Preparing the Ones We Love For a Troubling World

preparing for world #HFM

My older daughter was sitting on the floor of her room totally engrossed in a project. She was writing to her sponsored child, Priscilla, but I didn’t know what she was writing because it was written in Swahili.

The last letter she sent was also written in Priscilla’s native language, but I thought it would be a one-time thing. I was surprised to see my typically speedy child patiently looking up words on the Internet in order to write full sentences in a foreign language. She knew all notes written in English were translated to the sponsored child, but for some reason she felt compelled to write in words Priscilla could read and understand herself.

“I see you’re writing in Swahili again,” I said sitting down next to my daughter.

“I want to be sure she knows she is loved … in words she can understand,” my daughter explained. “There are many diseases in and around her village,” she said gravely. “This way Priscilla can read the letter herself and won’t have to wait for a translator.”

That powerful little tidbit shed some light on my daughter’s motive.

“I want these words to stick,” my child added determinedly.

Like a bulletin board, I thought to myself looking at the corkboard directly behind my daughter’s head. It was filled with photos, motivational quotes, swim team goals, and love notes from family members. It was filled with words and images she wanted remember—treasures she wanted to stick with her.

bulletin board

I imagined Priscilla holding my daughter’s note lovingly written in words that were familiar to her. There would be no bulletin board in which to pin this note, but she would not forget. If she had to flee her village with nothing but the clothes on her back, she would still have these words and assurances secured to the bulletin board of her heart.

As my daughter drew one last smiley face at the bottom of the letter she spoke my deepest fears. “I don’t want to miss the chance to tell her she’s loved … you know, just in case.” My daughter gave me a knowing glance as if to acknowledge the worldly dangers that seem to permeate the media and as well as our daily life.

I immediately thought about our experience just a few weeks ago when we visited a new library. We’d moved to a new state over the summer so every building we visit is unfamiliar territory to us. But yet, my child’s need for independence has not decreased through this move; it has actually heightened.

“I’m going to look for medical books in the adult non-fiction section,” my daughter announced, subtly indicating her desire to be alone.

She wanted to roam freely in this new library like she did in our old one. I’d reminded her plenty of times that we now live in one of the biggest cities in America and that things are different here. I didn’t feel like I should remind her again.

“Okay,” I said hesitantly. “I will be right here,” I said pointing to the “Fiction A-G” sign.

With a deep breath, I watched her go. I pulled a few books off the shelf in front of me. I read a few back covers to see if I might like to take any of them home.

After a few minutes I felt the need to check on my child. I began going row by row looking for her blonde ponytail and neon green Nike shirt. I noticed the shelves were exceptionally tall and the books were packed tightly. I tried to peer through the collection to see the next row, but the isles of books acted as solid walls.

As I made my way to the row of Z authors, my heart was pounding a little. It was quite dark back there. My mind imagined all the silent atrocities that could happen to a child if she or he encountered the wrong person in this darkened cavern.

I was practically running now as I looked down every isle for a second time. I finally broke the #1 rule of library etiquette and called out my daughter’s name. Loudly. Much to my relief, she came out from an isle across the library that I somehow missed. She was clearly embarrassed and annoyed.

“Why’d you do that, Mom?” she grumbled while briskly walking over to meet me. She glanced around to see how many people witnessed her moment of embarrassment.

“I had a bad feeling,” I said honestly. “Something doesn’t feel right,” I said looking around at an unsmiling group of faces hunched over a row of computers.

As we headed to the section that she came from, a burly man with short, cropped hair and a library worker quickly emerged from behind the circulation desk. They were heading for a man who was using one of the library computers. When the man saw them coming, he bolted. They raced after him, right out the front door of the library.

My daughter asked what was going on. I scurried over to the window to watch the man in question speed away while the woman got on her phone and the other man hopped in his vehicle with dark, tinted windows.

“I think the man on the computer was doing something illegal. I get the feeling it has happened before and they were trying to catch him,” I surmised. That’s when I turned and placed my hands on my child’s shoulders. I looked right into her face and said, “I had a bad feeling just a few minutes ago. That feeling was right. You must always, always trust your instincts. Trust that little warning voice inside you when it tells you something doesn’t feel right and then get to safety,” I advised.

