In Need of an Emergency Contact

emergency contact #handsfreemama

“Are you Rachel Stafford?” she asked me over the low roar of party conversation and festive music. When I nodded, the woman with a very familiar face said, “You are the emergency contact for half my preschool class.”

It wasn’t meant as a compliment, but as the words rolled off her tongue, I couldn’t help but smile. I felt the magnitude of its meaning in a way I hadn’t before.

Rachel Stafford, Emergency Contact

Although there are many esteemed titles in today’s society, I could not think of a higher honor at that moment. I’d filled out enough school registration forms to know the importance of those three blank lines. Who would pick up your children if you couldn’t? Who would you trust with life’s most precious gifts?

Knowing I was chosen to retrieve my friends’ pint-sized angels in times of trouble gave me an added confidence boost over the past few months. Whenever I failed miserably in other areas of my life, I reminded myself: I am an Emergency Contact. I may have more flaws and failures than I can count, but my friends know I would drop everything to retrieve their precious babies and love them as my own. That thought always gave me a lift.

But very recently the term Emergency Contact has come to mean even more.

[Read more…]

The Bully Too Close to Home

“Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.”  –Brene Brown

“Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.”
–Brene Brown

During the two years of my overly distracted life, I communicated more to a screen than to the people in my family. My schedule was so tightly packed that I constantly found myself saying, “We don’t have time for that.” And because there wasn’t a minute to spare, that meant no time to relax, be silly, or marvel at interesting wonders along our path. I was so focused on my “agenda” that I lost sight of what really mattered.

Calling all the shots was a mean voice in my head. My internal drill sergeant was continually pushing me to make everything sound better, look better, and taste better. My body, my house, and my achievements were never good enough. Holding myself to such unattainable standards weighed heavily on my soul and my inner turmoil eventually spilled out at people I loved the most.

Sadly, there was one person in particular who bore the brunt of my discontent: my first-born daughter.

She could not make mess without me shaking my head in disappointment.

She could not forget her homework, her jacket, or her lunchbox without me making a big deal about it.

She could not spill,
stain,
break,
or misplace
without being made to feel like she’d made the worst mistake in the world.

Although it pains me to write this, I remember sighing heavily in annoyance when she fell down and hurt herself because it threw me off my “master schedule.” My daughter was not allowed to be a child who learned by trying and yes, sometimes failing.

The truth hurts, but the truth heals … and brings me closer to the person and parent I want to be.

[Read more…]

Keep Reading

 
In this space I call “Hands Free Mama,” I write about letting go of distraction to grasp what really matters. In my life, distraction comes in two forms: external and internal. And although I began this journey to break free of technology’s grip on my life, I found that my inner critic was just as effective at robbing my “moments that matter” as my electronic devices. So in honor of Mother’s Day, I offer some healing words. It is my hope that something written in this post will quiet the inner critic living inside a woman you love. Perhaps that woman is you or the one who shares your life. 

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For the woman who savors a backwards letter in childlike scrawl and secretly hopes “liberry” and “strawbabies” will never be pronounced correctly …

For the woman who crawls on achy knees into her child’s tiny bunk bed to read stories and inhale his just-bathed scent  …

For the woman who would prefer a dandelion bouquet carried in a dirt-filled palm over a dozen red roses in a crystal vase …

For the woman who cries at the sight of her child and cannot explain why …

For the woman who feels her awkward bulges and morning breath slowly dissipate when a cherub voice says, “You’re so pretty, Mama” …

For the woman who is never at a loss for words when it comes to defending her child …

For the woman whose babies will never, ever become too heavy to carry …

If this sounds like you, keep reading.

[Read more…]

The Children Have Spoken

Today is my birthday. It is the big 4-0. A month ago, I began writing a post in anticipation of this day. It was going to be the most open, authentic, and inspiring post I had written in my life. I couldn’t wait to post it. But then something happened. A message fell right into my lap … no, actually, it slapped me painfully across the face. And I knew THIS, THIS was meant to be my 40th birthday post.

“Nearly all the best things that came to me in life have been unexpected, unplanned by me.” –Carl Sandburg

It is my 40th birthday, and this is not the post I had planned for today. But this message is far more important than anything I could ever say about my own life.

Trust me on this.

[Read more…]

One Happy Island

I recently wrote a post about the fourteenth wedding anniversary excursion I went on with my husband. Many readers saw the sunset photos and inquired where one can find such surreal beauty.

The answer is Aruba.

And believe it or not, the sunsets are only a fraction of its appeal.

This island is very much in its natural state, void of expensive landscaping and “showy” sights.  This island and its people are authentic, satisfied with simply showcasing their natural splendor without worry of living up to typical vacation destination standards or expectations.

I slowly realized the island had a motto when I began seeing the same three words everywhere. In fact, the slogan was affixed to every license plate on the island.

Aruba: One Happy Island.

At first, I was merely delighted and amused by the fitting phrase of this welcoming piece of paradise. But the more I thought about it, I realized it was a motto worth adopting.

What if I could be consistently happy in my own skin regardless of what the media claims as fit or beautiful?

What if I could be happy with my life pursuits regardless of what society deems as a worthy life goal or defines as success?

What if I could be happy with who I am without the affirmation or justification from others?

What if I could be a happy island?

As a sensitive, “people pleaser” all my life, it is sometimes difficult to be a happy island. Too often, I allow outside factors to determine my own happiness.

But on this Hands Free journey, I am working on grasping what matters.  And something that matters is being happy with ME and not allowing outside forces to threaten or undermine that happiness.

I am fairly certain I have made progress in the area of self-validation during my past year of living Hands Free, but now I have a slogan to inspire me in those moments of insecurity and doubt.

One Happy Island.

Thank you, Aruba.

And as if fate knew about my determination to live up to my newfound motto, I was tested.

