Easy Relief for Hard Times & Thirsty Souls

DSC_0325“What you need, I need too
What you are, I am too
’cause we’re all the same
under a different name.”
-Ingrid Michaelson

Throughout the month of July, I took a break from writing and posting online. I took the opportunity to relish the joy of finishing my third book, spend time with my family, and find loving homes for the six kittens we’d fostered in June. I must admit, it felt like an odd time to be quiet when so much turmoil, tragedy, conflict, and discord were happening in the world. It felt like an odd time to be quiet when there was much to be vocal about. Although I was not posting, many people were. Reading the latest news reports and passionately expressed opinions wasn’t always easy, but I did it. My belief is that when we are divided and conflicted, listening is critical. So I listened in an effort to gather information, perspective, and understanding. After listening, I found it necessary to put on my walking shoes. Walking has always been therapeutic for me, offering clarity and hope with each step I take. It’s where I do my best thinking and words fill the pocket-sized notebooks I carry with me.

My younger daughter’s swim practice gave me ample opportunity to walk each day. It lasted an hour and half. The only downside was it occurred at 2:15pm—the hottest part of the day. But the blank pages in my July writing notebook served as great motivation despite the near 100-degree temps. I’d been doing a lot of listening and thinking, but not a lot of writing. It was difficult to put into words what I was feeling in my heart. I worried I wouldn’t have any words to bring back to you. So I lathered up my exposed areas with sunscreen, threw on a ball cap, and walked by faith, hoping words would come as I wore down the soles of my shoes.

During one especially hot afternoon walk, I kept thinking about something a friend suggested to cultivate more peace and understanding within our society. She’d said something like: “Look for those who are different from you and connect with them in some way.”

That’s when I saw him—he was working in the flowerbeds at the entrance of a neighborhood. He might have looked more fitting in a professional football uniform or in secret service attire. With shoulders of a linebacker, his orange landscaping shirt was stretched to capacity and soaked with sweat. At that moment, the massive man paused over the red zinnias to wipe his brow. I knew the feeling. I’d run out of dry cloth on my tank top to wipe my face. This gave me an idea.

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From Merely Surviving to Truly Living: A One-Step Plan

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“We’ll never be as young as we are now
The faces in the crowd are thinning out
And I’m not saying stick around, but stick around
And we may never have another like today, tomorrow is brand new start away
And we’ll never be as young as we are now, as we are now.”
–Saint Raymond, As We Are Now

2015 ended with a few words I thought I’d never hear:

“Well, there’s no need to make another appointment today. Hopefully, I won’t see you for a long time.”

I was standing in my doctor’s office when I heard those glorious words. My doctor worked closely with my urologist (one floor down) and my gynecologist (across the street). They all agreed that with my internal pain slowly subsiding, my elevated blood pressure back to normal, and having pristine blood work and kidney ultrasound results, I was free to go on with my life.

It wasn’t until I pushed the elevator button—the one I pushed with shaky hands over and over throughout the past year—that I was overcome with emotion.

“I won’t be back here for a long, long time,” I whispered, both as a promise and a prayer.

I would never be able to un-see what I saw at my impressive collection of hospital stays, CT scans, and medical appointments over the past year. But what I saw at the cardiovascular institute for my recent kidney ultrasound offered the greatest motivation to care for this precious body God gave me.

A long, healthy life doesn’t happen “by accident,” and I knew some of my poor habits would catch up with me eventually. Although I am a daily exerciser and healthy eater, I still had two problem areas that could greatly harm my health. I still hadn’t kicked my on-going Coke Zero addiction and often sacrificed sleep to get work completed.

“It’s time,” I said out loud, knowing the new year was an ideal time to ditch old habits and begin new ones.

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Finding Lost Joy the Way We Find Lost Pets

joyless

“Come back, Joy.
Come back, Gratefulness.
Come back, Energy.
Come back, Zest.
I’m looking for you.
And I won’t stop until I find you.”
–Rachel Macy Stafford

The last two blog posts I’ve written about softening and dreaming have uncovered a painful truth: Many of us have lost our joy. Many of us are simply going through the motions. Many of us see the way our irritability hurts the ones we love—but we continue our unpleasantness anyway. We taste the bitterness of our words before they come out of our mouths—but we say them anyway. Many of us can’t remember the last time we were the party … the gathering place … the heartbeat of our family. Many of us have lost our joy and haven’t the slightest idea how to get it back.

