With Unsteady Hands, I Offer You This Invitation

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“Hold, hold on, hold onto me
‘Cause I’m a little unsteady
A little unsteady.”

X Ambassadors

*Name has been changed for privacy reasons

When it feels too dark to rise, but you gotta get up anyway.

When certain songs make you cry, but you gotta be strong.

When you’re lost and can’t seem to find your way.

When you’re expected to speak but can’t find the words.

When you’re supposed to know what’s next, but you haven’t a clue.

When you try to fall back on what you know, and even that feels unfamiliar.

When you have no idea what the future holds, but people keep asking.

What do you do?

Where do you go from there?

These are the first words of prose I’ve written in seventeen days. They are incomplete. I know. But something important happened since I last wrote to you. And when I think about who I am writing to, I don’t worry so much about what is incomplete. I know you will fill in the blanks and together—together—we will make sense of things.

As I mentioned above, I have not written for seventeen days. This is uncommon for me. Unheard of, really. And a little disconcerting. I’d planned on taking a few days to rest my weary brain after I submitted my third book to my publisher on March 1st. But a few days of respite quickly turned into a week. And even after a week, I couldn’t make sense of the scribbles in my little notebooks that normally become complete sentences and lovely paragraphs in no time.

It felt confusing and scary to not be able to do what comes naturally to me.

I was reminded of how I felt after surgery when I was expected to get up and walk for the first time. My legs didn’t feel like they remembered what to do. They felt weak, uncertain, and unstable.

“Hold on to me,” my nurse instructed. I was afraid I was going to fall, but I held on. I held on with dear life. I begged my legs not to fail me as I stepped away from the security of the bed.

surgery legs

My brain has felt like my surgery legs since I finished my third book: weak, uncertain, and unstable. “What’s the next project?” people are asking. “Shouldn’t you be using your voice to combat all the negativity in the news right now?” people are asking. “Can you give me some ideas to help my child?” people are asking. “Would you mind reading my book? My blog post? My book proposal?” people are asking. “Can you give us a 1000-word article for our publication?” people are asking. Normally, I would consider these requests, respond kindly, and try my best to help others as much as I can.

But I am not normal right now.

I am unsteady right now.

I got that word from a soul-stirring song by the X Ambassadors. I heard it for the first time after dropping off my older daughter at swim practice the other day. The song brought me to my knees. I could not believe these musicians knew exactly how I felt and captured it in a song. I cried because I was no longer alone in my uncertainty and someone else felt shaky too. I cried knowing this word had been given to me to hold on to when I decided to step away from the bed.

That moment came a few days later.

It was an intersection of people that doesn’t happen every day—perhaps once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky. It derived from the video of the music therapist bringing memories and movement to elderly people that I’d shared in my last post. The video had touched my musical daughter profoundly, and I’d written about it. Quite remarkably, my blog post showed up in the newsfeed of the music therapist’s wife. She read it and left me a lovely comment. Even more remarkably, her talented husband, John Abel, does his healing and hopeful work within driving distance of our home. I cried tears of joy when John invited Avery and me to participate in one of his music therapy sessions.

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Perhaps you agree there are certain invitations that feel like divine invitations and simply cannot be ignored. This particular invitation felt providential and inspired me to face my full inbox, write coherent sentences to John, and agree to driving in unfamiliar territory. On the day of the therapy, I even took a shower, did my hair, and put on something nice. As I was leaving my house to get Avery early from school, I remembered what she said that morning.

“I don’t want to bring my guitar, Mama. I don’t know what to expect and my hands get shaky.”

But for some reason, I ran back inside to get her guitar—just in case.

Greeting us at the door of the retirement center were John the therapist and Mary the director of communications for AG Rhodes Health & Rehab. We sat on the back patio for a few minutes learning what to expect and how to best participate in the session. John told Avery how music therapy is used in many different settings, not just geriatrics. Sensing Avery was an “old soul,” he told her about excellent undergraduate programs in the area for future reference.

We soon headed to the activity room for the hour-long music therapy session. Avery helped pass out tambourines and maracas and smiled enthusiastically as the residents clapped their hands and tapped their feet.

tambourine

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We sang along to favorites like, “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain,” “America the Beautiful,” and “Blueberry Hill.” We encouraged the precious gray-haired ladies who sat beside us and quickly bonded with a dear woman named *Annie. On the last song, “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands,” Avery retrieved her guitar and strummed along with John.

unsteady

But it wasn’t until we were preparing to leave that the unforgettable happened. Avery was invited into the cafeteria for cake. A resident noticed the guitar case and asked her to play a song. Without hesitation, Avery got out her guitar and performed “Amazing Grace.” I noticed that as residents and staff workers began to gather, Avery’s voice got stronger. Her smile got wider. And her hands got steadier.

