A Moment Longer Than Necessary

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But here is where the goodness came in …

When I got to my destination, I promptly removed Natalie from her car seat and held her for a moment—a moment longer than necessary—and let gratitude wash over me. No matter how stressful it had been to get out the door … no matter how much she’d screamed in that car seat … no matter how homesick I felt to see my family and friends three thousand miles away … no matter how uncomfortable I felt in my post-baby body … no matter how late we already were, the only thing I could feel in that moment was gratitude.

Gratitude undivided
Gratitude wholehearted
Gratitude all encompassing 

In that moment, I was most accepting of my life as it was, even though it wasn’t perfect.

In that moment, I was most accepting of who I was, even though I wasn’t perfect.

In that moment, I was most thankful to be alive.

Gratitude undivided—it has the power to strip away the bad so you all you feel is the good.   

I am now in my forties. I don’t speak dismal predictions about my life anymore, but I still try to capture that perspective-altering type of gratitude every chance I get. Notice I use the word “capture” because I believe gratitude doesn’t find us; I believe we find it.

As odd as it may sound, I find gratitude each morning while making beds. When I come around to my husband’s side of the bed and pull up the covers … when I go into Natalie’s room and peel back her fluffy blanket in sea foam green … when I go into Avery’s room and move her beloved collection of stuffed animals, I always place my hand beneath the covers until I feel the warm spot. And when do, this is what comes to mind:

bed making 1

Sometimes when I am making the bed after you’ve gone,
I can still feel your warmth.

And if I hold my hand there for just a moment
This action has the power to
Change my attitude,
Alter my perspective,
Soften my heart,
About bed making
Bath giving
Lego dodging
Food prepping
Stain removing
Car shuttling
Homework checking
Peace keeping
And other monotonous tasks
That consume the minutes of my one precious life.

That warm spot where you peacefully slept
Is my reminder
That gratitude won’t find me.
But I can find it
Even among tangled sheets and strewn pajamas pants
If I rest my hand there long enough to feel it.

And for one brief moment, I forget I am making a bed
And I remember instead that it is me
Who gets to feel your warmth
Each and every day,
Even when you are away.

That’s when I find gratitude
Changing my perspective
About my one precious life and what makes it so precious.

That’s when I find gratitude
Stripping away the bad
So all I feel is the good. 

That’s when I find gratitude
Reminding me that I can feel thankful simply because I’m alive
If I hold on a moment longer than necessary.

 © Rachel Macy Stafford 2015

birthday cake

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Friends, this is my birthday week and I am grateful to have lived to see 43. I am incredibly grateful that at age 42, I was blessed to become a published author with an incredibly supportive community to read the words that I write. In celebration of our journey together and my 43rd birthday, I have a gift for you …

Several years ago when I began blogging, I stumbled on Dear Audrey. I cannot remember how I found this blog, but I instantly knew I would come back again and again. I felt as if I was reading something very private that I should not be allowed to read. Julia’s exquisitely delivered words brought tears to my eyes and what really mattered to the forefront of my mind. I began to leave supportive comments to Julia who had unexpectedly lost her husband and was trying to go on for the sake of her daughter Audrey. My words always seemed insufficient, but I found out years later that even my awkward messages had meant something to her. Julia saw one of my pieces on The Huffington Post and reached out to me. Much to my delight, she was still writing and just recently started a new blog called Studies in Hope. Isn’t that beautiful? Be prepared to read life-changing words that will open your eyes and heart a little wider. Here are my three favorites to get you started:

Here I Am
This is For You
Buying Flowers 

Recommended resources for cultivating everyday gratitude:
It didn’t occur to me that some of the practices I use to grasp what matters like the one I described in today’s post could be meditative until my friends at Everyday Mindfulness asked if I meditated. I didn’t think I did, but my friend Shawn Ledington Fink has me re-thinking that: “You don’t have to sit on a cushion for hours to stay awake and be mindful. You can simply focus on each moment of your day as if it’s your last.”

I love these six ways to put yourself fully in the moment by Shaun.  I also found Mindfulness & the Power of Appreciation by Alex Radcliffe to be incredibly enlightening.

Friends, do you have any practices that result in feeling Gratitude Undivided? Thank you for sharing your stories as well as your struggles. We can learn so much from each other. Thanks for being part of The Hands Free Revolution community. You are truly a blessing to me. 

** The ONLY LOVE TODAY handmade leather bracelets are back in stock! As I mentioned last week, my sister-in-law is the amazing force behind the Hands Free Shop and is expecting her new baby any moment now. Delivery of your items might be slightly slower than usual for this reason. Thank you so much for your patience & support! 

Knowing Where Your People Are

where your people are #HFM

“But I’ll kneel down,
Wait for now
And I’ll kneel down,
Know my ground
And I will wait, I will wait for you.”
–Mumford & Sons

At the beginning of any school year, there are always quite a few student information sheets to fill out. But when I came to the pink sheet in my second grader’s folder, I was forced to pause.