Although I didn’t know it then, I know now that I was pinning something important to the bulletin board of her heart—the one she will carry with her as she navigates life.

And that was a pin for safety.

“I love you very, very much,” I said pulling her gently to my side because I knew a public hug would not be favorable.

And that was a pin for love.

“Now let’s go look for those medical books,” I said. “I just love how you are pursuing your passion. You inspire me to think about my own dreams,” I admitted.

And that was a pin for affirmation.

I was determined to keep trying to fill the bulletin board of my child’s heart with safety measures, loving words, and positive affirmations so these important messages would be quickly accessible to her—no matter where she was or who she was with.

Since the library incident, I’ve found myself not holding anything back. If the opportunity comes up to talk about potential dangers, I talk about it in words she can understand, the way she carefully and purposefully communicated to Priscilla.

Getting Sudafed became a discussion about Meth—what it does to your brain, how peers might ask her to use drugs and alcohol, and what a good response might be.

Our weather radio failing to go off in the night became a discussion about the different danger codes used at her school and what she would do if someone entered her classroom with the intent to harm.

A sign on the interstate became a discussion about depression and who in our family has suffered and how asking for help was important and brave.

An episode of Full House became a discussion on eating disorders and what to do when friends ask us to keep secrets.

A college textbook from the used bookstore became a discussion on plagiarism and safety measures for walking across campus at night.

Her father’s suitcase became a discussion on Ebola in America—what it is, how it is contracted, and who would take care of her and her sister if her dad or I could not.

I’ve discovered that the more we engage in these types of honest discussions, the more questions my child thinks of and openly asks about. I’m thankful she turns to me for information and feels safe to confide in me, but I am left with a painful reality. There is so much yet to tell her and so much yet to teach her. She is only eleven years old. There is much uncharted territory ahead of her. When I watch the news and see the disease, the abductions, and the threats to our safety and security, I hope and pray I will be around to guide her, answer her questions, and equip her to make wise choices. But alas, the days are full. There is only so much time to talk, teach, respond, and listen. The number of days I have to be a guiding force in my child’s life are beyond my control. But today is not beyond my control. Today I have time, even if it is just a few moments, to place messages on her heart that I hope will stick indefinitely.

Today, a pin for safety:
Trust your instincts.
You can always blame me if you need an excuse when asked to do something you know is not safe.
Be alert when you walk anywhere in public—don’t look down at your phone.

Today, a pin for love:
You make my day better.
I love spending time with you.
You amaze me. You honestly do.

Today, a pin for affirmation:
I admire the way you handled that disappointing situation.
I enjoying hearing what you think about things. Tell me more.
You came up with a smart plan to get that project accomplished.

Unlike an actual corkboard that hangs upon a wall, the heart’s bulletin board cannot ever become too full. There is endless room, especially for soul-building words and life-giving messages. There is no age requirement—every human being, young or old, has a heart’s bulletin board. Every person needs words of safety, love, and affirmation offered in words he or she can understand.

We have no control over how many pins we will be allowed to give in our lifetime, so let us pin as many as we can today.

Pin grace.
Pin adoration.
Pin wisdom.
Pin appreciation.
Pin caution.
Pin encouragement.
Pin love … pin lots and lots of love, every chance you get.

Because the heart’s bulletin board goes where they go. Messages can be retrieved at a moment’s notice, in fear, worry, despair, or joy. Even if you are not standing right beside them, your loved ones can hear these life-giving, life-saving messages. No translation necessary.

bulletin board 2 HFM

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Friends of The Hands Free Revolution, I wrote this post a few days before our beautiful page was taken over by malicious hackers for a 24-hour period this weekend. The content they posted was so vile and so obscene it only intensified my desire to do whatever I can to prepare my loved ones’ hearts to navigate an often troubling world. It also fueled my desire to keep spreading messages of goodness and positivity. Each time you comment on your experience, encourage others, or share a post, you are helping goodness prevail over darkness. Here are two incredible resources, two authors I know personally, that offer ways to connect with and build up our loved ones in a troubling world. Please don’t miss my note of gratitude below these resources. 