This is the perfect place for Avery to share her musical gift, I thought to myself. She is right where she needs to be, doing exactly what she needs to do.

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I filled out a volunteer application and submitted information for a background check so Avery and I could start coming to the nursing home regularly.

“Please come back on Saturday,” the staff members said. “We are having an Easter Egg Hunt for the families of residents and staff, but you are welcome to join us!”

Selfishly, the thought of this outing exhausted me. I felt like I’d showed up enough for one week. Coming back on Saturday would require more showering and more stepping away from the bed with shaky legs.

But on Saturday morning, Avery laid out her favorite spring shirt and asked to go see her “new friends” at the nursing home. “Remember how you said you wished we could take Miss Annie home with us, Mama?” Avery coaxed. “She was so cute! We need to see her soon so she remembers us.”

I could not argue. Avery was right. There was something extra special about that sweet lady I sat next to in the therapy session. Furthermore, I could not decline what felt like another divine invitation.

Upon arrival, we were welcomed by the director and a few staff members who remembered Avery from the other day.

“Where’s Annie?” we asked after surveying the party room and egg hunt grounds and seeing no sign of her.

“Well, she doesn’t have family here, so she is in the cafeteria having lunch. But you can bring her to the egg hunt if you’d like,” the staff member said.

Avery literally jumped into the air with joy. “We can be her family, Mama! Come on! Let’s go get her!”

When we walked into the cafeteria, several residents waved at Avery. It appeared they remembered the curly haired songbird with the 100-watt smile. We found our precious friend Annie and invited her to watch the egg hunt with us.

“Oh yes, I sure would!” she beamed as her hunched back uncurled a little.

The aide told us Annie would need to finish her lunch so we sat with her while she slowly guided her shaky hand to her mouth over and over. We asked her questions we thought she could answer. Unfortunately, she was unable to remember her birthday, her deceased husband’s name, or the name of her roommate, but she knew she loved chocolate and Elvis Presley. She also knew she loved country music and trees that bloomed outside her window.

Not wanting her to feel badly about not remembering, I said, “You have lived a long time, Annie. And you have so much to remember.”

“I have lived a long time. A long, long time,” she agreed and seemed pleased by the acknowledgement.

Finally, we were able to take Annie outside where the colored eggs were scattered in the courtyard. Avery gave Annie a plastic egg, but her unsteady hands had trouble opening it.

“I’ll help you,” I said taking apart the blue egg as she held it.

Annie took one bite of the chocolate found inside the egg and told us how good it tasted. She looked at the flowering trees and the excited children and smiled. She didn’t know us, but she knew she was in loving hands and that made her happy.

unsteady

When we took Annie to sit in front of the fountain, Avery had a great idea. “Let’s play Annie some Elvis.” Avery used my phone to play the classic love song, “I Can’t Help Falling In Love.”

As soon as the music began to play, Annie took my hand and closed her eyes. She began singing along and knew almost all the lyrics. I looked down and noticed that her shaky hand was steady. And for the first time in weeks, I felt stronger, more certain, and more steady than I had in awhile. The demanding voices pressuring me to write, respond, please, work, solve, predict, create, and produce were silenced.

unsteady

I am right where I am supposed to be, I thought. This is all I’m supposed to be doing right now: Holding the hand of a precious 79-year-old woman as she listens to Elvis and remembers something lovely from her past.

Love is the only thing required of me right now.

And if love is the only thing I do today, that is enough. It is more than enough.

And through that freeing revelation presented to me in Annie and Avery’s precious hands, I can now complete what was incomplete:

When it feels too dark to rise …
Reach for a hand as you step away from the security of the bed.

When certain songs make you cry …
Let the music give you the missing words and memories to soothe your weary soul.

When you’re lost and can’t find your way …
Be family to someone who has no family.

When you’re expected to speak and can’t find the words …
Just shake the tambourine and smile.

When you’re supposed to know what’s next and haven’t a clue …
Show up; just show up so you don’t miss your divine invitation.

When you try to fall back on what you know and it feels unfamiliar …
Ask a friend to fill in the blanks.

