The Hands Of Time

There is a special place located in Indiana that was instrumental in setting my Hands Free journey into motion. I wrote about Conner Prairie when I first started this blog. You can read about that day and the Hands Free epiphany that occurred in my post, “Look Up.”

Here I am now, on the verge of celebrating my one-year anniversary of living Hands Free. I don’t think it is a coincidence that I recently had the opportunity to return to the place that got it all started.

Nothing on the Hands Free journey is coincidental.

This is my story…

About a month ago, my daughters and I had the chance to visit Conner Prairie, an interactive history park.

Walking on the rustic grounds of the outdoor museum is truly like going back in time. This is how I described Conner Prairie the first time I wrote about it:

Conner Prairie is designed as a historical town complete with a one-room school house, blacksmith, general store, baby animal barn, and town doctor, just to name a few of the features.

Not only can you walk inside these structures, but the women, men, and children that work there dress and speak according to the time period in which they portray. For a little girl who dreamed of being one of “Pa’s” daughters on “Little House on the Prairie,” I was as excited as my children were about this experience.

Although I visited Conner Prairie just eleven months prior, I felt like I was seeing it with new eyes. No longer am I an outside observer of the slower, simpler, undistracted life that the museum represents, I am a participant. I am a participant.

Eleven months ago, I so desperately wanted to sequester myself in one of their old fashioned hotel rooms, forever abandoning my life of buzzing cell phones, addictive technology, overcrowded calendar boxes, overwhelming requests, and endless to-do-lists.

But I knew I couldn’t stay there forever.

Reluctantly, I walked away from Conner Prairie eleven months ago, but I took something with me. I carried a new awareness, a profound realization: Although it was not possible for me to live in a placid country home of 1822, I was determined to take aspects of this simple, undistracted life and apply it to my own.

Now here I was, almost a year later, back on the fertile soil where my journey began.

So how did I do? Did the Hands Free tactics I incorporated in my daily life in the past eleven months enable me to grasp what really matters? Was I any closer to living life the way my heart yearned to live?

As my daughters and I walked through the historical “town,” stopping to go inside the school house, the hotel, and various old homes, my mind was flooded with Hands Free moments that had occurred over the past year…moments that would never have happened if I hadn’t made a conscious effort to replace daily distraction with moments of simplicity, stillness, and spontaneity.

First, we stopped and spoke to a lovely young woman named “Dorcus” dressed in traditional garb of the 1800s. Her long cotton dress gracefully spilled over the weathered bench on which she sat.

In her hands, she held a small quilt patch pierced with a needle and thread.

I watched in awe as she generously handed over her almost complete sewing project to my eager eight-year-old daughter and began guiding her.

Although Dorcus had clearly spent much time and effort on the creation, keeping it in pristine condition seemed unimportant to her. Apparently, she knew this experience would be much more meaningful and memorable if the children had a chance to try it themselves.

As I witnessed her kind gesture, I was reminded of the times I let go of perfection, as well as the need to get something completed “quickly,” in order to create meaningful experiences and lasting memories for (and with) my children.

I recalled many laughing sessions with my four-year-old laundry helper over the past year. I thought of every dish my daughter and I washed together and the multitude of muffins we baked while sharing with her my favorite childhood memories of baking and cleaning with my own mom.

As my oldest daughter described a potholder she recently made to Dorcus, I reminisced about the many lessons my daughters taught me this past year. I thought of my daughter’s dream of having an actual school in our playroom, the way she chose to sponsor the girl with the broken smile, and the lessons three preschoolers taught me on the day I drove fifty miles in the wrong direction.

By setting aside my own agenda, worries of messes and personal inconveniences, I watched my daughters grasp what matters to them and learned more than I ever could on my own.

Next, we came upon a tiny house derived of white washed wooden planks. Through the cracks in the structure, the most enticing smells escaped. Inside two robust women with perspiring foreheads pinched fragrant dough with strong, thick fingers.

They kindly asked my children if they would like to help prepare meat pies.

My daughters happily accepted the request to help. They were quite apt when it came to rolling the dough and stuffing it with tender meat, but placing it over the fire was a bit intimidating. After all, we bake in a oven, not over an open fire spitting intense flames.

As my daughters bravely attempted to overcome their fear, I was reminded of the moments I had gone beyond my own comfort level in order to grasp what really mattered.

I recalled several puzzles I had (embarrassingly) struggled to put together under the encouraging guidance of my four-year-old, reluctantly getting my hair wet at the pool, choosing a bike ride with my children over Superbowl party prep, and playing the violin after a twenty-year hiatus.

In the past eleven months, I had attempted activities that weren’t really “my thing,” that I didn’t necessarily like to do, but did them in an effort to connect with the people I love.

