The Clasped Hands of Those Who Want to Belong

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My hands were sweaty. I saw the others gathered at the bus stop. I was new to bus stops. I was new to the neighborhood. They were talking and laughing and looking so at home. It took every ounce of courage to walk up. Every day it took courage to walk up. It was like that for six months.

This may sound like a childhood memory, but it is not.

This is one year ago from a woman in her early 40’s who by all standards appears confident, secure, friendly, and comfortable in her skin.

So when a blog reader wrote, “I feel isolated every time I walk into the schoolyard with my children because I feel I don’t fit in,” I got teary. I understood. And I wanted her to know she was not alone.

I’ve always experienced great apprehension when approaching groups. Walking into parties, classrooms, meetings, conferences, cafeterias, and social gatherings is difficult for me. I’d rather stay back, just listen, and keep my voice to myself. But if I do, an invitation—a very important invitation—is lost. Let me explain …

I was asked to speak at a conference a few weeks ago. Many people from my book publisher were also in attendance and they were hosting a gathering for their authors. I thought about the initial entrance and my hands got sweaty. For me that’s always the hardest part. Eyes turn to look … people huddled in conversation … my mind racing about what to say. I used to decline opportunities because of that initial angst, but I’ve learned a little trick: ask someone to go with you.

In this case, I invited two incredibly wonderful authors and human beings, Kari and Kelly, to join me. I would excitedly introduce them to my publishing team in hopes it would benefit them as well. The three of us walked to the party together and by the time we arrived, I almost forgot to be nervous. With two kind people by my side, the whole evening went far better than expected.

Later one of them said she felt like my invitation to the publisher’s party was a divine invitation to life—that despite there being so many established writers in the world, there was a place for her voice too.

I began to wonder if anyone really feels like she (or he) belongs.

[Read more…]

A Major Turn Off

A few weeks ago my husband and I went to a concert at a relatively small venue. Our seats were on edge of the second floor, which overlooked the area in front of the stage. The concert had not yet begun. People were milling around as they waited. But instead of talking to the person that had accompanied them to the concert, they were doing something else.

My husband pointed to the view below, “Look down there. Look at what every other person is doing.”

In the hands of more people than we could count were the glowing screens of hand held communication devices.  And standing next to them was a person who might as well be invisible.

When did this happen? When did the people on a screen become more interesting, more engaging, more desirable to interact with than the living, breathing person standing next to us?

When did the need to check our communication device become a debilitating addiction, not being able to go five minutes without looking at it?

I am far from being as Hands Free as I want to be, but lately I have been doing some major soul searching about my own use of technology.  And more importantly, I’ve taken a long hard look at the cost of distraction on my life and on the lives of the people I love the most.

I feel this topic is so critical that I actually spent the whole week writing about it. (See “You Caught My Eye,” “Eyes Unseen Words Unheard,” and “This May Hurt A Little,” for the series on eye contact.)

This is the first time since I started this blog that I stuck to one particular Hands Free topic for the entire week. It appears that lingering on this topic allowed us to dig deeper. It allowed us time to process the information and begin to implement some changes. Sticking with the topic of eye contact for several days proved to be productive, and in some cases, life-changing for many.

One reader’s comment captured the essence of what so many had expressed to me privately through email. She said, “Wow…when tears are falling down your cheeks as you are reading this, it tells you it’s time to make some changes in your life.”

I am grateful for the honesty you shared in comments such as that. I am grateful for the candor of your observations, as well as the newfound awareness you described. I am particularly grateful for the hundreds of times you “shared” one of the eye contact posts in an effort to bring greater human connection to someone else’s life.

Have I mentioned that I am grateful I am not alone in this journey?

You never cease to inspire me.

You never cease to encourage me to “raise the bar” on my own personal quest to be Hands Free.