In fact, the test was waiting for me when I opened my computer upon arriving home from my trip.

Oh really, Rachel? One Happy Island? Let’s just see about that.

I debuted this blog eight months ago and never once had I received a mean comment. That is, until a few days ago. Granted, I have received a few comments that respectfully challenged my Hands Free concept or politely questioned a view I expressed in one of my posts, but those types of comments are quite different from a personal attack on me as a person and a mother.

The comment in question pertained to my blog entry, “Must You Go So Soon?” In that post, I describe the life lessons my family has gleaned in our efforts to stabilize the water in our new fish tank…a necessity to keeping the fish alive.

Without any editing, here is what “Tom” wrote:

I think Your a little nuts, sorry to break the news to you but fish don’t have feelings. This isn’t finding Nemo. I really think your parenting skills suck. And your kids are going to grow up to be sheltered sissies. That have no clue how this big bad world really is.”

A year ago, I may have read this and gotten a bit offended. I may have had to seek affirmation from a few talented blog writers like Lori or Wendy who have posted glowing reviews of my writing and my parenting skills.

A year ago, I surely would have had to show this harsh response to my husband or best friend so they could tell me Tom’s comment was about as accurate as his grammar usage.

And I surely could not have gone to sleep without drafting a curt and disdainful rebuke to this man who clearly missed the entire point of the post.

Lastly, Pre-Hands Free Rachel may have actually considered his words and wondered if there was any truth to them…not once, but many times….unable to simply let it go.

Now things are different. Thank God, things are different.

Do you want to know what I did when I read Tom’s comment?

I laughed.

In fact, I laughed out loud.

I laughed the way I do when my daughters and I watch silly YouTube videos like “Charlie Bit My Finger,” or “Baby Dancing To Beyonce.”

And before I slid Tom’s comment into the deep, dark blogosphere “trash,” I had one more good laugh.

Then three words came to my mind: One Happy Island.

I’m getting closer. Yes, I am.

Thanks, Tom.

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How often do we allow other people’s cruel words, negative comments or harsh criticisms threaten what we know is true about ourselves? Whether it is from a co-worker, neighbor, family member, friend, the media, or even our own inner voice, life can be littered with insults. But it’s up to us what we do with them.

Being joyful is a choice…letting other people sabotage it is, too.

So the next time someone tries to ruin your party, shrug it off; have a laugh.

Retreat to your island and be happy.

*I leave you with a photo of my ultimate One Happy Island role model wearing her new One Happy Island t-shirt. My four-year-old daughter loves life. Actually, she loves her life and nothing anyone can say or do will change her mind or her attitude about that.

The epitome of One Happy Island..

Must You Go So Soon?

Where'd everybody go?

This is not going to be a pretty message. Nope, nothing pretty about this one.

But sometimes life’s most meaningful messages don’t come in pretty packages.

This is my story…

My oldest daughter received an aquarium for her eighth birthday.

The process of immersing herself in the research of all things “fishy” for an entire month leading up to her birthday was all very “Hands Free.”

And the way my daughters gasped in sheer delight when the colorful fish were freed into the tank was about as “Hands Free” as you can possibly get.

The epitome of “Hands Free” was how someone who is not much into fish or sitting still, for that matter, found herself perched on the ottoman in front of the tank mesmerized by its tranquility when no one else around.

Yes, even my control freak ultra planner drill sergeant side has been slowed down by the aquarium.

So just as I was about to declare the fish tank experience one of the greatest producers of Hands Free behavior on my journey to grasp what matters EVER, things took a different turn.

Things turned dark, as dark as they could possibly get.

From the warm and fuzzy connected feeling that is life at its fullest, we were thrust into the cold and heart-wrenching feeling that is death in its finality.

I told you this was not going to be pretty.

I know, I know. We were warned. Brad the All-Knowing Fish Salesman warned us that keeping fish alive was very difficult; he didn’t sugar coat it. In fact, his exact words were, “Even people who are experienced aquarium experts are often unable to keep their fish alive.”

We should have run. Run, as fast as we could to the furry four-legged side of the pet store. I know. I know.

But I kept thinking we had something the “fish experts” didn’t have. After all, this was a Hands Free mission sparked by my eight-year-old daughter’s quest to grasp what really matters.

Yes, it would turn out beautifully, just like the other Hands Free experiences on this journey have so far.

I was sure the loving Hands Free connection that radiated from us would be enough to sustain these fish.

Plus, my husband was determined to make it work.

He did everything as instructed by Fish Salesman Brad to prepare the tank and make the water optimal for its inhabitants.

Our kitchen counter was lined with overpriced products like, “Stress Coat,” and “Nutrafin Aquarium Supplement.” In addition to products that promised to reduce ammonia and nitrate toxicity in the water.

Yes, oh yes, fish would not only LIVE in this aquarium, they would THRIVE in this aquarium.

Yet for some reason, I kept hearing Brad’s voice like a bad song I couldn’t get out of my head, “Very hard to keep alive…alive…alive….”

Just to be on the safe side, I instructed my daughter not to name any of the fish…not until they survived the initial transfer.

But then my daughter declared one of the fish, “Rachel’s fish.”

Really? My very own fish? The cute neon orange one?

I just had to name it.

I just HAD to go and name it, didn’t I? Why couldn’t I have just taken my own advice and allowed him to remain anonymous.

The next day, guess who was floating belly up in the tank? Yes, my little Orange Blossom.

I won’t lie. I was disturbed.

As a child, I couldn’t bear to watch Bambi’s mother get shot, and I still close my eyes during that scene. I was the girl who tried to get the mean boys to stop frying ants with the magnifying glass at recess. I still carry house spiders outside on a piece of paper (if they aren’t huge). I just don’t like seeing anything die, regardless how tiny it is.

Yet, I could see one small positive in the demise of little Orange Blossom…at least it was my fish that perished and not my children’s fish.