Next, we headed into the quaint general store. The gruff salesman in a stiff black cotton suit pointed out many tempting items to my wide-eyed daughters who thought they must be dreaming when he announced prices that did not have the word “dollars” at the end.

My oldest daughter gravitated toward a china set in robin’s egg blue and my youngest child drooled over sassafras candy sticks that only cost one cent (even though she had no clue what sassafras was).

My youngest daughter was interested in purchasing a twenty-five cent bag of flour at the general store.

As my daughters carefully examined the interesting items surrounding them, I thought about my own delicate, priceless moments that I was able to witness and absorb in the past year. By slowing down and focusing on the now, instead of racing to the next activity or event, I was able to see exquisite beauty in even the ordinary details of life.

Over the year, I had collected enough hellos to buffer the impending goodbyes I will surely face. I waited joyfully, instead of impatiently and angrily. I watched a humble man get an unexpected gift and a sick child succumb to the peaceful refuge of sleep.

By refusing to let a ticking clock run my life, I was able to slow down and see providential signs everywhere….in the clouds, on windowpanes, and in the eyes of the people I love. I accepted these divine signs as confirmation that I am on the right path leading to what really matters.

Once we toured the outer “town” area of Conner Prairie, the girls summoned us inside to the interactive part of the museum. My mother-in-law took the girls to the papermaking station while I had the pleasure of caring for my eleven-month-old nephew.

I spotted one of those silly mirrors in the dress up area. Knowing how much babies love mirrors, I carried my little dude over. (And I really must mention, my nephew has hair that puts Johnny Depp’s coif to shame and should be admired regularly.)

I slowly peeked his angelic face into the mirror and my cheesiest voice asked, “Where’s Sam?”

From the first glance, he loved it.

With every peek into the mirror, his wheezy, sucking air style of laughing became louder and louder.

On what seemed like the twentieth peek, I realized my nephew was not the only one in the mirror who looked incredibly happy.

Suddenly I saw the woman holding the baby…literally and figuratively holding life in her hands. And on her face was the pure joy that comes from living, not simply surviving each day or getting through each day, but living each day with purpose, presence, and gratitude.

In that moment I saw how far I had come in one year.

I am now able to put into words what I couldn’t bear to write before….

Before, I was living life with one hand.
One hand always making a list,
Checking things off…checking things off.

Before, I was living life with one hand.
One hand always planning ahead,
On to what’s next…On to what’s next.

Before, I was living life with one hand.
One hand always trying to please,
Make everyone happy…make everyone happy.

Before, I was living life with one hand.
One hand always striving for an illusion,
Make sure it’s perfect…make sure it’s perfect.

Before, I was living life with one hand.
One hand always reaching full speed,
Don’t slow down…don’t slow down.

Before, I was living life with one hand,
But then I realized one-handed living is not really living,
Not living at all.

Deep in my soul, I yearned to grasp what really matters.
And I knew I couldn’t do it with one hand.

So I let go.

I let go of distraction.
I let go of perfection.
I let go of excess.
I let go of chaos.

And when I finally had two free hands,
I embraced life.

I embraced life with two free hands and one whole heart.
And THAT is when I truly began living.

Conner Prairie 2011: My hands are free; my heart is full.

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Is this the end? Does my journey to grasp what really matters end here?

My next post holds the answer. I hope you’ll come back.

In the meantime, evaluate how you are doing on your own journey to grasp what really matters. What signs of progress have you witnessed? I’d love to hear about them.

Or perhaps you are still unsuccessfully trying to embrace life with one hand?

Isn’t it time to let go? Let go of a little distraction, a little perfection, or a little chaos. It only requires baby steps to making a big difference in getting closer to what really matters in this one precious life we have to live.

Let go. Do it today.

Where The Sun Doesn’t Shine

Parents, are you listening?

*Permission granted to use authentic first name

When I began publishing my Hands Free journey seven months ago, I had no idea where it would take me; I had no idea who it would bring me.

But I have discovered the most meaningful things are unplanned; the best things happen when you least expect them.

This is not my story; this is *Christy’s story, and I am privileged to put it into words today…

A few weeks ago, a woman named Christy contacted me. She said she was creating a flyer. This flyer would be going to a large number of people in hopes of raising money to offset the cost of her medical bills.

The design of the flyer was not a problem for this professional graphic designer, but the wording was. It is difficult to find the words when you are writing about the fight of your life, the fight FOR your life.

That is where I came in.

Christy asked if I might be able to add my “special flair” to her story, as she so generously described my talent as a writer.

These are the moments that I know with certainty that my journey to grasp what really matters is taking me somewhere. These are the rare occasions in my life when for one brief second, my purpose on this earth is crystal clear.

Christy sent me her information over email. Once I got my daughters to bed, I took her information and jumped on the treadmill, which is where I do my best thinking.