That is precisely what happened when one reader shared a thought-provoking article published in “The Wall Street Journal” entitled, “Your Blackberry Or Your Wife,” written by Elizabeth Bernstein. The article is highly worth the read, but it is the author’s short checklist that has resonated deeply with me:

10 Signs Your Devices Are Hurting Your Relationships:

1. You can’t get through a meal without emailing, texting or talking on the phone.

2. You look at more than one screen at a time, checking email while watching television, for example.

3. You regularly email or text, other than for something urgent, while your partner or another family member is with you.

4. You sleep with your phone near you, and you check your email or texts while in bed.

5. You log onto your computer while in bed.

6. You have had an argument with a loved one about your use of technology.

7. You text or email while driving.

8. You no longer go outside for fun.

9. You never turn off your phone.

10. When you spend time with your family—a meal, a drive, hanging out—each person is looking at a different screen.

I heaved a huge sigh of relief when I realized I engage in less of these behaviors that I did a year ago, but I am not letting myself off the hook. The Truth Hurts…but the Truth Heals.

And the truth is…there are still major changes I need to make.

And the other, undeniable, critical truth is…I only get one shot at being a loving, connected and present parent, spouse, and human being.

And there is no time like the present.

I have decided to do a Tech Cleanse (as described by Ms. Bernstein) this weekend. I am turning off my hand-held communication device and my computer on both Saturday and Sunday.

(Did I type that correctly? My hands began to shake as I wrote that…oh yes, The Truth Hurts.)

Internet connection…off. Human connection…On.

Will you join me?

I guarentee your emails will be waiting there Monday morning. But your family? Well, they can only wait for so long.

Haven’t they waited long enough?

Re-read the checklist entitled: “10 Signs Your Devices Are Hurting Your Relationships” once again. Answer honestly. Do you see a need for change? If so, pick one behavior from the list and decide what you can do tomorrow to begin to change (or eliminate) it. On the flipside, do you know someone who could use a wake up call about his or her excessive use of technology? The Truth Hurts, but The Truth Heals. You know what to do.

This May Hurt A Little

I’ve spent the last two posts writing about making eye contact with your children or loved ones when they speak to you.  Why? Because the personal connection derived through eye contact plays a critical role in grasping what really matters.

I guess you could say that on the Hands Free Mama Scale of Importance, looking someone in the eye is at the top, possibly right underneath, “Putting Distraction In Its Place.”

In the past several days, many of my readers have expressed that they “get it” in ways they did not before.

One reader shared this insight, “I am uncomfortable thinking about it, but is spot on. I feel like it even hurts my children’s abilities to have conversations because they try to hurry up or tell the story in one breath for fear I won’t pay attention very long.”

Another reader said, “I got my children back after a week away for spring break with their dad, and I looked them in the eyes and I talked to them. They still acted like teenagers, but we connected in a more real way than we have in a long time. Thank you for reminding me how much eye contact and sincerity go together.”

One reader had this beautiful story to share: “I was getting ready to respond to a bunch of emails that have been hanging over me when my daughter came in the room to sit with me before bed. When she began talking, I put the computer down. Because I wasn’t distracted by email, she spent ten minutes talking about the book she’s reading that she loves.”

There is something powerfully reinforcing about those baby blues (or greens or browns) staring back at you that just makes want to keep stopping to look. Furthermore, when you give your loved one focused attention (rather than divided), conversation and connection are more likely to beautifully unfold.

The reader responses I have recently received indicate we have experienced a new awareness (or have been reminded) of the importance of eye contact. And due to this heightened consciousness, some of you are making changes accordingly…for that you should be applauded.

But being on this Hands Free journey has taught me something. And that is this:  Sometimes it is necessary to go deeper. Sometimes it is necessary to go where it gets a little uncomfortable. Sometimes the brutally honest truth is the one you don’t want to acknowledge, but NEED to acknowledge. These kind of truths are the ones that make me pause and take a deep breath before I hit “publish.”

But that is how I grow. That is how I become a more loving and connected parent, spouse, and human being. That is how I get one step closer to grasping what really matters on this journey.

