One Long, Overdue Question and a Sky of Possibilities

dreamer“For all the heartbreak dreamers waiting for the light
Looking for just one reason to get through the night
Every long lost believer caught in the fight
All the heartbreak dreamers gonna be alright
Everybody sing.”
– Mat Kearney, Heartbreak Dreamer

Several months ago my daughter Avery and her classmates were presented with a surprise Chick-fil-A lunch by an author friend of mine who deeply appreciates her Noticer existence and firefly light.

On the day of the celebration, the author had prepared a special note for Avery’s teacher to read out loud. The author explained the reason for the party as this:

“Dear Avery, I hope you and your classmates enjoy this special treat. It’s my way of honoring you and saying ‘thank you’ for all you’ve done to inspire so many (including me) just by being who you are – a light who shines from within and a Noticer. I also hope you appreciate just how incredible and how beautiful those two ‘invisible’ gifts are and that you will never stop being you.”

As those words were read, the expression on my child’s face was nearly indescribable, but I will try. Beyond an enormous smile that could not be contained was equal parts joy … certainty … clarity … relief … peace … and fire. Oh yes, behind Avery’s little pair of eyeglasses was a fiery determination I’d never seen before. And above Avery’s head, the Sky of Possibilities opened up. For a brief moment I was a mind reader, feeling quite certain what she was thinking: I am somebody, and I have a gift worthy of sharing.

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One week later, Avery began writing music; I am talking real songs, real chords, and soul-stirring lyrics that might be heard on the radio today. Coincidence? I think not. The gift of affirmation is mighty powerful—it has the power to become belief, inspiration, and courage when given at a pivotal time in a person’s life.

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A Vow to ‘Soften’ So Your Loved Ones Can Shine

vow to soften

I received a booklet from each of my daughters for Christmas. Some of the pages made me laugh. Others made me cry. But a few pages stood out.

“I love when you talk to me like a friend.”

“I love that you love my opinion.”

“I love how you never are mean to me.”

“I’d be lost without your love.”

It’s not often a person receives tangible signs of progress—an unexpected measurement of how far she’s come.

you are never mean to me

love #HFM

My Hands Free journey started as a mission to let go of my millions of distractions and my need for perfection. As those outer barriers dismantled, my inner barriers did too. I felt myself being less of a controlling manager and more of a peaceful nurturer. As my inner barriers weakened, my ability to respond more lovingly, more patiently, and more openly grew.

My friends Lisa and Shawn call this process softening, and I just love the image that word creates and the feeling of calm it brings.

To me, softening has come to mean pausing, breathing, reflecting, surrendering, accepting, opening, and revealing.

But there is more – and this is the kicker:

Softening means seeing—truly seeing.

By responding to others and myself with more compassion, patience, and acceptance, I’ve begun to see less in black and white and more in color. I had no idea my loved ones had so many colors until I began to soften so they could shine.

waves HFM

As New Year’s resolutions or “word of the year” bounce around in your head this week, I hope this one sticks: soften. It is doable. Its benefits reach far beyond you. It is life-changing and life-giving. And even a little bit of softening goes a long way.

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This Is Important

Two weeks before my first kidney surgery in July, I felt a sense of urgency. There were things I felt I must do before I was wheeled into the operating room. I needed to attend a morning service at a historical church I’d been yearning to visit. I needed to play Scrabble on the front porch with my daughters using the same board my grandma and I used. I needed to hear the sound of the ice cream maker, gather with friends and barefooted children, and eat icy goodness like my dad made when I was young. I needed to send a round of handwritten cards to special individuals who encouraged my writing dream. I needed to write love notes to my family.

And I did.

I did all these things and my family obliged.

Even though it was a long drive to the church. Even though they didn’t really love Scrabble. Even though homemade ice cream isn’t easy to make, they said yes.

ice cream HFM

When I said, “This is important to me,” my family listened. They did not ask questions.

