The Best Advice for Loving Those Who ‘Feel It All’

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“Life is better when you open your heart
You don’t always have to act so hard
Just be as you are.”
–Mike Posner, Be As You Are 

*name has been changed

“I had a terrible dream last night,” I told my 10-year-old daughter Avery on a recent Saturday morning. “I dreamed Annie* passed away.”

Annie is a seventy-nine-year-old old woman we met at a retirement home last spring when Avery played her guitar in a music therapy session. Upon learning Annie had not had a visitor in years, Avery asked if we could “adopt” her. We’d been visiting Annie for several months now.

The news of my terrible dream caused Avery to abruptly cease her morning waffle-savoring process. She knew “bad dream” for me meant vivid images, tearing-from-your-bed panic, real tears, and racing heartrate. Avery knew my nightly dreams were more intense than my everyday reality.

“Well,” Avery said, her face softening. “We better go see her, Mama.”

It did not surprise me Avery knew exactly what I needed her to hear.

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What The Kid Sitting Alone Wants You to Know

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“Everything’s in line
But I am bruised
I need a voice to echo
I need a light to take me home
I kinda need a hero
Is it you?” -Demi Lovato, Nightingale 

One of my very first students as a special education teacher was Annie. She taught me so much about living a “feeling” life, and her parents were some of my greatest encouragers. Over the years, I’ve kept in touch with this special family, but especially since Annie’s dad John was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago. John recently began a new medication and he’s felt better than he has in years. Much to my surprise, they asked if they could visit my family and me. To them, the 500-mile drive was irrelevant; John had something he wanted to say to me.

Within minutes of arriving, John thanked me with tears in his eyes. He said Annie would not be where she is today without me. I wanted to point out that Annie was the one who changed me, but it was not the time. Perhaps now is the time.

When Annie became my student, I was fresh out of college, just beginning my master’s degree in special education. I’d never had a student with autism. I did a lot of listening and observing. What I saw in Annie amazed me. I wanted her peers to see it too. I often sat with her in her classroom, in the lunchroom, and on the playground to help her use the social skills we worked on during our sessions together.

I remember how Annie and I would find a place at the empty lunch table and children would gravitate towards us. Little girls with bouncy ponytails and brightly colored socks eagerly squeezed in. I wasn’t naïve; I realized the children wanted to know this new young teacher who always wore a warm smile, gracefully mastered platform wedge heels, and coached the high school girls’ tennis team. Although I was the initial appeal, it was Annie who stole the show.

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Your Saving Day

fullsizerender-2“I can’t stand to fly
I’m not that naive
I’m just out to find
The better part of me.”
-Five for Fighting, Superman

When my daughters and I arrived to do our volunteer duties last Sunday, we noticed a new cat in one of the shelter cages. When I began reading Sheryl the cat’s story of how she was rescued from a maintenance man threatening to terminate her and her six kittens, I knew exactly who this cat was. We fostered her babies all summer long! I hurriedly unlocked the cage and pulled that sweet mama to my chest. I was not expecting to become emotional, but I did. I could not stop the tears.

I was holding a four-legged miracle.

When this cat was rescued from the apartment building, she was close to death. It took her three months to recover from anemia caused by a parasite—but here she was, happy and healthy.

When my daughters and I told Mama Cat Sheryl how we found loving homes for all her babies, she purred even louder. She nestled in and rested her head on my shoulder. Perhaps she could sense we had stepped in to love her precious kittens when she couldn’t do it herself.

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The Apology I Never Want to Hear Again

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“I’m on your side,
So shed your shadow
And watch it rise.
Into your darkness,
I’ll shine a light.
Bring your secrets, bring your scars.
Bring your glory, all you are.”
–Phillip Phillips, Unpack Your Heart

The headlining band had just come on stage. The crowd was on their feet, cheering wildly. I was taking it all in—the lights, the sounds, the smell of the rain coming down just beyond the amphitheater covering. Flanked between my dear friend and my loving husband, all my senses were alive and content.

That’s when she turned to me—the young woman positioned in the isle in front of me. “I’m sorry,” she said as she leaned towards me, attempting to talk over the loud music.

I wasn’t sure I heard her right. What could she be apologizing for? I wondered. I leaned in closer and listened carefully.

“I’m sorry you have to look at my soggy, fat ass all night,” she said.

Oh.

No.

 No. No. No. I thought as my brain scrambled for a response.

I hoped that perhaps she was joking—but the solemn look on this woman’s face confirmed this was no laughing matter. She was apologizing for her appearance … for her size … for taking up space … for being her.

Although I felt like crying, I placed my hand on this young woman’s upper arm. It was wet from a mixture of sweat and precipitation, but I was not repulsed. I rested my hand there, on the arm of someone’s beautiful daughter and said what I hoped would liberate her for at least a couple hours.

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The Photo that Conveyed a Message You Need to Hear

DSC_0131“In the morning to another day,
twisting and dodging the drops of rain
Now I know what I wanna be,
it’s what you already see.”
-Sister Hazel, You See Me Beautiful

This is a picture of my Noticer of life child and Lacie, a kitten we fostered over the summer. This photo was taken right before Lacie’s new owner came to take her to her forever home. When I looked at my camera after taking the picture, I knew I had to tell you this story, and I knew today, August 12th, would be the day.

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What’s Stronger Than a Tormentor

set it free

And I got this love in me.
But it’s not just mine to keep.
Like treasure that’s buried deep.
I come alive when I set it free.
—Judah & the Lion, Love in Me

My daughters and I have been volunteering at a cat shelter for several months now. I knew it would be painful to fall in love with cats we couldn’t take home with us. I knew it would be painful to not be able to rescue them all. But I felt certain that the joy of this experience would outweigh the pain.

I knew this, yet something caught me off guard.

It was an email message from the shelter director to all the volunteers about an obtrusive chain that would be added immediately to the already padlocked cages. Apparently someone was caught in the act of tormenting an animal. The helpless victim was Bob the cat—five-year-old Bob who is already severely depressed because his owner had to give him up. Bob who meows a lot but loves to be free from his cage so he can explore.

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The director’s email went on to list other cruel acts occurring over the past year in this small cat shelter housed in a local Petsmart. I tried to keep reading the email message, but when I got to the part about someone trying to pry a kitten out of the small opening at the bottom of the cage, I could not read anymore.

To be honest, I broke down.

I covered my face in my hands and cried. It may seem ridiculous to some, but my heart for animals is huge. My hope for the world in which my children and future grandchildren will live in is even bigger.

But not then.

Not in that moment.

Suddenly, things looked especially bleak.

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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.

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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.

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A Question That Reaches Through Fears & Cages

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“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?”

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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.

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