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.

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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.

When You See Promise

My just turned eight-year-old daughter has been playing school on a regular basis since she was three-years-old.

Actually, I don’t think it is fair to call it “playing school” because there is no “playing” involved. It is the real deal; it is serious business. It is as close to actual school as it gets.

With each passing year, my daughter adds more classroom ideas, creative teaching techniques, and lesson planning to her reenactment of school. And to seal its authenticity, she utilizes every single item from my ten-year teaching career.

By default, Little Sister was declared “official student” of Big Sister’s school as soon as she could sit up. When she could hold a crayon without eating it, the educational training really picked up. Aside from the fact that Little Sister’s attention span isn’t as long as her “teacher” would like and she occasionally mouths off, she is a way better pupil than non-communicative stuffed animals or Barbie dolls.

But then one day, my little “Teacher In Training” had an idea. Why couldn’t she have a classroom of real live students? Why must she wait until she is grown (or even nine-years-old, for that matter) to teach all that she knows?

She came to me last summer, a month before my Hands Free Breakdown Breakthrough, and said, “Could I invite real children to come to our house this summer so I can teach them?”

Now I could have left this part out of the story and it would still have the Hands Free impact for which I strive for in my writing. But this journey is about living in realness, so I am going to tell the whole story.

I considered her request for about two minutes. And in my overwhelmed, over committed, stressed out state, there was no way I could fathom the idea of adding several more living, breathing children to my household on a regular basis in order to participate in my child’s self-created “school.”

So without hesitation I said, “Not this summer, honey. I’m sorry.”

And since I am being real, I secretly hoped her desire was a passing phase and it would never come to mind again.

Well, the year went by and my seven-year-old daughter continued to hone her skills as an educator.  She discovered educational websites (for teachers, not students) and taught herself how to create an instructional PowerPoint slide show.

I will never forget the day I discovered her video taping herself teaching. She said she liked to watch the videos to see how she could improve.

It was almost scary, really.

And Little Sister was given no mercy. Big Sister starting paying very close attention to what came home in Little Sister’s take-home folder, particularly noting where she needed “remediation.”

Without fail, Teacher Natalie would have an array of worksheets that she found on the Internet and several hands-on activities geared to help her sister improve a particular skill.

“It’s time for school, Avery!” I could hear her call at the crack of dawn on Saturday mornings.

“This is what you need to work on,” she confidently instructed as she stood over her pajamas-clad pupil who was still rubbing sleep from her eye and begging for her first glass of “milky,” to get her going.

I’m telling you…no mercy. Little Sister could not get away from Big Sister’s need to teach.

Perhaps it was because she realized there was no escape or perhaps she actually liked it, but Little Sister surprisingly became quite the willing participant. Her attention span grew and she actually requested “Natalie’s school.”

Once in awhile the model student would rebel and demand to be the teacher, but she soon quickly learned “real” teaching is hard work and it is much easier to be the student.

I remember the exact day in April that “The Question” came up again. (You know, the question that nine months prior I was hoping would disappear from her mind and never pop up again. Well, it didn’t.)

“Mama, do you think I could have my own school this summer with actual little kids that are going into kindergarten like Avery?”

OK, so here’s my realness (again)…

As I considered it, I envisioned chaos. I imagined messiness. I anticipated moments where I would need to intervene and get everyone calmed down.  I envisioned counting beans getting stuck in noses and spit wads flying across the room. I imagined childcare gone awry in the worst way.

In a nutshell, I envisioned a whole lot of work…for me.

I was this close to saying “no” again, but my Hands Free inner voice went to work (in its sometimes annoying, yet poignant way). I was reminded to set aside my own inconveniences and ask one simple question: Is this a chance to grasp what really matters…not for me, but for my daughter?

Then I felt compelled to take a look around the playroom that had been transformed into a classroom through the hands of a seven-year-old.

I spotted four folders with actual names of children in our neighborhood.

I saw pre-kindergarten worksheets in sets of four neatly paper clipped together sitting on her teacher desk.

I saw a mini library of books labeled and categorized in boxes based on topic.

I saw a Morning Message complete with a circle time rug.

I saw an impressive “Word Wall.”