Within twenty minutes, the emotional impact Christy was hoping for appeared before me in jagged, uneven sentences across the page.

This is Christy’s story; this is what she has lived. I simply had the easy part of putting it into words…

Imagine at age 39 being diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of malignant cancer.

Imagine thinking you had beat cancer, only to find that it had returned.

Imagine having to look into the hopeful eyes of your three beautiful children and tell them, “I have cancer.” Not once, but twice.

Imagine being told that in order to survive, you must leave your beloved family over and over again to receive life-saving treatments.

Imagine wondering what devastating news today will bring, let alone tomorrow, and the next five years.

Imagine never being fully free from pain, worry, frustration, and despair.

Imagine a long, bleak road that currently has no end in sight.

Christy does not have to imagine these things; she has lived them all, and continues to live them today.

In November 2008, Christy was diagnosed with Stage 3 Melanoma. Because this is a rare type of malignant melanoma, the oncologists in Cincinnati referred Christy to a national melanoma specialist in Pittsburgh. It was there that she began a yearlong treatment with a drug called interferon. Christy’s children will never forget holding their mother’s hand as their father administered the injections.

Six months after being given the “all clear” and told to resume life as normal, Christy noticed a small mass at the original surgery site. The melanoma had returned, but this time it was in the form of a tumor.

Christy was immediately sent back to the melanoma specialists in Pittsburgh for an evaluation. She was fortunate to be selected as a patient in a clinical trial for a new drug developed to fight melanoma.  She received four treatments in five months and underwent and one intensive surgery to remove the tumor.

Christy is still experiencing many side effects from the treatment, which will remain in her system for up to six months.  The medication she takes to combat the side effects make it very difficult for Christy to balance work and domestic duties, while being a loving parent. Yet, Christy rises above her daily struggles simply because she views each and every day on this earth as a precious gift.

Sadly, Christy feels certain there is a new tumor near her original site, which will mean more surgeries and treatments in the near future.

Christy recently had new scans and evaluations in Pittsburgh and will soon learn if there has been any new tumor growth.

Imagine bringing peace to an aching heart.

Imagine touching a broken soul with a loving hand.

Imagine looking into scared eyes and saying, “You are not alone.”

Imagine offering something that can only come from the heart.

You don’t have to imagine these things; you can make them a reality.

Every touch, every embrace, every word of comfort, every prayer of hope, every gesture of kindness is like a ray of hope to an incredible survivor with a tremendous will to live.

Just imagine the possibilities.

_____________________________________

I sent the completed manuscript to Christy and requested she let me know what needed to be added, deleted, or modified.

I expected to hear back from her quickly, as I had in our previous correspondences, but I didn’t this time.

When I didn’t hear from Christy, I assumed I had not captured her story the way she wanted; I was afraid perhaps it was not to her liking.

When I did receive her response, she immediately explained the delay. This is what she wrote:

It took me a while to get through the first part. This was difficult hard for me to read; I kept tearing up. I read stories about people like this, but never imagined I would be reading one about myself.

I knew I owed it to Christy to go back and read it again, this time not as the detached author.

And when I did, the overwhelming, breath-taking, agonizing realization hit me.

This could very well be me.

I baked my skin in the summer sun year after year.

The skin on my nose peeled off in strips like a band-aid, over and over again.

I shunned SPF and used baby oil instead.

This could be me fighting for my life against malignant melanoma.

Suddenly my own words came rushing back to me as I re-read Christy’s story.

In a post entitled, “Healing Hands,” written right after a deadly tornado devastated my state on April 27th, I wrote:

When tragedy strikes your backyard, a cold, harsh reality hits you between the eyes and breaks your heart in half. Suddenly you realize the difference between “us” and “them,” is a matter of five miles, is a slight change in wind direction, is the placement of your home.

With a frightening realization you discover the difference between “us” and “them” is a radical cancer cell, a clogged artery, a misjudged runway, a reckless driver, or a deadly undertow.

You realize the difference between “us” and “them” is simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

You realize it could have just as easily been “us,” instead of “them,” standing in utter despair and shock wondering where life as you once knew it has gone.

Christ’s story could be my story.

That is just a simple fact.

There might come a day when my doctor looks into my hopeful eyes and whispers unimaginable words that swallow me into a dark, desolate hole.

And suddenly I will find myself on the other side of that line, praying that somehow I could go back to the day before when my good health was something I took for granted.

In a correspondence with Christy, I asked, “What do you dream about being able to see or do when you are totally healthy?”

I thought she might talk about seeing a place she always hoped to see or doing something she never thought she would get to do.

But alas, she is much farther on her journey to grasp what really matters than I am.

