Give It A Rest

The birthday of the United States (a.k.a. The Fourth of July) is right around the corner.

Americans will spend the day celebrating our independence with fireworks, cookouts, and being with family.

Yet, most of us will still be dependent…and not just a little dependent…very dependent.

I am referring to our dependence on technology, specifically the phone and the Internet.

Being “connected” (via our phone or computer) has become our number one source of stimulation, yet it is also our downtime.

Being “connected” is our work, yet it is also our play.

Being “connected” is how we use time more efficiently, yet it is also how we kill time.

Being “connected” is how we associate, yet it is also how we detach.

Being “connected” is just a way of life…like eating and sleeping; it’s just what we do.

Dependent?

Oh yes, indeed.

Now at this point, some of you are probably thinking, “I know people like that, but that is not me; I don’t have a problem with excessive use of my phone or the Internet.”

I ask that you continue reading, for three reasons:

1) On the Hands Free journey, there is always room for awareness.

2) On the Hands Free journey, there is always room for improvement.

3) On the Hands Free journey, you often discover you’ve been missing something.

Which is exactly what happened to me.

Despite the fact that I have spent almost an entire year reducing both external and internal distraction in my life, I was still missing a major piece of the grasping what matters puzzle.

And I didn’t even realize it.

This is my story…

Several weeks ago, my daughter got an aquarium for her eighth birthday. You might remember the post, “Tipping The Scales,” which explained how she chose to forgo gifts and a birthday party to become a full-fledged ichthyologist.

The aquarium was brought home a few days before her birthday and my husband was kind enough to assist her in the complicated set-up process.  Granted, my daughter had done extensive research about the fish themselves, but there were many things she had yet to learn about creating an environment that would keep them alive.

Yes, come to find out, fish are fragile; they die easily…especially in the first initial hours of their new tank.

Are you kidding me? All this trouble, and there’s still a 99% chance they will die.

The young salesman at the fish store was wealth of knowledge, but the more he talked about purifiers, filtration systems, bacteria, residual ozone, ammonia, and waste, the more I dreamed about the simplicity of a cute, cuddly cat.

As you can probably tell by now, I am not really into creatures that do not have fur. If I am going to put forth time, effort, and money into keeping something alive, I want to be able to hold it and cuddle with it. (Call me crazy.)

But my daughter had chosen fish with every ounce of her being. And through every Fish List she created and every fish fact she rattled off, I Saw Promise. I saw her grasping her own Hands Free version of “what really matters,” even though it was not my version of what really matters.

But that did not mean I was going to clean the aquarium.

In fact, I wasn’t really planning on having much to do with the fish at all. That was her dad’s “thing,” so I kindly stepped aside and allowed that “bonding experience” to occur.

So as Brad the Salesman continued to educate and suggest overpriced necessary aquarium supplies to the eager learners, my youngest daughter and I ventured to the other side of the pet store where animals with fur were located.

Three hours later we were home, standing in front of our very own aquarium. The water had been treated and the fish had been freed from their bags. (Don’t freak out, Fish Advocates of the World, this was after the bags had been properly “floated.”)

I really can’t tell you what was happening in the fish tank because my focus was on the faces of my children.

Pure and utter joy…

Delight and amazement…

Wonder and bliss…

Happiness…good old-fashioned happiness…

If grasping what really matters had an expression, I think it might look like this…

I was so grateful that I had not allowed my aversion of slimy, furless creatures to prevent this moment from occurring.

(But I still was not about to change my mind about cleaning the tank.)

Within a few hours of the aquarium coming to life, our leather ottoman had a new location. It was no longer situated in front of the chair with which it matched. It had a new home directly in front of the fish tank, which happened to be in the natural walkway of our family room. (I know because I tripped over it not once, but twice, while walking through late at night and have a large bruise on my shin to prove it.)

When I decided to leave the ottoman in its new location, I had a mini Hands Free celebration in my head. These are the moments when I know I am making progress in my effort to let go of distraction (and perfection) to grasp what really matters.

I refer to these momentous achievements as, “Hands Free Baby Steps.”

In years past, having the ottoman in front of the fish tank would have bugged me. I would have to push it back to its proper place time and time again. Now, it doesn’t bother me at all. OK, maybe a tiny bit. Well, let’s just say, I can live with it. And that’s progress.

But there’s more…

What is even greater progress than allowing the ottoman to remain in front of the fish tank is the fact that I find myself sitting there. A lot.

I find myself sitting there when the children are not even around.

I find myself sitting there when I have many things to do.

I find myself sitting there when I was originally on my way to doing something else.

I find myself JUST sitting there (and not because I am checking to make sure my “furless friends” are still alive, although I do that, too).

Just.Sitting.There.

Although this is my daughter, this is exactly what I look like when I am sitting, just sitting, at the fish tank.

That, my friends, is unusual behavior for me….sitting, that is.

And for the first time in probably several years, I am sitting there thinking about nothing. And when I mean nothing, I mean I am not thinking about yesterday, tomorrow, or two hours from now. There is no thought of the past or the future; I am in the NOW.

I am completely lost in the motion of the colorful fish, their tiny tails effortlessly flittering them from one side of the tank to the other.

And as they are suspended in serenity, I watch their little mouths open and their delicate gills flutter. How calming it is to watch fish breathe.

At times, I even find it hard to pull myself away from this captivating presentation of beautiful nothingness.

I felt the need to explain this atypical behavior to myself. I was convinced that I must have just embraced the fish (as much as you can embrace anything without fur, that is).

But then I was enlightened.

Several kind readers of my blog sent me a link to an article on CNN.com entitled, “Does life online give you ‘popcorn brain’?” by Elizabeth Cohen.

I would strongly suggest reading the whole article, but here I will share two lines that were particularly powerful for me:

“The worry is that life online is giving us what researcher, David Levy, calls ‘popcorn brain’ –– a brain so accustomed to the constant stimulation of electronic multitasking that we’re unfit for life offline, where things pop at a much slower pace.”

And then this line, “We can’t just sit quietly and wait for a bus, and that is too bad because our brains need that down time to rest, to process things.”

The article goes on to explain how long-term Internet usage can actual cause physical changes in the stucture of our brain. And not in a good way.

Oh my. Popcorn brain. That term is disturbing to me…but a frighteningly accurate description of my thinking process in my waking hours.

In my spare moments, which are far and few between, I do feel a need to check my phone or the Internet to see what’s been “happening” while I have been away.

And even though I have been putting forth more and more effort to live in the moment and focus the precious people that stand before me, my mind still has the tendency to wander, to be in “planning mode,” even when I am still.

So I ask myself: When DOES my brain have a chance to rest?

I could only think of one place.

When I am sitting in front of the fish tank.

No wonder I keep finding myself there.

After I had a few days to process the “Popcorn Brain” article and consider my severe negligence of resting my brain, I found myself thinking about my dad.

I still have vivid memories from my middle school years of my dad’s after work tradition.

Dad would change out of his office attire, then he would go to the formal sitting room of our house and lie down on the floor in complete silence. (The carpet was actually lime green, which alone is a fact not easily forgotten.)

My dad’s hands would rest upon his chest, yet he would not close his eyes. He would just simply lie there and think.

As an easily annoyed thirteen-year-old, I found his habit odd; I thought it was very weird. It looked like the most boring activity in the whole world. I honestly could not fathom what he could possibly be thinking about, and why he had been doing this for as long as I could remember.