1) Napkin Notes by Garth Callaghan is an incredibly inspiring book that shows how one small, daily act can impact a lifetime—even if you only have a limited amount of time to make that impact. Garth writes:

“I share this book because none of us knows how much time we have left. Yes, we walk around the planet with the hope that we are invincible, but we all know life can be taken away in an instant. I have the ‘gift’ of realizing that the end is coming. I can take the time to take stock and share with the people I love how much they mean to me … This book is a call. To wake up. Connect. Share your feelings. Make that phone call. Write that note. Because I know all too well the fragility of life and how important it is to take the time to connect with those we love while we’re still here, while we still can.”

Napkin Notes releases Oct. 28th. To pre-order, click here.

2) My eleven year old daughter is currently engrossed in 10 Truths Girls Should Know by Kari Kampakis. This book, written so directly and so beautifully for girls in the tween/teen age range, offers sound advice to help navigate tough challenges and real life dilemmas. Kari’s book has opened up wonderful dialogue between my daughter and me on the topics of cliques, bullying, rejection, and social media issues. Check out this beautiful review of Kari’s book and click here to pre-order. The book releases on November 4th.

* A final note of gratitude – over the past few days I have experienced an indescribable outpouring of love and support from this community, fellow bloggers, Facebook pages, personal friends, and members of my publishing team who did everything in their power to help me regain control of The Hands Free Revolution page, protect this blog, and make sure I was okay. When fear urged me to go into hiding, you said, “We are here, Rachel. You are not alone. We got your back.” In one day, our community has regained the thousands of followers lost over the weekend and added so many more. We are now bigger and stronger than we ever were. Goodness prevails. Goodness prevails. Thank you for blessing me in such a profound and life-changing way.

Finding Your Footing in New Beginnings

grave #handsfreemama

“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow. ” –Lin Yutang

One of the first things I did when I moved to my new state this summer was look for a quiet place to walk. You may recall that I had a hilly, serene area near my last home where I walked daily for the six years that I lived there. Many powerful epiphanies occurred to me on that stretch of tarmac where cars seldom passed. I had a feeling that finding a place where my legs could grow tired as my spirit came alive might be challenging here in my new, much bigger city. My suspicions were right.

On my first outing, I quickly realized it would be necessary for me to leave my neighborhood if I wanted a substantial walk. Upon exiting my subdivision I was greeted by a heavily traveled roadway that was intimidating, to say the least. There would be no daydreaming here, no getting lost in my own thoughts. This bustling thoroughfare screamed, “Pay attention or you might get hurt!”

I took a deep breath and forged ahead, hugging the outer edge of the sidewalk farthest from the busy road. With every Nissan and Chevrolet that barreled past, my hair blew back from my face and hot air hugged my legs. I kept my head down and walked briskly, pausing briefly to notice the historic cemetery on my right. I’m pretty sure I would have felt sad (or a little creeped out) if I hadn’t been so focused on finding a peaceful place to continue my walk.

As soon as I got past the cemetery, I saw what I was looking for: an established neighborhood canopied by lush trees and not a moving vehicle in sight. I immediately turned right and walked the shady maze of side streets and cul-de-sacs for an hour. When it was time to return home, I resisted the urge to walk past the cemetery at a quickened pace. Instead I noticed the names and dates of those who lived over a century ago.

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A Live More/Love More Summer: Getting Back to What Matters Most

live more love more 1

Just because summer is here doesn’t mean life’s demands and daily stressors magically disappear. Digital distraction is more than willing to ruin your family picnic. Perfection is ready to sabotage your refreshing dip in the pool. Pressure is ready to pounce from the bleachers of the ball field, and criticism is prepared to blast lane four at the swim meet. Hurry and impatience are fiercely determined to spoil a day at the beach or amusement park. As you know, distraction, perfection, and social pressures don’t take a summer vacation. They manage to weasel their way into our daily lives no matter what season it is. But it doesn’t have to be this way. How does a Live More/Love More Summer sound to you? Let’s use these precious summer months to get back to what matters most. Here’s how I do it (and by the way, this approach works year-round) … 

As my family makes our final preparations for an upcoming move out-of-state, I’ve been forced to think about what home means to me. I’ve always believed home is a feeling, not a place. But more specifically, home is the feeling of peace and completeness I feel when I am surrounded by the people I love. But recently, my definition of home has expanded.

