at me with fearful eyes and asked if I was okay.

Regret aches.

I could go on. My list of overreactions is long, and it is shameful. I’d always liked to have things go just right, but during my highly distracted, stretched-too-thin, over-committed and under-rested years, overreaction became my middle name. And regret was right there beside it. Regret follows on the heels of overreaction every single time.

These unbecoming incidents—the coffee pot, the gravel-spitting tires, and the parking lot confusion—have resurfaced in my mind lately. Although they happened years ago, I can remember them clearly now, more clearly than ever.

I remember being so upset that I was unable to think straight. I remember coming so undone that I couldn’t get myself back together. I remember detesting myself in those moments. I remember wanting to run away. But most of all, I remember not wanting to be that person anymore. Regret can be a powerful motivator.

How did I begin to choose calm over crazed, reasonable over senseless, composed over fuming? One of my strategies was making a conscious effort to spot the “flowers” instead of the “weeds” in situations and in people. Another tactic was adopting a mantra to silence my inner bully. Whenever a critical thought came to mind, I immediately interrupted it with the phrase, “Only Love Today”. Another tactic was to envision my angry words like a car crash, inflicting damage to the person on the receiving end. But it wasn’t until one week ago, after thinking about several embarrassing outbursts from my past, that I realized there is something else I do. I give myself a 3-second preview of how a situation could play out if I choose controlling hostility over peaceful compassion.

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Finding Hope in the Before & After … It’s Not Beyond Repair

"Who I am becoming matters more than who I once was. Today matters more than yesterday." -Rachel Macy Stafford (signs by Avery, age 8)

“Who I am becoming matters more than who I once was.
Today matters more than yesterday.”
-Rachel Macy Stafford (signs by Avery, age 8)

 

Six weeks ago my eight-year-old daughter was fitted with a palatal expander to address several dental issues. In the four visits we’ve had to the orthodontist, one thing never fails to happen. My daughter pauses at the BEFORE and AFTER bulletin board and studies every bright smile, every straightened tooth, every hope-filled gap. As we enter and before we leave, my child stops to study the transformations as I stand beside her quietly. Along this Hands Free journey I’ve learned there are times when I must not rush my child. Standing in front of the BEFORE and AFTER display is one of those times. I let my Noticer look until she is ready to move on.

At home I am required to take a tiny pin key (pictured above) and stick it into minuscule hole inside the expander. My daughter dutifully opens her mouth as wide as it will go, allowing me to see inside the dark cavern of her mouth. From there, I slowly turn the wheel downward until the next hole appears.

As I turn the wheel her upper dental arch expands by a hair. A single hair. You would not think a hair of expansion would hurt, but it does. My child presses her hands against her nose in an effort to relieve the pain. Although there are often tears, she is always brave. I can’t be sure, but I think my daughter imagines the AFTER picture during this process. She knows there is a reason for this pain. And although the transformation cannot be seen as it is happening, someday it will be seen. And perhaps those beginning their own transformations will find inspiration from her BEFORE and AFTER photos.

applianceAround the time my daughter got her expander, I received a heartbreaking e-mail message from a blog reader with an especially challenging question. “Everything is broken in life—my marriage, my relationships with my children, my feelings about myself. Where do I start when there is so much to repair?” the reader asked desperately.

I was not able to form an answer to this dear reader for many weeks. It wasn’t until my child and I stood at the BEFORE and AFTER display most recently that I knew what I would tell this woman yearning to bring joy and connection back to her life.

I would say this:

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