What are your child’s fears? What calms your child when upset?

As my pen sat suspended above the blank lines, I let my mind wander into dark territories. What situations would upset my child at school? I knew. Intruders and tornadoes. Thankfully she’d only experienced one of them first-hand, and the tornado did not have a direct hit. But it was close enough to forever alter her perception of storms and the fragility of life.

Thankfully, I knew exactly what would bring comfort to my child if either of these situations arose. She would want to know where her sister was in the building. She would want to know that I was coming for her just as soon as I possibly could.

In other words: tell her where her people are.

[Read more…]

Somebody’s Child

"Know what it is to be a child . . . To see a world in a grain of sand And heaven in a wild flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour." --William Blake

“Know what it is to be a child . . .
To see a world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”
–William Blake

*name has been changed

I still remember her baby fine blonde hair that hung  just above her shoulders. She had a freckle-dusted nose, Snow White skin, and a toothy smile.  The way her hair was combed till it shined revealed that someone took great care in getting this little first grader ready for school each day.

Grace* was a beautiful, well-behaved child who, at first glance, appeared to be any teacher’s dream. But within ten minutes of the first day of school, I knew Grace would offer an extreme test of patience despite my previous experience in the most challenging special education classrooms.

As if pulled by some magnetic force, Grace physically gravitated toward me. If she was not sitting at her desk, she could be found directly under my nose looking up at me with a concerned expression.

Why the nearness? Why the concern? You may wonder.

Because Grace was a Persistent Question Asker. Whatever inquiry popped into her 6-year-old brain came out of her mouth—and the question was always addressed to me.

[Read more…]

Before Today Ends

before today ends handsfreemama.com

Today I hear …

Whining about her sister having a bigger scoop.
Slamming doors.
The relentless buzz of the dryer–a load needs folded … again.

But I also hear …

“This dinner ‘tasteses’ good, Mama.”
The C-chord sounding a bit like heaven on a tiny ukulele.
Tender, loving words in her sleepy bedtime voice.

This is what my life sounds like today.
And if I close my eyes and listen very carefully, that which sounds heavenly can overpower the noise.

Today I see …

Wet towels carelessly abandoned upon the bathroom floor.
Toothpaste blobs inhabiting the sink.
Weeds where flowers used to be.

But I also see …

Gentle hands putting dolls tenderly in their place.
A hole where a tooth used to be—her last baby tooth to go.
A love note written in kid penmanship resting on my pillow.

This is what my life looks like today.
And if I open my eyes and look very carefully, that which appears divinely perfect can outshine the mess.

[Read more…]

What the Children of Sandy Hook Taught Me to See in My Own Children

"When you're gone, colors seem to fade. When you're gone no New Year's Day parade. When you're gone, colors seem to fade."  -Amos Lee

“When you’re gone, colors seem to fade. When you’re gone no New Year’s Day parade. When you’re gone, colors seem to fade.” -Amos Lee

I’ve come to the conclusion that I would make a lousy reporter. When national tragedies strike, the fast-acting reporters and up-to-the-minute bloggers start firing away on their keyboards. Without delay, their carefully chosen words and eloquently expressed opinions appear in news feeds, hot and fresh for eager readers.

But not mine.

When it comes to the heart-breaking happenings in our world, I require time to process and ponder before putting my thoughts out into the atmosphere.

It’s been one month since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Today I am writing about its impact on my “Hands Free” journey to grasp what really matters.  I hope you’ll agree that it is not too late and never will be.

This is my story …

[Read more…]

Remembering Sunscreen and Butterflies

I think Christy would want us to remember sunscreen … but also everyday miracles like butterflies and the feeling of a child’s hand in our own.

When I decided to share my “Hands Free” journey with an online community, I had no idea what insight this would bring me. There I was striving to grasp what really matters and it appeared, what matters most in life, right in my inbox.

[Read more…]

A Window Opened

One of three factors that contributed to this moment.

I was recently honored to have my story entitled “A Life Changer” chosen as part of the launch for a new non-profit wing of the hugely popular parenting blog, Scary Mommy.

In the days that followed that first post at Scary Mommy,

a window opened …

a friend sent me an article …

and my child wrote her name on her closet wall.

As a result of these three factors, I hopped on the treadmill  (also known as my “writing desk”) and wrote a story. Upon completion, I sent it to several people for feedback. This is what I received:

My ‘editor’ (my husband) whose typical feedback is: “That was good,” promptly emailed back saying, “I LOVE this post!!!” And then he forwarded it to a colleague that he knew would love it, too.

My cyber-friend, Kristin, who I have yet to meet in person, happily reported she no longer sees me as ‘saintly,’ delighted in ‘hearing’ me swear in print, and decided we MUST hang out soon.

My mom said she laughed and cried all the way through the post. (That’s nothing new for her.)

But most importantly, they all said, “This could be your best post yet.”

Some things just happen at the right time. For a reason.

