The Hands Free Revolution: Holiday Style

Things were different this year.  And not just at my house.

-One family took a seventeen hour train ride from Florida to Virginia totally Hands Free. When I looked at the photos they shared, I could practically hear the perceptive conversations they had about every exquisite detail they observed while watching the beauty of the world go by.

Enjoying the passing sights on a Hands Free cross-county train ride with his family.

-One mother blew off her entire holiday to-do List and instead asked her daughter what she wanted to do all day.  It may have been her child’s best Christmas gift.

-Another mother left Hands Free evidence on the back of the Christmas card she sent.  Oh, how I would have loved to join that Hands Free dance party!

On the back of her Christmas card, this Hands Free Mama left her mark.

-One grandpa sent his granddaughters note cards, stamps, and labels with his address so they could correspond with him without any adult assistance. I could just imagine his face when he goes to the mailbox and finds notes written to him in precious child handwriting.  Those notes will be saved and treasured far longer than any email or any text message.

-One Hands Free husband wrote a full-page love letter to his wife of thirteen years telling her every single thing that he loved about her and their life together.

-One mother completely shut down her computer because she did not want to miss one moment with her children while they were home from school on their holiday vacation.

-One mother made an array of Easy Bake Oven delicacies, played Hangman too many times to count, lovingly painted drinking glasses for Christmas Eve beverages, pulled a wagon along the holiday-lighted streets, gave piggy back rides in a heated pool, and received more embraces than her heart could bear.

Much of my Hands Free holiday was spent in the arms of my family.

There are more Hands Free stories that you have graciously shared and probably even more that you haven’t.  Whether you share them or keep them to yourself, they happened because you made a choice.  Instead of holding on to what distracts, you chose to go Hands Free. And it is pretty amazing to see what you have grasped.

And not to worry if you are just coming across this Hands Free concept for the first time, or perhaps you have been skeptical. It’s not too late to go Hands Free. It is never too late to let go of distraction and grasp what really matters in life.

Take my hand. A Hands Free New Year awaits; and we are just getting started.

Did you make any new Hands Free holiday traditions this year? Did you experience any that were so meaningful they just might become every day traditions?  2011 is just around the corner…I would call that perfect timing.

Within Reach

Dearest Readers,

I reached out my hand and you took it.

In one short week on the web, my hands have been grasped in a way I never dreamed possible. I am humbled that you have put your faith in me to deliver the message that many of you say you have been longing to hear. I may stumble; I may fall along the way. But now I know I have been blessed with many hands to help me up and right my path. And you know I will do the same for you.

Today is not your typical post. Instead of sharing a Hands Free experience as I normally do, today I will share a Hands Free experience that I am anticipating. You see, this will be my first ever Hands Free holiday. I am certain the upcoming holiday will look differently than it has in the past. I regret that this change did not occur sooner, but I chose not to dwell on that. I am focusing on what I can do differently today, what I can and will do differently on my first Hands Free holiday.

This year, I will absorb every smile, every gasp, and every joyful remark as my pajamas-clad children discover the magical proof of Santa Claus. This year, I will not be distracted by the meal preparation I need to begin or the holiday wrap that liters the floor. This year, I am going Hands Free.

This year, I will savor every delectable bite of my family’s favorite recipes, allowing the flavors to trigger my most treasured holiday memories as a child. This year, I will not be the first one to clear the dishes from the table. This year, I am going Hands Free.

This year, I will surround myself in the cherished memories of my relatives shared across the dinner table and amidst the arms of the sofa. This year, I will not be sidetracked by what is going on outside the walls of my own home via email, Facebook, internet, or television. This year, I am going Hands Free.

This year, I will delight in the sound of every precious laugh, every gust of wind, and every piece of tranquil silence that graces my ears. This year, I will not ignore the beauty of the sounds around me due to multi-tasking and rushing about. This year, I am going Hands Free.