So here’s the honest truth. And by putting it out there, I begin the process of change, growth, and improvement.

I am talking about The Fake Glance. And for quite some time, even as I began my Hands Free journey to grasp what really matters, I used it. I used The Fake Glance until my four-year-old called me out on it.

And I am thankful for the day she did, and maybe you will be, too.

This is my story…

My four-year-old daughter is still very much in the “Watch me, Mama” stage. She wants me to watch her slide down the slide. She wants me to watch her jump on the couch. She wants me to watch her make the ever-challenging letter “W.” She even wants me to watch her put raspberries on her fingers while she imitates Ursula the Sea Witch.

So when my daughter would say, “Watch me, Mama,” I would glance up. I would give her ten to fifteen seconds, (which I justified by saying that was more than I used to give her in my Pre-Hands Free days), and then I would go back to the task at hand. And since I am being honest, sometimes I looked away from my child to go back to looking at something truly insignificant on my Blackberry.  Oh yes, The Truth Hurts.

Somewhere along the lines of one Fake Glance after another Fake Glance, my daughter began saying something more than simply, “Watch me, Mama.”

My observant little girl who knew her mama was faking it said, “Watch me, Mama. And watch me the whole entire time, Mama.”

Watch me the whole entire time.

This is opposed to, “Watch me for a split second and then go back to what you are doing and miss the part I wanted you to see, Mama.”

How’s that for a Wake Up Call?

Suddenly I fast-forwarded ten years. If I keep up The Fake Glance, will she even ask me to look at her life anymore?

Or will she realize that she can’t compete with the daily distraction that consumes her mother’s focus and attention and simply give up?

I already traveled down that dismal path in “Someone Will Notice,” if you want to know the painfully honest answer to that question.

Granted, part of me wanted to shrug off my daughter’s new phrase by thinking, “What a new cute saying!” or “What a funny little girl I have!”

But my Hands Free Inner voice (the one that doesn’t take any BS) said this, “Listen up, Rachel. You have just been given a gift. Don’t waste it.”

I immediately started doing something I hadn’t done since my children were babies.

When my daughter said, “Watch me,” I stopped what I was doing and sat down. I gave her my full attention to watch the complete action she wanted me to see in its entirety.

The first few times I did this she seemed surprised. She peered into my face as if to see what was going on. It appeared as if she thought I was sick and needed to take a seat and catch my breath.

But once I smiled and said, “O.K! I am ready,” she looked excited. In fact, she looked more than happy; she looked overjoyed.

I remember the time she showed me how she could run half way across the kitchen floor in her pajamas with attached “feet,” fall to her knees and slide the rest of the way across.

Seeing her slide across the kitchen floor may not be on my “Top 10 things I want to see in my lifetime,” but it was important to her, and I knew she wanted me to see the whole ENTIRE thing.

In my front row seat at the kitchen table, I applauded. I cheered. I complimented her form. I praised her distance. I marveled at her bravery.

Then she did something I was not expecting. She came over and wrapped her little arms around my neck and whispered, “Thank you, Mama.”

I was sold.

The Fake Glance was officially buried.

The Authentic Gaze was embraced.

Instead of taking a quick (and often forgettable) mental snap shot of my daughter’s “performances,” I vowed to start taking video. Invaluable video. Setting the lens of my eye on one beautiful moment to capture forever.

In fact, one of my favorite invaluable videos was taken recently when my husband asked my four-year-old to make her own NCAA picks.

He went through each college or university but instead of saying “Michigan or Tennessee,” he said, “M or T?”

There were A LOT of picks to be made.  And she was into it. I could’ve easily slipped away unnoticed to straighten up the house, do some laundry, or catch up on email. But instead I sat there and the invaluable video began rolling.

I witnessed her choosing the letter R over the letter N because “Rachel” starts with R.

I watched as her eyes rolled upward and scratch her curly head as she thought through each “important” decision carefully.