Even now when he comes to visit my family for a weeklong stay, there is always a time period each afternoon where I see him sitting in a comfy chair on my back porch. I assume he is asleep, but he’s not. He is awake. His eyes are blinking. He is watching the trees in the ravine behind my house. He is listening to the birds perched upon the deck. And he has the most content, peaceful smile on his face, just like they did twenty years ago when he stretched himself out on the lime green carpet.

And now I know.

He’s resting his brain.

He’s processing life.

And I am not questioning that behavior anymore. You won’t catch me calling it “weird” or “strange.”

Because he is the only 72 year-old I know who looks like he’s younger than 50.

He is as sharp as a tack.

He is of healthy body, mind and soul.

He is focused, relaxed, and engaged.

He is “with it.”

And if there is anyone who has lived his life epitomizing the meaning of grasping what really matters, it is my dad.

There’s something to be said for being independent of technology, cell phone usage, daily distraction, and mental stimulation…even if it is only for a few minutes each day.

Giving your brain a rest creates a pause. And in that pause you can catch your breath.

Because we all know what happens we stop breathing.

We stop living.

Just ask a fish.

***************************************************

Are you interested in having some independence from distraction and mental stimulation? I am, too. As members of The Hands Free Revolution, let’s make Independence Day truly a day of independence.

This Fourth of July, turn off your computer, shut down your phone. Give your brain a rest.

How?

Feed fish in the lake…
Catch a lightning bug in your hand…
Stare into the light of a sparkler….
Look into the eyes of a loved one…
Watch a gorgeous sunset…
Feel the rain on your face…

Take a moment to rest your mind, body and soul. Because the most restorative breaths are the ones taken in the pauses of life.

*If you think this is a worthy message, please share it. In your hands, this message has the chance to make July 4th truly a day of independence for many.

When You See Promise

My just turned eight-year-old daughter has been playing school on a regular basis since she was three-years-old.

Actually, I don’t think it is fair to call it “playing school” because there is no “playing” involved. It is the real deal; it is serious business. It is as close to actual school as it gets.

With each passing year, my daughter adds more classroom ideas, creative teaching techniques, and lesson planning to her reenactment of school. And to seal its authenticity, she utilizes every single item from my ten-year teaching career.

By default, Little Sister was declared “official student” of Big Sister’s school as soon as she could sit up. When she could hold a crayon without eating it, the educational training really picked up. Aside from the fact that Little Sister’s attention span isn’t as long as her “teacher” would like and she occasionally mouths off, she is a way better pupil than non-communicative stuffed animals or Barbie dolls.

But then one day, my little “Teacher In Training” had an idea. Why couldn’t she have a classroom of real live students? Why must she wait until she is grown (or even nine-years-old, for that matter) to teach all that she knows?

She came to me last summer, a month before my Hands Free Breakdown Breakthrough, and said, “Could I invite real children to come to our house this summer so I can teach them?”

Now I could have left this part out of the story and it would still have the Hands Free impact for which I strive for in my writing. But this journey is about living in realness, so I am going to tell the whole story.

I considered her request for about two minutes. And in my overwhelmed, over committed, stressed out state, there was no way I could fathom the idea of adding several more living, breathing children to my household on a regular basis in order to participate in my child’s self-created “school.”

So without hesitation I said, “Not this summer, honey. I’m sorry.”

And since I am being real, I secretly hoped her desire was a passing phase and it would never come to mind again.

Well, the year went by and my seven-year-old daughter continued to hone her skills as an educator.  She discovered educational websites (for teachers, not students) and taught herself how to create an instructional PowerPoint slide show.

I will never forget the day I discovered her video taping herself teaching. She said she liked to watch the videos to see how she could improve.

It was almost scary, really.

And Little Sister was given no mercy. Big Sister starting paying very close attention to what came home in Little Sister’s take-home folder, particularly noting where she needed “remediation.”

Without fail, Teacher Natalie would have an array of worksheets that she found on the Internet and several hands-on activities geared to help her sister improve a particular skill.

“It’s time for school, Avery!” I could hear her call at the crack of dawn on Saturday mornings.

“This is what you need to work on,” she confidently instructed as she stood over her pajamas-clad pupil who was still rubbing sleep from her eye and begging for her first glass of “milky,” to get her going.

I’m telling you…no mercy. Little Sister could not get away from Big Sister’s need to teach.

Perhaps it was because she realized there was no escape or perhaps she actually liked it, but Little Sister surprisingly became quite the willing participant. Her attention span grew and she actually requested “Natalie’s school.”

Once in awhile the model student would rebel and demand to be the teacher, but she soon quickly learned “real” teaching is hard work and it is much easier to be the student.

I remember the exact day in April that “The Question” came up again. (You know, the question that nine months prior I was hoping would disappear from her mind and never pop up again. Well, it didn’t.)

“Mama, do you think I could have my own school this summer with actual little kids that are going into kindergarten like Avery?”

OK, so here’s my realness (again)…

As I considered it, I envisioned chaos. I imagined messiness. I anticipated moments where I would need to intervene and get everyone calmed down.  I envisioned counting beans getting stuck in noses and spit wads flying across the room. I imagined childcare gone awry in the worst way.

In a nutshell, I envisioned a whole lot of work…for me.

I was this close to saying “no” again, but my Hands Free inner voice went to work (in its sometimes annoying, yet poignant way). I was reminded to set aside my own inconveniences and ask one simple question: Is this a chance to grasp what really matters…not for me, but for my daughter?

Then I felt compelled to take a look around the playroom that had been transformed into a classroom through the hands of a seven-year-old.

I spotted four folders with actual names of children in our neighborhood.

I saw pre-kindergarten worksheets in sets of four neatly paper clipped together sitting on her teacher desk.

I saw a mini library of books labeled and categorized in boxes based on topic.

I saw a Morning Message complete with a circle time rug.

I saw an impressive “Word Wall.”

I saw clean white journals and with a place to store them.

I saw signs on places where signs had never been.

And when I stood back and took it all in…

I saw promise.

I saw a little girl’s dream being put into action by her own doing.

And then I was certain: This Hands Free moment in time wasn’t about me.

This was a pivotal moment in my daughter’s life. I could either put up a roadblock or I could stand to the side and see where this road goes, to see where she goes.

“O.K. You can have a summer school at the house for real children,” I found myself saying to a little girl who was now jumping up and down with excitement.

Then I informed her of the ground rules. (I am a teacher, too, you know.)

I told her this would be HER deal. She would be doing all the lesson planning, the prep work, and the clean up. I told her I would be happy to check over the lessons if she liked and would be available for advice and guidance.

I explained that first she must write a letter to the parents of her prospective students and give dates and times of class, and make a request for a small supply fee to cover the cost of materials.

She got right to work and prepared an impressive letter. She informed parents that she would be holding a six-week kindergarten preparation course for four students, (one, of course, being her sister), and it would cost $1 per session. She requested the money in advance so she could go shopping at Wal-Mart for her supplies.

She even thought to describe the skills the children would be working on and invited parent suggestions regarding skills that needed improvement.

Each time a student permission slip and supply fee was found in our mailbox, my daughter became giddy with excitement.

In the month leading up to her school, she had many questions that led to in-depth discussions between the “new teacher” (her) and the “experienced teacher” (me). She was especially interested in the behavioral techniques I used as a special education teacher; she was covering all the bases.

As we talked about classroom management, pace of lessons, developmental characteristics of four and five-year-olds, and smooth activity transitions, we were no longer speaking as an adult to a child; we spoke as one colleague to another colleague.

