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.

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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.

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Before Today Ends

before today ends

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.

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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 …

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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.

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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)

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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.


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


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.

The Girl With The Broken Smile

Follow up can mean many things to this Hands Free Mama, but in today’s case, I am going to “follow up” on one of the tactics for living Hands Free that I previously wrote about.

This week, my posts will be centering around The Power of a Question. I will be describing how questions have played a vital part in my Hands Free journey to grasp what really matters.

Today’s question is one you may have wondered if you have been following my blog. The question: Whatever happened with that?

I think it would be a huge disservice to my readers if I neglect to provide follow up on tactics I suggest or stories I share. While some of the Hands Free strategies I provide on my blog could be used only once, I strongly believe that the more you use them, the more you will gain.

Personally, I love when my readers contact me to let me know the result of a tactic they used or how a Hands Free experience turned out for them. So today I am doing that for you. It has to do with the post that contains the picture that has been clicked on the most number of times on my blog. It’s about the little girl with the broken smile.

This is my story…

In the post entitled, “Hands Free Evidence,” I described how my seven-year-old daughter chose “Priscilla” out of  a large array of children from impoverished countries who needed an educational sponsor.  I will never forget the reason she chose unsmiling Priscilla when there were a multitude of vivacious cherub faces with smiles that beckoned her to choose them instead.

My daughter lifted up the picture of this pitiful looking little girl and declared, “I want to give her a reason to smile.”

Whoever said we can’t learn from our children?

Well, my daughter mailed her introduction packet to Pricilla four months ago. Along with the letter, she lovingly packed other items while also abiding by Compassion International’s rules for paper gifts only.

About once a week for four months, my daughter asked if a letter has arrived from Priscilla.

After saying, “No, I am sorry, not today,” and seeing her dejected face, my husband and I were starting to think that involving our daughter so heavily in this sponsorship may have been a bad idea.

But the best things come to those who wait, I am constantly reminded.

Last week a letter from Pricilla arrived.  It may as well have been a letter from Santa Claus himself by the look of pure joy and excitement on our daughter’s face.

We read through Pricilla’s letter that had been translated into English by her social worker.

Priscilla had answered the question posed by my daughter; we learned that her favorite color is pink, but “she likes to match red and white.”

She asked my daughter to pray that she (Priscilla) will become a good Christian and have good academic performance.

Priscilla offered prayers for my daughter to be blessed and protected throughout her life.

And Priscilla had enclosed a remarkably accurate picture of a tree and a bird.

But the part of the letter that my child held tightly in her hands and gazed at for a full two minutes was a recent picture of Priscilla.

For fourth long months, what my daughter thought about day and night was the status of Priscilla’s smile.

Next to her mother, the social worker, and a basket of fish they were selling to pay for educational materials stood Priscilla.

I watched as my daughter examined it closely and intently. I held my breath.  I was not sure how my daughter would interpret the expression on Priscilla’s face. To my eyes, Priscilla still looked sad, dejected, and hopeless.

But then again, I was the one who would have chosen one of the happily smiling children to sponsor, not the girl with the broken smile.

After thorough examination, my daughter looked up beaming.

She excitedly exclaimed, “Look! She is smiling a little more than she was before!”

My other daughter and I looked closely. She was right. If you looked very closely, there was the slightest curve in her lower lip.

Most of us would have missed it.

Most of us would have argued that the term “smile” is not an accurate description of the position of her mouth.

Most of us would have never tried in the first place to create happiness on a face so deeply etched with sadness.

Most of us would have thought Priscilla was a hopeless cause.

But through the eyes of the seven-year-old girl who had purposely chosen this forlorn child to sponsor, a smile was detected. And I have learned that when it comes to matters of expression, my daughter sees far more than I do.

Whoever said you can’t learn anything from a child?

We had given our daughter a chance to sponsor a child in a poverty-stricken country. She had grasped this opportunity in ways we had never imagined.

She attempted something most of us would not; she attempted to make the unsmiling smile. And she was doing it, one tiny curve of the lips at a time.

Last night my daughter asked if I thought someday she might meet Priscilla.

I could only get a little excited just thinking of the prospect. I imagined my daughter grown into a beautiful young lady opening her arms to an equally beautiful young woman who had traveled all the way from Ghana to meet her. And on her face was a smile so big that no translation was needed. Her smile said: Thank you for choosing me and making it your life mission to bring a smile to my face.

I realized that while I was daydreaming, my daughter had been waiting for a response.

I looked into her hopeful face and I said, “Yes. Yes, I do believe it’s possible you will meet her someday. After all, you are making Priscilla smile. That makes me believe anything is possible.”

Then I wrapped my arms around this wise, compassionate, and thoughtful child and added, “And I have you to thank for teaching me that.”

What lessons has a child or your child taught you about grasping what really matters? If you can’t think of anything, try seeing through your child’s eyes. Try listening carefully to your child’s words. Start by providing an opportunity for your child to help someone else. It might instead become a lesson for you. Please click “share” below if you think this a message worthy of spreading.