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 …

As I played Frogger with my younger daughter at the orthodontist’s office and we both squealed when my frog made it safely to the other side …

Could I be the party?

As I talked to my eleven-year-old daughter at bedtime and she said, “Just put your arms around me and stay a little longer” …

Could I be the party?

As I congregated with old friends and we laughed, cried, and shared our difficult truths …

Could I be the party?

As I participated in the silly “Furry Language” my daughter made up to communicate with Banjo the cat …

Could I be the party?

As I spent the morning playing with my little nephews and happily agreed to “more jelly beans and more stories, Aunt Wachel” …

Could I be the party?


As I hoisted my growing girls over my head to do an “underdoggy”, their favorite move on a swing …

Could I be the party?

It wasn’t until I pulled the car into the garage after picking up my older daughter from swim team practice that I finally had an answer. Our latest favorite song was playing on the radio. We had the bass pumping and the windows rolled down as we belted out the lyrics. My husband happened to be entering the house at the time. But when he saw us, he stopped for a moment and just smiled at me. The way he smiled with such joy—like he was happy to see me happy—made me catch my breath. He was happy to see me happy. He was happy to see me being the party.

And that’s when I knew why Alexandra’s words had affected me so.

There was a time in my life when I wasn’t the party. I could plan the party like a boss. I could clean up the party without wasting a moment. I could wow the partygoers with beautiful presentation and decadent treats. I could make my family look picture perfect for the party. But when it came time for the party, I wasn’t really there. I was not a present and joyful participant.

I was not the party.

After all, how could someone who wasn’t emotionally present be the party?

When I saw my husband’s wide smile as he stood at the garage door, I remembered what he looked like when he was most worried about me. It was during the height of my overwhelmed life. I’d blown up when he said I needed to slow down … to stop doing so much … to smile once in a while. I locked myself in the bathroom and squeezed myself into the dusty corner between the powder blue wall and the toilet. I rested my head against the cold porcelain as my body wracked with sobs.

“I don’t want to be here anymore … I don’t want to be here anymore,” I whispered over and over and over.

I was just so tired. I was just so empty. I was just so stressed. I was just so sad all the time. I envisioned running away from it all, and then I felt like a monster for even thinking that.

My husband kept knocking on the door and insisting that I let him in. But I stayed in my little corner, tucked into a ball until my tears ran out, wondering if I’d ever feel life in my heart again.

I wasn’t able to articulate it then, but I can now. And it is always something I tell others when I have the privilege to share my story in person. I say:

Life is meant to be lived …

not managed,

not controlled,

not screamed,

not stressed,

not hurried,

not guilt-ridden,

not regretted,

not scripted,

not consumed by distractions, big or small, obvious or subtle.

Life is meant to be lived … and sometimes we lose our way.

I know I’m not alone when I share these difficult truths by the reactions I see. When I spoke these words to a group of people recently, I saw the look of recognition … the tears of pain … the sighs of relief knowing we are not alone. The cause of our overwhelm might be different from person to person, but our desire to live a fulfilling life is not. It took many, many small, daily steps to free myself from my distracted state and get to the place where I woke up excited and happy … where I could turn off the outside world and turn toward my family … where I could offer my undivided presence and attention … where I could take time to love and be loved.

I do not need to hide in the bathroom anymore. I am able to deal with struggles and challenges by staying present, communicating, and forgiving others and myself. I feel a new sense urgency in my life now. It is no longer about how much can I accomplish in a lifetime, but rather how much living and loving I can do each day.

Last Sunday afternoon I felt that heart-stirring sense of urgency so I said no to an outside request. I said no to a pile of laundry. I said no to my dinging devices, my full inbox, and my dirty kitchen. I said yes to hiking up a mountain with my family.

mountain climbing

We got to the top of the glorious summit feeling triumphant and connected. After we ate our picnic, I stretched out on a big slab of rock. The sun relaxed me as the spring breeze blew back my hair. The next thing I knew, there was one daughter on each side of me. With no space between our bodies, we laid in silence warming our dry winter skin in the sun’s nourishing light.

That’s when my younger daughter turned and looked straight into my soul. She said, “This is the life, Mama.”

But what my joy-filled heart heard was, “This is the Life Mama.”

I am the party.
I am the gathering place.
I am the heartbeat.
I am the celebration.