This is just me, Rachel; there is no halo. And this is my story …

Saturday #286

 

Love Without Question

When it comes to matters of the heart, refrain from asking questions. Instead, just go with it.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy

Thanksgiving 2011 was one of the best I can remember.

It had all the makings of a fabulous holiday experience:

*hilarious moments (let me just say four words: “Awkward Family Photos Game”)

*inspiring moments (running in “The Drumstick Dash” alongside my husband and 15,000 other people with all proceeds going towards hot meals at the local mission)

*peaceful moments (having a the loveliest tea party for two with my precious 16-month-old nephew.)

*thankful moments (counting the number of freckles on my five-year-old daughter’s exquisite nose as she rested her sleepy head on my lap; BTW, there are 34)

[Read more…]

One Happy Island

I recently wrote a post about the fourteenth wedding anniversary excursion I went on with my husband. Many readers saw the sunset photos and inquired where one can find such surreal beauty.

The answer is Aruba.

And believe it or not, the sunsets are only a fraction of its appeal.

This island is very much in its natural state, void of expensive landscaping and “showy” sights.  This island and its people are authentic, satisfied with simply showcasing their natural splendor without worry of living up to typical vacation destination standards or expectations.

I slowly realized the island had a motto when I began seeing the same three words everywhere. In fact, the slogan was affixed to every license plate on the island.

Aruba: One Happy Island.

At first, I was merely delighted and amused by the fitting phrase of this welcoming piece of paradise. But the more I thought about it, I realized it was a motto worth adopting.

What if I could be consistently happy in my own skin regardless of what the media claims as fit or beautiful?

What if I could be happy with my life pursuits regardless of what society deems as a worthy life goal or defines as success?

What if I could be happy with who I am without the affirmation or justification from others?

What if I could be a happy island?

As a sensitive, “people pleaser” all my life, it is sometimes difficult to be a happy island. Too often, I allow outside factors to determine my own happiness.

But on this Hands Free journey, I am working on grasping what matters.  And something that matters is being happy with ME and not allowing outside forces to threaten or undermine that happiness.

I am fairly certain I have made progress in the area of self-validation during my past year of living Hands Free, but now I have a slogan to inspire me in those moments of insecurity and doubt.

One Happy Island.

Thank you, Aruba.

And as if fate knew about my determination to live up to my newfound motto, I was tested.

In fact, the test was waiting for me when I opened my computer upon arriving home from my trip.

Oh really, Rachel? One Happy Island? Let’s just see about that.

I debuted this blog eight months ago and never once had I received a mean comment. That is, until a few days ago. Granted, I have received a few comments that respectfully challenged my Hands Free concept or politely questioned a view I expressed in one of my posts, but those types of comments are quite different from a personal attack on me as a person and a mother.

The comment in question pertained to my blog entry, “Must You Go So Soon?” In that post, I describe the life lessons my family has gleaned in our efforts to stabilize the water in our new fish tank…a necessity to keeping the fish alive.

Without any editing, here is what “Tom” wrote:

I think Your a little nuts, sorry to break the news to you but fish don’t have feelings. This isn’t finding Nemo. I really think your parenting skills suck. And your kids are going to grow up to be sheltered sissies. That have no clue how this big bad world really is.”

A year ago, I may have read this and gotten a bit offended. I may have had to seek affirmation from a few talented blog writers like Lori or Wendy who have posted glowing reviews of my writing and my parenting skills.

A year ago, I surely would have had to show this harsh response to my husband or best friend so they could tell me Tom’s comment was about as accurate as his grammar usage.

And I surely could not have gone to sleep without drafting a curt and disdainful rebuke to this man who clearly missed the entire point of the post.

Lastly, Pre-Hands Free Rachel may have actually considered his words and wondered if there was any truth to them…not once, but many times….unable to simply let it go.

Now things are different. Thank God, things are different.

Do you want to know what I did when I read Tom’s comment?

I laughed.

In fact, I laughed out loud.

I laughed the way I do when my daughters and I watch silly YouTube videos like “Charlie Bit My Finger,” or “Baby Dancing To Beyonce.”

And before I slid Tom’s comment into the deep, dark blogosphere “trash,” I had one more good laugh.

Then three words came to my mind: One Happy Island.

I’m getting closer. Yes, I am.

Thanks, Tom.

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How often do we allow other people’s cruel words, negative comments or harsh criticisms threaten what we know is true about ourselves? Whether it is from a co-worker, neighbor, family member, friend, the media, or even our own inner voice, life can be littered with insults. But it’s up to us what we do with them.

Being joyful is a choice…letting other people sabotage it is, too.

So the next time someone tries to ruin your party, shrug it off; have a laugh.

Retreat to your island and be happy.

*I leave you with a photo of my ultimate One Happy Island role model wearing her new One Happy Island t-shirt. My four-year-old daughter loves life. Actually, she loves her life and nothing anyone can say or do will change her mind or her attitude about that.

The epitome of One Happy Island..

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

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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.