After every one of these amazing discussions, I experienced a powerful, “What I Would Have Missed,” revelation, knowing I had almost closed the window on these interactions with my child.

The day of school finally arrived and Miss Natalie put on her favorite dress and brushed her hair until it shined. She tucked her hair behind her ear on one side just like her young and beautiful first grade teacher that she adores.

Desks were prepared, pencils were sharpened, delicious snacks and an over-flowing treasure box awaited the arrival of the children.

Promptly at 3:30, the excited children arrived and she escorted them upstairs to her classroom.

As she settled them into their assigned “desks” and gave them one of the best welcome introductions I have ever heard, it dawned on me that I was not needed. I was not needed in the least, which is quite funny considering I thought for sure this was going to be “work,” for me.

(Good thing the Hands Free inner voice is not one for doling out a well deserved, “I told you so.”)

I decided to do some work in earshot of the classroom. I couldn’t help but wonder what she would say and how things would go.

In the time frame of 90 minutes, I witnessed my child utilize every single one of her God-given gifts…

She read a children’s book with the passion and enthusiasm of a veteran kindergarten teacher…

She enhanced their learning through a PowerPoint slideshow she created herself…

She privately and lovingly explained the importance of patience to a student who was having difficulty waiting…

She gave a humble word of thanks when corrected by one of her students after she lost her place in the ABC game…

She gave the children a chance to move their bodies and exert energy after a twenty-minute work period…

She asked thought provoking questions…

She complimented; she redirected; she nurtured and guided…

Despite all that, she managed to grade their finished work so it could be sent home in the take home folders.

While they were engaging in the going home procedures, I had a chance to peek inside some of the completed journals.

Although I enjoyed reading the journal “sentence” written in big awkward capital letters, that is not what caught my eye.

At the top of every student’s page, encouraging words were written in my daughter’s beautiful penmanship.

Suddenly I was brought back in time, 30 years prior. I was back in one of my favorite places of all time.

I was in my second grade classroom proudly looking at my writing paper that had been graded by someone I loved dearly; Ms. Paluska was her name.

I can still practically smell her comforting scent of blooming lilacs and spearmint gum that I would breath in whenever she hugged me, (which was often).

Ms. Paluska always wrote loving words of encouragement on the top of my writing papers in red pen just like Natalie did that day.

Yes, Ms. Paluska was an extraordinary teacher, but it was the loving, kind, and compassionate person inside her, not the teacher, that made an impact on my life.

I see the same qualities developing in my daughter.

And her students see it, too.

At the conclusion of the third session of school last week, one of Natalie’s little students with long beautiful hair looked up at her beloved eight-year-old teacher and exclaimed, “I don’t ever want to leave, Miss Natalie. I want you to be my teacher forever.”

Oh yes, my daughter is definitely heading somewhere…perhaps it is towards being a teacher or perhaps it is something all together different; it doesn’t really matter.

All that matters is she is on her way to being a loving presence in the lives of others.

I can’t think of anything I want her to be more than that.

********************************************

I shudder to think I almost missed seeing my child in this role, in this setting. To realize she almost missed this opportunity because of my own selfish considerations is a “Hands Free wake-up call” for me.

Yet I must remember, the Hands Free journey is a learning experience, and this is one lesson I will never forget.

What about you? Have you encouraged and allowed your child’s gifts to develop through things like holding a lemonade stand, planting a garden, or building a race track or have you squelched them for your own personal reasons?

Perhaps when an opportunity arises, you can consider it this way: Is this a Hands Free opportunity for my child to grasp what really matters?

When you see promise, don’t start going through the list of negatives. Push those aside and imagine where that road of promise might lead.

When Sweat Meets Tears

I applied extra strength deodorant…three times.

I had an arsenal of frozen water bottles in my possession.

I donned airy, Dri-fit clothing that allowed for optimal air circulation.

Every single hair on my head was secured as far away from the back of my neck as possible.

I slathered myself with the recommended amount of sunscreen and pulled down my baseball cap.

I applied one more coat of deodorant in huge strokes, reaching far outside the usual areas of application.

Was I embarking on a trip to the blazing hot center of the earth?

No.

Was I heading to the first swim meet of the summer season?

Yes.

And I was dreading it.

I like to be hot about as much as I like to drive in unfamiliar territory. (If you want a good laugh, check out my “Trip to Nowhere” post.)

And when you are talking summer swim meet, in Alabama, at four o’clock in the afternoon, you are talking The Three P’s of Hotness:

Prolonged Hotness (four hours, but who’s counting?)

Pronounced Hotness (103 degrees that particular day)

Penetrating Hotness (sweat invades places in your body you did not know sweat could go)

And what sealed my dread with a nice sweaty little kiss was the fact that it would be my first experience as a swim meet “timer.” This means you don’t simply sit in hotness waiting for your child’s brief 20 second swim performance in between hours of other events, you STAND in hotness with a timer and clipboard hoping you don’t miss your child’s 20 second swim performance.

Did I mention I was dreading it?

Before the meet began, timers were called forward for a brief training on their duties.

By this time, I was already perspiring from the process of carrying three heavy bags packed with towels, clothing, and an array of activities to combat boredom from the parking lot to the pool deck.

The sweat dripped down the side of my neck, which in fact, possessed four painful red indentations created by the straps of three lawn chairs and one cooler that I somehow managed to carry along with the bags.

My four-year-old would make sure I noted that I did not have to carry everything; she kindly carried her own Polly Pocket bag, which could actually be defined as “heavy” considering it’s filled with small dolls and clothes that have been collected over a five year period.

(And yes, I pause here to admit there is a slight problem with over packing for swim meets that I promise I am working on…I really am.)

So while I awaited my timer training, we were told to pair up with a partner who would hit “go” on his or her timer at the same time we did to ensure our results were correct.

In my irritable “sweatiness,” I was in no mood to make “friends” with anyone.

I surveyed the partner prospects and set my sights on the quiet looking dad standing off by himself.

I hoped fate would smile on me, leading him to walk over and offer to be my partner.

No luck.  Instead, I got the bubbly and ever–so-friendly mom who quickly held out her hand and introduced herself.

Things were not going as planned.

We were then instructed on the timing process and assigned our positions. I was in lane three, positioned directly beneath the scorching hot sun and squeezed between the diving block, the disqualifying judge and my new timer “friend,” Sarah.

In other words, I was tucked in a nice and cozy spot where I could not move my extremities and air would never have the chance to reach me.

As my skin began to sizzle, I looked up to see if a magnifying glass had been placed over my head.

Finally, the age six and under swimmers were called to the blocks. My timer finger was ready and hit “go” at the moment I heard the start buzzer.

When the pint-sized swimmers finally reached the other side, timers were required to ask them their name to ensure we were recording the right time for the right child.

Most of the six-year-old swimmers seemed confused by this question. Some stared at me blankly. Others looked around to see if I was really talking to them. One child even replied, “I don’t know.”

It was going to be a LONG night.

After the next few heats, it was my daughter’s turn. She was in my lane. I felt a sharp pang of excitement knowing I was in a perfect position to see her swim.

From my post, I marveled at her speed, the formation of her arms, the quickness of breaths.  I clocked her time AND managed to give her a congratulatory hug. The smile on her face indicated she was very happy I was the first face that greeted her on the other side.

For a brief moment, 19.24 seconds to be exact, I forgot about the threat of heat stroke.

After the age eight and under swimmers concluded the freestyle event, timers moved to the other side of the pool.

The older children are required to do a 50 or 100 yard swim, which means we were able to ask the swimmers their name before they swam.