By the grace of God and many, many tiny steps toward the light of love and connection, I am fully alive and well with my soul.

My friends, where do you find yourself today? Far from where you want to be? Missing the joyful person you once were? Huddled in a tight corner with weary bones? Wherever you are on your own personal journey, I want you to remember it is not the grand gestures, the glowing accolades, or the perfect presentation that make you the party. It is something you do every single day whether you realize it or not.

When you squeeze his hand as he walks into that new building and smile bravery right into his heart,
You are the party.

When you answer every single question with an inordinate amount of patience,
You are the party.

When you wait and wait and wait so she doesn’t have to wait alone,
You are the party.

When you think of one nice thing to say when no one else does,
You are the party.

When you sing softly when he’s frightened and say, “It will be okay,”
You are the party.

When you give up what you desperately want so she can have what she needs,
You are the party.

When you take a deep breath and choose love,
You are the party.

When you tearfully delight in the wonder of your precious ones,
You are the party.

You are the party because of the love you offer in small, daily doses.
So don’t worry about how you look.
Don’t worry about what you did or didn’t do yesterday.
Don’t worry about that long list of flaws and failings no one is keeping but you.
Your love and presence are the highlight of someone’s life—the highlight of someone’s life.
Keep waking up.
Keep showing up.
Keep picking yourself up from off the floor.
You are the party—the Life of the Party.
Your daily doses of love and presence make it so.

the world needs 2

For more HANDS FREE LIFE inspiration, please consider my NEW book now available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes & Noble! Details below …

For more HANDS FREE LIFE inspiration, please consider my NEW book now available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes & Noble! Details below …


Friends of The Hands Free Revolution, my second book, HANDS FREE LIFE: 9 Habits for Overcoming Distraction, Living Better, & Loving More is now available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Whether you are just starting your journey toward a life that really matters or have been at it awhile, this book will create life-altering habits that will allow you to invest in what matters most to you. HANDS FREE LIFE hits bookshelves on September 8th! I’d be so grateful if you’d help spread the word. It is my greatest hope for this book to reach those yearning to feel a new sense of urgency in their lives—an urgency to live, love, dream, create, forgive, flourish, and thrive. Thank you for your faithful support and encouragement! It is such a blessing to me.

Recommended Resources:

  • If you feel hopeless like nothing you do will ever work, or if you or your child(ren) are experiencing depression, anxiety, grief, trauma, attention problems, self-inflicted injury, suicidal thoughts, or are simply wishing for healing, please click her name to contact my gifted colleague, Theresa, PhD, licensed psychologistOn her site, you will see a special welcome message to Hands Free Mama readers. She has helped many readers of my blog overcome challenging life issues. 
  • My friend Nicole bravely shares her story about losing her mom along with life-saving resources in this beautiful piece of her heart: I am a Survivor of Suicide.

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:

[Read more…]

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.


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.

12 vows ponytail

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


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.”

[Read more…]

To Love a Child By Their Book

by their book 1 #HFM

“Well, good for you. You stopped rushing your younger child and undid some of the damage, but what about your older daughter? What about her? What about the damage you did to her?”

It was a question posed by a commenter on this post almost a year after it was published.

Although the reader had no way of knowing, I’d addressed the damage that my hurried, perfectionistic ways had on my older daughter in several painful posts like this one and this one. But for some reason when I read his comment I saw an underlying question: You describe what you did to love your younger daughter as herself, but what about your older daughter? What did you do to love her “as is”?

To me, that question was far more important to address than what damage was done. It’s taken months, maybe even years, but I finally have an answer. I hope it will help someone crack open a few undiscovered pages of a book well worth reading. This is my story …

When I experienced the “hurry up” epiphany several years ago, I realized I needed to make changes before I completely stifled my younger daughter’s carefree spirit. What Avery needed was painfully obvious—it was written all over her face. She needed me to stop trying to change her … to let her be herself … to love her “as is.”

I dug deep to find patience buried inside my productivity-driven soul and stopped trying to turn my child into someone she was not. I noticed certain offerings produced a wide smile, a sigh of contentment, or the look of relief on her face. I learned:

Saying the words “take your time” was love to this child. I tried to say it at least once a day.

Allowing her to do her own hair was love to this child. I stepped aside and let her fashion her own haphazard ponytail for school. If she was happy with how it looked, I chose to be happy with it too.