This year, I will express every ounce of gratitude that fills my heart and touches my soul. This year, I will not fail to recognize every single blessing that God has bestowed upon my life. This year, I am going Hands Free. Thank you, God, for awakening me. It is because of You that I am going Hands Free; and I am never going back.

Dear Readers, I know I don’t need to explain why I must sign off for a few days. After all, we are in this together. And we all have our very first Hands Free holiday to experience, absorb, savor, treasure, and grasp like we never have before.

It is in reach, my friends. This year, it is in reach.

Sincerely,

Hands Free Mama

Unprogrammed

‘Tis the season of holiday programs. Who doesn’t love to see children lined up on the stage in their Sunday best singing their darling hearts out? Whether your child is the one waving vigorously at you every thirty seconds or the one who is singing the lyrics with the emotion of Celine Dion, you can’t help but smile.

And regardless of their age, whether they are six or sixteen, they are captivating. Whether they are playing an instrument, reciting lines of a play, or singing along with a group, they are shining stars.

My favorite part of the program is when my daughter first walks out on stage.  Even if her turkey hat is half covering her face or the jingle bell on her cap is bouncing right between her eyes, the first thing she does is look for me.

And when she spots me, there is a visible sigh that expels anxiety, fear, and worry from her tense little body at the same moment her face melts into that breath-taking smile. Once that contact is made, all is right in her world and she is ready to dazzle in all her glory.

Since becoming Hands Free, I am highly conscious of hands and look for every opportunity to capture hands doing what really matters. Children’s programs are the perfect place to spot Hands Free, because children truly are living models of a Hands Free life.  My children teach me new lessons daily about the value of spontaneity and silliness, the rewards of slowing down, and the joy that comes from rebelling against the confines of a schedule.

On the day of my daughter’s program I took multiple pictures of the children’s sweet little hands knowing I would later look at these pictures and be inspired to write a narrative to correspond.

Yet, I suddenly felt compelled to look at the parents. First, I looked at their faces. As expected, I saw pure joy, amusement, delight, and pride.  They looked like there was no place in the world they would rather be.

Then I looked at their hands.

I looked down my row. I leaned back and looked down the row behind me.  I even nonchalantly turned around and viewed everyone’s hands behind me.

I couldn’t believe it.  I looked one more time just to be sure. Nope. Not ONE single cell phone. Not one single I-Touch. Not one single Blackberry was held in the hands of the parents in the audience that day.  And yes, I even looked for the person discreetly checking email or Facebook underneath the screen of a winter coat.

Their hands, just like their eyes, lay fully focused on their beloved child who sang before them.

And as I looked at these parents in their delighted and tearful gazes, I could almost read their thoughts:

My baby sure is growing up.

Oh, how I love the sound of her voice.

I wish he could stay little forever.

My child is beautiful.

I am so blessed.

I am so glad I didn’t miss this.

Seeing these parents with every fiber in their body attending to their child made me happy. It made me hopeful; we at least still have it in us to refrain from distraction for twenty minutes.

But then my hope was replaced with a tough question. This was the kind of question I would have tried to avoid before I became Hands Free. But now, I face it head on, knowing the tough ones are the ones that make me think and take action. These are the questions that enable me to resist distraction a little more than I did the day before.

And the question was this: “Why must my child be on stage performing in order to receive my undivided attention?”

Why can I not give my children that same focused attention and solely directed love when they are playing on the floor? Or when they are eating breakfast. Or when they are riding in the car to sports practice or music lessons. Or when it is bedtime and I am tired and have a million other things to do.

Ten minutes. That is all it takes. Give them ten minutes. Look into their eyes.  Listen to their words. Notice the new freckles on their faces or the length of their eyelashes.  Ask a question, wait for the answer. And then listen with the intent to recall every detail of that sacred conversation. There is absolutely nothing that can’t wait during those ten poignant minutes.

Over the upcoming holiday, I have decided to put my daughters on stage. I am placing the spotlight on my sister. I am allowing my parents to take the microphone. My spouse is getting center stage. Then I am going to sit back and watch them shine. For this is the program of a lifetime, and I don’t want to miss one second.