Not yet, anyway.

So a few days passed. Fish began mysteriously disappearing. Waverunner 1 was first and then Waverunner 2, shortly thereafter. (Yes, we named them. We just couldn’t help it. Their red and blue stripes looked exactly like the swim cap my daughter wore for her Waverunner swim team.  We just HAD to name them.)

Why, oh why, did we have to name them?

Again, disturbing…very disturbing.

We all gathered around the tank in disbelief. I had an inkling of what was going on, but I couldn’t imagine speaking the words. It was so Hannibal Lecter-ish.

My eight-year-old was only a few seconds behind. After all, she was the one who educated us about “aggressive” fish and informed us that she wanted no part of those kind of fish.

“Someone is eating them!!!” she realized with disgust.

We all pressed our noses against the glass as if the culprit would have a skull tattoo on his tail or an excessively bulging belly.

Now who could it be?

We all concluded it was the silver mollie. It was the fastest one in the tank and kind of had a bossy attitude about it.

My husband bagged up “Killer” and took my daughters with him to the pet store hoping to replace “aggressive” with “docile.”

They arrived home a few hours later and were quite busy making noise in the kitchen.

When I walked out, I saw an addition to the fish tank. Our delightful dwarf frog had been upgraded to a one bedroom condo equipped with a tiny terra cotta hiding pot, faux greenery, and trendy blue rocks. Pottery Barn for Frogs. Really?

“The frog is a carnivore!” my oldest daughter announced.

“He is the one who has been eating everyone!” she further explained in layman’s terms in case Mom was clueless.

Oh no. No way. I could not believe that. Cute little skydiving Mr. Dwarf Frog???

So what about the silver mollie? I felt badly he was mistakenly accused of wrong doing (serious wrong-doing) when he was totally innocent.

Well, they informed he was traded…like a baseball card. I guess that is how the unfeeling fish world works.

In his place, my daughter chose a “cleaner fish,” because the one we originally bought never, and I mean never, comes out from behind the rock. (And yes, we checked; he is surprisingly alive unlike everyone else.)

I have to admit, the new cleaner fish was pretty cool. He actually resembled a small shark (minus the sharp teeth). He gently scaled the sides of the tank sucking off algae and bacteria. We all sat hypnotically watching his slow, methodical movements for several minutes.

At this point, I felt like I needed a Who’s Still Alive re-cap…a fish roll call, of sorts.

“So let’s review,” I began, although my daughters were still fixated on our novel new addition.

“Now we have two cleaner fish, two clown fish (both being from our original fish purchase), a neon green tetra…”

“Which is my fish!” my youngest daughter interjected.

“…And a newly purchased Mickey Mouse platy,” I concluded.

The water had been tested for high levels of nitrates and ammonia. The temperature of the water was ideal. The compatibility of the fish was checked and double-checked. And the carnivorous frog had been removed. Surely things would be O.K now.

Two hours later…

Remember the cool new cleaner fish I was just telling you about? Well, he was dead.

“Are you kidding me? This is ridiculous!” I could not believe what my oldest daughter was reporting and stormed out to the aquarium to see for myself.

I began a mumbling rant about how we should have just gotten a cat.

“I can keep a cat alive, no problem!” I huffed under my breath.

My four-year-old daughter stood in front of the tank with her shoulders slumped. Clearly she had seen one fish cadaver too many.

She ran into my arms and began sobbing into my chest.

“Mama, are you gonna die, too?”

No way. This is NOT the Hands Free moment I placed my order for when we bought this fish tank!

Now both girls were crying as their daddy removed the now hard as a rock “cleaner fish,” who was not around long enough to even get a decent name!

My four-year-old prayer warrior suggested it was time to ask for God’s help in the matter. She informed everyone she was going to pray.

She said the loveliest prayer for as many of the dead fish she could remember, (after all, there had been so many), and then she squeezed her eyes tightly as she pleaded for the other fish to “just stay alive.”

We miraculously made it almost two weeks without an aquatic casualty.

And then my youngest daughter’s neon green tetra became a victim of The Tube (innocently referred to in the instruction manual as The Filter, which really should have a warning label for slender fish).

Before she could even think about crying, my oldest daughter quickly reminded her of all the other fish that were still alive.

I heard my eight-year-old whip out her Ultra Sunshiny Kindergarten Teacher Voice to consoling her heart-broken little sister.

“See, we still have two clown fish and the first cleaner fish we ever bought, which we can’t see because he hides all the time, but we know he is there because look how clean the tank is?”

Little sister seemed to be buying it, so Big Sister continued, “Then over here, we have the fish with the Mickey Mouse symbol on his tail, but don’t worry, no one wrote on him, his tail is naturally like that. And of course, look at Mr. Froggy!”

She pointed to Froggy’s private, deluxe accommodations next to the tank, “Just look at how much fun Mr. Froggy is having!”

And right on cue, Froggy did a little free-fall move from the top of the bowl to the bottom.

My youngest daughter actually smiled.

Shew. Crisis diverted. You know I am not one to promote “distraction.” But in this case, my oldest child used it well.

As per instructions, it was time to clean the tank. My husband did exactly as the instructions read. Once he was finished, we all admired the glow of the tank, the smell of the fresh clear water, and the lively movements of our happy little inhabitants.

In my mind, I was at peace.

OK, so we may not have them ALL, but we have enough, and it looks like they are going to stay around now.

“Can we name the other clown fish now, Mama? His brother, Oreo, has had a name for weeks now,” my oldest daughter reminded me.

“Yes, you can name the clown fish with the little orange spots,” I agreed.

After all, things were finally looking stable.

She decided on “Bubbles.”

We just HAD to name him, didn’t we?

You know where this is going, but I must continue anyway.

My youngest child runs around the house a few hours later shouting, “Bubbles is dead! Bubbles is dead!”