Letting her play the guitar notes as she felt they should be played was love to this child. I sat back and watched and left the correcting to her instructor.

Giving her assurances in new situations was love to this child. I stopped dismissing her fears and hesitations. I stopped saying, “It’s no big deal. Stop crying,” and instead said, “New things are scary, but I think you are ready. You can do this.”

Speaking gently and not so sharply … letting her do things differently than I did … giving her privacy when she was getting dressed were acts of love in Avery’s book. And through this process of watching, listening, and observing, I learned how to love this child and even found myself borrowing a few pages from her book to re-write my own. Witnessing her approach to life helped me slow down, live better, and love more than I ever imagined I could.

But how to love as my older daughter “as is” was not so obvious. Natalie was the speedy one, the planner, the supervisor, the overachiever, and the worrier. Her book was strikingly similar to my own book, and this didn’t really come as a surprise. I didn’t begin my Hands Free journey until Natalie was six years old and the letting go process took several years. But the more Hands Free I became, the more I could see my former Type-A tendencies in my older daughter. Every time she was impatient, strived for perfection, or laid awake worrying about things beyond her control, the word damage flashed like a neon sign in my guilt-ridden mind. What have I done? I thought. Was there any way to undo the damage?

[Read more…]

What a “Hands Free” Summer Looks Like

When I started writing this blog, I made a promise to myself. I vowed to be the real deal—meaning whether I am being Hands Free or writing about being Hands Free, I promised to be open, honest, and authentic about my successes and shortcomings on this journey to grasp what really matters.

Simply stated, there is no faking Hands Free; there is no half-way Hands Free. Either I’m distracted or I’m present. Trying to mentally and emotionally exist in two places at once is like trying to live life with one hand. And I tried that for two long, draining years—it doesn’t work. I have found that I can only grasp what really matters in life with two free hands and one committed heart.

So with that said, I’ve come to a decision about summer. And I share it with you because we all have responsibilities that beg for our time, attention, and energy.

[Read more…]

Give It A Rest

The birthday of the United States (a.k.a. The Fourth of July) is right around the corner.

Americans will spend the day celebrating our independence with fireworks, cookouts, and being with family.

Yet, most of us will still be dependent…and not just a little dependent…very dependent.

I am referring to our dependence on technology, specifically the phone and the Internet.

Being “connected” (via our phone or computer) has become our number one source of stimulation, yet it is also our downtime.

Being “connected” is our work, yet it is also our play.

Being “connected” is how we use time more efficiently, yet it is also how we kill time.

Being “connected” is how we associate, yet it is also how we detach.

Being “connected” is just a way of life…like eating and sleeping; it’s just what we do.


Oh yes, indeed.

Now at this point, some of you are probably thinking, “I know people like that, but that is not me; I don’t have a problem with excessive use of my phone or the Internet.”

I ask that you continue reading, for three reasons:

1) On the Hands Free journey, there is always room for awareness.

2) On the Hands Free journey, there is always room for improvement.

3) On the Hands Free journey, you often discover you’ve been missing something.

Which is exactly what happened to me.

Despite the fact that I have spent almost an entire year reducing both external and internal distraction in my life, I was still missing a major piece of the grasping what matters puzzle.

And I didn’t even realize it.

This is my story…

Several weeks ago, my daughter got an aquarium for her eighth birthday. You might remember the post, “Tipping The Scales,” which explained how she chose to forgo gifts and a birthday party to become a full-fledged ichthyologist.

The aquarium was brought home a few days before her birthday and my husband was kind enough to assist her in the complicated set-up process.  Granted, my daughter had done extensive research about the fish themselves, but there were many things she had yet to learn about creating an environment that would keep them alive.

Yes, come to find out, fish are fragile; they die easily…especially in the first initial hours of their new tank.

Are you kidding me? All this trouble, and there’s still a 99% chance they will die.

The young salesman at the fish store was wealth of knowledge, but the more he talked about purifiers, filtration systems, bacteria, residual ozone, ammonia, and waste, the more I dreamed about the simplicity of a cute, cuddly cat.

As you can probably tell by now, I am not really into creatures that do not have fur. If I am going to put forth time, effort, and money into keeping something alive, I want to be able to hold it and cuddle with it. (Call me crazy.)

But my daughter had chosen fish with every ounce of her being. And through every Fish List she created and every fish fact she rattled off, I Saw Promise. I saw her grasping her own Hands Free version of “what really matters,” even though it was not my version of what really matters.