I saw clean white journals and with a place to store them.

I saw signs on places where signs had never been.

And when I stood back and took it all in…

I saw promise.

I saw a little girl’s dream being put into action by her own doing.

And then I was certain: This Hands Free moment in time wasn’t about me.

This was a pivotal moment in my daughter’s life. I could either put up a roadblock or I could stand to the side and see where this road goes, to see where she goes.

“O.K. You can have a summer school at the house for real children,” I found myself saying to a little girl who was now jumping up and down with excitement.

Then I informed her of the ground rules. (I am a teacher, too, you know.)

I told her this would be HER deal. She would be doing all the lesson planning, the prep work, and the clean up. I told her I would be happy to check over the lessons if she liked and would be available for advice and guidance.

I explained that first she must write a letter to the parents of her prospective students and give dates and times of class, and make a request for a small supply fee to cover the cost of materials.

She got right to work and prepared an impressive letter. She informed parents that she would be holding a six-week kindergarten preparation course for four students, (one, of course, being her sister), and it would cost $1 per session. She requested the money in advance so she could go shopping at Wal-Mart for her supplies.

She even thought to describe the skills the children would be working on and invited parent suggestions regarding skills that needed improvement.

Each time a student permission slip and supply fee was found in our mailbox, my daughter became giddy with excitement.

In the month leading up to her school, she had many questions that led to in-depth discussions between the “new teacher” (her) and the “experienced teacher” (me). She was especially interested in the behavioral techniques I used as a special education teacher; she was covering all the bases.

As we talked about classroom management, pace of lessons, developmental characteristics of four and five-year-olds, and smooth activity transitions, we were no longer speaking as an adult to a child; we spoke as one colleague to another colleague.

After every one of these amazing discussions, I experienced a powerful, “What I Would Have Missed,” revelation, knowing I had almost closed the window on these interactions with my child.

The day of school finally arrived and Miss Natalie put on her favorite dress and brushed her hair until it shined. She tucked her hair behind her ear on one side just like her young and beautiful first grade teacher that she adores.

Desks were prepared, pencils were sharpened, delicious snacks and an over-flowing treasure box awaited the arrival of the children.

Promptly at 3:30, the excited children arrived and she escorted them upstairs to her classroom.

As she settled them into their assigned “desks” and gave them one of the best welcome introductions I have ever heard, it dawned on me that I was not needed. I was not needed in the least, which is quite funny considering I thought for sure this was going to be “work,” for me.

(Good thing the Hands Free inner voice is not one for doling out a well deserved, “I told you so.”)

I decided to do some work in earshot of the classroom. I couldn’t help but wonder what she would say and how things would go.

In the time frame of 90 minutes, I witnessed my child utilize every single one of her God-given gifts…

She read a children’s book with the passion and enthusiasm of a veteran kindergarten teacher…

She enhanced their learning through a PowerPoint slideshow she created herself…

She privately and lovingly explained the importance of patience to a student who was having difficulty waiting…

She gave a humble word of thanks when corrected by one of her students after she lost her place in the ABC game…

She gave the children a chance to move their bodies and exert energy after a twenty-minute work period…

She asked thought provoking questions…

She complimented; she redirected; she nurtured and guided…

Despite all that, she managed to grade their finished work so it could be sent home in the take home folders.

While they were engaging in the going home procedures, I had a chance to peek inside some of the completed journals.

Although I enjoyed reading the journal “sentence” written in big awkward capital letters, that is not what caught my eye.

At the top of every student’s page, encouraging words were written in my daughter’s beautiful penmanship.

Suddenly I was brought back in time, 30 years prior. I was back in one of my favorite places of all time.

I was in my second grade classroom proudly looking at my writing paper that had been graded by someone I loved dearly; Ms. Paluska was her name.

I can still practically smell her comforting scent of blooming lilacs and spearmint gum that I would breath in whenever she hugged me, (which was often).

Ms. Paluska always wrote loving words of encouragement on the top of my writing papers in red pen just like Natalie did that day.

Yes, Ms. Paluska was an extraordinary teacher, but it was the loving, kind, and compassionate person inside her, not the teacher, that made an impact on my life.