First I had to remember WHO Bubbles was, (we had literally just named him), and then I experienced the feeling of anger, sadness, frustration, and disbelief that was becoming way too familiar.

When I arrived at the tank, not only was Bubbles dead, but so was the Mickey Mouse platy.

Now this was getting ridiculous.

I had to find something (or someone) to blame for this most recent fish massacre.

BUT….I had to be very careful. If I was too accusatory or critical, I might lose my tank cleaner, and I am talking about my Human Tank Cleaner. You can’t buy one of those at the pet store.

“What do you think happened this time?” I calmly asked my husband, my Human Tank Cleaner, who also looked quite depressed.

“For some reason they didn’t survive the water change,” he surmised.

Oh that’s nice…blame it on the innocent fish…make it sound like it was their fault.

“The salesman said fish are really hard to keep alive,” he added.

Yeah. I think I got that.

Again, another “Shoulda got a cat” comment slipped out under my breath.

I over went to console my oldest child, who now looked like she had finally reached her breaking point.

“I just don’t understand, Mama. Why? Why do all my fish keep dying? Oreo and the practically invisible cleaner fish are the only ones left!”

And for someone who really did not know what to say, something quite good came out of my mouth.

“Honey, those fish are just glad they didn’t die in the pet store.”

Huh? Even I wasn’t sure where this was going.

She stopped crying immediately looking at me like she needed more…wanted to hear more of this (potentially lame) theory.

“Well, all your fish were chosen. That is what fish wait for…someone to chose them from all the others. You know, life doesn’t really start until you get out of the pet store aquarium and actually have a home. While they were here, they looked out of the glass and not did see a store; they saw a home. They saw the same joyful faces day after day. They saw that they had been chosen. So they died happy.”

She was considering. I was holding my breath.

The agony on her face softened, “You’re right. That would be terrible to die in a pet store,” she agreed.

“And now they are in fish heaven! Having fun swimming around with all their friends,” my ever-happy youngest daughter chimed in.

We all looked lovingly at Oreo, our one sole survivor (if you don’t count the “cleaner fish” who spends his whole life hiding behind a rock).

And now, another week has passed. He has been with us for six weeks now.

I still find myself sitting at the tank, despite the fact there is much less to look at in there now.

I am kind of in awe of little Oreo and wonder if he could talk, what he might say is his secret to survival.

I think Oreo would suggest these three things for longevity:

Live large- Living a little on the plump side prevents you from getting sucked up into The Tube AND you are just a bit too big to fit inside a dwarf frog’s mouth.

Go Slow- There’s no need to rush, people. What’s the hurry? Slow down and feel the bubbles, check out the sights. And when the heater accidently gets unplugged, your slowness will conserve energy.

Be Happy- When someone takes a look at you, smile. Smiling big might just get you selected from a sea of other bubble blowers so you can get out there and see what real life is like.

"Oreo" swimming along slowly, but happily, in his great big tank.

The death of seven fish was not something I thought I would write about on my Hands Free blog. There is definitely nothing warm and fuzzy or inspiring about it.

But there is a critical Hands Free lesson here.

When I watch little Oreo swimming alone slowly in his great big tank, it is almost as if there is a sign on top that reads:

LIFE IS PRECIOUS.

One day you could be going along quite happily and then suddenly you might find yourself fighting for your life, or worse, you might find yourself flat on your back wondering where your life went.

LIFE IS PRECIOUS.

I can’t help but think about the fish that do end up dying in the pet store, never getting out to see what real life and real joy look like staring back at them.

I think it might be a lot like dying with a cell phone against your ear or a to-do-list in your hand…like you “managed” life, but never got to the “living” part.

I told you this wasn’t going to be pretty.

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Update: Since this writing, Oreo has passed away, but his message lives on. In fact, because of Oreo’s passing, I heard this exchange between a father and his daughter:

“Keeping fish alive is a lot harder than we thought it would be. The book I was reading said most people give up after two months.  But we’re not going to give up. We’ll get the water figured out and then we’ll get more fish.”

“O.K., Daddy. Let’s not give up.”

The Hands Free lessons of the fish tank just keep coming.

What are your dreams? What do you want to accomplish in life in order to grasp what really matters to you? It may take several tries; sometimes you may get discouraged, but don’t give up. Don’t settle for life at the pet store. Get out there and live life… even if it means a little heartache along the way.

Come Closer

Being Hands Free to grasp what really matters often means going outside my comfort zone, not taking the “easy,” route, and accepting the fact that the way I’ve “always done it,” may not be the best way.

Usually it begins with a voice in my head; I call it my Hands Free inner voice. It pushes me to do things I don’t necessarily want to do, but need to do, in order to grasp what really matters.

My Hands Free voice recently spoke to me. Although it would have been easier to simply push the suggestion away, I acted on it. And the results far exceeded my expectations.

This is my story…

A few weeks ago, I read an article entitled, “Why Roughhousing is Good For Kids and Their Parents” by Lylah M. Alphonse.

The article describes the physical, emotional, behavioral and social benefits that children receive by engaging in a little “rough and tumble” with either or both of their parents.

Although my memories as a four-year-old are a bit hazy, there is one activity I do remember vividly. And the article on roughhousing seemed to bring it to the forefront of my mind.

I can still recall standing, for what seemed like hours, at the screen door of our house watching for my dad’s car to pull in the driveway.

As soon as my dad would get home from work, my favorite game of all time would begin. It was quite appropriately called, “Getcha,” which definitely sounds like a name four-year-old Rachel made up.

My sister and I would huddle together in “fear,” the minute Dad would get on all fours in the living room. Yet we knew full well that sticking together would not save us from the all-powerful “Getcha” hand.

We would fake scream at the top of our lungs, act like we were trying to get away (but not really), and squeal with delight when Dad grabbed us and started tickling our bellies.

