The World Needs Open Arms

the world needs 2

I carry little notebooks with me when I take walks because that is where my best writing ideas come to life. They usually start with just a few words. Sometimes those words become a poem. Sometimes that poem becomes a story. And every once in awhile, those words take on an entire life of their own. That’s exactly what happened here. What began with the words, “The world needs,” has taken me to places unimagined. I’d love to take you with me. Let’s start here:

The World Needs

The world needs more patience.
Let it begin on the floor of my home as my child struggles to tie her own shoes before school.

The world needs more kindness.
Let it begin at my kitchen counter as I bite my tongue over spilled cereal and offer a helping hand.

The world needs more hope.
Let it begin on a piece of crisp, white stationery as I write words of encouragement for a hurting soul.

The world needs more peace.
Let it begin in my heart as I decide to pick my battles and say, “I am sorry,” as often as I can.

The world needs more human connection.
Let it begin with my hands as I choose to hold on to my loved ones instead of my devices.

The world needs more compassion.
Let it begin with my feet as I walk in someone else’s shoes instead of doling out judgment and contempt.

The world needs more patience, kindness, hope, peace, human connection, and compassion. Yes, it does.

And the world is not too big, and these commodities are not too scarce.

It begins in our hearts, hands, words, and actions.

It begins with the people closest to us.

It begins with you and me.

It begins today. 

******

As you can gather from the words above, I am a big believer in small, daily gestures of love. I believe such actions hold the power to transform our relationships, but also the world. So each day I try to make a difference by opening my arms to the ones closest to me. Most days, that is enough. Most days, that is more than enough.

But then sometimes I am called to do more.

Sometimes I am asked to open my arms to those outside my inner circle. I’ll be honest: my first reaction is resistance. I think about time, cost, and inconvenience and keep my arms tucked tightly around me.

But if I’ve learned anything on this Hands Free journey, it is this: when I feel most resistant to opening my arms is when I should open them the widest.

That is exactly what happened recently while sitting in church. My friend was telling the congregation about her endeavor to redecorate the dark and gloomy rooms of a local women’s shelter. Each of the 100 rooms housed two mothers and their children who were trying to rebuild their lives after a traumatic life experience. My friend said it was quite amazing what a little paint, some soft rugs, new towels, colorful bedding, and a bedside lamp could do to lift the women’s spirits and make them feel worthy.

As my friend invited people to adopt a room, I felt that pang of resistance. I began calculating time, cost, effort, and availability. That’s when my older daughter leaned over and whispered enthusiastically. “Let’s do it, Mom!”

I looked down and saw my arms folded tightly around my body. I knew what I must do. I opened my arms and pulled my child close. “Yes, Natalie,” I agreed. “Let’s do it.”

My daughter and I spent an afternoon shopping for items for the room makeover. I stuck to the practical things like a shower curtain and a trash can, but Natalie was drawn to the comforts—candy, bags of coffee, soft blankets, and coconut-scented shampoo. I watched as her arms filled with things that make a home a HOME.

On the day of the redecoration, we were joined by our daughters’ two best friends. I was amazed that there was no load too heavy … no dirt stain too stubborn … no bathroom bug too intimidating for these four kids. For six hours they cleaned, organized, and rearranged with vigor.

the world needs #handsfreemama

the world needs #handsfreemama

the world needs #handsfreemama

the world needs #handsfreemama

the world needs #handsfreemama

At one point, the children were folding baby clothes for the twins that lived in the room when a resident of the facility approached them. “You like helping people, don’t you? I can tell,” she said matter-of-factly.

I stood back and watched as I thought about the woman’s unusual compliment. Perhaps it was the children’s friendly smiles or the enthusiasm they put into folding onesies that identified them as “helpers.” But in the end, I think it was their wide, open arms that distinguished them as givers who make the world a better place.

the world needs #handsfreemamaI vowed to remember the powerful impact of outstretched arms despite my initial thoughts that almost discouraged me from helping. But in case I needed one more confirmation, I received an email message from a mother of one of Natalie’s classmates.

“Please tell Natalie thank you for me. I was tucking my child in bed and she was telling me about her day. She said they watched a movie in class and Natalie was the only one who let my daughter sit in her lap. She is our cuddly and nurturing child who feels safer when tucked in a lap, even at ten-years-old. She said that Natalie held her for the whole movie and that it was the best day because of that one thing.”

If I didn’t know it before, I know it now: the world needs more open arms.

The children
The mamas
The daddies
The babies
The aging
The dying
The lonely
The sick
The weak
And even the strong …

They all need more open arms.

And we have them. My friends, we have them. Sometimes that is all that we have.

But it is enough.

It is more than enough.

Let us begin wherever we are.

the world needs more open arms1

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As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the words “the world needs” have taken on a life of their own over the past few weeks. I feel compelled to share one last experience in case someone is looking for a way to open their arms:

Around the time my family was preparing to redecorate a room at the women’s center, a dear friend reached out to me. Emily Wierenga is a gifted author and journalist who writes about her life-changing experiences in Uganda on her blog. She told me how she was working to raise funds to build and outfit three rescue homes for orphaned babies in the Ugandan slums. I sat down with my daughters and we read about the project, the children, and watched the video here

Both of my daughters were amazed by the fact that these once unloved and malnourished children living among trash were now being given love, shelter, nourishment, education, and hope simply by coming to live in one of these rescue homes. They immediately wanted to help.

My detail-oriented older daughter began planning a lemonade stand to raise money for more rescue homes. My musically inclined younger daughter began working on a lullaby for the housemothers to sing to the babies. She was so involved in this project that she begged me to stay up until it was complete. She wrote the song, “Don’t Worry, Little One,” and created a melody to go with it. Take a listen: 

The girls each collected $5 and made a $10 donation here. Interestingly, the tears and angst we were feeling about our family’s upcoming move to a new state have subsided as we have focused this project. There’s something about making a home a home for another human being that brings peace to your heart. There is something about making a home a home for another human being that brings peace to the world.