Home is also living Hands Free.

What began as small, daily intentions to let go of distraction, societal pressure, and perfection has become a necessary way of life. Like water, air, and food, I need time to connect to what matters in some form or fashion each day—time to laugh, listen, and love are daily requirements for me.

Smelling my daughter’s freshly washed hair … feeling sunshine on my face as I wait for swim practice to conclude … jotting writing ideas in a notebook … talking to my husband when the house is quiet at night … fierce hugs before we go our separate ways … my Hands Free moments are home to me now.

But I must be realistic. As much as I would love all moments in life to be calm, present, safe, and undistracted, it is simply not possible. We live in a fast-paced world saturated with duties, deadlines, and devices. In a world inundated with distractions, it is easy to get far from home. Summertime is no exception.

Yet with almost four years experience living Hands Free, I am able to detect when I am getting too far from home. No longer am I willing to push and pressure and yes my way through life to the point I lose sight of everything that matters most.

Here are some of the difficult truths I say to myself when I am getting too far from home. These “red flags” help me realize when I need to say no, re-establish my boundaries, or reassess what matters and what doesn’t.

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A Reason for the Listening Face

listening face #hands free mama

In the past week, the same question arose during a magazine interview and also while serving on a mindful parenting panel. This leads me to believe that the topic is important; it’s relevant; and it’s on our minds. While I feel the question and my response are both worthy of sharing, it goes much further than that. This particular question has led me to reflect on how I want to live out this one precious life. It’s brought me one step closer to grasping what really matters. This is my story … 

Why is it important to remember to be hands free in front of our children?” I was asked twice in one week.

And this was my response:

Our children are learning how to navigate life in a digital world by watching us. Through mindful technology use, children can learn there is a time and place for our devices. On the flip side, if we constantly have a device in our hand or our face in a screen, they will learn that the device takes priority over human beings and real life experiences. Their tech use is likely to resemble our tech use – so what we do with our device at the dinner table, while driving, or while waiting at a restaurant is likely what they will do.

One of my most effective strategies for maintaining healthy boundaries between real life and technology is to envision what will make my children feel fulfilled in the future. And it comes down to this:

If I want my children to be awed by sunsets in the future, I must take time to be awed by sights in nature now.

If I want my children to appreciate the joy of a screen-free Saturday afternoon in the future, I must take time to show them the joys of screen-free Saturday now.

If I want my children to look directly into the eyes of those who speak to them when they are adults, I must look into their eyes and listen to their words now.

It is my ultimate hope that my children’s childhood memories include me participating in their lives with open hands and attentive eyes. This means doing what I can now to be a hands free parent as they grow.

—————

After I submitted my response to the magazine editor and relayed this perspective to a room full of conference attendees, I found myself going back to the “ultimate hope” line again and again:

It is my ultimate hope that my children’s childhood memories include me participating in their lives with open hands and attentive eyes.

Keeping in mind how I want to be remembered by my loved ones when I am gone motivates me far more than any other tactic I use to grasp what really matters each day.

But let’s be real. It’s hard to be present, patient, and purposeful in this fast-paced, achievement-oriented, digitally-saturated world we live in. We often feel pressured to be available in the most remote places, during the most sacred times. We often have a multitude of requests coming at us with flashing lights and intrusive dings. We live in a world that wants to know how much we accomplished … a world where daily achievements are publically displayed … a world that values instantaneous electronic responses over leisurely face-to-face connection.

It’s hard to LET GO and LIVE when the world is constantly tapping us on the shoulder reminding us there is so much to be done.

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Who You Are Now Matters More

who you are now 3

It was a simple enough recipe—place peanuts and several types of chocolate in a crockpot for two hours and then scoop out the melted mixture in dollops to create bite-sized treats.

Simple, right? Well, not if you forget about it for four hours.

My younger daughter came downstairs when she smelled a pungent odor wafting from the kitchen. “What is that horrible smell, Mama?” she asked scrunching up her face as I scraped peanuts that now resembled black beans into the sink.

chocolate disaster handsfree mama

“I just wasted four bags of chocolate because I forgot to turn off the crockpot. I cannot believe I did that!” I chastised myself as I aggressively shoved charred clumps of chocolate into the garbage disposal. “And now I don’t have anything to bring to the party.” I didn’t try to hide my disappointment. I couldn’t believe I’d messed up something so simple.