On occasion, we would get a little wild and out of control, which is when we would hear Mom call from the kitchen, “O.K., now. That is enough roughhousing.”

I remember thinking “roughhousing” was such a strange word and such a poor description of what we were doing. I figured my mom made it up to sound unappealing and “parental.” To me, there was nothing “rough” about it.  In my four-year-old opinion, it was the best kind of “playing” that existed.

And now thirty-four years later, roughhousing still has the same appeal to my kids that it did to me back then.

My daughters love roughhousing with their uncle. He doesn’t have kids of his own yet, so he has an unlimited supply of energy that is not artificially produced by large quantities of caffeine. He rarely uses the word “no” and doesn’t have back issues. So given all those variables, he is the perfect candidate for “roughhousing,” or what my children refer to as, “Tackle Time.”

Whenever I mention an impending visit from their uncle, the girls’ eyes begin to twinkle and in unison they excitedly exclaim, “Tackle Time!”

I love to hear their joyful shrieks as he “captures” them, whips them around, tosses them over his shoulder and then squeezes them in a giant bear hug until they laughingly cry out for mercy. (It’s the best kind of laughter…the silent, uncontrollable kind that causes wet pants.)

There may have been certain points in my life when I would have worried about their safety or thought the play was too rough, but now I know this type of physical contact and interaction is vital to my children’s overall emotional and physical well-being.

So here’s where the Hands Free inner voice came into the picture and started asking a lot of questions…or actually began repeating the same question over and over.

The question that kept coming up was this: What types of physical connection do you have with your children?

The first child that came to mind was my four-year-old. Her nickname, “Ooey Dooey,” was given to her in the first week of life, but still suits her perfectly. There is just something soft, cuddly and warm about her. She even has a name for her own huggable nature. She calls it her “Ooey-ness.”

Wouldn’t we all love to possess some of that?

There is just something about my four-year-old daughter that makes you want to wrap your arms around her and pull her close. And when you do, she never rebukes. She actually melts right into you. Pure Ooey-ness.

At the conclusion of “Question Time” each night, our nightly “cuddle ritual” occurs.

I pull her close and say, “I’m am soooo tired. I think I will just sleep right here. Will you be my teddy bear?”

She smiles, (while simultaneously sucking her thumb), and nods an emphatic “yes.” I nestle her in close and I plant a million little kisses the soft cushiony spot right under her chin.

That is just what we do. Every.Single.Night.

Yes, my four-year-old gets that critical physical contact needed to flourish and prosper; we are good in that department.

So what about my eight-year-old?

Time to step into the light of realness, Rachel.

(Have I mentioned the Hands Free inner voice hardly ever gets it wrong?)

Somewhere along the line, the physical contact between my oldest child and me has been watered down to a quick kiss on the forehead or a three-second hug as I tuck her in at night.

Perhaps the reduction in our physical contact over the years is a result of her getting “too old” for Mom’s long lingering hugs or cuddle time. Perhaps it is because her leaned out swim team physique no longer has the “Ooey-ness “quality it once had. Or perhaps it is because she doesn’t sit still for long periods of time (not when one has so many lesson plans to write!).

Well, the Hands Free inner voice is not one for excuses, and I have learned that excuses are a waste of precious time. The fact of the matter is this: my eight-year-old needs physical connection (in some form or fashion) from her mom. In fact, it is a critical part of her healthy development.

So five nights ago, things changed.

At the conclusion of our nightly “Talk Time,” a question unexpectedly came from my mouth.

“Can I listen to your heart beat?” I asked.

She looked as surprised as I was by this request, but said, “O.K.”

I will admit, at first it seemed a bit awkward.

But then as she lay so perfectly still and her steady heartbeat filled my ears, the awkwardness melted away, and I was absorbed in the moment…a beautiful moment of connection.

“My goodness, you have a strong heart,” I whispered.

I could see her white teeth glowing in the darkness as she smiled with her whole face.

“It’s because of swim team,” she answered with certainty.

And because my head rested on her chest, it was easy to wrap my arms around her. I just remained there. No talking was needed as I became hypnotized by the beat of her heart.

And when I felt her hands wrap around me, I knew our “Heartbeat Check” must happen again.

So the at the conclusion of “Talk Time” the following night, I said, “I better check your heartbeat.”

She giggled.

I listened for a few moments and realized it was much slower than the night before.

“I think you have been taking it easy today. Your heart is so calm,” I teased.

“I think it is from the ice cream I just ate,” she surmised.

And then we just lay there, my head on her heart, her arms around my shoulders.

Suddenly, I heard the most beautiful sound.

As she nuzzled her nose into my hair and took a deep breath in, this tender little sigh of contentedness came out of her mouth as she exhaled.

“Mmmmmmm,” she murmured softly.

And then, “Mama.”

I kissed every freckle on her nose and cheeks, and then told her how much I love her.

Before I shut the door, she said, “Don’t forget I have a swim meet tomorrow night. I wonder what my heart beat will be like then!”

Now I was the one smiling with my whole face. This was her way of telling me she liked this new bedtime tradition and wanted it to continue.

It has been five days now.

Words are seldom needed now; the awkwardness is completely gone. With each “Heartbeat Check,” our connection through touch grows stronger.

Although I initially created this Hands Free tactic for the sole benefit of my daughter, I’ve discovered that I, too, am reaping the rewards.

A few days after the nightly “Heartbeat Check” began, we found ourselves in a 25-minute wait outside a restaurant standing in the pouring rain.

My daughter leaned her whole body up against mine, as if to hug me. Instead, she looked up at me with her big brown eyes and said, “Now let me hear your heart beat, Mama.”

How did she know?

It was exactly what I needed.

As I stood on the verge of whining about a trivial inconvenience in my blessed life, she reminded me of what truly mattered.