When you have no idea what the future holds …
Go back for the guitar
Say yes to cake
Reach for the closest hand
And hold on,
Just hold on.

It might be an old hand. It might be a young hand. It might even be a furry paw—loving hands can come in all different forms, you know.

Just don’t let the demanding voices in your head pressure you into thinking you must do more than you are called to do right now.

Love

Just love

Love is the only thing required of you today.

Love is the only thing required of me today.

And together, with love, we’ll steady ourselves and step away from the bed with courage.

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My precious friends of The Hands Free Revolution community, thank you for inspiring me to write down my story. When the wife of the music therapist found me through one of your Facebook shares, it felt like a miracle to our family. Although the words felt jumbled in my brain for many days, I knew I had to share this beautiful connection with you. I feel like there are so many important invitations within this experience. Whether it’s to take time to visit our elderly friends … or to encourage our children to explore and share their inner light with others … or to consider the healing power of music therapy on those with physical, emotional, or mental challenges … or to be assured that loving and nurturing nursing homes do exist, I hope this post speaks to your heart. If it does, I’d love to know. Your comments fuel my writing, and I’ve missed hearing your stories, struggles, and triumphs over the past few weeks. Please continue scrolling down for important links associated with today’s post and information about my upcoming speaking event in Denver, Colorado.  

My friends, as Easter approaches, I hope the thought of miracles and divine invitations lift your weary heart this week. May the words I wrote to you today come to mind when you courageously step away from security to face the unknown. Hold onto me. Hold onto me. I love you.

 Important links associated with today’s post:

• The touching video that led Avery and me to music therapy
• The “Soul Changer” blog post I wrote about Avery’s response to the video
The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) has a wealth of information on music therapy and music therapists
Alive Inside is a beautiful documentary about the Music and Memory iPod program. The video chronicles the astonishing experiences of individuals around the country who have been revitalized through the simple experience of listening to music. The video reveals “the uniquely human connection we find in music and how its healing power can triumph where prescription medication falls short.”

Denver friends, please make plans to come see me! On Saturday, May 14th at 10:00 am, I will be speaking at the Women’s Spring Tea at Denver First Church, 3800 E. Hampden Avenue, Englewood, CO 80113. I cannot wait to meet you and hug you, dear ones in Denver.

Your Most Important Role, In Case Someone Forgets

soul changerYou give me life
Life, my dear
You give me strength to beat the odds
And overcome my fears
You make me feel like I belong under the sun.”
—Citizen Cope

It was still early in our relationship when my then-boyfriend (who is now my husband) asked me to accompany him on a two-hour drive to go to a job interview.

Why would a smart, confident guy with so many positive attributes want me to go with him to his job interview? I wondered skeptically.

In my delay to respond, Scott must have sensed the need to explain. What he said shocked me. “I believe in myself more when you’re with me. You remind me of all that I am.”

Really?

I racked my brain wondering what I’d done to evoke this type of strength within him. I immediately thought of the few times we’d studied together and how, as a budding teacher, I always tried to be positive and encouraging. At one point, Scott admitted a few things he was nervous about, including his biggest worry—that he’d have trouble getting a job after college. I simply reminded him of the glowing accolades said about him by former professors, employers, and coaches.

“You will have more than one job offer. Trust me,” I’d say confidently, knowing the voice of doubt could be loud in times of uncertainty—even for the strongest people.

I ended up taking that two-hour drive with Scott. I can’t even remember if he got the job; I only remember the look of gratitude on his face when he dropped me off, saying he would have been way more nervous if he’d gone alone. All I’d done was simply remind him of what he already knew—the good stuff we tend to forget about ourselves in times of doubt, stress, uncertainty, and fear.

[Read more…]

A Question That Reaches Through Fears & Cages

homeless cat

“Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.” -R.J. Palacio, Wonder

For the past two weeks, my younger daughter and I have been reading the book Wonder. Although my third grader is fully capable of reading it to herself, I asked her if I could read it aloud. I’m learning to give my soul what it needs, and holding a book in my hands beneath a heavy quilt next to my girl is what I need right now. I’m two weeks away from my book deadline and my soul is weary. Book writing brings emotions to the surface … mortality to the forefront … doubt to its loudest … and exhaustion to its peak. But knowing I’ll be curling up with my girl and this book at the end of an intense day of writing has carried me through.