Coincidentally, the first girl I asked possessed the same name as my daughter. How could I not cheer for her?

Once I hit “go” on the timer, I found myself cheering for a girl I didn’t know, but had a name that I love.

In that moment, I made the decision to do that for all the competitors in my lane. I figured that since I was privy to the swimmers’ names, I might as well cheer for them.

Once the seconds started on my timer, I supportively called out the name of the child swimming his or her heart out in the lane before me.

When the swimmers got out of the pool, they always wanted to know what their time was.

Perhaps it was the teacher in me or perhaps it was the hopeful look on their dripping wet faces, but I didn’t just tell them their time; I also told them what a good job they did.

Most swimmers seemed initially surprised that The Timer Lady had words of encouragement, yet they all smiled in return.

As I clocked each swimmer’s ending time, my timer partner and I compared. There were never any discrepancies in our times; there was no drama. We developed a perfect rhythm between timing, recording, and being ready for the next heat.

We even had time to engage in a little small talk.

I found myself enjoying the company of a woman who had a gorgeous smile and displayed a beautiful connection with each of her two daughters as they periodically came by for a quick hug.

About half way through the meet, I couldn’t believe the time. Two hours had flown past. The sun had dipped down below the side of the building; I was basking in the glorious shade. I even noticed the hint of a slight breeze in the air.

It was then that something monumental occurred to me.

I was standing in the front row of life’s greatest moments:

A child’s determined face as she wills every ounce of her body, heart, and soul to touch the victory wall.

A new swimmer pleading with his little five-year-old arms and legs to just keep going as all the on-lookers cheer his name….

An enthusiastic coach high-fiving his swimmers and reminding them to have fun…

A serious young competitor catching a glimpse of her parents at the end of her lane and suddenly breaking into a smile…

A teenage swimmer reaching out to his long-time opponent to offer a good luck handshake…

A swimmer’s dedication to her sport so evident in her defined muscles and incredible endurance…

A nervous little brother being hugged and encouraged by his older, more aquatically experienced, sister…

Happy healthy children,

Proud and loving parents,

Sunshine and fresh air,

Laughter and conversation,

All here in one place for me to witness, absorb, and celebrate.

And I had a spot in the front row where I could not only feel the splash of the entrance, but the emotion of the exit…the beautiful, heart-warming emotion of the exit.

Around eight o’clock p.m., I found myself collecting The Stafford Family’s 199 entertainment and beverage items scattered about our “camp.” That is when I had another realization.

I realized I must really learn to wear flat shoes; I realized I was so hungry that I might even consider eating “food” from the concession stand; I realized there was an atrocious smell in the air that was coming from me.

But I also realized my heart was full.

And I can’t get that feeling just anywhere.

I had to go where I did not want to go in order to get to a place I long to be…

A place of gratitude,

A place of contentment,

A place of awe,

A place of harmony…

And next time I have the opportunity to go that extraordinary place, I think I will try not to kick and scream the whole way there.

***********************************************

We all have activities and responsibilities in our life that we rather not do. Yet, a negative inner dialogue of dread and complaint merely becomes a distraction from the gifts of that experience. And there are gifts in every experience we have in life; even if the only positive aspect you can come up with is, “I am alive to witness this experience.”

Being alive is definitely worth celebrating, don’t you think?

*When I need to be reminded of the gift that is simply being alive, I visit the beautifully painful writings of Jo Julia. Jo is coming upon the first anniversary of her husband’s death. At Dear Audrey, Jo writes letters to her young daughter about her daddy, about death, and about life.

Words He Seldom Hears

This is how my daughter recently greeted her daddy after he had been away. This moment inspired the following message that is meant to be shared.

A critical part of living Hands Free to grasp what really matters is having awareness. I have realized I cannot fight the distraction that takes priority over my relationships if I do not allow myself to fully acknowledge my areas of negligence.

Typically, I write about my attempt to grasp what really matters in my role as “parent” or as simply as an individual. Rarely do I write from my perspective as “spouse.”

But today I am willing to go where I don’t normally go in order to bring awareness about a critical topic.

Yes, it could be considered a Father’s Day tribute, but I am challenging myself to make this an every day gift to my husband.

You see, this message is written FOR men, but it is equally important that women read it, too. Perhaps it is even more important for women to read it.

And by being open to the awareness this message brings, a greater connection to the one you love may be possible.

This is my message…

Today I am celebrating the “Good Guys” of the world.

And I am willing to acknowledge I don’t do it enough.

In fact, I am willing to admit I don’t express appreciation to the #1 Good Guy in my life, my husband, to the extent that I should or as often as I should.

But today, and in the days hereafter, I have the power to make a great man feel loved.

And so do you.

Don’t worry if words are not your thing; I’ve got you covered. All I ask is this: read the following message, allow a little “awareness” to seep in, and acknowledge the areas that could use some extra attention.

Because here’s the truth: Guys “Deserve a Day,” just as women do (see my popular Mother’s Day post for that message), yet guys often don’t get a day, let alone an hour, or even fifteen minutes. Many men do not hear words of kindness, love, or appreciation often enough from the people who love them.

Today can be different. And so can tomorrow.

Let it begin right here…

You Deserve A Day

You deserve a day void of criticism and blame,
A day when words of affection are attached to your name.

You deserve a day free from reminders of what you lack,
A day with the weight of the world lifted off your back.

You deserve a day when inner confidence never hides,
A day free from the pain of past sports and piggy back rides.

You deserve a day to be placed first instead of last,
A day to be embraced instead of quickly brushed past.

You deserve a day when you’re not racing against time,
A day when total relaxation isn’t considered a crime.

You deserve a day when it’s perfectly acceptable to cry,
A day to fondly reminisce the glory days gone by.

You deserve a day when someone else mans the barbeque,
A day without the words, “Honey, would you do…?”

You deserve a day when past mistakes are taken with the wind,
A day when the cuts on your heart have a chance to mend.

You deserve a day when you don’t live by numbers or lists,
A day when diets and high blood pressure cease to exist.

You deserve a day when you don’t have to be strong,
A day when someone else is the first to admit she’s wrong.

You deserve a day free from all your worries and fears,
A day when stress doesn’t take away your best years.

You belong in a tiki hut with scented oil on your back,
You belong in a racecar going 220 on an open track.

You belong on a lazy raft with a cold beer in hand,
You belong with a parachute and a soft place to land.

You belong in a convertible against a painted sky,
You belong near to a warm campfire as the savory fish fry.

You belong in a place of forgiveness and grace,
You belong with tender kisses on your face.

You belong with the freedom to be who you are,
You belong in the presence of a shooting star.

You deserve a day to be embraced without release,
A day of unconditional love that will never cease.

**************************************************************

Guys, if you received this message:

Someone thinks you are fabulous.
Someone thinks you are amazing.
Someone’s appreciates all that you do.
Someone is grateful for your presence in the world.
Someone can’t imagine life without you.

“You Deserve A Day” simply because you are a good man and have made a difference in someone else’s life.

Ladies, this is for you:

If you appreciate something your guy does, tell him.
If you are grateful for something he adds to your life, show him.
If you haven’t treated him the way he should be treated, apologize to him.
If you love him, talk to him and listen to him.

Open the lines of loving communication! Start by sending this message with a word of thanks to your special guy or any guy you appreciate. He does not hear these words often enough.

*If you think this is a worthy message, please click the “share” button. My hope is that Father’s Day 2011 can be the start of heightened connection between people who love one another, but often don’t take the time to say it or show it.