But that did not mean I was going to clean the aquarium.

In fact, I wasn’t really planning on having much to do with the fish at all. That was her dad’s “thing,” so I kindly stepped aside and allowed that “bonding experience” to occur.

So as Brad the Salesman continued to educate and suggest overpriced necessary aquarium supplies to the eager learners, my youngest daughter and I ventured to the other side of the pet store where animals with fur were located.

Three hours later we were home, standing in front of our very own aquarium. The water had been treated and the fish had been freed from their bags. (Don’t freak out, Fish Advocates of the World, this was after the bags had been properly “floated.”)

I really can’t tell you what was happening in the fish tank because my focus was on the faces of my children.

Pure and utter joy…

Delight and amazement…

Wonder and bliss…

Happiness…good old-fashioned happiness…

If grasping what really matters had an expression, I think it might look like this…

I was so grateful that I had not allowed my aversion of slimy, furless creatures to prevent this moment from occurring.

(But I still was not about to change my mind about cleaning the tank.)

Within a few hours of the aquarium coming to life, our leather ottoman had a new location. It was no longer situated in front of the chair with which it matched. It had a new home directly in front of the fish tank, which happened to be in the natural walkway of our family room. (I know because I tripped over it not once, but twice, while walking through late at night and have a large bruise on my shin to prove it.)

When I decided to leave the ottoman in its new location, I had a mini Hands Free celebration in my head. These are the moments when I know I am making progress in my effort to let go of distraction (and perfection) to grasp what really matters.

I refer to these momentous achievements as, “Hands Free Baby Steps.”

In years past, having the ottoman in front of the fish tank would have bugged me. I would have to push it back to its proper place time and time again. Now, it doesn’t bother me at all. OK, maybe a tiny bit. Well, let’s just say, I can live with it. And that’s progress.

But there’s more…

What is even greater progress than allowing the ottoman to remain in front of the fish tank is the fact that I find myself sitting there. A lot.

I find myself sitting there when the children are not even around.

I find myself sitting there when I have many things to do.

I find myself sitting there when I was originally on my way to doing something else.

I find myself JUST sitting there (and not because I am checking to make sure my “furless friends” are still alive, although I do that, too).


Although this is my daughter, this is exactly what I look like when I am sitting, just sitting, at the fish tank.

That, my friends, is unusual behavior for me….sitting, that is.

And for the first time in probably several years, I am sitting there thinking about nothing. And when I mean nothing, I mean I am not thinking about yesterday, tomorrow, or two hours from now. There is no thought of the past or the future; I am in the NOW.

I am completely lost in the motion of the colorful fish, their tiny tails effortlessly flittering them from one side of the tank to the other.

And as they are suspended in serenity, I watch their little mouths open and their delicate gills flutter. How calming it is to watch fish breathe.

At times, I even find it hard to pull myself away from this captivating presentation of beautiful nothingness.

I felt the need to explain this atypical behavior to myself. I was convinced that I must have just embraced the fish (as much as you can embrace anything without fur, that is).

But then I was enlightened.

Several kind readers of my blog sent me a link to an article on entitled, “Does life online give you ‘popcorn brain’?” by Elizabeth Cohen.

I would strongly suggest reading the whole article, but here I will share two lines that were particularly powerful for me:

“The worry is that life online is giving us what researcher, David Levy, calls ‘popcorn brain’ –– a brain so accustomed to the constant stimulation of electronic multitasking that we’re unfit for life offline, where things pop at a much slower pace.”

And then this line, “We can’t just sit quietly and wait for a bus, and that is too bad because our brains need that down time to rest, to process things.”

The article goes on to explain how long-term Internet usage can actual cause physical changes in the stucture of our brain. And not in a good way.

Oh my. Popcorn brain. That term is disturbing to me…but a frighteningly accurate description of my thinking process in my waking hours.

In my spare moments, which are far and few between, I do feel a need to check my phone or the Internet to see what’s been “happening” while I have been away.

And even though I have been putting forth more and more effort to live in the moment and focus the precious people that stand before me, my mind still has the tendency to wander, to be in “planning mode,” even when I am still.

So I ask myself: When DOES my brain have a chance to rest?

I could only think of one place.

When I am sitting in front of the fish tank.