I see the same qualities developing in my daughter.

And her students see it, too.

At the conclusion of the third session of school last week, one of Natalie’s little students with long beautiful hair looked up at her beloved eight-year-old teacher and exclaimed, “I don’t ever want to leave, Miss Natalie. I want you to be my teacher forever.”

Oh yes, my daughter is definitely heading somewhere…perhaps it is towards being a teacher or perhaps it is something all together different; it doesn’t really matter.

All that matters is she is on her way to being a loving presence in the lives of others.

I can’t think of anything I want her to be more than that.

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I shudder to think I almost missed seeing my child in this role, in this setting. To realize she almost missed this opportunity because of my own selfish considerations is a “Hands Free wake-up call” for me.

Yet I must remember, the Hands Free journey is a learning experience, and this is one lesson I will never forget.

What about you? Have you encouraged and allowed your child’s gifts to develop through things like holding a lemonade stand, planting a garden, or building a race track or have you squelched them for your own personal reasons?

Perhaps when an opportunity arises, you can consider it this way: Is this a Hands Free opportunity for my child to grasp what really matters?

When you see promise, don’t start going through the list of negatives. Push those aside and imagine where that road of promise might lead.

A New Fan of Lazy

Little did I know the tremendous impact a green inner tube and tranquil waters would have on my life.

As one would imagine, my Hands Free mentality causes me to be overly aware of the usage of hand held communication devices.

What interests me most are not the times I see people using their phones, it’s the times I see people NOT using their phones.

Because when I am in a public setting and the vast majority of people are refraining from phone usage, I take notice. I examine that setting thoroughly because I think The Answer lies in there somewhere.

That is exactly what happened a few weeks ago when I took my daughters to a water park while we were visiting out-of-state friends and family.

I now have a new appreciation for the word “lazy,” and realize “lazy” needs to be a part of my life more often!

This is my story…

While our trip back home included an extensive amount of quality time with family or friends, there was one day my daughters and I were totally on our own. I knew there was a fabulous water park in the area and considered taking them there.

Before I became Hands Free, the thought of the water park with two little girls by myself would have been too risky, too scary.

How would I be in two places at once? What if one girl wanted to go water slides and the other wanted to visit the kiddy splash area? Would I be able to keep an eye on my oldest if she wanted to swim in the deep end while my youngest wanted to stay in the shallow end? (You get the idea. And I won’t embarrass myself by listing every Water Park Worry that crossed my mind.)

But my Hands Free inner voice assured Type A Control Freak Rachel that not everything has to be planned out, not every adventure has to be illustrated in a ten-step diagram before arrival; I can simply let things happen. It Will Be OK. Really.

In fact, there is only one question my Hands Free inner voice asks to determine if an activity is worthwhile, which is: “Is this a chance to make a memory?”

If the answer is YES, then I convince myself to let go of worry, logistics, and all the “what ifs” and simply say YES to making a memory.

Well, needless to say, the day turned out beautifully. We took turns going to the places Big Sister wanted to go and the places Little Sister wanted to go.

We tried out all the different areas of the park, but we kept ending up in the same place, a place they both loved.

Time and time again, we found ourselves at The Lazy River.

(Who wouldn’t love something with a name like that?)

I was not expecting this.  I thought such an attraction would be too boring for my swim team loving seven-year-old. I thought it would be too intimidating for my just-learned-how-to-swim four-year-old. I thought one time around the tranquil river and the girls would be pulling my arm to the next adventure.

But as I have learned on this Hands Free journey, the best things come unexpectedly; the most meaningful things happen when you just allow to them unfold naturally.

At approximately the eighth time around The Lazy River circle, my daughters had it all figured out. They knew things worked best if Little Sister went in front, followed by Big Sister, and Mama took up the rear.  We held hands so that our rafts did not separate.

The smile on the face of my four-year-old was pure astonishment, total bliss. She spoke phrases I have never heard her say like, “This is fantastic,” and “I am just chilling out.”

My oldest daughter made up a game where we would fill out “cups” (hands) as we drifted beneath the flowing waterfall. (Oh yes, I got my hair wet. How could you even doubt me after my Mother’s Day post?)