This is what she said:

I would like to see awareness raised about melanoma. I would also like to see tanning beds banned. Teenagers are too young to understand the extensive damage that tanning beds can have on their skin.

People think that skin cancer can be easily removed, and then you just go on with life; I know I did. People do not realize skin cancer can be deadly. It is the fastest growing cancer and affects more people than prostate, breast, colorectal and cervical cancers combined. One person dies every hour from skin cancer.  I don’t understand why no one is talking about it.

Two days after I received these words from Christy, a friend posted a video entitled, “Dear 16-Year-Old Me.”

Once I watched the video, I knew Christy’s story must be shared. I knew her wish to educate more people about melanoma must be honored now, not later.

I was already ultra-cautious about protecting my family’s skin, but Christy’s story, in conjunction with this video, has tripled my awareness and my determination to guard my family.

Our children rely on us to guard them from the dangers of skin cancer that they do not yet know about or understand. Their precious skin needs protection now, not later.

Please do not navigate away from this page before watching this video. It could save your life or the life of someone you love.

Video: Dear 16-Year-Old Me

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

Today’s challenge is twofold:

Whenever you go out in the sun, put sunscreen on yourself; put sunscreen on your children. One bad burn before the age of 18 doubles your chances of cancer. In addition, invest in sun protection swimwear shirts like the ones found here.

Secondly, spend time with your family. Tell them you love them. You just never know when you might find yourself on the other side of that very thin line between “us” and “them.” You just never know when you might find yourself in that dark and desolate place where the sun doesn’t shine.

*Update on Christy: Just mere days ago, Christy’s story took a devastating turn. The recent scans in Pittsburgh led to a painful lung biopsy that confirmed melanoma.  This diagnosis will now require a new approach to Christy’s treatment, which is yet to be determined.

Please pray for hope, courage, and strength for Christy and her amazing family as she bravely fights to beat cancer once and for all. And please help spread greater awareness about skin cancer by sharing her story with someone you love today.

*Thank you, Christy, for sharing your story so that someone else can be spared the pain you have lived. You are an incredible inspiration to us all.

Must You Go So Soon?

Where'd everybody go?

This is not going to be a pretty message. Nope, nothing pretty about this one.

But sometimes life’s most meaningful messages don’t come in pretty packages.

This is my story…

My oldest daughter received an aquarium for her eighth birthday.

The process of immersing herself in the research of all things “fishy” for an entire month leading up to her birthday was all very “Hands Free.”

And the way my daughters gasped in sheer delight when the colorful fish were freed into the tank was about as “Hands Free” as you can possibly get.

The epitome of “Hands Free” was how someone who is not much into fish or sitting still, for that matter, found herself perched on the ottoman in front of the tank mesmerized by its tranquility when no one else around.

Yes, even my control freak ultra planner drill sergeant side has been slowed down by the aquarium.

So just as I was about to declare the fish tank experience one of the greatest producers of Hands Free behavior on my journey to grasp what matters EVER, things took a different turn.

Things turned dark, as dark as they could possibly get.

From the warm and fuzzy connected feeling that is life at its fullest, we were thrust into the cold and heart-wrenching feeling that is death in its finality.

I told you this was not going to be pretty.

I know, I know. We were warned. Brad the All-Knowing Fish Salesman warned us that keeping fish alive was very difficult; he didn’t sugar coat it. In fact, his exact words were, “Even people who are experienced aquarium experts are often unable to keep their fish alive.”

We should have run. Run, as fast as we could to the furry four-legged side of the pet store. I know. I know.

But I kept thinking we had something the “fish experts” didn’t have. After all, this was a Hands Free mission sparked by my eight-year-old daughter’s quest to grasp what really matters.

Yes, it would turn out beautifully, just like the other Hands Free experiences on this journey have so far.

I was sure the loving Hands Free connection that radiated from us would be enough to sustain these fish.

Plus, my husband was determined to make it work.

He did everything as instructed by Fish Salesman Brad to prepare the tank and make the water optimal for its inhabitants.

Our kitchen counter was lined with overpriced products like, “Stress Coat,” and “Nutrafin Aquarium Supplement.” In addition to products that promised to reduce ammonia and nitrate toxicity in the water.

Yes, oh yes, fish would not only LIVE in this aquarium, they would THRIVE in this aquarium.

Yet for some reason, I kept hearing Brad’s voice like a bad song I couldn’t get out of my head, “Very hard to keep alive…alive…alive….”

Just to be on the safe side, I instructed my daughter not to name any of the fish…not until they survived the initial transfer.

But then my daughter declared one of the fish, “Rachel’s fish.”

Really? My very own fish? The cute neon orange one?

I just had to name it.

I just HAD to go and name it, didn’t I? Why couldn’t I have just taken my own advice and allowed him to remain anonymous.