We have become so programmed to constantly check our communication devices that we often don’t realize how often we do it. When is the last time you turned yours completely off to focus on your child, your spouse, or a loved one? If it was recently, celebrate that achievement and continue it. If it was not recently, there is always today. Do it today.


I See a Bright Spot

From the comments I am receiving from my readers, many of you are experiencing feelings of shock, disappointment, and tremendous sorrow when you fully realize the valuable cost of daily distraction in your life.

You have told me of your tears. You have told me of your anger. Someone even told me that it was so painful to face that she had to look away.

But through my own experience, I have found that the Breakdown is necessary for the Breakthrough.

I still vividly recall the moment I fully realized how much “living” I had missed by focusing on the wrong things.

At the time of that realization, I was running.  And if you have read the “About Hands Free” page you will know that my Breakdown-Breakthrough moment came when I finally allowed myself the REAL answer to the question I was asked over and over again: “How do you do it all, Rachel?”  The painful three-word answer circled round and round in my head at the same pace as my feet hit the pavement. I. Miss. Out. I. Miss. Out. I. Miss. Out. After three rounds, the tears were coming so hard and so fast that I couldn’t see the road ahead of me. I stopped running, and in a disheartened voice, I spoke these words out loud: I Miss Out…on life.

That was six months ago. Since then I have realized that in order to truly be Hands Free, I must forgive myself for what could have been. By the grace of God, I have realized that without those mistakes, I would not be where I am today.

In conjunction with self-forgiveness is to recognize the positives. As a teacher, I always strived to see the strengths in each of my students.  I always pointed out what they were doing right before I ever made a suggestion for improvement. This strategy produced tremendous results; therefore, I have tried to apply it to myself.

It might surprise you to know that this Hands Free process for me is about acknowledging some of the things I have been doing right. And today I am going to tell you about one of those things.

It very much pleases me to tell you about “talk time.” I have tried to create clever, catchy phrases for each of the categories of my Hands Free narratives and tactics, but not this one. You see, I am not the one who came up with this phrase, and I am not about to change something so right.

When my oldest daughter was three, I turned out the lights after our nightly bedtime story and she asked, “Can we have a little talk time?” Not really sure what that would entail, I said, “Sure.” Since then, we have been having “talk time” every night for the past four years.

What is talk time? It is softness in the glow of a nightlight. It is hushed whispers and muffled giggles. It is blankets and warmth. It is cozy and safe. It is human connection at its purest and most beautiful form.

It is where she voices her dreams of being a teacher…in a classroom with me as her assistant.

It is where we laugh about her extraordinary baby talents like being able to color pictures at age two while the other babies ate their crayons.

It is where I found out she was being bullied.

It is where she told me she wanted to live in my house with me forever…would that be alright?

It is where she asked if parents still see their kids after they go to college.

It is where her heart does its talking.

It is where I feel most at peace.

It is where time stands still.

I may have just recently discovered the Hands Free way of life. But thank God I wasn’t too distracted to realize that the closest thing I have to paradise is a full-size bed with a flower comforter and a little girl in her fuzzy pajamas ready to have “talk time.”

What is one thing you have been doing “right” all along? What is something special you do that makes your heart happy? Claim it as your own. Give it a name. Then do it. And then keep on doing it.

In Good Company

Today I did something I have always wanted to do. I burned my To-Do-List. Now I only have 2 things to do today. Write while my children are at school, and then play.

For the longest time I couldn’t decide if I should continue to write my Hands Free book privately or if I should start sharing it on a blog. I knew that by “putting it all out there,” I was taking a risk.  I would be exposing the struggles of my life for all to read and critique.

For weeks, I have had unsettling dreams as the debut of my blog grew near.  But then my Hands Free inner voice quickly reminded me that along with distraction and disconnection, I am letting go of perfection. I knew that by letting the world know my inner conflicts and my weaknesses, I would be one step closer to the person I wanted to become. I would be one step closer to having the inner peace that would come hand in hand with having a less distracted life.