No wonder I keep finding myself there.

After I had a few days to process the “Popcorn Brain” article and consider my severe negligence of resting my brain, I found myself thinking about my dad.

I still have vivid memories from my middle school years of my dad’s after work tradition.

Dad would change out of his office attire, then he would go to the formal sitting room of our house and lie down on the floor in complete silence. (The carpet was actually lime green, which alone is a fact not easily forgotten.)

My dad’s hands would rest upon his chest, yet he would not close his eyes. He would just simply lie there and think.

As an easily annoyed thirteen-year-old, I found his habit odd; I thought it was very weird. It looked like the most boring activity in the whole world. I honestly could not fathom what he could possibly be thinking about, and why he had been doing this for as long as I could remember.

Even now when he comes to visit my family for a weeklong stay, there is always a time period each afternoon where I see him sitting in a comfy chair on my back porch. I assume he is asleep, but he’s not. He is awake. His eyes are blinking. He is watching the trees in the ravine behind my house. He is listening to the birds perched upon the deck. And he has the most content, peaceful smile on his face, just like they did twenty years ago when he stretched himself out on the lime green carpet.

And now I know.

He’s resting his brain.

He’s processing life.

And I am not questioning that behavior anymore. You won’t catch me calling it “weird” or “strange.”

Because he is the only 72 year-old I know who looks like he’s younger than 50.

He is as sharp as a tack.

He is of healthy body, mind and soul.

He is focused, relaxed, and engaged.

He is “with it.”

And if there is anyone who has lived his life epitomizing the meaning of grasping what really matters, it is my dad.

There’s something to be said for being independent of technology, cell phone usage, daily distraction, and mental stimulation…even if it is only for a few minutes each day.

Giving your brain a rest creates a pause. And in that pause you can catch your breath.

Because we all know what happens we stop breathing.

We stop living.

Just ask a fish.


Are you interested in having some independence from distraction and mental stimulation? I am, too. As members of The Hands Free Revolution, let’s make Independence Day truly a day of independence.

This Fourth of July, turn off your computer, shut down your phone. Give your brain a rest.


Feed fish in the lake…
Catch a lightning bug in your hand…
Stare into the light of a sparkler….
Look into the eyes of a loved one…
Watch a gorgeous sunset…
Feel the rain on your face…

Take a moment to rest your mind, body and soul. Because the most restorative breaths are the ones taken in the pauses of life.

*If you think this is a worthy message, please share it. In your hands, this message has the chance to make July 4th truly a day of independence for many.

The Steps Toward Home

This week I’ve described how making small steps to let go of distraction is an effective way to begin living a Hands Free life.

In Monday’s post, “The Steps of a Hero,” I described the progress that occurred in the life of one of my devoted readers from NYC.  And maybe when he read the post, he viewed progress he had not yet realized.

I hope so.

Why? Because a critical part of the Hands Free transformation process is to acknowledge and appreciate your own personal progress. To look back and say, “Look how far I have come!” or “Look where I once was and where I am now.”

Doing this enables you to see the way in which small steps become lasting habits and life-changing routines, all of which allow a person to grasp what really matters.

I have discovered that I most often see evidence of my own Hands Free progress when I am not looking for it. Such an experience happened to me recently that I feel is worthy of sharing.

This is my story…

As you may recall, I recently took a week off from publishing my blog in honor of my children’s spring break vacation.

Because my Breakdown Breakthrough occurred in July 2010, this was my first ever Hands Free Vacation. I knew it was a good sign that I decided I would not try to publish posts during the week. A year ago, I would have pressured myself into figuring out a way to get those post published, regardless of the cost.

Another good sign was what occurred on the morning of departure. Or perhaps I should say, what did NOT occur on the morning of departure.

Normally, I am stressed out in a frantic rush to get everything packed…compulsively trying not to forget a single thing. And the simple fact of the matter is this: When you are stressed out while packing, you tend to pack stress. You tend to leave the driveway with stress written all over your face; it drips from your words, and churns in the pit of your stomach for hours.

But this time, things were different. Thank God, things were different.

On the morning of my first ever Hands Free vacation we leisurely ate breakfast. We slowly packed the car. I didn’t make constant calculations such as, “If we leave right now, we will get there at four o’clock.” Instead of playing games with time, I actually heard my Hands Free inner voice say, “And remember, if you forget something, you can just pick it up at the store when you get there.”