The next day, guess who was floating belly up in the tank? Yes, my little Orange Blossom.

I won’t lie. I was disturbed.

As a child, I couldn’t bear to watch Bambi’s mother get shot, and I still close my eyes during that scene. I was the girl who tried to get the mean boys to stop frying ants with the magnifying glass at recess. I still carry house spiders outside on a piece of paper (if they aren’t huge). I just don’t like seeing anything die, regardless how tiny it is.

Yet, I could see one small positive in the demise of little Orange Blossom…at least it was my fish that perished and not my children’s fish.

Not yet, anyway.

So a few days passed. Fish began mysteriously disappearing. Waverunner 1 was first and then Waverunner 2, shortly thereafter. (Yes, we named them. We just couldn’t help it. Their red and blue stripes looked exactly like the swim cap my daughter wore for her Waverunner swim team.  We just HAD to name them.)

Why, oh why, did we have to name them?

Again, disturbing…very disturbing.

We all gathered around the tank in disbelief. I had an inkling of what was going on, but I couldn’t imagine speaking the words. It was so Hannibal Lecter-ish.

My eight-year-old was only a few seconds behind. After all, she was the one who educated us about “aggressive” fish and informed us that she wanted no part of those kind of fish.

“Someone is eating them!!!” she realized with disgust.

We all pressed our noses against the glass as if the culprit would have a skull tattoo on his tail or an excessively bulging belly.

Now who could it be?

We all concluded it was the silver mollie. It was the fastest one in the tank and kind of had a bossy attitude about it.

My husband bagged up “Killer” and took my daughters with him to the pet store hoping to replace “aggressive” with “docile.”

They arrived home a few hours later and were quite busy making noise in the kitchen.

When I walked out, I saw an addition to the fish tank. Our delightful dwarf frog had been upgraded to a one bedroom condo equipped with a tiny terra cotta hiding pot, faux greenery, and trendy blue rocks. Pottery Barn for Frogs. Really?

“The frog is a carnivore!” my oldest daughter announced.

“He is the one who has been eating everyone!” she further explained in layman’s terms in case Mom was clueless.

Oh no. No way. I could not believe that. Cute little skydiving Mr. Dwarf Frog???

So what about the silver mollie? I felt badly he was mistakenly accused of wrong doing (serious wrong-doing) when he was totally innocent.

Well, they informed he was traded…like a baseball card. I guess that is how the unfeeling fish world works.

In his place, my daughter chose a “cleaner fish,” because the one we originally bought never, and I mean never, comes out from behind the rock. (And yes, we checked; he is surprisingly alive unlike everyone else.)

I have to admit, the new cleaner fish was pretty cool. He actually resembled a small shark (minus the sharp teeth). He gently scaled the sides of the tank sucking off algae and bacteria. We all sat hypnotically watching his slow, methodical movements for several minutes.

At this point, I felt like I needed a Who’s Still Alive re-cap…a fish roll call, of sorts.

“So let’s review,” I began, although my daughters were still fixated on our novel new addition.

“Now we have two cleaner fish, two clown fish (both being from our original fish purchase), a neon green tetra…”

“Which is my fish!” my youngest daughter interjected.

“…And a newly purchased Mickey Mouse platy,” I concluded.

The water had been tested for high levels of nitrates and ammonia. The temperature of the water was ideal. The compatibility of the fish was checked and double-checked. And the carnivorous frog had been removed. Surely things would be O.K now.

Two hours later…

Remember the cool new cleaner fish I was just telling you about? Well, he was dead.

“Are you kidding me? This is ridiculous!” I could not believe what my oldest daughter was reporting and stormed out to the aquarium to see for myself.

I began a mumbling rant about how we should have just gotten a cat.

“I can keep a cat alive, no problem!” I huffed under my breath.

My four-year-old daughter stood in front of the tank with her shoulders slumped. Clearly she had seen one fish cadaver too many.

She ran into my arms and began sobbing into my chest.

“Mama, are you gonna die, too?”

No way. This is NOT the Hands Free moment I placed my order for when we bought this fish tank!

Now both girls were crying as their daddy removed the now hard as a rock “cleaner fish,” who was not around long enough to even get a decent name!

My four-year-old prayer warrior suggested it was time to ask for God’s help in the matter. She informed everyone she was going to pray.

She said the loveliest prayer for as many of the dead fish she could remember, (after all, there had been so many), and then she squeezed her eyes tightly as she pleaded for the other fish to “just stay alive.”

We miraculously made it almost two weeks without an aquatic casualty.

And then my youngest daughter’s neon green tetra became a victim of The Tube (innocently referred to in the instruction manual as The Filter, which really should have a warning label for slender fish).

Before she could even think about crying, my oldest daughter quickly reminded her of all the other fish that were still alive.