Give the gift of yourself; there is nothing in the world he wants more.

Home Is Where The Hands Are

A friend I hadn't seen in over 20 years held my hand and healed my heart.

If you are new to the Hands Free journey, I will take a minute to catch you up to speed.

And it will only take a minute because when I say, “A tornado of catastrophic proportions pummeled my state on April 27th,” I don’t have to say much more.

In the days since April 27th, I have been blessed to share my story, the story of incredible survivors, and the story of healing hands. These posts, written under the Hands Free category of There Is A Reason, are some of my most popular posts to date.

It is not necessary to have witnessed or survived a tornado to gain from these messages.

You can gain from them if you simply have the desire to make the most out of the one life you have to live.

The lessons I have received from the tornado and its courageous survivors have been many; they have been powerful; and they continue to come.

But the lesson that stands out in my mind above all the rest is this: The things that matter most in life are not things.

And this message was brought home to me (literally) two weeks ago. Perhaps you were part of it, as so many of you were.

This is OUR story…

I recently traveled north to the state in which I lived most of my life. It is a place that holds special memories for me. I was educated from kindergarten to master’s degree in this state, got married in this state, and even held my first teaching job in this state.

To see the familiar sights and landscapes of my growing years always brings me comfort. Yet, it is the people I love and who love me in return that make it home.

And on this particular trip, I felt an urgency to see the people who are my “home.”

As I drove north from Alabama toward my home state, the words of so many tornado survivors played through my mind.

Standing amidst a mountainous heap of rubble that was once their beloved home, the survivors all spoke the same message: “We are alive! Thank God, we are blessed to be alive.”

They had nothing in their possession except the clothes on their backs, yet they still had their lives and the lives of those they loved. In that respect, they felt as if they still had everything.

I, myself, feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the fact that my family and our home were spared. And I do not want to waste a day. Therefore, my trip back home was an opportunity for me to grasp what matters. I wanted to hug the people who had loved me as an awkward 8th grader, stood by me as an emotional high schooler, and befriended me as a scared first-year teacher.

In the span of six days, I was able to connect with fifteen of those special life-long friends.

It didn’t matter if I last saw my friend one year ago or twenty-two years ago, I was overcome with an indescribable feeling.

I can only come up with two words: Healing Hands.

(You may recall that I used the term “Healing Hands” when I wrote about the incredible response of my neighborhood in the days immediately following the tornado.)

And now I knew what it felt like to be touched directly by healing hands.

One evening during my visit, I was surrounded by a group of extraordinary women when one friend asked, “Can you tell us about the tornado and the people you have been helping?”

I could not stop the tears.

Before I could tell my beautiful friends about the painful loss that so many were experiencing, I first had to tell them how much I loved each one of them and how the tornado had solidified their tremendous meaning in my life.

I knew with certainty that if my house had been one of the thousands of homes that were dismantled down to their studs, I would still have the love and support of these women.

The most important things in life aren’t things.

When it was time to say good bye to each one of my “home” friends, I found myself hugging a little tighter and holding a little longer than I did in previous years. I even found myself getting in a few extra embraces. I didn’t realize why I did that until I wrote a note of thanks to everyone who had made efforts to see me.

I wrote:

There is something powerfully healing about the love of friends who have known you forever. I am so grateful for my friends who have made tremendous efforts the past few days to spend time with me and bring peace to my heart. I’m taking all the love you bestowed on me back to Alabama.

I suddenly realized that with each embrace, I was collecting. I had been gathering every ounce of love, hope, support and faith so that I could take all these beautiful gifts back to the people of my hurting state.

And while I was sheltered for six days in the loving company of my friends and family, destruction, despair, and devastation were alive and well in Alabama.

Inexplicable loss was waiting for me as I crossed the state line into Alabama.

Along the side of the road were men and women working diligently in 100 degree heat to clear enormous trees haphazardly placed along the side of the highway like a child’s toy Lincoln logs.

The size of the piles of debris they had already compiled seemed to dwarf them as if they were merely tiny specks standing next to a mountain of rubble.

My daughters’ sorrowful voices arose from the back seat, “The tornado, Mama…The tornado.”

Sights such as this do not require whole sentences.

Monstrosities such as this need no details.

I could not respond, for I knew my voice would fail me.

As I looked out to see the visible loss, I couldn’t help but think about the invisible loss, the loss that now scars hearts, dreams, souls and spirits.

How will they ever recover?

And then I remembered the way the healing hands had touched me. And it made me think of The List. The list that I had been collecting since April 27th and had yet to share. I knew it was time to share it.

Whether this list brings you hope or inspiration, there is a reason you find yourself here today.

The Angel Impact on Alabama’s Tornado Survivors:

You (and twelve different healing hands from Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Alabama) provided beautiful clothes and toys to a family who lost their home and car and are still looking for a place to live.

You mailed a pink and blue bible to two beautiful children who tell people, “My Mama went to Heaven,” but still ask their Grandma if their mother will be at church today.

You shopped for new clothes for a little boy whose mother had died protecting him in the tornado.

You took time off work so you could remove trees from people’s cherished homes.

You took time off work to comfort those who were in despair.

You took time off work to dig through the rubble of someone’s precious belongings while she cried by your side.

You recovered a family’s beloved dog buried for days under the destruction that somehow miraculously alive.

You asked your child’s preschool to collect school supplies for 400 school children in Alabama who lost not only their school, but also their homes.

You and your son unselfishly laid aside your own battle with cancer to donate and ask others to donate to those who are hurting.

You told all your friends and family about a family in need and collected a television, coffee maker, clothing, and an abundant supply of gift cards for a family who lost everything; you even offered to drive 800 miles to deliver it personally.

You didn’t even have shoes on your feet, but you dug through the rubble until you recovered someone’s beloved ring that once belonged to her grandmother and now is her symbol of hope.

You designed exquisite handmade cards entitled “Shells For Change” with proceeds of the sale going directly to families impacted by the tornado.

You sent your own daughter’s clothing even though she has yet to outgrow it because a little girl needed it more than she did.

You rallied your entire school and created 20 huge boxes of school supplies to a town that was literally wiped off the map.

You sent $1,000 to someone you did not know, simply going by faith that the money would go to two children who lost their beloved parent…and it did.

Your child made a beautiful hand made card for a heart-broken family and encouraged her classmates to join her.

You sent a gift card for groceries to a woman who fell to her knees in gratitude when she received it.

You received word of what the survivors needed desperately and within twelve hours a garage floor was covered with supplies.

You were the reason seven vehicles loaded with donated supplies reached a hurting town of tornado survivors, bringing both men and teenage boys to tears.

You offered your hands and your equipment because you had survived a flood and knew what the desolation was like.

You supplied a brand new toddler bed for a precious child who had nothing left but the pajamas she was wearing the night the tornado hit.

You bought a prince costume for a little boy whose heart ached for a mother’s return that will never come.

You sent nourishing homemade chicken noodle soup to three families who needed comfort in every form imaginable.

Your little hands gave away your favorite books.

Your little hands gave away your favorite princess dresses.

Your little hands gave away your favorite stuffed animals.

You took a moment out of your busy life to see if someone you cared about in Alabama was OK when you saw the news and images of the mile-wide tornado on national television.

You cooked food for the first responders to the disaster who hadn’t eaten in days.

You played “Amazing Grace” to an incredible woman who would give her life to have her daughter back with her children.

You joined your fellow Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts to organize, load, and distribute loads of school supplies to children who would have been buried under three feet of concrete had it not been for the forethought of their school officials.