August, the main character in Wonder, was born with a facial deformity. He is going to middle school for the first time and is faced with many obstacles. Sometimes I am unable to read August’s painful admissions about being the object of people’s curiosities and hurtful comments. That’s when I pass the book over to Avery. She takes over without missing a beat and after a few minutes, asks, “Are you okay, Mom?” I wipe away my tears and tell her it hurts my heart to see people—especially children—being mistreated, alienated, and excluded. She nods as if she understands completely and then we talk about what we just read. I can’t remember this happening with any other book she’s read, so I go with it, even if it’s time to turn off the lights.

One conversation that stood out was when August’s teacher, Mr. Browne, asked the students to name some really important things. After many great student guesses, he reveals what he believes is the most important thing of all:

“Who we are,” he said, underlining each word as he said it. “Who we are! Us! Right? What kind of people are we? What kind of person are you? Isn’t that the most important thing of all? Isn’t that the kind of question we should be asking ourselves all the time? ‘What kind of person am I?’ Learning who you are is what your are here to do.”
-R.J. Palacio, Wonder

I turned to Avery and asked, “What kind of person are you?”

[Read more…]

Day Openers to Breathe More, Stress Less, & Carry You Through

“Hope that you spend your days
And they all add up.
And when that sun goes down
Hope you raise your cup.”
 -One Republic, I Lived

Last weekend my 12-year-old daughter prepared a special birthday gift for one of her best friends. As a generous gift giver from an early age, it did not surprise me that Natalie put great thought into gathering her friend’s favorite things. Having outgrown the tendency to re-gift gently used items from around the house, the basket was filled with items Natalie purchased with her hard-earned babysitting money. What did surprise me about this gift were the envelopes tucked inside. My younger daughter discovered them while admiring the gift before her sister left for the party.

“Wow! This is so thoughtful,” I told my older daughter when she discovered her little sister and me bent over the gift basket. Natalie quickly gathered the envelopes up. I sensed she didn’t want us to make a fuss over this special touch, but I had to ask, “What’s inside the envelopes?”

“Just inspirational messages,” she said as she hugged the basket to her chest and headed to the door. “They’re just words to help my friend through situations that might come up.”

day openers HFM

day openers HFM

day openers HFM

Just words to carry her through.

There was nothing just about that.

Although I could not know for sure, I felt certain those envelopes would outlive the Eos lip balm. They would be more coveted than the warm PJ pants. They would be remembered long after the party was over. At the age of 12, this child got it—she got the point. I live each day of my life desperately wanting to get it too.

But so often I fall short—especially during chaotic, busy times like holidays. I get caught up in what’s on the outside—the tasks, the preparation, and how it looks. I forget what’s underneath—the memories, the connections, and how it feels. In light of personal health struggles and worldly tragedies, I don’t want to miss the point this holiday season.

Perhaps you don’t either.

[Read more…]

The Glass Jar Every Human Being Needs to Hold

the jar of love #HFM“If I don’t say this now I will surely break
As I’m leaving the one I want to take.” –The Fray

“Is there a chance something could happen?” she asked. “You know … with the surgery.”

I knew what my eight-year-old daughter was asking. Although it had just dawned on her that something could go terribly wrong, the thought had plagued me for weeks.

“Well, it’s possible, but not likely. People have surgery all the time and they come out just fine—actually, they come out better than before. I think that is how it will be with me. But we can pray.”

And so we bowed our heads my child let her fears and hopes be known.

I decided to keep my greatest fear to myself—the one where surgery sabotaged my plan of doling out daily bits of love, wisdom, and guidance as my children grow.

If I could bottle up my love I would. I thought to myself.

And then I remembered—there was a way to bottle up my love. I’d shown a group of 31 fifth graders how to do just that a few months ago.

[Read more…]

The Loss of Life Beneath Your Skin & How to Revive It

making tea HFM“We push and pull
And I fall down sometimes
And I’m not letting go
You hold the other line
‘Cause there is a light
In your eyes, in your eyes.”
–Mat Kearney

A few months ago my newly turned 12-year-old daughter got into making iced tea.

We seek out new flavors at quaint little farmers’ markets and at fancy tea shops in the mall. My child holds the canister and asks questions of the vendor that I do not understand. She pays with her babysitting money.

I stand back and marvel at her maturity and her newfound passion.