Friends, in light of this post, World Help has lowered the suggested donation amount from $75 to $10 this week to make it easier for more adults and more children to open their arms and transform a child’s life. Smaller donations and lullabies are also welcomed and greatly appreciated. You can donate any amount here and send lullabies to: wierenga.emily@gmail.com.

I will update you on the impact of The Hands Free Revolution community on the Rescue Home project next week!  

Wishing you a blessed Easter, friends. Thank you for making the world a better place.

If You Really, Really Knew Me

"I don't care where you've been. I'm just glad you're here now." -Rachel Macy Stafford

“I don’t care where you’ve been. I’m just glad you’re here now.” -Rachel Macy Stafford

I recently had the honor of speaking on a parenting panel with two experts in the field of living with intention and gratitude. Mike Robbins was the panel mediator who posed thoughtful questions to Michelle Gale and myself.

As we took our seats in the chairs positioned at the front of the room, I realized this would be the first time I was seated while speaking to an audience. My eyes were immediately drawn to the people in the front row. As I responded to Mike’s questions, I soon realized I was talking directly to them. I forgot I was holding a microphone. I forgot I was talking to a large group of people. I forgot all the things I had prepared to say and spoke from my heart, just like I do when I write.

One man in a red sweater nodded encouragingly, just like a friend would sitting across from me at a coffee shop. One man clapped enthusiastically after one of my responses. One woman, whose beautiful, dark hair swooped over her left cheek, could not stop her tears. I was speaking to those people, literally and figuratively. I could feel it, and it made me want to share more of my heart with them.

That’s when Mike invited the audience to participate in a group exercise. He instructed them to answer the following sentence with a partner:

If you really knew me, you would know …

After each person took a turn, he or she would go a little deeper:

If you really, really knew me, you would know …

The partners were instructed to continue exchanging their truths until time was up.

Although Mike checked with Michelle and me ahead of time, I felt a pang of discomfort when I heard Mike say that the panelists would go first, illustrating how the exercise would work.

Part of me hoped my microphone would malfunction or I would suddenly lose my voice. Part of me wanted to think of something light and easy that would make people laugh. Part of me wanted get up and run away.

But instead I took a deep breath and looked at my new friends seated in the front row. Their loving gazes indicated I would be safe, supported, and encouraged, no matter what I said.

And what came out of my mouth was unexpected, but it was truth. I said:

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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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A New Perspective on Past Mistakes

new view on past mistakes #handsfreemama

The farther I get from the distracted, perfectionistic, hurried version of myself, the more I can admit difficult truths … the more I can heal … and the more I can truly live.

Lately, I find myself reflecting back on the first year of my journey—the year I faced my external distractions head on. It was the year I learned to let go of my phone, slow down, breathe deeply and hug fiercely. I had a wonderful teacher—my second-born child, Avery … my lover of life … my apple seed planter who would literally lie down in the grass and wait for a tree to grow. Avery showed me how foolish it was to get upset over life’s little mishaps. Avery steered me toward joy, as noted in the acknowledgement section of my new book:

“Avery, it is you who put the joy on the pages of this book.”

And in my life.

But here I am now, three and a half years into my journey and I am going below the surface; I am digging into my most painful internal distractions—the feelings of guilt, regret, and inadequacy that prevent me from living, laughing, and loving more than any phone ever did.

And now my inspiration is coming from my older daughter, Natalie.

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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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Everyday Lifelines of Hope

"The world is too big to never ask why  The answers don't fall straight out of the sky  I'm fighting to live and feel alive  But I can't feel a thing without you by my side  Send me out a lifeline."  --Mat Kearney

“The world is too big to never ask why
The answers don’t fall straight out of the sky
I’m fighting to live and feel alive
But I can’t feel a thing without you by my side
Send me out a lifeline.”
–Mat Kearney

I grew up seeing handwritten notes as expressions of love. My mom worked long hours so she often left small, square papers on the bed for my sister and me to find. Sometimes it was just a smiley face, other times she simply wrote the words “love you” in ordinary ballpoint pen, but it was more than enough.

Lifelines

Starting in elementary school, my mom requested I write notes to my grandma who lived a few hours away.  What I loved the most is that Grandma always wrote back. The excitement I felt when I looked in the mailbox and saw a letter in my grandma’s shaky letters never disappeared. Even in college when there were tests to study for and social gatherings to attend, I took time to sit on my narrow bed and read my grandma’s letters the moment they arrived. By studying her handwriting, I could almost tell how she’d been feeling that day. In the end, her manuscript became barely legible. Those notes are now treasures.

Lifelines

I’ll never forget when the guy I was dating my senior year in college had a family emergency and to take a sudden trip home. Sometime during the middle of the night, he’d dropped off a handwritten note telling me why he had to leave. A handwritten note of this nature from this particular guy seemed like a really big deal, and I felt incredibly excited by it. I tucked it away for safekeeping not knowing that note would be the first of many special letters from my husband.

Lifelines

The words, “I’m proud of you,” from my dad written in his signature black felt-tip pen, birthday notes from friends containing funny memories, and cards from my former students written in precious kid penmanship are all lifelines I can’t bear to throw away.

But I have to tell you, my greatest lifelines have come from my youngest daughter, Avery. Around the time I woke up to the fact that I was missing my life, my daughter was learning to write words. As I took small steps to be more present in her life, she began writing me love notes. Although I’m sure the timing was purely coincidently, these powerful visuals fueled my steps to let go of distraction and perfection.

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How to Fill Up a Child

“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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