You organized a blood drive that created a supply great enough to save hundreds of lives.

You gave your precious time and your precious blood.

You made a cross from the iron scraps of leveled homes so that the distraught owners would forever have a piece of their sacred residence that had once been their safe haven of love, memories, and family.

Your class made cards so the people of Alabama would know they are loved.

Your small hands collected butterflies from a Cirque Du Soleil show and made a beautiful poster for a special boy and girl.

You generously gave your family heirloom dining set to a family who must start over.

Your loving child donated her charity money, as well as her entire savings, after hearing the devastating loss of a precious family.

You asked, “How can I help?”

You asked (again and again), “How can I help?”

You haven’t forgotten that on this very day people are still hurting, still searching, still digging, and still mourning all they have lost.

This is only a fraction of the healing hands that have touched the broken hearts across Alabama; this list only contains the first-hand experiences I have been blessed to witness. There are thousands more just like these.

Just as the hands from my “home” friends had a comforting presence on me, the healing hands from around the country have touched Alabama. And these gestures translate into love, hope, dignity, grace, respect, and compassion.

And what makes the impact even more powerful is that the givers did not know the receivers in these acts of kindness.

The Angel Impact is alive and well, my friends. And it has hands that are healing.

I am simply the messenger on this journey to grasp what matters. It is by the grace of God and by every angel listed above that I have this message to give:

It doesn’t require money to have healing hands.

It doesn’t require education, prestige, or status to have healing hands.

It doesn’t require beautiful words or flowery gifts to have healing hands.

It doesn’t require a large group or a big organization to have healing hands.

It only takes ONE….one person with a desire to help in any way that person can.

No act is too small; no act is too simple to create the impact of healing hands on a broken heart.

And I conclude this post with a picture taken on one of the days my husband, Scott, served on an UMCOR Early Response Team.

In a field of splintered, broken pieces where not one household item was recognizable, Scott pulled out a Bible with miraculously undisturbed pages.

The section that jumped out from the page and made his hands tremble was this:

The islands have seen it and fear; the ends of the earth tremble.They approach and come forward; each helps the other and says to his brother, “Be strong!”
-Isaiah 41:5-6 (King James Version)

The journey to grasp what really matters has brought me here.

And now things have become clear.

THIS is what it’s all about: dropping the meaningless in our lives, letting go of distraction in order to grasp WHO matters.

The things that matter most in life are not things.

Whether it is a natural disaster, a man-made disaster or a life circumstance disaster of our own doing, the only thing we may have left is one another and the healing hand reaching down to help us up.

****************************************************

What does “home” mean to you? If you woke up tomorrow and your residence and everything inside was gone, what (or who) would you still have?

Can you think of someone in your life that needs a healing hand? Even if you simply take a moment to ask, “How are you?” and provide a listening ear, the impact can be great.

*If you are interested in writing an encouraging note or directly helping a family impacted by the tornado, feel free to use the “Contact Me” link above.

No act of kindness is too small to those who will be putting the pieces of their life and their heart back together in the long days ahead.

A New Fan of Lazy

Little did I know the tremendous impact a green inner tube and tranquil waters would have on my life.

As one would imagine, my Hands Free mentality causes me to be overly aware of the usage of hand held communication devices.

What interests me most are not the times I see people using their phones, it’s the times I see people NOT using their phones.

Because when I am in a public setting and the vast majority of people are refraining from phone usage, I take notice. I examine that setting thoroughly because I think The Answer lies in there somewhere.

That is exactly what happened a few weeks ago when I took my daughters to a water park while we were visiting out-of-state friends and family.

I now have a new appreciation for the word “lazy,” and realize “lazy” needs to be a part of my life more often!

This is my story…

While our trip back home included an extensive amount of quality time with family or friends, there was one day my daughters and I were totally on our own. I knew there was a fabulous water park in the area and considered taking them there.

Before I became Hands Free, the thought of the water park with two little girls by myself would have been too risky, too scary.

How would I be in two places at once? What if one girl wanted to go water slides and the other wanted to visit the kiddy splash area? Would I be able to keep an eye on my oldest if she wanted to swim in the deep end while my youngest wanted to stay in the shallow end? (You get the idea. And I won’t embarrass myself by listing every Water Park Worry that crossed my mind.)

But my Hands Free inner voice assured Type A Control Freak Rachel that not everything has to be planned out, not every adventure has to be illustrated in a ten-step diagram before arrival; I can simply let things happen. It Will Be OK. Really.

In fact, there is only one question my Hands Free inner voice asks to determine if an activity is worthwhile, which is: “Is this a chance to make a memory?”

If the answer is YES, then I convince myself to let go of worry, logistics, and all the “what ifs” and simply say YES to making a memory.

Well, needless to say, the day turned out beautifully. We took turns going to the places Big Sister wanted to go and the places Little Sister wanted to go.

We tried out all the different areas of the park, but we kept ending up in the same place, a place they both loved.

Time and time again, we found ourselves at The Lazy River.

(Who wouldn’t love something with a name like that?)

I was not expecting this.  I thought such an attraction would be too boring for my swim team loving seven-year-old. I thought it would be too intimidating for my just-learned-how-to-swim four-year-old. I thought one time around the tranquil river and the girls would be pulling my arm to the next adventure.

But as I have learned on this Hands Free journey, the best things come unexpectedly; the most meaningful things happen when you just allow to them unfold naturally.

At approximately the eighth time around The Lazy River circle, my daughters had it all figured out. They knew things worked best if Little Sister went in front, followed by Big Sister, and Mama took up the rear.  We held hands so that our rafts did not separate.

The smile on the face of my four-year-old was pure astonishment, total bliss. She spoke phrases I have never heard her say like, “This is fantastic,” and “I am just chilling out.”

My oldest daughter made up a game where we would fill out “cups” (hands) as we drifted beneath the flowing waterfall. (Oh yes, I got my hair wet. How could you even doubt me after my Mother’s Day post?)

We had lively conversation about the pace of the current, the breeze in the air, the perfectness of the day.

There were no fights, no sisterly squabbles. All was peaceful as we tilted back our heads back and basked in the sun along The Lazy River.

And then about round #54, my Hands Free radar went off. I was so intent on the beautiful things happening in my own trio of rafts I did not notice what was happening around me.

Then it hit me.

The Lazy River was one of those special, rare places…very few locations such as this exist in the world today.

The Lazy River had no phones.

Not one person held a communication device in his or her hand.

There was no texting, talking, ringing, buzzing, beeping, vibrating in The Lazy River.

And what I saw was a sight for tired, over-stimulated eyes:

I saw hand holding…teenage boys grasping tightly to stay together, families holding hands to keep their floats from drifting apart .

I saw human contact…babies lovingly held against their mothers’ chests, young children snuggled in their Daddy’s laps.

I saw conversation…two brothers talking sports, a mom and her children already discussing their return trip to the water park.

I saw relaxation…a weary dad drinking in the sunshine, normally hyperactive kids hypnotically silenced by the lull of the water.

I saw kindness…sweet grandmothers making small talk with my daughters, helpful rafters giving a push when needed.

I saw laughter.

I saw happiness.

I saw calmness.

I saw wholeness.

I saw unity.

I saw love.

And no one was in a hurry to get off The Lazy River. It was as if we had nowhere in the world to be. It was as if no one wanted to be anywhere else. It was as if time stood still.

Even today, I still find myself intrigued by this rare and lovely experience. I continue to dissect and process it.