Yet on the day I debuted my blog, every single apprehension, fear, and doubt that I had been experiencing was silenced.  As the encouraging comments came pouring in, I was eased into a gentle hammock of affirmation; words of support lifted me and wrapped themselves securely around me.

No longer did I have to wonder if I was the only one feeling this way. No longer did I feel that I was alone in this battle against the destructive forces of daily distraction. No longer did I feel like I was the only one who wanted to burn my to-do-list and make playing the only real priority of the day. I had started a conversation and the world emphatically answered.

Now I know there are men and women out there who want to stop checking their Blackberry and start checking their marriage. There are moms and dads who want to stop building their contact list and start building lasting relations with their children. There are people who no longer want their lives to be dictated by a merciless schedule, but instead dictated by their heart and soul.

I thought I was going to be the one giving the messages here; but yesterday I received one loud and clear. This message was spoken by men and by women. It was spoken by people who work outside the home and by people who work inside the home. Someone over age 60 spoke this message, as did someone under age 30.  The message was spoken through many different voices and multiple styles, but the message was unmistakable: There is an army of us that want our life back.  The Hands Free Revolution has begun.

For one person, it started with the choice to build a snowman instead of doing work.  For another, it started with the choice to talk with his son while taking him to practice instead of driving on auto-pilot. For one mom, it meant listening to her daughter talk about a book she was reading instead of checking email. And for another, it meant giving her 13-year-old daughter a bedtime back rub rather than watching television.

Daily distraction, consider yourself warned.  I’m going Hands Free; and I am not alone.

Besides daily distraction and disconnection, what is something you are holding on to that you want to let go of? For me it was the impossibly high standards I expected of myself. What is holding you back from having fun, being yourself, or simply living life? Let it go.  See how it feels to be free.

Untapped Treasures

My dad holds my youngest daughter on his lap while he tells both girls about his memories of being in the Peace Corps in Africa.

Last year, a few days after Christmas, I got a phone call I never wanted to receive. Occasionally, I had let my mind tip-toe over to this dark place of “what if,” but quickly finding it unbearable, even to imagine, I would promptly retreat back to what was safe and alright.

On this night, I was suddenly pushed into the dark, but I did not come back empty handed. It is my privilege to share what I grabbed a hold of and have held sacred ever since.

My dad was on the other end of the line, and his voice was soft.  He began the conversation with,  “Everything is OK.” Immediately my heart rate increased.

Dad explained that Mom was in the hospital. The doctors thought she had a stroke.  He explained memory loss was one of the signs that indicate a stroke.  Although she had just been to my home for a weeklong Christmas celebration, she could not remember being here.

I thought of the many times my mom’s eyes had sparkled with tears of happiness watching her grand-daughters practice their homemade play, make a gingerbread house with Paw Paw, and sing “Away in a Manger.” I covered my mouth for fear the sob that yearned to be set free would escape and cause my dad, who was barely holding it together, to breakdown.

I pictured my dad in their home alone and scared. His best friend and spouse of 48 years lay in the hospital, and their present and future had changed suddenly; perhaps never to be what it was ever again.

My heart ached for my dad, but I was sorry for more. In a matter of 60 seconds, I thought I had lost so much. And what brought the searing emptiness and overwhelming sorrow was that I didn’t know what I had lost.  Oh, precious Mom, what have I lost….what have I lost?

Gone with my mom’s memory of our 2009 Christmas together were stories of her childhood. Did she ever have a dog? Did she ever cut her own hair? What was her favorite birthday? Gone with the perfectly browned crust on her pecan pie of 2009 were the stories of her teenage years. Had Judy always been her best friend? What sort of mischief did they get into?  What was the most memorable dance of her high school days? Gone with my daughters’ 2009 rendition of “Silent Night,” that brought my mom to tears, were the invaluable stories of her life.  Tell me more about your two years in the Peace Corps.  Tell me about the snowy day I was born. Tell me what you love the most about Dad. Tell me your greatest joy. Tell me your biggest regret.