I know the feeling.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

That difficult period of my life came back to me one day as I was out for a walk. A handmade sign stapled to a telephone pole caught my eye. Franklin the cat was missing. I stopped and studied the lovingly made poster despite the winter wind trying to move me along. My eyes became wet just thinking of those who loved Franklin and desperately wanted to see his furry face again.

Come back, Franklin. I pleaded in my head. Come back.

I’d pleaded those same words about Joy a few years prior. Oh how I’d longed to see Joy’s optimistic face and feel her enthusiastically squeeze my heart and hand.

When I got home from my walk that day, I wrote a poem. It seems fitting to share it today–perhaps more than ever.

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Bridging the Gap Created by Waves of Criticism

wave erosion

On the same day I heard from a woman about her non-existent relationship with her teenage son, my 12-year-old daughter created a wave erosion project for middle school science class.

She did it all by herself except for cutting the foam with a sharp kitchen knife. We huddled together on the floor the garage as I chipped away at the dense foam.

“Just a little more, Mama,” she directed.

Chip
Chip
Chip

I chipped away at the structure so it would appear battered and beat down by waves so powerful they altered the form forever.

But he has bad breath, so I tell him.
But he needs to shower. Is that so wrong to point it out?
But he never remembers to do what he’s supposed to so I nag.

Chip
Chip
Chip

I did not personally know the woman who was reaching out to me in desperation, but I knew exactly where she was coming from. I could hear the corrections in my mind as if they were my own. From personal experience, I knew her intentions were good—perhaps thinking her commentary would help her son fit in or become more responsible. But not only were the corrections ineffective, they were also driving the teen away from a mother who loved him dearly. That’s where they were now—far apart. The mother wanted to know if she could bridge the gap between them after years of chipping away his spirit.

I did not know, but the fact that she was asking … searching … taking a difficult look inward made me hopeful.

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Replace ‘Guilt’ with ‘Gift’ & Watch it Become a Life-Changer

guilt #HFM

Guilt can be loud.

Are they getting enough?
Am I doing enough?
Should I be doing more?

You should be playing more.
You should be planning more.
You should be having more fun.

Earlier this summer Guilt got very loud and had a lot to say to me.

The old me would have listened and accepted its critical words as truth. But the Hands Free me has learned the best way to silence Guilt is to pull back the veil of darkness and shed light on the matter. I do this by telling someone what Guilt is saying.

In this case, I told my mom.

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Making Your Loudest Voice Calmer & Your Truest Voice Stronger

voiceless 1“Feeling my way through the darkness
Guided by a beating heart
I can’t tell where the journey will end
But I know where to start.” – Avicii

On most Saturdays you can find our family exploring our new city. We moved here ten months ago, but it still feels new and excitingly uncharted. At a downtown museum on a recent Saturday, we watched a four-minute film that my younger daughter called the “moments of happiness” movie. At different points in the video, I noticed each of my daughters peering down the isle to look at me. I knew what they were looking for—they were looking for tears.

Within the first twenty seconds of the film, I felt my eyes well up. Watching ordinary people doing brave things … watching the joyful homecomings of service men and women … watching siblings work together for a common goal … watching families celebrate together and mourn together—these heart-stirring situations caused my tears to flow. I unabashedly let them run down my face.

“It doesn’t take much to make mom cry,” my older daughter said taking my hand as our family exited the theater. I felt my chest tighten wondering where this was going.

“Yeah,” my younger daughter agreed. “Whenever Mom sees someone else cry, she cries too.”

I was so relieved. This is who I am now: The woman who cries with others … the woman who cries with happiness.

It hasn’t always been that way.

There was a time when there were lots of tears—not a quiet cry of despair, but more of an out of control, high-pitched, tearful eruption. There was a two-year period of my life when I was a pressure cooker just waiting to blow. The troubling mantra that repeatedly ran through my mind was: “It’s just too much … it’s all just too much.” A great deal of the “too much” was self imposed—unachievable standards, relentless distractions, and an overabundance of commitments. But at the time, I didn’t realize the choices I was making were causing this constant feeling of overwhelm. I only knew that carrying the weight of too much caused me to scream and cry when I got upset—as if screaming and crying were the only way to be heard.