I heard my eight-year-old whip out her Ultra Sunshiny Kindergarten Teacher Voice to consoling her heart-broken little sister.

“See, we still have two clown fish and the first cleaner fish we ever bought, which we can’t see because he hides all the time, but we know he is there because look how clean the tank is?”

Little sister seemed to be buying it, so Big Sister continued, “Then over here, we have the fish with the Mickey Mouse symbol on his tail, but don’t worry, no one wrote on him, his tail is naturally like that. And of course, look at Mr. Froggy!”

She pointed to Froggy’s private, deluxe accommodations next to the tank, “Just look at how much fun Mr. Froggy is having!”

And right on cue, Froggy did a little free-fall move from the top of the bowl to the bottom.

My youngest daughter actually smiled.

Shew. Crisis diverted. You know I am not one to promote “distraction.” But in this case, my oldest child used it well.

As per instructions, it was time to clean the tank. My husband did exactly as the instructions read. Once he was finished, we all admired the glow of the tank, the smell of the fresh clear water, and the lively movements of our happy little inhabitants.

In my mind, I was at peace.

OK, so we may not have them ALL, but we have enough, and it looks like they are going to stay around now.

“Can we name the other clown fish now, Mama? His brother, Oreo, has had a name for weeks now,” my oldest daughter reminded me.

“Yes, you can name the clown fish with the little orange spots,” I agreed.

After all, things were finally looking stable.

She decided on “Bubbles.”

We just HAD to name him, didn’t we?

You know where this is going, but I must continue anyway.

My youngest child runs around the house a few hours later shouting, “Bubbles is dead! Bubbles is dead!”

First I had to remember WHO Bubbles was, (we had literally just named him), and then I experienced the feeling of anger, sadness, frustration, and disbelief that was becoming way too familiar.

When I arrived at the tank, not only was Bubbles dead, but so was the Mickey Mouse platy.

Now this was getting ridiculous.

I had to find something (or someone) to blame for this most recent fish massacre.

BUT….I had to be very careful. If I was too accusatory or critical, I might lose my tank cleaner, and I am talking about my Human Tank Cleaner. You can’t buy one of those at the pet store.

“What do you think happened this time?” I calmly asked my husband, my Human Tank Cleaner, who also looked quite depressed.

“For some reason they didn’t survive the water change,” he surmised.

Oh that’s nice…blame it on the innocent fish…make it sound like it was their fault.

“The salesman said fish are really hard to keep alive,” he added.

Yeah. I think I got that.

Again, another “Shoulda got a cat” comment slipped out under my breath.

I over went to console my oldest child, who now looked like she had finally reached her breaking point.

“I just don’t understand, Mama. Why? Why do all my fish keep dying? Oreo and the practically invisible cleaner fish are the only ones left!”

And for someone who really did not know what to say, something quite good came out of my mouth.

“Honey, those fish are just glad they didn’t die in the pet store.”

Huh? Even I wasn’t sure where this was going.

She stopped crying immediately looking at me like she needed more…wanted to hear more of this (potentially lame) theory.

“Well, all your fish were chosen. That is what fish wait for…someone to chose them from all the others. You know, life doesn’t really start until you get out of the pet store aquarium and actually have a home. While they were here, they looked out of the glass and not did see a store; they saw a home. They saw the same joyful faces day after day. They saw that they had been chosen. So they died happy.”

She was considering. I was holding my breath.

The agony on her face softened, “You’re right. That would be terrible to die in a pet store,” she agreed.

“And now they are in fish heaven! Having fun swimming around with all their friends,” my ever-happy youngest daughter chimed in.

We all looked lovingly at Oreo, our one sole survivor (if you don’t count the “cleaner fish” who spends his whole life hiding behind a rock).

And now, another week has passed. He has been with us for six weeks now.

I still find myself sitting at the tank, despite the fact there is much less to look at in there now.

I am kind of in awe of little Oreo and wonder if he could talk, what he might say is his secret to survival.

I think Oreo would suggest these three things for longevity:

Live large- Living a little on the plump side prevents you from getting sucked up into The Tube AND you are just a bit too big to fit inside a dwarf frog’s mouth.

Go Slow- There’s no need to rush, people. What’s the hurry? Slow down and feel the bubbles, check out the sights. And when the heater accidently gets unplugged, your slowness will conserve energy.

Be Happy- When someone takes a look at you, smile. Smiling big might just get you selected from a sea of other bubble blowers so you can get out there and see what real life is like.

"Oreo" swimming along slowly, but happily, in his great big tank.

The death of seven fish was not something I thought I would write about on my Hands Free blog. There is definitely nothing warm and fuzzy or inspiring about it.

But there is a critical Hands Free lesson here.