Unlike so many stories of health scares, this one had a happy ending. My mom was diagnosed with a “mini stoke” also known as a transient ischemic attack. Her memories of Christmas of 2009 came back, thank God; they came back, along with all the memories of her amazing and beautiful life.

Although I had not had my Hands Free Breakthough/Breakdown at this time, I was not too distracted by all the other “stuff” to realize I had been given a second chance. I had been given a “do-over” to hear the answers to the questions that were treasures inside my mom just waiting to be discovered.

Since that day, I ask my parents more questions.  My daughters ask them more questions. And we listen. We do not listen while we do other things.  We listen with our ears, our eyes, and our hearts. And these stories and facts fill the empty spaces that had once been.

Just the other day, I had several housekeeping duties to do before my husband’s employees came for dinner.  But I called my mom instead.  We talked so long that the fully charged battery on my phone went dead.  And in that conversation, I discovered a hidden treasure, and it was a keeper.

My mom told me that she wished she had let things go more when my sister and I were young. She said she was always feeling the need to go from one thing to the next without stopping to enjoy the present moment.  And that was her biggest regret.

And through this Hands Free journey, God willing, that will not also be mine….or yours.

Has a health scare, a death, or a national/local tragedy ever caused you to appreciate your life and vow to do things differently, only to go back to your “old ways” days or weeks later? What can you do today to capture something sacred that may be gone without a moment’s notice?

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The Way I See It

Before I began my Hands Free journey, I often noticed a woman at my daughter’s swim team practice.  While her child swam, she sat with colorful spools of yarn upon her lap and knitted. I never knew why I found myself transfixed on her, but I do now.

Although she probably had grocery lists to write, emails to read, to-do-lists to peruse, and phone calls to make, she chose knitting.  There she sat undisturbed by the happenings around her, happily lost in her own world. I wondered what kind of hopes and dreams she thought about while she worked magic with her hands.  Although at the end of practice, I could check several items off “my list,” she had created something beautiful that would last far longer than she.

I thought about that woman as I stood in line at the DMV the other day. I could be like everyone else around me and begin texting friends and family to report that I was waiting at the DMV. Or like many, I could post on Facebook just how long I had been waiting. But my knitting hero came to mind, and my Hands Free inner voice urged me to take that time to focus on something that really matters while standing in line at the DMV.

It was clergy appreciation month, and I wanted to write my pastor a note. I dug around in my purse and found a receipt to write on. Of course, I had the perfect hard surface, my license plate. I began to write freely about exactly what it was about him that made such an impression on me.  Just like the knitter, I got lost in my thoughts and something beautiful and lasting appeared before my eyes.

When I got home, I transferred the note to a more acceptable form of stationary and placed it in his mailbox.

After the service on Sunday, he stopped and thanked me. He seemed to be truly amazed by what I had written about him.  He said, “If I could be half the man that you wrote about in your note, I would be doing good.”  Of course, this surprised me because I had not exaggerated or embellished my depiction of him. I told it just like I see it.  How could he not know what an incredibly kind person he is?

A few days later a card from my sister came in the mail.  The quote on the front was this:

I only wish you could see what I see when I look at you.  –Koda Yamada

Inside my sister had written: Sometimes I wonder if you really know how wonderful, kind, beautiful, passionate, terrific, smart and skilled you are?

That is when it struck me: We seldom recognize the best qualities in ourselves. We often fail to see the radiance that we add to the world.  We are so quick to point out our own weaknesses and rarely acknowledge our strengths.

Thank goodness there are people out there that take time to tell us the beauty that they see inside us. It would be a shame to go through life and never know.

You have the power to tell someone about the magnificence that you see, even when you’re standing in line at the DMV.

Have you ever thought to yourself how amazing you think a particular person is? Or have you ever wished that you had a certain quality that he or she possesses? Today, instead of reading emails or checking Facebook, use that time to let someone know the radiance you see. You may be telling them something he or she never knew, but always wanted to hear.