And that’s when a little voice of wisdom cut right through the burnt haze of my frustration.

“Everybody makes mistakes,” consoled my daughter. “Remember, Mama?”

Remember.

She was telling me to remember because those have been my words to her over the past three years. In every possible way, I tell her mistakes are okay. Mistakes are necessary. Mistakes are what happen when you are living life and taking chances.

Unlike her older sister, she doesn’t remember how it used to be. During my highly distracted years the pressure to be perfect was fierce. Innocent mistakes were met with aggravated sighs and eye rolls. It wasn’t until I saw the pressure my older daughter was putting on herself that I realized I needed to stop shunning mistakes and embrace them as part of our home and our lives.

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Vow to Breathe

vow to breathe #hands free mama

My favorite beach activity when I was girl was to rescue live starfish that had washed up on shore. I couldn’t bear to see helpless five-pointed creatures withering in the sun. Regardless of how long it took or how many times I had to bend over, I’d put every washed up starfish back into the water.

Somewhere along the line, I stopped saving starfish.

Actually, I can pinpoint exactly when it happened: My highly distracted years—when to-do lists took over … when the pace of my life was a constant mad dash to a finish line that couldn’t be reached … … when I gripped my devices tighter than the hands of my loved ones … when I said yes to everything requested of me outside the home and said no to the most important tasks inside the home, like playing, laughing, and making memories.

Family beach vacations during those years were no different. If I’d go out for a walk or a run on the beach, I was solely focused on logging miles, a revolving to-do list in my head, or getting back to the hotel to corral the troops for the next thing on the agenda.

I’d become so driven in my daily life that even on vacation I ceased to savor the journey along the way. And this meant walking right by washed up starfish.

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Enough

enough handsfree mama

Sometimes I find myself sitting behind the wheel of the car thinking,
Enough.
Enough with the bickering.
Enough with the chauffeuring, the gas-guzzling, the bumper-to-bumper.
Enough with the gum wads stuck between cracker-crumb filled crevices where nice leather seats used to be.
Enough, I say. Enough.

Sometimes I find myself staring at my reflection in the mirror thinking,
Enough.
Enough with the wrinkles, the puffiness, and the sleep-deprived eyes.
Enough with the loose skin and the unstoppable gray hairs.
Enough with the laugh lines that look anything but happy.
Enough, I say. Enough.

Sometimes I find myself standing in front of an open refrigerator thinking,
Enough.
Enough with the meal prep: morning, noon, and night.
Enough with the picky eater, the slow eater, the dirty dishes, and lack of counter space.
Enough with finding the unachievable balance of nutritious and kid-approved.
Enough, I say. Enough.

Sometimes I find myself gazing at photos of tropical beaches and secluded getaways thinking,
Enough.
Enough with the perpetual ticking clock,
Enough with the steady stream of demands, the dust bunnies, and missing library books.
Enough with the needs of others that never seem to be satisfied.
Enough, I say. Enough.

But then something happens to pull me out of my negative abyss and set my head on straight.

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A Simple Tool for a More Positive Home

“Affirming words from moms and dads are like light switches. Speak a word of affirmation at the right moment in a child's life and it's like lighting up a whole roomful of possibilities.” -Gary Smalley

“Affirming words from moms and dads are like light switches. Speak a word of affirmation at the right moment in a child’s life and it’s like lighting up a whole roomful of possibilities.” -Gary Smalley

 The other night I was lying beside my 6-year-old daughter at bedtime when she snuggled in close and released a contented sigh. “I’m glad I have a family,” she whispered softly.

After agreeing whole-heartedly with her beautiful statement, an unexpected question popped out of my mouth. “If you didn’t have a family, who would you want to live with?” I asked.

Without hesitation, she rattled off four extraordinary women in our family’s life, including a current teacher and a past teacher.

As we were discussing these special ladies, my oldest daughter popped into her sister’s room to return something she borrowed. “What are you talking about?” she inquired.