I heard a short story about her Uncle Brad triggered by the selection of the letter B.

I witnessed her finding she had the power to change her mind and select a different letter by saying, “No, I don’t want M. Actually, I choose S.”

I watched my husband’s surprised facial expressions as she amazingly managed to select a mighty fine final four line up of Duke, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Louisville.

And the background of this invaluable video was my laughter, my joy, and the sound of my heart beating with happiness.

I often say I am simply the messenger on this Hands Free journey. And today the message that comes from something far greater than me is this: Bury the Fake Glance. Adopt the Authentic Gaze. Go beyond the mental snap shot and roll the video. Capture the once-in-a-lifetime moments that develop in front of your eyes.  These are the moments you will play over and over in your mind when you are old and gray. These are the moments you will tragically miss if you look away.

And the side bonus is the fact that the star of the show will thank you…in ways you cannot begin to imagine.

Do you have any habits that could fall into the category of The Fake Glance? Think about your daily interactions with your loved ones, friends or colleagues. Is there something you do that they could call you out on? Why not call yourself out? Bury the old habit, the one that prohibits connection, and embrace a new one…one that creates the lasting bonds to a beautiful relationship. Please click the “share” button if you think greater personal connection is a message worth spreading.

Eyes Unseen Words Unheard

To look at these eyes or the screen of my phone? Is it really a choice?

Yesterday I wrote about discovering the importance of looking into my children’s eyes. Many of you shared that the post brought you a new awareness you hadn’t considered. I love it when that happens.

As I thought about this topic a bit more, I found myself imagining how my children must feel when I am “too busy” to stop and look at them when they speak to me.

I suddenly realized that considering another person’s perspective is a Hands Free tactic I often use. Thinking about how someone else might feel in certain situations helps me to grasp what really matters time and time again.

So last night I decided to recall a time in my life when I was repeatedly denied eye contact by the person to whom I was speaking.

It didn’t take long to recall someone who fit this description perfectly. I closed my eyes and placed myself back in front of his looming desk.

There I was, a young woman who was just starting out in the teaching profession. I lacked the confidence that I later gained with each passing year of experience.

Because I was teaching special education classes and earning my Master’s Degree in that field concurrently, I was required to meet with an academic advisor on a regular basis.

Talking to this person was highly uncomfortable for me. In his presence, I felt small. I felt unintelligent. I felt awkward. I felt embarrassed.

At the time I did not know why I felt such negative emotions when speaking to this man, but today the reason is as clear as the pain is still real…

This man would typically look past me when we talked.

This man would seldom look up from what he was doing when I spoke.

This man would often take calls in the middle of our conversation.

This man appeared too busy to be bothered by anything I had to say.

How did his lack of eye contact make me feel? Unimportant and worthless.

How many of my thoughts and ideas did I share with this man? As few as possible.

Did I turn to him with a classroom problem? No

Did I share my classroom achievements with him? No

When I had something worthwhile to say, I stopped saying it to him. Instead, I turned to someone who listened…truly listened, with her eyes, her heart, and her soul.

I’m sure you see where this is going.

Through my Hands Free journey I have learned The Truth Hurts, but The Truth Heals. Furthermore, I can’t REALLY change my behavior unless I am truly honest with myself.

Thinking about standing in front of this man and trying to talk to his darting eyes and disinterested gaze still causes a sharp pang of sadness. Yet, I also have a newfound awareness.

It’s now Honest Truth Time.

How does my child feel when she is trying to talk to me and I respond with a quick “uh huh,” a passing nod, or a “we’ll talk about it later”…or worse, when I don’t acknowledge her at all because I am “too busy” to look up?

And if I really want to give myself a wake up call, I put it this way: How would I feel if my daughter remembered her childhood like this?

My parent would typically look past me when we talked.

My parent would seldom look up from what she was doing when I spoke.

My parent appeared too busy to be bothered by anything I had to say.

My parent would often take calls in the middle of our conversation.