(Have I mentioned that sometimes I wonder who this rational, (semi) laid back person is living inside my body?)

I was actually smiling as we pulled out of the driveway.  I felt lighter not wearing stress and having not packed stress.

Upon arriving at our vacation place, I was relaxed. I was grateful. I was happy. I had my family surrounding me, and there was nothing that I “had” to do.

Each day I took a long run or walk on the gorgeous beach that has been my home away from home since I was thirteen-years-old.  But instead of feeling the need to cover a certain amount of miles in a certain amount of time, as I did in the vacations of the past five years, I savored the journey. I patiently looked for dolphins.  I jotted notes in the little writing book I carried. I looked for unusual shell “treasures” to take my daughters.

And I reminisced about the hundreds of walks I had taken on this sand with my sister and my mom since I was a teenager.

My mom recently told me I did not develop my compulsive, type A personality until I went to college. So it makes sense that as a teenager my favorite pastime at the beach was saving live sand dollars that had washed up on shore. I couldn’t bear to see a helpless sand dollar withering in the sun. Regardless of how long it took or how many times I had to stop along my run, I put every washed up sand dollar that I passed back into the water.

But over the years, I had stopped saving the sand dollars. In fact, I had stopped noticing them at all. I had become so driven that I only focused on the path ahead and stopped savoring the journey along the way.

But on the last day of my first Hands Free vacation something happened. And it made me realize my days of delighting in the journey were not over. In one clarifying moment, I saw my progress; I saw just how far I had come.

As I ran along the vast flat sand, something caught my eye in a tide pool. At first, I ran past it, but found that I could not continue running until I turned around.

I realized it was a starfish, and it was missing a ray (limb). It looked like it was dead, but I felt compelled to be certain.

Despite having to get my running shoes wet, I waded in and reached for it.

The first thing I did was turn the little guy over. I was expecting to see no movement.

But amazingly enough, its tiny tube feet waved at me.

Although it looked like it had been violently churned in saltwater or perhaps was the partial snack of a small predator, it was alive. And it was fighting to survive.

As I held that resilient critter in my hand, I suddenly realized just how far I have come on my Hands Free journey.

Nine months ago this was me, struggling to breath in the chaos and upheaval that I had created for myself. I had gotten so far from home, so far from the joy in my soul that makes me feel alive and whole.

As I looked at this forlorn creature and whispered, “Don’t worry. I will save you,” tears rolled slowly down my cheeks. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the life-changing moment I had experienced last July. The One who cares for me had lifted me up from my displacement and placed me gently back home, just as I was about to do for this starfish.

And now, nine months later, here I stood in the tranquility of the sunlight, just having experienced my first ever Hands Free vacation.

My hands that were once holding tightly to distraction were now free to…

Built sandcastles with my children

Color pictures of princesses

Hold the hands of the people I love the most in this world

My mind that was once consumed with an excessive to-do list was now free to…

Memorize the beautiful expressions of my daughters’ joyful faces

Describe my most favorite memories of vacations on this very beach

Express gratitude for every God-given gift in my life

My eyes that were once transfixed solely on the task ahead were now free to…

Observe every vibrant hue in the flowers along the bike trail

Gaze patiently into the blue water until a majestic dolphin leapt with joy

Count every freckle on the precious noses of my children

Instead of feeling like I am always running late,

Instead of feeling like I can’t quite catch my breath,

Instead of feeling depleted and empty,

Instead of feeling lost with no direction,

Instead of feeling as if each day is a blur,

Instead of feeling half alive…

I am free to laugh,

Free to play,

Free to celebrate,

Free to let go,

Free to breath,

and free to exhale,

I am finally free to live.

And as I gently placed this beautiful creature back into the calm, sanctuary of his water home, I realized my progress. I realized that nine months of Hands Free “baby steps” had taken me somewhere.

Those small steps toward living a Hands Free life had taken me home.

Have you noticed any progress you’ve made on your own journey to live Hands Free? If so, I would love it if you leave a comment or send me an email. And if you are just arriving at this place, I just happen to have a list. See yesterday’s post, “Where To Begin,” and just pick a step. You may be surprised how far one small step can take you on your quest to be Hands Free.  Join “The Hands Free Revolution.” We are just getting started and there’s so much life to grasp!

Where To Begin?