We had lively conversation about the pace of the current, the breeze in the air, the perfectness of the day.

There were no fights, no sisterly squabbles. All was peaceful as we tilted back our heads back and basked in the sun along The Lazy River.

And then about round #54, my Hands Free radar went off. I was so intent on the beautiful things happening in my own trio of rafts I did not notice what was happening around me.

Then it hit me.

The Lazy River was one of those special, rare places…very few locations such as this exist in the world today.

The Lazy River had no phones.

Not one person held a communication device in his or her hand.

There was no texting, talking, ringing, buzzing, beeping, vibrating in The Lazy River.

And what I saw was a sight for tired, over-stimulated eyes:

I saw hand holding…teenage boys grasping tightly to stay together, families holding hands to keep their floats from drifting apart .

I saw human contact…babies lovingly held against their mothers’ chests, young children snuggled in their Daddy’s laps.

I saw conversation…two brothers talking sports, a mom and her children already discussing their return trip to the water park.

I saw relaxation…a weary dad drinking in the sunshine, normally hyperactive kids hypnotically silenced by the lull of the water.

I saw kindness…sweet grandmothers making small talk with my daughters, helpful rafters giving a push when needed.

I saw laughter.

I saw happiness.

I saw calmness.

I saw wholeness.

I saw unity.

I saw love.

And no one was in a hurry to get off The Lazy River. It was as if we had nowhere in the world to be. It was as if no one wanted to be anywhere else. It was as if time stood still.

Even today, I still find myself intrigued by this rare and lovely experience. I continue to dissect and process it.

I find myself asking: Why was The Lazy River a site of loving connection on the deepest human level?

Perhaps it was the blueness of the water.

Perhaps it was the abundant sunshine after a long rainy May.

Perhaps it was just a nice family crowd on that particular day.

But there was more to it than that.

I know it and you know it.

The reason The Lazy River was the site of ultimate human connection was not because of what was present, it was because of what was NOT present.

Phones were not there to steal the focus.

Phones were not there to hold the attention.

Phones were not there to interrupt the conversation.

Phones were not there to destroy the connection.

Phones were simply Not There.

And because the hands in The Lazy River were not holding tightly to distraction, they had a chance to grasp what truly mattered.

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I think we all can agree that most families do not get enough “down time,” where we are not on a schedule, not in a rush, and not tied to our phone or computer. I think we can also agree that we need to create more “lazy river” experiences.

While we may not all have the opportunity to visit a lazy river, we can take the components of it and re-create a setting that produces the same results. Simply go on a family outing (visit a park, go on a hike, a picnic, a bike ride, or the neighborhood pool) and turn off the phone, place it out of sight and out of arm’s reach. Take off your watch, and lose track of time. Simply go where your heart leads you.

The Hands Free Revolution is putting “Lazy” back into summer. Reach out your hand and grasp what really matters!

Are you with me?

Tipping The Scales

On the way home from my Mother’s Day dinner, my daughters asked if we could visit the pet store.

My husband and I happily oblige our daughters’ requests for pet store visits as these adventures allow us to put off actually buying a pet for awhile longer.

Typically, both my daughters enjoy watching the furry four-legged animals. But on this day, my oldest daughter made her way to the back of the store with her dad while the hyperactive hamsters and spastic ferrets entertained my four-year-old and me.

After ten minutes, we wandered to the back of the store to see what the rest of the family was doing.

There stood my seven-year-old transfixed on the wall of aquariums. She didn’t even notice when we walked up.

“Are you ready to go home?” I asked.

Her eyes didn’t leave the sight of silver mollies that glittered like a string of diamonds as she said, “Can we stay a little longer, Mama?”

I paused for a moment and watched her captivated by the fish. We stood in front of pet store fish tanks hundreds of times before, but something was different this time.

But I didn’t know what.

By now my four-year-old was begging me to make the chubby brown hamster “talk,” like I had minutes before.

I grabbed her hand and we went to see what tiny compartment the little ball of chub had squeezed himself into now.

After an additional fifteen minutes, we returned to the fish tank section to see that my oldest daughter had made her way to the last row of aquariums.

“Time to go,” I called.