How did her lack of eye contact make me feel? Unimportant and worthless.

How many of my thoughts and ideas did I share with her? As few as possible.

Would I turn to her with a problem? No

Would I share my achievements with her? No

When I had something worthwhile to say, I stopped saying it to her. Instead, I turned to someone who listened…truly listened, with her eyes, her heart, and her soul.

To think that my child would ever look back on her childhood and describe it in that manner devastates me.  It makes me feel physically ill.  Yet, I know better than to tell myself that it can’t happen because that is pure denial.

Why? Because in the age of electronic and communication overload, the people physically standing in front of us (our children, our loved ones, our friends) often drop from existence the minute the phone rings.

The live person instantly takes second priority at the sound of an incoming text or email.

The phone has become a socially acceptable reason to stop people mid-sentence and say, “Just a minute,” implying that whoever is on the phone is more important than they are.

Furthermore, how many times does “just a minute” never come because we get distracted and forget to come back to it?

And that person who is instantly demoted to second place when the phone rings? Well, she notices. He notices.  Whether they are five-years-old, twenty-five-years old or eighty-five-years old, people tend to notice when they are dropped from the conversation like a meaningless, unimportant and irrelevant bother.

It may sound harsh, but when I see myself as an impressionable, young twenty-three year-old teacher, I see my child who is simply asking for one thing: to be listened to and respected for a brief moment in time.

Yes, I knew my advisor was a busy man. Yes, I knew his job was important. Yes, I knew many people were relying on him. But when I spoke, there was no reason why for that brief minute he could not stop, look me in the eye, and listen.

We all have busy lives. We all are trying to make ends meet. We are all doing important things, but stopping for just a few moments when our child, our spouse, or our loved one speaks…is that really asking too much? Will the world come to an end if we turn off the phone while we eat dinner as a family? Will there be endless negative consequences if we turn off our computer for the two-hour period leading up to our child’s bedtime? Will we really miss something that important if we turn off the phone for thirty minutes to watch our child play at the park? Are we really THAT busy?

Shortly before my Breakdown Breakthrough moment, I turned all notifications off on my phone when my children were present. On most occasions, I reserve the time to use my Blackberry and computer when they are either in bed or in school. This has made a tremendous impact on my connection to them and in my communications with them.  I am not saying it has been easy. The temptation to be “connected” to the Internet and social media is strong. It takes real self-discipline to say “no” to electronic distraction.

But is it worth it? Let’s try looking at it this way:

Someday my daughter’s recollection (I pray) will read like this:

My parent looked at me when we talked.

My parent looked up from what she was doing when I spoke.

My parent refrained from taking calls when we were having a conversation.

My parent was never too busy to listen to what I had to say.

How did her attentive eye contact make me feel? Important and worthy.

How many of my thoughts and ideas did I share with her? As many as possible.

Would I turn to her with a problem? Absolutely

Would I share my achievements with her? Always

When I had something worthwhile to say, I always wanted to say it to her because she was someone who listened…truly listened, with her eyes, her heart, and her soul.

Whether your child is four-months-old, four-years-old or twenty-four-years old, it is not too late to start listening, really listening.  All it takes is this: when your child speaks to you or asks you a question. Stop. Look and see the color of their eyes. Absorb their words. Listen. Really listen…the way you like someone to listen to you.

Simply by looking at your child when he or she speaks produces the feelings of love, importance, and value.

Turn off your phone when you are in your child’s presence and give the gift of your eyes…it is undoubtly one of the greatest gifts you can give your child.

Is it really asking too much?

Think back on a time in your life when your words were not heard. When you wanted to see eyes but got the top of someone’s head. Think about a moment when you were speaking to someone and you were dismissed by their phone. How did that make you feel? Now think about your child or your significant other. When your loved ones speak to you how do you respond? Put yourself in their shoes. Do you love them enough to listen…really listen? Now press the “share” button below. Give someone a gift today.