My daughter rested her head on my chest, and I felt my blood pressure instantly lower. Suddenly a message I had written two weeks prior came back to me. It was my daughter’s 8th birthday message:

I have learned more from your heart in eight years than I could learn in a lifetime without you.

Coincidence?

No way.

Nothing on the Hands Free journey to grasp what really matters is coincidental.

With every beat of her heart, my daughter will continue to guide me to the place I long to be.

And in a rowdy, rambunctious bear hug, I will embrace what really matters. Just like my dad did when we played “Getcha,” the best game in the world.

******************************************

Do you roughhouse, pillow fight, or play tackle with your kids, grandkids, nieces or nephews? What forms of physical contact do you enjoy with your family? I would love to hear!

And if your Hands Free inner voice is already asking questions, you know what to do.

The beauty of going Hands Free is that it is never too late to grasp what matters. Tomorrow is gone, but you have today. My friends, you have today. All it takes is making a choice to grasp what matters. Do it today.

If You Only Knew


The ability to know my children is in my hands.

*For the privacy of this individual, her name has been changed

In this journey to become Hands Free, I have really started listening. Not just listening more intently to my own inner thoughts and feelings, but listening to other people. I mean really listening.

A year ago, I am not sure I would have truly heard what this woman said. But with my Hands Free heart, I heard her words and they have been life changing. I share them with you now.

This is my story…

I recently found myself fully reclined in an oversized chair, draped in a crisp white sheet, amidst dimmed lighting and New Age relaxation music. I was about to receive a luxurious facial. It was a gift from a friend who recently had her fourth baby. She was convinced that she would not have made it through the trying last three months without my help and support, and this was her way of expressing gratitude.

As you know, I am a big fan of The Angel Impact. I was simply doing for her what others had done for me when I had a new baby. I was not expecting a lavish facial in return, but I was surely going to enjoy this generous gift.

Before the aesthetician came in, I crossed both my fingers and wished for one that did not have the gift of gab. It is not often that I have the opportunity to completely relax, let alone in a deluxe setting such as this one. The last thing I wanted to do was carry on a conversation.

A beautiful woman named Debbie* came in. After a brief introduction, she began rubbing the most delicious smelling substance on my face in gentle circular motions.

Ahhhh….at last…surreal, peaceful, relaxation.

“So Rachel, what is your occupation?”

Suddenly the small window of tranquility was closed abruptly.

I briefly considered giving her the quick, one word answer: “Mom,” or “Teacher,” or “Writer,” thereby indicating that getting to know one another was not one of my goals for this session.

But for some reason, I felt inclined to tell her about all three of my occupations. Then I explained how I was using my skills as a mom, teacher, and writer to author a book about making the most out of our time here on earth, particularly in respect to our children.

That is when Debbie said something that one year ago I would have missed. One year ago, I may have actually ignored her, simply acknowledging her words with a polite, “Uh huh.”

But things are different now. Thank God, things are different. And I listen because I have learned that you just never know when someone else has the words that you need to hear.

She said, “I just want to know my children, really know my children. That is all I want in my lifetime.”

At first it almost seemed like a silly, obvious notion to “know” my child, but after further thought, the critical concept of really knowing my child sent chills down my spine.

Because here’s the truth, the cold hard truth: the ability to really know our children is in jeopardy. Knowing our children has earned a spot on the In Danger of Extinction List.

Here is why…

In the jam packed, over-scheduled, constantly beeping, buzzing, media saturated, technology obsessed, stressed out, warp speed rat race that we call life, something is getting lost.

Personal connection is getting lost.

Human touch is getting lost.

Private conversation is getting lost.

While we are fully aware of what our children like to do, (insert mile long list of extracurricular activities here), do we really know who our children are as people?

And we, as adults, must take responsibility for the major part we play in the current deficiency in knowing, really knowing, our children.

A year ago, I was on the verge of not knowing my children (more on that in an upcoming post). Thank God, things are different now, but I still struggle. I still struggle to fight the distraction that invades my life and threatens to steal from me the only real connection that truly matters on this earth.

And to combat this struggle, I create reminders in the form of a list. I choose lists over long-winded paragraphs because they have a way of sticking with me, popping into my head at the precise moment I need them.

This list could serve as a “Hands Free Wake Up Call” or a “Hands Free Slap In the Face.” And I am not going to sit here and say that I don’t need it.

Because I do.

Every single day, I need to evaluate how I am using my precious time on this earth.

The following list helps me do just that.

This is the If You Know List, created with the help of my single, hip, and technologically savvy sister, Rebecca:

If you know exactly how many “likes” your latest Facebook status update has received in the past hour…

If you know the exact number of times your latest tweet has been retweeted…

If you know the number of TV shows your DVR exceeds the number of times you conversed with your child this week…

If you know the next 20 movies in your Netflix queue off the top of your head…

If you know the content on the TMZ blog so thoroughly that your friends regularly ask you for the latest celeb gossip…

If you know all there is to know about Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, Ping, Yelp, Foursquare and Meetup…

If you know where your Kindle is at all times of the day and night…

If you know the latest status updates of your 500 Facebook friends…

If you know how to text proficiently while in the dark, with your eyes closed, with an injured finger, under the influence of alcohol…

If you know all the Twitter names of Kayne’s followers…

If you know the latest ring tones available from Lady GaGa…

If you know there is seasonal wallpaper available for your Blackberry and change it accordingly…

If you know the personal ringtones for each of your 300+ iPhone contacts…

If you know the number of times each Hollywood Wife has been married and the names of the all the MTV Teen Moms’ babies…

If you know how to discreetly check email while in church, at a wedding, or at a school function…

If you know any and all sport scores with the help of ESPN, as well as MLB, NFL and NHL digital cable sports packages…

If you know the location of your multiple phones at all times, but occasionally lose track of your children…

If you know the dangers of texting while driving, but do it anyway…

If you know you should turn off your computer and spend time with your children, but you don’t…

If you know you really shouldn’t keep the phone on the table at dinner, but you do it anyway…

If you know you could return emails after your kids go to bed, but you choose to ignore them instead…

If you know you are wasting an opportunity to converse with your child while you talk on the phone and drive, but do it anyway…

If you know that you often choose interacting with people on a screen over the living breathing human sitting next to you…

If you know all these things,

If you know half these things,

If you know one of these things,

Then your chance to know, really know, your child is being sacrificed.