But that type of communication was always met with a look of shock, fear, and sorrow from the people I loved the most. In fact, when I was screaming and crying, they didn’t hear a word I said.

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The Life of the Party is Closer than You Think

the world needs more open arms1
“She is like a sun,
Shining over me
She makes the good things better,
Better than I ever dreamed.”
-Green River Ordinance

The other night, my friend and brilliant writer Alexandra Rosas shared a glimpse into her life. With short, non-descriptive sentences, it wasn’t intended to be profound. With text structure unpolished and informal, it wasn’t meant to evoke an emotional response like the well-crafted essays she writes. But yet her words brought me to my knees. I read them three times and then I cried. This is what Alexandra shared:

I fell asleep on the couch at 7 last night. Woke up two hours later at 9, looked around, everyone gone. I popped in to check on littlest, found him in bed reading. “Where is everyone, honey?” He looked up and answered, “We all went to bed, Mom, because you’re the party.”

That’s it, I thought to myself. This woman has achieved life’s highest honor. She is the party. She is the heartbeat. She is the reason for gathering. She is the celebration. If there is a more important role in life, I do not know what it is.

For days, I thought about that ultimate compliment spoken by a little boy about his mother. In fact, I became a little obsessed with it. Could I be the party? The question frequently popped into my mind in the following days …

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Finding Hope in the Before & After … It’s Not Beyond Repair

"Who I am becoming matters more than who I once was. Today matters more than yesterday." -Rachel Macy Stafford (signs by Avery, age 8)

“Who I am becoming matters more than who I once was.
Today matters more than yesterday.”
-Rachel Macy Stafford (signs by Avery, age 8)

 

Six weeks ago my eight-year-old daughter was fitted with a palatal expander to address several dental issues. In the four visits we’ve had to the orthodontist, one thing never fails to happen. My daughter pauses at the BEFORE and AFTER bulletin board and studies every bright smile, every straightened tooth, every hope-filled gap. As we enter and before we leave, my child stops to study the transformations as I stand beside her quietly. Along this Hands Free journey I’ve learned there are times when I must not rush my child. Standing in front of the BEFORE and AFTER display is one of those times. I let my Noticer look until she is ready to move on.

At home I am required to take a tiny pin key (pictured above) and stick it into minuscule hole inside the expander. My daughter dutifully opens her mouth as wide as it will go, allowing me to see inside the dark cavern of her mouth. From there, I slowly turn the wheel downward until the next hole appears.

As I turn the wheel her upper dental arch expands by a hair. A single hair. You would not think a hair of expansion would hurt, but it does. My child presses her hands against her nose in an effort to relieve the pain. Although there are often tears, she is always brave. I can’t be sure, but I think my daughter imagines the AFTER picture during this process. She knows there is a reason for this pain. And although the transformation cannot be seen as it is happening, someday it will be seen. And perhaps those beginning their own transformations will find inspiration from her BEFORE and AFTER photos.

applianceAround the time my daughter got her expander, I received a heartbreaking e-mail message from a blog reader with an especially challenging question. “Everything is broken in life—my marriage, my relationships with my children, my feelings about myself. Where do I start when there is so much to repair?” the reader asked desperately.

I was not able to form an answer to this dear reader for many weeks. It wasn’t until my child and I stood at the BEFORE and AFTER display most recently that I knew what I would tell this woman yearning to bring joy and connection back to her life.

I would say this:

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12 Daily Vows to Grasp What Matters This Holiday

12 daily vows 4 for a Hands Free holidayMy holiday goal has changed over the years. My former goal for December 25th involved boxes—checking off boxes, wrapping up boxes, and stuffing emotions in a box until they came out in some negative form or another. My former holiday goal focused on how things looked rather than on how they felt. From the outside, it looked like picture-perfect happiness but underneath was exhaustion … comparison … irritation … stress … and frustration. I would collapse after Christmas not really having one significant memory to cherish because I’d been too busy, too annoyed, too distracted, and too overwhelmed.

But at the close of 2010, I received a powerful wake-up call that changed my holiday goal indefinitely.