She comes home with her wares and goes right to work. It’s quite a process, and she takes it very seriously. She makes a large pitcher and offers me a glass. My daughter knows I am trying to stop drinking diet soda once and for all. So whenever she makes a new flavor, she says, “I think you’ll like this one, Mama.”

She holds out that glass of deep orange liquid as if handing me a sunset made with her very own two hands.

I didn’t know why I felt like crying happy tears at such an offering until my friend shared something about her own life experience.
[Read more…]

If Life Could Begin Again, It Might Begin Like This

Popsicles #HFMJust living is not enough … one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.
-Hans Christian Andersen

Last week I shared my hopes and intentions for our children to have an All-Senses Summer. Yet something quite unexpected happened when I described the smells, tastes, and feelings I associated with my childhood summers—it inspired you to share yours. Like me, you have your own summer memories that conjure up feelings of joy … freedom … creativity … relaxation … comfort … and contentment.

But things might be different now.

Adult Summer may not produce such positive feelings.

For many, Adult Summer has its own challenges, bringing forth feelings of worry … guilt … comparison … impatience … frustration … and stress.

I have to work. I wish I had more time to play with my family.
I desperately need a moment of peace. I cannot breathe.
I am embarrassed to wear my bathing suit. I wish my insecurities didn’t hold me back.
We can’t afford a vacation right now. How will this be a memorable summer?
Will my kids regress over the summer? We cannot afford to lose what we gained.

As adults, it’s not like our responsibilities disappear in the summer. It’s not like we are suddenly free to do whatever we please. It’s not like we are released from the stresses and burdens of our everyday lives. But Summer. We are talking about Summer. If we cannot find new freedoms, forgotten smiles, and more breathing room in summer, when can we find them? [Read more…]

Turning a Moment of Shame Into an Anthem for Life

sidewalk 1“It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart,
But the welcome I receive at the restart.” -Mumford & Sons

* Dedicated to a beautiful gypsy warrior named Beth

I put my earphones in. I pushed ‘play’ on my new favorite band that recently opened for Mat Kearney. I set out to walk toward a little clarity, but it arrived much sooner than expected. Something that had been weighing on my heart all day suddenly became so clear. It was an answer to a question that had become my hourly prayer. With tear-filled eyes, I began typing a text message as fast as my little pointer finger could type.

A man walking his dog approached me from the other direction. I smiled warmly at them and said, “Good evening.” That’s when the man said, “Are you going to look at your phone the whole time you walk?”

All at once, shame washed over me. I was brought back to a painful time in my life when my phone was an extremity … when the ding of electronic notifications pulled me away from loving eyes and tender arms … when I took dangerous risks at stoplights and justified them with flimsy excuses. All at once, I felt like that distracted, overwhelmed woman who once came painfully close to losing everything that mattered most.

I almost kept walking. I almost lowered my face in shame. I almost berated myself. But I am not that person anymore.

And there was something that needed to be said, so I stopped walking.

[Read more…]

The One Question That Can Also Be an Answer

how can i helpLast summer was a difficult period for me. We’d just moved to a new state and left behind friends who were like family. The deadline to submit the first draft of my second book was looming, and I found myself unable to write. During this time of uncertainty and upheaval, my sister Rebecca came to visit. I wanted to be the fun, adventurous host and show her our new city. I planned things for us to do, but when it came down to it, I simply could not hide my despair. One morning, when misplaced fishing nets from the Dollar Store nearly caused a breakdown, Rebecca gently touched my arm. “How can I help?”

My sister was not talking about the fishing nets.

I felt my eyes instantly well with tears, and then I let out a mammoth-sized exhale. Sweet, sweet relief. My sister saw my pain … she saw I was going through something … she wanted to ease my burden. All this—and I never had to say a word. She just knew.

Furthermore, there was something about that question that kept defensiveness, excuses, and the need to explain out of the conversation. How can I help? It was much less intrusive than, “What’s wrong?” It was much more supportive than, “What’s your problem?” With one single question, my sister acknowledged my struggle and offered to lighten my load. All this—and I never had to say a word. It was the kind of help I most needed in that moment.

Rebecca proceeded to throw out specific ways she could help. I did not take her up on the kind offers at that moment, but knowing I had options made me feel more hopeful about my current situation.

From that experience, my list of Soul-Building Words—words that lift … help … and heal—grew by one. Little did I know how that question—how can I help?—would become an answer for my child this spring. [Read more…]

The One Thing We All Want to Know

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

- Walt Whitman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I would add:

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

[Read more…]