Your chance to know who your child is as a person is in jeopardy.

If you know any of these things, you know less about your child than you could know.

And so now that you know…what are you going to do about it?

That is the real question here. What are you going to do about it? Yes, some of the items on the list are over the top. Some of them are laughable. But let’s step into the light of realness, shall we? We all have things that distract us from truly knowing the people we love.

Because the fact of the matter is this: We live in a world inundated with distraction, and there is room for improvement in every single one of our lives. This might not be your list of distractions, but you have one, just as I have one. And when I admit the truth, I know exactly what takes my focus, my attention, and my presence off of the people I love.

The truth hurts, but the truth heals.

Only YOU know what is distracting you from the personal connection, human touch, intimate conversation that your loved ones so desperately need and want from you.

Only YOU have the power to know your child.

Or you can simply continue to choose to know a lot about “things” that won’t matter one damn bit when your last day on this earth arrives.

*******************************************************

What distracts you from focusing on the people you love? Whether it’s external distraction or internal distraction, whether it’s technology, negative emotions, excessive spending, or self-absorption, the detrimental cost of your distraction is the same. Your loved ones are fully aware when you are not giving them 100% of yourself.

I challenge you to spend 20 minutes with your child or significant other TODAY with everything turned off, including technology, as well as wandering thoughts.

In 20 uninterrupted minutes, you can really get to know someone.

Please take a moment to give someone else the opportunity to grasp what really matters by sharing this critical message.

Holding Imperfection

This week my posts have focused on living in realness. I have described how the act of acknowledging and expressing my true feelings has been a critical part of my journey to grasp what really matters in life.

Today I share an experience that describes the inner peace and wholeness that can only come from embracing our scars and accepting our imperfections. And furthermore, that our mistakes of the past should not prevent us from living the way we want and deserve to live in the present.

It is never too late to make changes.

You are never too far gone to come back.

You are never too tarnished to be made new.

You are never too broken to be made whole.

It is never too late to start over.

And on this particular day, Easter Sunday, it seems like a fitting day to speak of miracles and new life.

May you find significance and hope in the words to follow…

I recently was blessed to meet a captivating woman and artist. A few weeks ago, I visited her home to select a piece of her extraordinary artwork.

While there, she candidly shared her own story. She has graciously given me permission to share it with you today.

Several years ago, Catherine Partain hit rock bottom. Emotionally, spiritually, financially and mentally depleted, she was merely a shell of her former self. During that desolate time in her life, she felt an unmistakable calling to make crosses.

And so she did. And it became her life mission to make crosses unlike any other.

Catherine’s crosses are original works of art; each one possessing intricate detail and design that tells a compelling story that speaks to the soul. When held in the hands of the destined owner, the cross unexplainably calms hurts, doubts, and worries deep inside the heart. And through this calming peace, a clear vision of a brighter future is experienced; hope is found.

You would think an object that holds such tremendous presence would be made of polished silver, priceless gold, or perhaps smooth, unblemished wood.

That is not the case.

Catherine’s crosses are made from that which is jagged, ruined, tarnished and otherwise useless.

Catherine’s crosses are made from what most people would describe as waste, trash, unwanted and undesirable material.

Catherine’s crosses are made from scrap metal.

Catherine’s reason for using scrap metal to create the crosses is explained so eloquently in a recent article written by Naomi Jo’el Glover:

“When asked why she uses only scrap, Partain is quick to say, ‘Because I was that scrap.’ For Partain, the scrap represents the human soul, particularly her own—dirty and unclean and then redeemed through the cross. ‘Before this redemptive journey I had done everything wrong but realized I could be forgiven and made new,’ Partain says. ‘Now, the ugliest pieces I find are my favorites. I will reach down under the grime to get those burned, twisted pieces that you would at first think to pass over.’

It’s never too late to start over.

During my recent visit to Catherine’s home, I walked back and forth perusing the crosses that majestically lined walls of her entryway.  As if my feet were being lead, I kept coming back and standing beneath this one. I was drawn to it. In my head one of my favorite Hands Free terms came to mind, “Perfect Imperfection.”

I looked at this cross that was so far from perfect in its material and in its form. Yet, it was the most beautiful cross I had ever seen. I could see every scar, every blemish, as well as the rough, tarnished edge. I could see beautiful realness.

I felt compelled to hold it against my chest and weep. Instead, I took the substantial, yet exquisite, cross off the wall and simply held it in my hands. It felt like home.

I looked at it in wonder and amazement knowing this immense symbol was once scrap, discard, waste. And now, because of its imperfections, it had become something tremendously meaningful and valuable.

It’s never too late to start over.

I remember the day I painfully admitted that my life had become that of a movie played in fast forward. I realized I was literally watching my life go by, not playing an active role in any of the parts that matter; I call those parts, “Sunset Moments.” I was missing my Sunset Moments one by one, never to be retrieved again.

On that painful day I got “real” with myself was the day I crumbled; it was the day I succumbed. My life as I knew it became a discarded piece of scrap that by the grace of God would be made new.

With the words, “I won’t live another day this way,” my new life began.

When I hold this heavy Cross of Imperfection in my hands, my heart feels light. If discarded trash can be made into a divine symbol of grace, love, forgiveness and redemption, then there is hope for me; there is hope for you.