In the days following our family’s Christmas, my mom had a transient ischemic attack (or mini-stroke) and was unable to remember the holiday we’d just shared together. It had been a very special holiday because it was my first Hands Free holiday. I’d let go of distraction and perfection in ways I didn’t think I ever could. One of my fondest memories of that Christmas was sitting at the kitchen table with my family painting glasses to use at our Christmas Eve dinner. It was ten o’clock a.m. and we were still in our pajamas. We’d eaten cookies for breakfast. My older daughter wore evidence of this delightful indulgence on her face but I didn’t dare wipe it off. The way she smiled to herself as she painted was a moment I refused to obliterate with a paper napkin. For the first time in a long time I saw joy, and it had paint-smudged fingers and lips covered in chocolate.

There was much to be done in the way of cooking and gift preparation that morning, but it could wait. For the first time in a long time, it could wait. Instead I sat there painting next to my children who were free to paint their glasses any way they wanted. I’d made it clear to my inner drill sergeant that she was not welcome here. My mom sat with us too. Her vein-lined hand was steady as she painted a flower on her glass. She talked of the small Christmas candies she got as a girl. There was holiday music playing. I felt peaceful, not frenzied. I felt beautiful, not too soft or unkempt. I felt present, not scattered in one hundred million different directions.
12 vows paintingThere’d been more laughter, more connections, and more memories made that Christmas than ever before. And my mom couldn’t remember them, but I could. Thank God, I could. Right then and there I knew that the holidays must be Hands Free from then on. I vowed to stop worrying so much about the minor details and think about the big picture. What will my loved ones remember about today? That became my daily question over our holiday breaks. I knew it would not be the roasted potatoes being seasoned with fresh rosemary or the twinkle lights that decorated the staircase. It would be the way I got down and peered into the new dollhouse and said, “Can I play too?” It would be the walk I took with my mom and sister, going slowly because my mom needed a gentle pace. It would be how I asked my dad to tell me again about his darkest period of depression and how he saw the light again. It would be how I watched my husband’s favorite football team because there was an open spot next him, and it was made for me.

I knew I didn’t want to be so busy flittering from point A to point Z that I missed the opportunity to hear the stories, take the walks, or get down on my knees and play. I wanted to decorate glasses in my pajamas instead of dusting crystal in my finest attire. What will my loved ones remember today? I hoped it would be my love, my presence, my patience, and my laugh. I wanted more than anything for them to remember my laugh.
12 vows laughingI now have four Hands Free holidays under my belt and although I am still a work-in-progress, I think I’ve finally nailed down my goal for the holidays. It is this: To gather together with our messy, imperfect hearts and create memories that outlast us all.

But here’s the thing: goals are not reached without intention, mindfulness, and action steps. So I have written some daily vows that I believe will help me get as close as I can to a meaningful and memorable holiday goal. Feel free to use one or more of these daily intentions to create more room in your holiday for love, laughter, connection, and memory making.

12 Daily Vows to Grasp What Matters This Holiday

Today I will look for the blessings among the chaos, the challenge, and the clutter. If I don’t see them right away, I will keep looking.

Today I will say, “Take your time,” and “How would you do it?” even if it feels funny and awkward coming from my lips. I will seek to find my loved ones’ Soul-Building Words and speak them often.

12 vows baby JesusToday I will view holiday experiences through the eyes of my child so my eyes can see the puffiness of the marshmallows, not the spilled cocoa … so my eyes can see the handmade ornaments, not the crooked tree … so my eyes can see the way her face lights up at the sight of the gift, not the wrapping paper covering the floor.

Today I will be a Lingerer, a Take Your Timer, and a Last to Let Go Embracer even if I have to fake it. Love will keep me coming back until I can be the real deal.

12 vows tree

Today I will take off the manager nameplate and dismiss the inner bully so my home can be a loving environment where we are all learning from our mistakes and embracing our imperfections.

Today I will resist the pressure to fill the sacred spaces of my day with unnecessary stuff.

Today I will say no to the outside world so I can say yes to the people who are my world.

12 vows sunlight

Today I will savor every bite of my family’s favorite recipes instead of obsessing over table decor, fat grams, or how soon the mess can be cleaned up.