As we were leaving, my daughter spotted an aquarium, not huge, but much larger than the small container that currently holds her single Betta fish.

She stopped at the tank and carefully read the information on the sign below it; I could see the wheels turning.

As soon as we got in the car, she made an announcement.

“I have decided what I would really like to have for my eighth birthday is an aquarium with several fish.  The aquarium at the pet store is $49.00. I know that is expensive, so that is the only gift I am going to ask for this year.”

And then came the part that really surprised me, “And I don’t need a birthday party. The aquarium is the only thing I want.”

Wow. Willing to give up her birthday party. Perhaps she does mean business about these fish, I surmised.

I told her we would think about it in the weeks ahead. I was quite sure that for each day leading up to her birthday, there would be a new gift idea.

The same rule of inconsistency holds true for Halloween costumes. The day that one of my daughters decides she wants to be a witch, and I order the costume, is the same day she decides, “No, I don’t want to be a witch this year. I would rather be a cowgirl, or a pirate, or a fairy, or a race car driver.”

But unlike the indecisiveness of choosing a Halloween costume, my seven-year-old has not changed her mind about the fish. Not in the least.

It has been twenty-nine days since we visited that pet store. And in those days, my child has become a full-fledged ichthyologist, studying fish like it is her job. My daughter has become a self-created fish expert.

I have found typed lists like this one randomly placed about the house:

I have discovered hand printed lists like this one next to her pillow, stuffed in her backpack, and taped to the walls:

The search history on the Internet contains phrases with everything from: “tropical fish for beginners” to “ very small pet sharks.”

She charts the pros and cons of fresh water fish vs. salt-water fish.

She studies fish facts while going to the bathroom, while drifting to sleep, and while riding in the car.

She enlightens those around her with facts like: Fishes have two temperaments, peaceful and aggressive. (Quickly noting that although many aggressive fish look pretty, she would never buy a fish that would eat his friends.)

She knows there are care levels: beginner, intermediate, and advance, and is wisely aware that she needs fish in the beginner category.

Her favorite website to shop for fish used to be www.bluezooaquatics.com, until she realized they only sell saltwater fish. So now she prefers www.liveaquarium.net  because they sell fresh water fish, AND “they have the best prices.”

Our nightly “talk time” has become “Fish Education For Mom.” (Or on some nights, I will admit, I refer to our discussion as, “More Than I Will Ever Need to Know About Fish.”)

She randomly throws out sentences like, “I do not want a guppy in my fish tank. I read that they die easily,” and “Can you believe an eel costs $102.00!”

Her face lights up when you ask to see the fish pictures she has printed.

She becomes down right giddy when simply talking about fish she dreams of owning.

All my skeptical thoughts about her seriousness of wanting a fish tank for her eighth birthday have been silenced.

I am totally convinced this is exactly what she wants (all she wants) for her eighth birthday. And my husband and I are amazed and delighted at her newfound passion for learning about and caring for fish.

As I watch her animated facial expressions and listen to her speak about fish with such incredible joy, I can’t help but realize a change occurred in my daughter from age seven to eight.

And I find myself asking, “Why the change? Why now?”

Maybe she was always this excited about grasping new and interesting things in life, and I had just been “too busy” to notice.

Maybe through her recent opportunities of helping tornado survivors she realized the value of material things fade, but feelings, memories and experiences endure.

Maybe it was a year of sitting in doctor’s offices hoping for some relief from her worsening pain and now finally, finally seeing a ray of light.

Or maybe it is that she is just getting older, wiser, and more mature.

There is definitely been a change from age seven to eight. And I can’t help but notice that her change coincides with my own change.

My journey to grasp what really matters began last July. In the past eleven months I have made a conscious effort to cut the excess in my life, both the tangible excess and the intangible excess. I have made a conscious effort to slow down and place my focus on the beautiful moments that make up my lifetime.

I will never forget the moment I heard my seven-year-old daughter describing my blog to someone.

She said, “My mama writes stories that help others learn about being a good parent and doing nice stuff for other people.”

Then she proudly added, “My sister and I are the stars of Hands Free Mama; we are what it is all about.”

I have to agree.

My children are my greatest teachers.

My children are my greatest role models.

My children are my greatest motivators.