My seven-year-old sang “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” to two beautiful babies when our family recently volunteered at a group home.

Yesterday I described the Hands Free transformation of one of my loyal readers. Through a series of what he refers to as, “little steps,” he has covered monumental ground.

Although he and I have different backgrounds and live very different lives, we both share the desire to grasp what really matters.

In order to do so, we both started this journey by taking the first step.

And today I want to erase any doubt in your mind that you are not equipped to take this step.

I want to impress upon you that anyone who wants to be Hands Free can be Hands Free. Regardless if you are high-strung Type A or low-key Type B (or somewhere in between), a Hands Free life is within your grasp.

So today is a List Day.

You may know by now that I am a list maker. Lists are powerful. Lists serve as reminders. Lists are powerful reminders that tend to stick with you far longer than long-winded paragraphs.  And if this Hands Free Mama hopes that if anything sticks with you in today’s entry, it something, just ONE thing, from The List.

I will be overjoyed if one person reads the following list and says, “That’s it? That is how I begin to go Hands Free? Well, I can do that. In fact, I am going to start today.”

So to that person, and anyone else who is interested in seeing what a Hands Free Step looks like, here is my ever-growing list (with links to further information on how each can be played out).

Little Steps That Equate To Big Steps Towards A Hands Free Life:

-Go to the local library as family and leave your phone in the car.

-When driving, place your phone in the glove box.

-Do a household chore WITH your child (i.e.; folding laundry, doing dishes, cooking or baking).

-Create a Saturday morning ritual like making pancakes or going to IHOP.

-Turn phone to “all notifications off” when you are with your family.

-Sing along with the radio or a CD instead of talking on the phone.

-Enjoy the peaceful solitude of your inner thoughts.

-Keep a small notebook with you to jot down great ideas, the dreams for your life, and special memories.

-Encourage someone.

-Stick up for someone.

-Have a “tech cleanse” for a day, two days, a whole week…maybe a lifetime.

-Think through accepting new commitments and determine if they coincide with what really matters to you.

-Go outside your comfort zone to join your child in something he or she loves to do.

-Spend the day with your family and do not look at the clock once.

-Turn off your computer from the time your children get home from school until they go to bed.

-Ask your child to make a sign to place on your computer. One dear reader shared that her daughter’s sign says, “Do not use, until you snuggle“.

-Make cookies or muffins with a loved one, and then give them away.

-Let your child bake or cook dinner without fear of making a mess or following a recipe.

-Share a favorite childhood memory with someone you love.

-Allow yourself to simply think with no distractions.

-Read the Bible.

-Give yourself Five Good Minutes of meditation a day.

-Read a bedtime story to your child.

-Have “talk time” with your child at bedtime.

-Go on a nature hike looking for usual and beautiful sights like clouds and bird nests.

-Ask your parent a question about his or her early years and then listen, really listen.

-Close your laptop when your loved one walks into the room.

-When your child or spouse walks in a room, greet him or her with happiness and eye contact.

-Every night think of five things you are thankful for with your child.

-Express gratitude to someone who was (or is) an angel in your life.

-Do something you loved as a child, like sew or play an instrument.

-Find a volunteer opportunity to do as a family.

-Write a love note to your child just because.

Ask your child, “What do you want to do today?” and then do it.

-Practice waiting joyfully.

-Contact that person who keeps popping into your head time and time again…there’s a reason he or she keeps coming to mind. Find out what that reason is.

-Sit down on the couch and cuddle with your child or significant other. (Remember this line? “No matter how much she wants to, needs to, or would love to….my child cannot kiss a moving target. 

Well, that is the end of the list for now. But with each day that I strive to go Hands Free, a new idea arises. And believe me, I will write about it.

To those of you who previously joined me on this journey, I know you have your own Hands Free “baby steps” to add to the list (and I would love to hear them).

To those who are just arriving at this place, now you have a starting point. Your Hands Free journey begins today. Simply choose something from the list that appeals to you then watch as something beautiful, something unexpected, unfolds before your eyes.

With each “baby step” you grasp a piece of what really matters within your hand. And there is nothing little about that.

Do you have any Hands Free baby steps to share? If so, please leave a comment or send me an email.  Read the list again, circle it, star it, and invite someone to join you as you take your first step into a life worth living. Better yet, share the list with someone you love. Invite them to be your Hands Free partner, and take the step together.