And on this blessed Easter Sunday, may the thought of miracles and new life fill your heart with possibilities that only come when you allow yourself to live imperfectly, yet oh so beautifully, in realness.

*For information on obtaining one of Catherine’s extraordinary crosses, please go to her website: http://crossesbycatherine.com

Take a Look In My Closet

My friend, Lori, doing what she does best.

A few years ago, I had a small group of women over to my home for dinner. My husband and I had resided in this location for about six months, and I had enjoyed getting to know these particular ladies and wanted to know them better.

I will never forget when one of the women inadvertently opened the closet door instead of the pantry to discard her trash.

Much to my embarrassment, an enormous accumulation of “crap” fell from the sky. She protected her face from flying cookbooks, outdated school directories, headless Barbie dolls, school projects, half finished scrapbooks, and yes, even a dirty sock.

“Oh my gosh, I am so sorry!” I gasped.

I scrambled to uncover her, hastily brushing off the stale crumbs stuck to her forehead that had fallen off the completely over-used recipe for Mom’s Banana Bread that had also descended from the closet.

I will never forget the look on her face.

Relief.

Pure and simple relief.

She looked me in the eye and said, “You don’t know how happy this makes me. Thank God, you aren’t perfect after all!”

I hugged her tightly and we both laughed.

Although I hadn’t yet experienced my Breakdown Breakthrough to begin living “real,” the notion that I appeared perfect (until someone saw the contents of my closet) sat on my shoulder gently reminding me that it’s perfectly OK to be imperfect, in fact, most people welcome it; most people actually embrace it!

But it is not easy to show people the contents of your closet, the messy, unsightly, most unbecoming parts that we can hardly bear to look at ourselves, let alone allow anyone else to see.

I recalled this incident vividly when a former classmate, dear friend, and fellow blogger recently made an announcement.

She posted this message on her blog, “Wisdom Comes Suddenly”:

I’m headed in a new direction here at Wisdom Comes Suddenly, and I hope you’ll like this chapter as much as you’ve enjoyed previous escapades, because this chapter is…um, well to be honest, it’s REAL.  Really…real.  It’s begins with a new affiliate relationship I’ve formed with a company I blogged about one year ago named “Celebrate Calm“.  They specialize in teaching parents behavioral techniques for intense and/or special needs children, i.e. Gifted, ADHD, ODD, OCD, Anxiety Disorders, Asperger’s, Autism, Sensory Integration Disorder, and other learning or emotional disorders.  That being said, I think their techniques are so common sense, they would work on any child.

So here comes the real part: Sara is a special needs child, which would be the first time in 5 years I’ve said that out loud.  I like to refer to her as “high needs,” because for some reason, I find it easier to say.  It’s ambiguous; ambiguous can be comforting when you climb a mountain with a child, only to look up and see another standing in your way. We live with the fuzzy hope that each mountain will be our last.

Sara’s diagnosis list is so long that it truly deserves its own post, and I promise to share that journey in the very near future.  For now, I can tell you she is simply a very intense child who defies all common parenting logic.  We are not alone in parenting an intense child, this much I’ve learned.”

I have been following Lori’s blog for several months now marveling at her brilliance and endless talents. Although I am not “crafty,” I enjoy her creative “20 minute” sewing projects that turn a piece of scrap into a sleeping bag for a doll (or a cat, if it is cooperative). I drool over her organic dinner menus and homemade pies that would give Paula Dean a run for her money. And I enjoy seeing Lori transform an ordinary room into something from a vintage bed and breakfast for next to nothing.

But most of all, I love the warm and fuzzy feeling I receive each time I am invited into the beautiful life Lori has created in a home where love always comes first.

And when I had a chance to look in her closet to see the messy, difficult, disorganized, and unpleasant parts of her life, I loved her even more.

As I read her words on my computer that night, I wiped away the tears. I applauded her courage. I admired her honesty. I anticipated her wisdom and her journey.

And being a writer in a public forum, I couldn’t help but think of Lori, the woman who had to push “publish” on that bad boy.

I can only imagine the hesitation, the deep breath, the anxiety, and the wonder.

Because once you speak the words, you cannot take them back. Being real is not the easy path.

But I would wager to say that every single person who reads of her new chapter feels a sense of relief.  And like my friend who saw the contents of my closet, a bit of the “thank-God-she’s-not-perfect-after-all” kind of relief. Maybe there is hope for the rest of us, after all.

It is difficult, painful even to discuss the challenges of parenting life. We often withhold information because we think people will judge us or that people will think we are bad parents, but by holding back, you are diminishing your chance to connect with someone who says, “I am going through this, too. Let’s help each other.”

Lori is creating a community. She began by putting herself out there, by being real. And now there is a safe place to lay your worries. There is a safe place to say, “I’m scared.” There is a safe place to say, “I am having a really bad day.” And there is a safe place to say, “Things didn’t quite turn out the way I had planned. Where do I go from here?”

And there will be my friend Lori, reaching out her hand providing encouragement along with humor, along with creative ideas like “I Promise” and “Ear Comforters” that work for her child and might work for yours, too.

Isn’t this what it is all about? Living Real equates to Loving Real. Building a community that allows for scars, blemishes, struggles and messy closets?

Isn’t it when we expose the imperfections that the healing begins?

Isn’t it when we stop hanging on tightly to perfection that we can truly grasp what matters?

Isn’t it when we open our messy closets that the joy, the laughter, and the love can find its way in?

Isn’t it when we show each other our scars that we love each other more?

I think so.

Could those of us reading today become a community of people who embrace and welcome realness? Could “The Hands Free Revolution” become a group of people striving to grasp what really matters by living real and loving real? It starts with me. It starts with you. Open your closet. Uncover your scars. Let the healing light shine in. And while you’re at it, spread the light to someone else by clicking the “share” button below.