My children are the reason I want to make life count.

I just had to slow down long enough to realize it.

And now the beautiful result of my decision to live Hands Free is this: What my daughter wants out of life, even at the young age of eight, has fallen in line with what I want.

Instead of throwing money in the direction of toys she will outgrow, balloons that will shrivel, cake that will quickly disappear, and invitations that will be thrown out with the trash, she has set her sights on:

Brilliant colors and tranquil moments,

Lovingly caring for God’s creatures,

And having the surreal magnificence of the underwater world right at her fingertips.

I can’t help but look forward to June 21st, 2011…

I envision the whole family standing before my daughter’s new fish tank. Each one of us will point to our favorite fish. We will think of silly names for the red and black one and a cutesy name for the yellow one. We will admire their tiny movements and delicate beauty.

Suddenly we will find ourselves absorbed in the slow, peaceful fish performance that captivates our eyes and calms our hearts.

And as we marvel at my daughter’s eighth birthday gift, we will be grateful for the change that brought us here, the change that brought us all here together.

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What are your children’s passions? Do you allow them to develop or steer them in a direction of your choosing? Take some time to talk to your child, teenager or grandchild about what interests him or her.  If he or she cannot think of anything, this may the perfect opportunity to discover a hobby together.

Make this a summer to “tip the scales” in the direction of what really matters. Do it together.

The amount of meaningful memories your children have when they are adults depends on what you do NOW.  It’s in your hands.

Thanks For The Memory

Jimmy and Dot Dixon with their granddaughter days after they lost their home.

This post is dedicated to the beautiful couple pictured above, Jimmy (83) and Dot (82) Dixon who have been married for 64 years. The tornado that ripped through Alabama on April 27th took away their home and all their possessions, but it did not take their precious memories. Let today’s post inspire every single one of us to call a loved one today and listen to a memory.

The first grade classes at my daughter’s school recently did a special project in which they interviewed a grandparent. The children were required to ask several questions about the grandparent’s life, childhood, and fondest memories. Also included in the project were pictures of the grandparent in different stages of life.

I think it is safe to say that take home projects from school commonly produce grumbling from parents (me included). But I can’t help but think that what began as a grumble ended as a praise of gratitude.

Perhaps the same realization that occurred to me a little over a year ago also occurred to one of these parents while doing this project.

I am talking about this simple, yet painful, truth: The memories that live in our parents will also die with our parents and grandparents. Unless. Unless we uncover those treasures while they are still attainable and find a place for them to reside within our hearts.

And the treasure discovery begins with a question.

And we must listen, really listen if we want to preserve this treasury of information.

This is my story…

A little over a year ago, my mom suffered from a TIA (transient ischemic attack) or a “mini stroke”. There was a brief time after the episode that we did not know whether or not she would retain her memory. By the grace of God, my mom fully retained every single one of her memories.

Although I had not begun my Hands Free journey at that time, I was not too distracted by the insignificant to see the sizable wake up call standing before me with flashing yellow lights and a bull horn.

This disturbing wake up call shook its head and disappointedly said, “There are so many things you don’t know about your parents. Ask! Ask! Ask the questions while you still can.”

So my oldest daughter and I began a month long mission: To call one grandparent each evening and ask one question about their past memories.

Once my daughter saw the journal in which I would record their memories, she began recording, too.

The call lasted approximately three to five minutes. Sometimes we would even give the grandparents a “heads up” about what we would be asking them next time, in case they wanted to think about it (or look forward to it).

In a mere three to five minutes per night, my daughter and I found out things we did not know…

We heard their stories of hardship …

PawPaw had no TV, no phone…the only radio he listened to was the one in the car. He got his first cell phone when he was 62 years old.

Grandpa Ben (my daughters call him “GB”) only had two or three birthday parties throughout his childhood. He told of his surprise party at his sister’s house when he was eight years old.

PawPaw had an outside toilet until he was eighteen years old.

GB got ten cents from the tooth fairy.

We heard their stories of happiness..

PawPaw rarely got presents on his birthday. But when he was ten, he got a bike. He was the only one in the family who got a bike. His brother helped him learn to ride.