When I watch little Oreo swimming alone slowly in his great big tank, it is almost as if there is a sign on top that reads:

LIFE IS PRECIOUS.

One day you could be going along quite happily and then suddenly you might find yourself fighting for your life, or worse, you might find yourself flat on your back wondering where your life went.

LIFE IS PRECIOUS.

I can’t help but think about the fish that do end up dying in the pet store, never getting out to see what real life and real joy look like staring back at them.

I think it might be a lot like dying with a cell phone against your ear or a to-do-list in your hand…like you “managed” life, but never got to the “living” part.

I told you this wasn’t going to be pretty.

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Update: Since this writing, Oreo has passed away, but his message lives on. In fact, because of Oreo’s passing, I heard this exchange between a father and his daughter:

“Keeping fish alive is a lot harder than we thought it would be. The book I was reading said most people give up after two months.  But we’re not going to give up. We’ll get the water figured out and then we’ll get more fish.”

“O.K., Daddy. Let’s not give up.”

The Hands Free lessons of the fish tank just keep coming.

What are your dreams? What do you want to accomplish in life in order to grasp what really matters to you? It may take several tries; sometimes you may get discouraged, but don’t give up. Don’t settle for life at the pet store. Get out there and live life… even if it means a little heartache along the way.

Come Closer

Being Hands Free to grasp what really matters often means going outside my comfort zone, not taking the “easy,” route, and accepting the fact that the way I’ve “always done it,” may not be the best way.

Usually it begins with a voice in my head; I call it my Hands Free inner voice. It pushes me to do things I don’t necessarily want to do, but need to do, in order to grasp what really matters.

My Hands Free voice recently spoke to me. Although it would have been easier to simply push the suggestion away, I acted on it. And the results far exceeded my expectations.

This is my story…

A few weeks ago, I read an article entitled, “Why Roughhousing is Good For Kids and Their Parents” by Lylah M. Alphonse.

The article describes the physical, emotional, behavioral and social benefits that children receive by engaging in a little “rough and tumble” with either or both of their parents.

Although my memories as a four-year-old are a bit hazy, there is one activity I do remember vividly. And the article on roughhousing seemed to bring it to the forefront of my mind.

I can still recall standing, for what seemed like hours, at the screen door of our house watching for my dad’s car to pull in the driveway.

As soon as my dad would get home from work, my favorite game of all time would begin. It was quite appropriately called, “Getcha,” which definitely sounds like a name four-year-old Rachel made up.

My sister and I would huddle together in “fear,” the minute Dad would get on all fours in the living room. Yet we knew full well that sticking together would not save us from the all-powerful “Getcha” hand.

We would fake scream at the top of our lungs, act like we were trying to get away (but not really), and squeal with delight when Dad grabbed us and started tickling our bellies.

On occasion, we would get a little wild and out of control, which is when we would hear Mom call from the kitchen, “O.K., now. That is enough roughhousing.”

I remember thinking “roughhousing” was such a strange word and such a poor description of what we were doing. I figured my mom made it up to sound unappealing and “parental.” To me, there was nothing “rough” about it.  In my four-year-old opinion, it was the best kind of “playing” that existed.

And now thirty-four years later, roughhousing still has the same appeal to my kids that it did to me back then.

My daughters love roughhousing with their uncle. He doesn’t have kids of his own yet, so he has an unlimited supply of energy that is not artificially produced by large quantities of caffeine. He rarely uses the word “no” and doesn’t have back issues. So given all those variables, he is the perfect candidate for “roughhousing,” or what my children refer to as, “Tackle Time.”

Whenever I mention an impending visit from their uncle, the girls’ eyes begin to twinkle and in unison they excitedly exclaim, “Tackle Time!”

I love to hear their joyful shrieks as he “captures” them, whips them around, tosses them over his shoulder and then squeezes them in a giant bear hug until they laughingly cry out for mercy. (It’s the best kind of laughter…the silent, uncontrollable kind that causes wet pants.)

There may have been certain points in my life when I would have worried about their safety or thought the play was too rough, but now I know this type of physical contact and interaction is vital to my children’s overall emotional and physical well-being.

So here’s where the Hands Free inner voice came into the picture and started asking a lot of questions…or actually began repeating the same question over and over.

The question that kept coming up was this: What types of physical connection do you have with your children?

The first child that came to mind was my four-year-old. Her nickname, “Ooey Dooey,” was given to her in the first week of life, but still suits her perfectly. There is just something soft, cuddly and warm about her. She even has a name for her own huggable nature. She calls it her “Ooey-ness.”

Wouldn’t we all love to possess some of that?

There is just something about my four-year-old daughter that makes you want to wrap your arms around her and pull her close. And when you do, she never rebukes. She actually melts right into you. Pure Ooey-ness.