Today I will absorb the memories of my relatives shared across the dinner table instead of consuming myself with status updates of those I barely know on a screen.

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Today I will acknowledge that a beautifully imperfect memory is at my fingertips if I pause long enough to let it unfold.

Today I will remember my loved ones are constantly growing and changing and things may be different next year. In fact, things may be different tomorrow. So today I shall savor my loved ones as they are right now.

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Today I will practice my new holiday goal: To gather together with our messy, imperfect hearts and create memories that outlast us all.

I know that every second of this holiday will not be grasping what matters. I know. But there will be moments when joy comes to the table. It might be wearing pajamas or a cookie crumb smile, but I will recognize it immediately. With open hands, open eyes, and an open heart, I’ve learned joy doesn’t come in a box.

12 vows joy doesn't come in a box

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My friends, thank you for making 2014 such an incredibly encouraging year for me as a writer. By reading and sharing my posts here and on The Hands Free Revolution page and by purchasing my book and the items in the Hands Free Shop, you have enabled me to make writing my life’s work. Your incredible support has lead to the publication of a second book, HANDS FREE LIFE, releasing on September 8, 2015. I am thrilled and blessed to have begun working with my publisher on a third book. Thanks to all who expressed their interest in me writing a Hands Free daily inspiration book. I read and cherish every comment you write and every email message you send. Thank you for being a continuous blessing on this life-changing Hands Free journey. I could not do this without you. My publisher is currently having an ebook sale and HANDS FREE MAMA is on sale for $2.99 until January 4th, 2015. Click here

It is now time to power off. My screen is going dark until January. I leave you with my two all-time favorite blog posts to grasp what really matters during the holidays and beyond. See you in 2015! 

The Twelve Days of Fatherhood

35 Gifts Your Children Will Never Forget

An Invitation to Live, Really Live

“Come outside, Before the world gets any colder, And you and I get too much older. ‘Come outside,’ she said. ‘Come outside,’ she said.  Climb out your window.” -Counting Crows

“Come outside,
Before the world gets any colder,
And you and I get too much older.
‘Come outside,’ she said.
‘Come outside,’ she said.
Climb out your window.”
-Counting Crows

Recently I’ve found myself driving like my seventy-four year old mom. I’ve been double and triple checking before making left turns. I’ve gone a mile out of my way just to avoid a dangerous intersection. I’ve also been chewing my food slowly so I don’t choke and taking a multi-vitamin. I’ve been determined to do the best job I can of keeping myself alive.

I didn’t connect these heightened safety precautions to my current project until I came to the conclusion section of the book I am writing. My hands began shaking as I typed the closing thoughts that I’d been waiting … living … and making cautious left turns in order to finish. And although I knew my editor would probably remove these final and unnecessary words, I typed, “The End,” in fancy font at the close of my 63,714-word manuscript. And then I cried. I cried because I lived to tell the story.

This particular book was not the easiest to book write, not that any books are—a fact I failed to appreciate until I actually wrote one. This book called for my deepest truths and my most painful reflections. But even more, it called for me to trust that the words would come in due time, not in Rachel’s time. Knowing the deadline for submitting this manuscript to my publisher would sneak up on me as far-off events often do, I tried writing this book last fall. I wrote lots of notes. I wrote lots of ideas. I wrote chapters that I ended up trashing. It was not time. I tried writing this book again in the spring. I took lots of notes. I wrote down lots of ideas. I wrote chapters that I ended up trashing. It was not time. And then summer involved moving boxes, anxious children, tearful goodbyes, and new territories to navigate. I didn’t even try to jot notes or cultivate ideas. I allowed myself to be in “receiving mode” rather than “producing mode.” I decided I would live. I would taste. I would cry. I would walk. I would laugh. I would read. I would say yes to as many Moments That Mattered as I possibly could. I ended up filling lots of little notebooks with experiences that only come from living, real living. And when my family felt settled in our new home, my husband and I went to a Counting Crows concert at a beautiful outdoor venue in our new city. I thought I’d heard every lyric Adam Duritz had ever sang, but on this particular night, he was the master of improvisation. “Round Here” turned into a message my soul had been longing to hear. “Climb out your window,” Adam sang. “Come outside before the world gets any colder, and you and I get too much older. Climb out your window.”

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