MeMe loved it when it snowed on her birthday so she could make a snowman with her little sister.

We gained insight into childhood pain and loss…

MeMe had her appendix out when she was ten years old. She missed her sister dearly and was only allowed to wave to her sister at the window because children were not allowed in the hospital.

MeMe’s dad lost his toes to frostbite and they snuck her into the hospital to see him. She remembered that he looked terrible and she thought he was going to die. He survived and learned to walk with a limp.

PawPaw told of his grueling experiences with Polio. He told of long hospital stays away from his family, operation after operation, wheel chairs, iron lungs and learning to walk again.

Grammy told of her hospital stay when the pain in her stomach was unbearable.

And times of mistakes…

GB found matches, lit one, and made a black mark on the floor.

Grammy got in trouble by the operator for using the phone, and she also stepped on a neighbor’s pie that was cooling.

MeMe had to wear a piece of paper over her mouth in school for talking too much.

We heard stories that made them more real…

MeMe’s first boyfriend was Lester in the first grade.

PawPaw’s pet beagle, Pal, would pull him in a wagon.

GB’s favorite toys were his plastic men soldiers. He watched “Red Skeleton” with his parents on a black and white TV and loved to play Monopoly.

MeMe remembered her first phone number was 4701 R, and three rings meant the phone call was for their family.

I wish you could see my daughter’s face as she listened to her grandparents’ stories. It was clearly better than any book I could have read her before bedtime.

And before she hung up, she always said the same thing, “Thanks for the memory.”

I didn’t tell her to say that, she just did.

But several months later, an unexpected benefit of The Nightly Question Call came to light.

My daughters and I visited one of their grandparents at his place of employment for the very first time.

In several of the different departments we got the same response from his coworkers upon meeting us: “Is this the family who asks the questions?”

Then his co-workers bent down to my daughters and said, “Your grandpa would come in every day and tell us what the question was for the night. We love to hear the questions!”

And through tearful eyes, I saw that not only had my daughters been given a gift by hearing the memories…so had their grandparents.

They looked forward to our calls.

They looked forward to sharing their memories.

They looked forward to that connection with their granddaughters.

They looked forward to sharing their story with someone who cared to listen.

The Power of a Question.

It only takes three minutes, but the impact is life-changing.

Rather than staying buried and never to be discovered, a treasure can be extracted from the heart and mind of a loved one. And this treasured memory will live in the heart of the grandchild who hears it. Perhaps one day she will tell it to her own child.

The Power of a Question.

Go on and ask. Ask away. Ask while you still can.

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You may be growing tired of hearing about the tornado that has completely devastated my state, but now I see things differently than I did one week ago. And I am simply the messenger of this journey writing what is placed on my heart and in my mind.

As so many people dig through the rubble that used to be their home, special momentos from their past, like old pictures, become valuable treasures. And the memories of the person who survived to tell them, well, those memories are priceless.

Old pictures of our parents and grandparents are valuable treasures.

My Hands Free challenge to you is to push away distraction for five minutes today and pick up the phone. Call a relative and ask them to send you an old photograph, ask him or her to tell you a childhood story, and then listen, listen as if this is the last conversation you may ever have.

Someday it will be.

Grab those treasures while you still can.

The Angel Impact

A few weeks ago, I celebrated a birthday. I was overwhelmed with kindness from all directions…family, friends, even strangers who have become part of my life through this blog.

Several of my closest friends planned to take me out to dinner. The first time it was scheduled, my daughter became ill and we had to cancel.  The second time it was scheduled, there was an unexpected ice storm and again, we had to cancel.

I was convinced that this birthday celebration was just not meant to be. When I suggested we just skip it this year, my friends immediately scheduled a third date for the celebration.

When we finally all sat down at the table, I had a lump in my throat. There are no words to explain how good it feels to look at the faces of those who don’t give up on you.

I insisted we have a picture, but it was not what you would call your “typical” birthday party picture.

Given these women are loving supporters of both Rachel and of “The Hands Free Revolution,” they didn’t question why I asked them to put their hands together for a picture. They all happily placed their hands in the middle of the table excited to be “Hands Free Rock Stars” in an upcoming blog post.