At the conclusion of “Question Time” each night, our nightly “cuddle ritual” occurs.

I pull her close and say, “I’m am soooo tired. I think I will just sleep right here. Will you be my teddy bear?”

She smiles, (while simultaneously sucking her thumb), and nods an emphatic “yes.” I nestle her in close and I plant a million little kisses the soft cushiony spot right under her chin.

That is just what we do. Every.Single.Night.

Yes, my four-year-old gets that critical physical contact needed to flourish and prosper; we are good in that department.

So what about my eight-year-old?

Time to step into the light of realness, Rachel.

(Have I mentioned the Hands Free inner voice hardly ever gets it wrong?)

Somewhere along the line, the physical contact between my oldest child and me has been watered down to a quick kiss on the forehead or a three-second hug as I tuck her in at night.

Perhaps the reduction in our physical contact over the years is a result of her getting “too old” for Mom’s long lingering hugs or cuddle time. Perhaps it is because her leaned out swim team physique no longer has the “Ooey-ness “quality it once had. Or perhaps it is because she doesn’t sit still for long periods of time (not when one has so many lesson plans to write!).

Well, the Hands Free inner voice is not one for excuses, and I have learned that excuses are a waste of precious time. The fact of the matter is this: my eight-year-old needs physical connection (in some form or fashion) from her mom. In fact, it is a critical part of her healthy development.

So five nights ago, things changed.

At the conclusion of our nightly “Talk Time,” a question unexpectedly came from my mouth.

“Can I listen to your heart beat?” I asked.

She looked as surprised as I was by this request, but said, “O.K.”

I will admit, at first it seemed a bit awkward.

But then as she lay so perfectly still and her steady heartbeat filled my ears, the awkwardness melted away, and I was absorbed in the moment…a beautiful moment of connection.

“My goodness, you have a strong heart,” I whispered.

I could see her white teeth glowing in the darkness as she smiled with her whole face.

“It’s because of swim team,” she answered with certainty.

And because my head rested on her chest, it was easy to wrap my arms around her. I just remained there. No talking was needed as I became hypnotized by the beat of her heart.

And when I felt her hands wrap around me, I knew our “Heartbeat Check” must happen again.

So the at the conclusion of “Talk Time” the following night, I said, “I better check your heartbeat.”

She giggled.

I listened for a few moments and realized it was much slower than the night before.

“I think you have been taking it easy today. Your heart is so calm,” I teased.

“I think it is from the ice cream I just ate,” she surmised.

And then we just lay there, my head on her heart, her arms around my shoulders.

Suddenly, I heard the most beautiful sound.

As she nuzzled her nose into my hair and took a deep breath in, this tender little sigh of contentedness came out of her mouth as she exhaled.

“Mmmmmmm,” she murmured softly.

And then, “Mama.”

I kissed every freckle on her nose and cheeks, and then told her how much I love her.

Before I shut the door, she said, “Don’t forget I have a swim meet tomorrow night. I wonder what my heart beat will be like then!”

Now I was the one smiling with my whole face. This was her way of telling me she liked this new bedtime tradition and wanted it to continue.

It has been five days now.

Words are seldom needed now; the awkwardness is completely gone. With each “Heartbeat Check,” our connection through touch grows stronger.

Although I initially created this Hands Free tactic for the sole benefit of my daughter, I’ve discovered that I, too, am reaping the rewards.

A few days after the nightly “Heartbeat Check” began, we found ourselves in a 25-minute wait outside a restaurant standing in the pouring rain.

My daughter leaned her whole body up against mine, as if to hug me. Instead, she looked up at me with her big brown eyes and said, “Now let me hear your heart beat, Mama.”

How did she know?

It was exactly what I needed.

As I stood on the verge of whining about a trivial inconvenience in my blessed life, she reminded me of what truly mattered.

My daughter rested her head on my chest, and I felt my blood pressure instantly lower. Suddenly a message I had written two weeks prior came back to me. It was my daughter’s 8th birthday message:

I have learned more from your heart in eight years than I could learn in a lifetime without you.

Coincidence?

No way.

Nothing on the Hands Free journey to grasp what really matters is coincidental.

With every beat of her heart, my daughter will continue to guide me to the place I long to be.

And in a rowdy, rambunctious bear hug, I will embrace what really matters. Just like my dad did when we played “Getcha,” the best game in the world.

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Do you roughhouse, pillow fight, or play tackle with your kids, grandkids, nieces or nephews? What forms of physical contact do you enjoy with your family? I would love to hear!

And if your Hands Free inner voice is already asking questions, you know what to do.

The beauty of going Hands Free is that it is never too late to grasp what matters. Tomorrow is gone, but you have today. My friends, you have today. All it takes is making a choice to grasp what matters. Do it today.