When I told her what we were discussing, she immediately confirmed the value of a teacher in a child’s life by saying, “If I didn’t have a family, I would want to live with my teacher, Mrs. Reynolds.”

I was not the least bit surprised that my daughters had great affection and trust for these particular teachers. I had been in their classroom many times. I saw the love they had for their students displayed in both words and actions on many occasions.  On the day my youngest child came to school in her new glasses, her teacher did not wear her contact lenses as usual. She dug up her old glasses and wore them so my child would not feel alone. She did that for months—maybe even the remainder of the school year. To this day, my daughter still loves to wear her glasses, and she wears them with pride.

I also remember how one of these special teachers noticed my oldest daughter was struggling with the organization of her assignments and loose papers. As soon as the teacher spotted the difficulty, she told my child, “When I was young, I was just like you. I had so many neat things going on in my brain it was hard to keep up with the papers.” As a team, my daughter and her teacher figured out a way to stay organized that my daughter still uses today.

I could name countless ways these particular teachers chose to build on the positive when addressing my children’s differences, insecurities, and weaknesses rather than using condemnation to get them to change, conform, or improve.

I am fortunate to have observed these extraordinary teachers when I most needed to be reminded of the power of positivity. Because I must admit, I was once prone to criticize my children under the guise of “good intentions.” Whether it was poor posture, unmannerly eating habits, improper grooming, uncoordinated outfits, or a less-than-desired performance in sports or music, these were all areas in which I felt the need to correct. I justified the criticism by saying I didn’t want my child to be teased …  or I wanted her to be successful in life …  or be well liked … or gain self-confidence. But truthfully, it was all about me. I was concerned about how my children’s behavior or appearance was going to reflect on me. I pushed for perfection because I was overly concerned about what other people were going to think me, not them.

The truth hurts, but the truth heals.

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From a Kid Who Isn’t Known

the doll show by handsfreemama.com

Before I started my Hands Free journey, I put off living. I banked on vacations and holidays to make up for the lack of time spent connecting with the people I love. The other 349 days of the year I was too busy, too distracted, and too productive to slow down, enjoy life, and simply be with the people I love.

That’s sad, isn’t it? It’s painful to write honest sentences like that, but I know I am not alone. I’m learning that this notion of being “too busy” to spend time with the people we love is not so rare. Unfortunately when we place our moments of togetherness in far off future occasions, the opportunities of today are lost in that delay of truly living.

I’m incredibly thankful that is not the way it is for me anymore.

Now I don’t wait for holidays to slow down, laugh, and play.

Now I don’t bank on family vacations to create my children’s fondest memory recollections.

I’ve discovered that the most meaningful experiences in life happen when I take pause in the ordinary, mundane moments of a busy day.

I am thankful I know that now. In fact, when I find myself in such a moment of peace and connection, gratitude spills out in the form of warm, happy tears.

Just like it did the other night.

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Today Let Me Appreciate

“To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven.” -Johannes A. Gaertner

The message came in late one night. My husband and I had just arrived home from a wonderful evening with dear friends. Thanks to the lingering warmth of flavorful sangria and the company of those I love, I felt peaceful and relaxed. But in less than sixty seconds, a five-sentence message turned my blood ice cold. My hands, hovering over the keyboard, began to shake. The words on the screen became blurred through my tears.

There were few details included in the message. But in this case, details were simply not needed. A reader of my blog was telling me her child had been murdered in August.

Each day I read – no, make that skim over – this eight-letter word in the news. But tonight there was no skimming. I read it over and over and over again. There was something about reading it here, in my inbox, from a dear soul one email message away that grabbed me in a chokehold. Murdered. For a few moments, I forgot to breathe.

And then I went there—crossing that line of “what if” and for one split second tried and to imagine if my child …

I can’t even type the words.

And cowardly, I couldn’t even imagine such devastation … so I quickly retreated back to the safety of here and now. I bolted upstairs, taking two steps at a time, to get to my precious children. I found them, as I prayed, peacefully sleeping in their beds. With each child, I rested my head on her chest just to feel her breath, just to feel her life.

In that moment, I made a silent vow to my dear reader one email message away that I would not say: “There are no words.”

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