I find myself asking: Why was The Lazy River a site of loving connection on the deepest human level?

Perhaps it was the blueness of the water.

Perhaps it was the abundant sunshine after a long rainy May.

Perhaps it was just a nice family crowd on that particular day.

But there was more to it than that.

I know it and you know it.

The reason The Lazy River was the site of ultimate human connection was not because of what was present, it was because of what was NOT present.

Phones were not there to steal the focus.

Phones were not there to hold the attention.

Phones were not there to interrupt the conversation.

Phones were not there to destroy the connection.

Phones were simply Not There.

And because the hands in The Lazy River were not holding tightly to distraction, they had a chance to grasp what truly mattered.

****************************************************

I think we all can agree that most families do not get enough “down time,” where we are not on a schedule, not in a rush, and not tied to our phone or computer. I think we can also agree that we need to create more “lazy river” experiences.

While we may not all have the opportunity to visit a lazy river, we can take the components of it and re-create a setting that produces the same results. Simply go on a family outing (visit a park, go on a hike, a picnic, a bike ride, or the neighborhood pool) and turn off the phone, place it out of sight and out of arm’s reach. Take off your watch, and lose track of time. Simply go where your heart leads you.

The Hands Free Revolution is putting “Lazy” back into summer. Reach out your hand and grasp what really matters!

Are you with me?

Tipping The Scales

On the way home from my Mother’s Day dinner, my daughters asked if we could visit the pet store.

My husband and I happily oblige our daughters’ requests for pet store visits as these adventures allow us to put off actually buying a pet for awhile longer.

Typically, both my daughters enjoy watching the furry four-legged animals. But on this day, my oldest daughter made her way to the back of the store with her dad while the hyperactive hamsters and spastic ferrets entertained my four-year-old and me.

After ten minutes, we wandered to the back of the store to see what the rest of the family was doing.

There stood my seven-year-old transfixed on the wall of aquariums. She didn’t even notice when we walked up.

“Are you ready to go home?” I asked.

Her eyes didn’t leave the sight of silver mollies that glittered like a string of diamonds as she said, “Can we stay a little longer, Mama?”

I paused for a moment and watched her captivated by the fish. We stood in front of pet store fish tanks hundreds of times before, but something was different this time.

But I didn’t know what.

By now my four-year-old was begging me to make the chubby brown hamster “talk,” like I had minutes before.

I grabbed her hand and we went to see what tiny compartment the little ball of chub had squeezed himself into now.

After an additional fifteen minutes, we returned to the fish tank section to see that my oldest daughter had made her way to the last row of aquariums.

“Time to go,” I called.

As we were leaving, my daughter spotted an aquarium, not huge, but much larger than the small container that currently holds her single Betta fish.

She stopped at the tank and carefully read the information on the sign below it; I could see the wheels turning.

As soon as we got in the car, she made an announcement.

“I have decided what I would really like to have for my eighth birthday is an aquarium with several fish.  The aquarium at the pet store is $49.00. I know that is expensive, so that is the only gift I am going to ask for this year.”

And then came the part that really surprised me, “And I don’t need a birthday party. The aquarium is the only thing I want.”

Wow. Willing to give up her birthday party. Perhaps she does mean business about these fish, I surmised.

I told her we would think about it in the weeks ahead. I was quite sure that for each day leading up to her birthday, there would be a new gift idea.

The same rule of inconsistency holds true for Halloween costumes. The day that one of my daughters decides she wants to be a witch, and I order the costume, is the same day she decides, “No, I don’t want to be a witch this year. I would rather be a cowgirl, or a pirate, or a fairy, or a race car driver.”

But unlike the indecisiveness of choosing a Halloween costume, my seven-year-old has not changed her mind about the fish. Not in the least.

It has been twenty-nine days since we visited that pet store. And in those days, my child has become a full-fledged ichthyologist, studying fish like it is her job. My daughter has become a self-created fish expert.

I have found typed lists like this one randomly placed about the house:

I have discovered hand printed lists like this one next to her pillow, stuffed in her backpack, and taped to the walls:

The search history on the Internet contains phrases with everything from: “tropical fish for beginners” to “ very small pet sharks.”

She charts the pros and cons of fresh water fish vs. salt-water fish.

She studies fish facts while going to the bathroom, while drifting to sleep, and while riding in the car.

She enlightens those around her with facts like: Fishes have two temperaments, peaceful and aggressive. (Quickly noting that although many aggressive fish look pretty, she would never buy a fish that would eat his friends.)

She knows there are care levels: beginner, intermediate, and advance, and is wisely aware that she needs fish in the beginner category.

Her favorite website to shop for fish used to be www.bluezooaquatics.com, until she realized they only sell saltwater fish. So now she prefers www.liveaquarium.net  because they sell fresh water fish, AND “they have the best prices.”

Our nightly “talk time” has become “Fish Education For Mom.” (Or on some nights, I will admit, I refer to our discussion as, “More Than I Will Ever Need to Know About Fish.”)

She randomly throws out sentences like, “I do not want a guppy in my fish tank. I read that they die easily,” and “Can you believe an eel costs $102.00!”

Her face lights up when you ask to see the fish pictures she has printed.

She becomes down right giddy when simply talking about fish she dreams of owning.

All my skeptical thoughts about her seriousness of wanting a fish tank for her eighth birthday have been silenced.

I am totally convinced this is exactly what she wants (all she wants) for her eighth birthday. And my husband and I are amazed and delighted at her newfound passion for learning about and caring for fish.

As I watch her animated facial expressions and listen to her speak about fish with such incredible joy, I can’t help but realize a change occurred in my daughter from age seven to eight.

And I find myself asking, “Why the change? Why now?”

Maybe she was always this excited about grasping new and interesting things in life, and I had just been “too busy” to notice.

Maybe through her recent opportunities of helping tornado survivors she realized the value of material things fade, but feelings, memories and experiences endure.

Maybe it was a year of sitting in doctor’s offices hoping for some relief from her worsening pain and now finally, finally seeing a ray of light.

Or maybe it is that she is just getting older, wiser, and more mature.

There is definitely been a change from age seven to eight. And I can’t help but notice that her change coincides with my own change.

My journey to grasp what really matters began last July. In the past eleven months I have made a conscious effort to cut the excess in my life, both the tangible excess and the intangible excess. I have made a conscious effort to slow down and place my focus on the beautiful moments that make up my lifetime.

I will never forget the moment I heard my seven-year-old daughter describing my blog to someone.

She said, “My mama writes stories that help others learn about being a good parent and doing nice stuff for other people.”

Then she proudly added, “My sister and I are the stars of Hands Free Mama; we are what it is all about.”

I have to agree.

My children are my greatest teachers.

My children are my greatest role models.

My children are my greatest motivators.

My children are the reason I want to make life count.

I just had to slow down long enough to realize it.

And now the beautiful result of my decision to live Hands Free is this: What my daughter wants out of life, even at the young age of eight, has fallen in line with what I want.

Instead of throwing money in the direction of toys she will outgrow, balloons that will shrivel, cake that will quickly disappear, and invitations that will be thrown out with the trash, she has set her sights on:

Brilliant colors and tranquil moments,

Lovingly caring for God’s creatures,

And having the surreal magnificence of the underwater world right at her fingertips.

I can’t help but look forward to June 21st, 2011…

I envision the whole family standing before my daughter’s new fish tank. Each one of us will point to our favorite fish. We will think of silly names for the red and black one and a cutesy name for the yellow one. We will admire their tiny movements and delicate beauty.