Interestingly, as I was honing in on what was important to me, I was better able to see and hear what was important to them.

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Lose Yesterday’s Regrets With a Do-Over Today

I love spending time with my nephews. But because we live in different states and my daughters always monopolize their little cousins’ time when we’re together, I rarely get alone time with them. But when I do, something magical happens. Time slows down. I become calmer, happier, and more attentive. I marvel at their long eyelashes and the way their small hands feel in mine. I ask them questions like, “How long does it take a tree to grow?” and marvel at the certainty of their responses. “’Bout five minutes,” beautiful Sam said when he was four.

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When I am with my nephews it’s like getting a do-over. I get to do the things I wish I’d done when my daughters were three and five. But I didn’t because that is when I tried to control everything. That is when I worried so much about the outcome that I forgot to enjoy the experience. That’s when I counted my calories and my kids’ mistakes. That is when my voice was harsh more than it was kind. That’s when my phone ruled my thoughts and actions. That’s when I gave my time and energy to people I barely knew and had nothing left for the people I named myself.

But I try not to wallow in regret. It sucks the joy from today.

So instead I try to do better. And time with my nephews is a like a do-over. And it’s a reminder of what beautiful moments can come when you just hold a child’s hand and let him lead.

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When’s the Last Time Life Excited You?

hug life 1“With arms outstretched I thank.
With heart beating gratefully I love.
With body in health I jump for joy.
With spirit full I live.”
~Terri Guillemets

I honestly could not remember seeing my child this excited about something in her whole life. She exploded off the school bus gripping the American Heart Association Jump Rope for Heart information sheet in her hand and never let it out of her sight. She studied it while eating a snack. She kept it right beside her while she did her homework. She read over it multiple times while I made dinner as if she’d be tested on it.

“Every $50 we earn can help a child with a heart problem,” she explained to me during a rare glance up from the paper. “If we earn $5, we get Splatter. He’s the duck with the paint splotches. And I really want to earn Sky Dude. See him, Mama?” Avery pointed to a green duck wearing an orange helmet. “I am going to ask people to sponsor me. Then I am going to practice jumping.”

My daughter ran off to get started on her plan, nearly forgetting her colorful brochure—but not quite. When she ran back and snatched it up like a rare diamond, the oddest statement came to my head.

“I want to get excited about ducks.”

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One Word That Can Bring Us Back to What Matters

name HFM 1For the past six months, my 11-year-old daughter and I have been preoccupied with baby names. You see, when my sister-in-law invited Natalie and I to offer name suggestions for her third baby, we embraced it like a full-time job. At swim meets, we scoured the heat sheets for lovely names. At the doctor’s office, we exchanged knowing glances when we heard a name we thought my sister-in-law might like. My daughter and I searched baby name websites and when we found a good prospect, we’d pronounce it with the last name. If it had a pleasing sound, we’d write out the initials to make sure it didn’t spell anything inappropriate or odd. If the name passed all our tests, we’d send it to my sister-in-law hoping to make the monumental decision a little bit easier.

I’d nearly forgotten how both agonizing and exciting the name selection process was for my own two children. Tucked inside their baby books are lists of beautiful names that for several days or even months represented so much more than a name—they represented a future.

“I cannot wait for Natalie to be borned,” my fair-haired student, Morgan, would say every morning when she came to school and hugged my growing belly. I joked with my students that Natalie would be a very smart girl someday because she attended nine months of first grade before she was even born. Deep down, it wasn’t really a joke. I felt as if I could see her future, or at least envision grand possibilities, simply by saying her name.

Upon arrival, Natalie instantly lived up to her name. She had a full head of jet-black hair and was content and alert. Upon arriving home from the hospital, I made up a song using her name so we both could hear the beauty of her name over and over. Through her early years, Natalie’s name remained a sacred word spoken with immense love and care.

But somewhere along the line, that changed.

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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.

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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.

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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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