Suddenly we will find ourselves absorbed in the slow, peaceful fish performance that captivates our eyes and calms our hearts.

And as we marvel at my daughter’s eighth birthday gift, we will be grateful for the change that brought us here, the change that brought us all here together.

*****************************************************

What are your children’s passions? Do you allow them to develop or steer them in a direction of your choosing? Take some time to talk to your child, teenager or grandchild about what interests him or her.  If he or she cannot think of anything, this may the perfect opportunity to discover a hobby together.

Make this a summer to “tip the scales” in the direction of what really matters. Do it together.

The amount of meaningful memories your children have when they are adults depends on what you do NOW.  It’s in your hands.

If You Only Knew


The ability to know my children is in my hands.

*For the privacy of this individual, her name has been changed

In this journey to become Hands Free, I have really started listening. Not just listening more intently to my own inner thoughts and feelings, but listening to other people. I mean really listening.

A year ago, I am not sure I would have truly heard what this woman said. But with my Hands Free heart, I heard her words and they have been life changing. I share them with you now.

This is my story…

I recently found myself fully reclined in an oversized chair, draped in a crisp white sheet, amidst dimmed lighting and New Age relaxation music. I was about to receive a luxurious facial. It was a gift from a friend who recently had her fourth baby. She was convinced that she would not have made it through the trying last three months without my help and support, and this was her way of expressing gratitude.

As you know, I am a big fan of The Angel Impact. I was simply doing for her what others had done for me when I had a new baby. I was not expecting a lavish facial in return, but I was surely going to enjoy this generous gift.

Before the aesthetician came in, I crossed both my fingers and wished for one that did not have the gift of gab. It is not often that I have the opportunity to completely relax, let alone in a deluxe setting such as this one. The last thing I wanted to do was carry on a conversation.

A beautiful woman named Debbie* came in. After a brief introduction, she began rubbing the most delicious smelling substance on my face in gentle circular motions.

Ahhhh….at last…surreal, peaceful, relaxation.

“So Rachel, what is your occupation?”

Suddenly the small window of tranquility was closed abruptly.

I briefly considered giving her the quick, one word answer: “Mom,” or “Teacher,” or “Writer,” thereby indicating that getting to know one another was not one of my goals for this session.

But for some reason, I felt inclined to tell her about all three of my occupations. Then I explained how I was using my skills as a mom, teacher, and writer to author a book about making the most out of our time here on earth, particularly in respect to our children.

That is when Debbie said something that one year ago I would have missed. One year ago, I may have actually ignored her, simply acknowledging her words with a polite, “Uh huh.”

But things are different now. Thank God, things are different. And I listen because I have learned that you just never know when someone else has the words that you need to hear.

She said, “I just want to know my children, really know my children. That is all I want in my lifetime.”

At first it almost seemed like a silly, obvious notion to “know” my child, but after further thought, the critical concept of really knowing my child sent chills down my spine.

Because here’s the truth, the cold hard truth: the ability to really know our children is in jeopardy. Knowing our children has earned a spot on the In Danger of Extinction List.

Here is why…

In the jam packed, over-scheduled, constantly beeping, buzzing, media saturated, technology obsessed, stressed out, warp speed rat race that we call life, something is getting lost.

Personal connection is getting lost.

Human touch is getting lost.

Private conversation is getting lost.

While we are fully aware of what our children like to do, (insert mile long list of extracurricular activities here), do we really know who our children are as people?

And we, as adults, must take responsibility for the major part we play in the current deficiency in knowing, really knowing, our children.

A year ago, I was on the verge of not knowing my children (more on that in an upcoming post). Thank God, things are different now, but I still struggle. I still struggle to fight the distraction that invades my life and threatens to steal from me the only real connection that truly matters on this earth.

And to combat this struggle, I create reminders in the form of a list. I choose lists over long-winded paragraphs because they have a way of sticking with me, popping into my head at the precise moment I need them.

This list could serve as a “Hands Free Wake Up Call” or a “Hands Free Slap In the Face.” And I am not going to sit here and say that I don’t need it.

Because I do.

Every single day, I need to evaluate how I am using my precious time on this earth.

The following list helps me do just that.

This is the If You Know List, created with the help of my single, hip, and technologically savvy sister, Rebecca:

If you know exactly how many “likes” your latest Facebook status update has received in the past hour…

If you know the exact number of times your latest tweet has been retweeted…

If you know the number of TV shows your DVR exceeds the number of times you conversed with your child this week…

If you know the next 20 movies in your Netflix queue off the top of your head…

If you know the content on the TMZ blog so thoroughly that your friends regularly ask you for the latest celeb gossip…

If you know all there is to know about Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, Ping, Yelp, Foursquare and Meetup…

If you know where your Kindle is at all times of the day and night…

If you know the latest status updates of your 500 Facebook friends…

If you know how to text proficiently while in the dark, with your eyes closed, with an injured finger, under the influence of alcohol…

If you know all the Twitter names of Kayne’s followers…

If you know the latest ring tones available from Lady GaGa…

If you know there is seasonal wallpaper available for your Blackberry and change it accordingly…

If you know the personal ringtones for each of your 300+ iPhone contacts…

If you know the number of times each Hollywood Wife has been married and the names of the all the MTV Teen Moms’ babies…

If you know how to discreetly check email while in church, at a wedding, or at a school function…

If you know any and all sport scores with the help of ESPN, as well as MLB, NFL and NHL digital cable sports packages…

If you know the location of your multiple phones at all times, but occasionally lose track of your children…

If you know the dangers of texting while driving, but do it anyway…

If you know you should turn off your computer and spend time with your children, but you don’t…

If you know you really shouldn’t keep the phone on the table at dinner, but you do it anyway…

If you know you could return emails after your kids go to bed, but you choose to ignore them instead…

If you know you are wasting an opportunity to converse with your child while you talk on the phone and drive, but do it anyway…

If you know that you often choose interacting with people on a screen over the living breathing human sitting next to you…

If you know all these things,

If you know half these things,

If you know one of these things,

Then your chance to know, really know, your child is being sacrificed.

Your chance to know who your child is as a person is in jeopardy.

If you know any of these things, you know less about your child than you could know.

And so now that you know…what are you going to do about it?

That is the real question here. What are you going to do about it? Yes, some of the items on the list are over the top. Some of them are laughable. But let’s step into the light of realness, shall we? We all have things that distract us from truly knowing the people we love.

Because the fact of the matter is this: We live in a world inundated with distraction, and there is room for improvement in every single one of our lives. This might not be your list of distractions, but you have one, just as I have one. And when I admit the truth, I know exactly what takes my focus, my attention, and my presence off of the people I love.

The truth hurts, but the truth heals.

Only YOU know what is distracting you from the personal connection, human touch, intimate conversation that your loved ones so desperately need and want from you.

Only YOU have the power to know your child.

Or you can simply continue to choose to know a lot about “things” that won’t matter one damn bit when your last day on this earth arrives.

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What distracts you from focusing on the people you love? Whether it’s external distraction or internal distraction, whether it’s technology, negative emotions, excessive spending, or self-absorption, the detrimental cost of your distraction is the same. Your loved ones are fully aware when you are not giving them 100% of yourself.

I challenge you to spend 20 minutes with your child or significant other TODAY with everything turned off, including technology, as well as wandering thoughts.

In 20 uninterrupted minutes, you can really get to know someone.

Please take a moment to give someone else the opportunity to grasp what really matters by sharing this critical message.