As I went to take the picture, I found myself getting a little emotional. When I looked at these hands, I thought of not only the hands physically present, but also the hands spiritually present. I thought of every hand of every loving soul that at some point made an impact in my life.

You will hear me speak of angels on this Hands Free journey. I can honestly say I would not be a Hands Free Mama typing these words right now if it weren’t for the angels in my life.

I would not be where I am today without The Angels Who Hold Me Up.

There are people in my past who have held me up in a major way.

There are people in my past who have held me up in small, but incredibly meaningful ways.

There are people currently in my life that hold me up each and every single day.

Whether it was then or now, I am grateful. So today, in honor of Valentine’s Day, I am making a list because I feel that it is important to show what “The Angel Impact” looks like.

It might surprise some to learn that incredibly grand gestures and elaborate gifts are not required to touch someone else’s life. It is quite the opposite, actually.

The Angel Impact is seeing a need and then doing whatever it takes to fill that need, regardless of the inconvenience or effort it may cause to provide for someone.

The Angel Impact is taking time to let someone know he or she matters, whether it is through words, actions, beliefs, prayers or presence.

The Angel Impact involves those unforgettable moments in life where you can’t believe someone would do (or say) such a thing for you.

“The Angel Impact” in my life looks like this:

You love my daughters like they are your own.

You are my role model.

You put your hands on my trembling shoulders, held back your tears and said, “You will be just fine.”

You told me you have kept every single note I have written you, and you read them when you are sad.

You see my imperfections, yet you love me even more.

You are the woman I aspire to be.

You are my forever friend since kindergarten, never once letting me down in thirty-four years.

You and I hit a rough patch, but we survived and grew closer.

You took care of my children when they had never been left with anyone besides my family.

You barely knew me, but yet you introduced me to every person you knew so that I would feel included and welcome.

You saw my potential before I did.

You loved my daughter as a person, not simply as a student.

You found me after twenty years and showed me that time and distance cannot alter certain connections between two people.

You are real and allow me to be real.

You are a safe haven for my disappointments, dreams, and frustrations.

You loved me like a daughter.

You loved me like a sister.

You showed me the true meaning of strength and have lived gracefully in honor of your daughter’s legacy.

You never judge me; you only accept me.

You rescued me by holding my colicky baby for hours and hours.

You came into my life at the precise moment that my heart needed you.

You offered me a job.

You listened as I cried in sorrow.

You listened as I cried in frustration.

You believed in me.

You forgave me.

You helped me collect 500 toothbrushes for children who brushed their teeth with twigs.

You showed me what it means to slow down and live in the moment.

You prayed for me.

You shopped with me for hours until we found six great outfits that a postpartum body could feel good in.

You are the greatest source of encouragement my heart has ever known.

You knew I could run 6.2 miles before I did.

You offered to go with me to see the surgeon.

You said this many times, “If anyone should have a blog, it is you.”

You held me when my grandma died.

You left my good-bye party without saying good-bye because you loved me that much.

You opened the doors to God.

You sobbed with me when I told you I had to move away.

You make every effort to be a part of my daughters’ lives despite distance.

Your smile outside the door of a new mother’s group was my first sign of hope in months of darkness.

You drove two hours to bring me a homemade coconut birthday cake.

You not only understood my daughter’s sensitivity, but you celebrated it.

You have become my family.

You breathed life back into my lifeless daughter and then sat with me in the emergency room until we knew she was OK.

You helped me send truckloads of lovingly filled shoeboxes to children who have never received a gift.

You drove for hours and hours just to see me.

You opened your classroom and your heart to my students with behavior disorders.

You wrote a note about me that I want to be read at my funeral.

You looked into my tearful eyes and told me not to give up.

You read my blog.

You shared my blog.

You inspire my writing through honest and heartfelt comments.

You took my hand.

You wrapped your arms around me.

You wrapped your arms around me.

You held me up when I couldn’t stand on my own.

You saved me.

You healed me.

You are my angel.

And now it is your turn. As you read through “The Angel Impact” list, I am certain you thought of your own list.

Who holds you up?

Let them know today. Do not wait. Do it now.

And one last thought: Keep surrounding yourself with those who hold you up. Life is too short to be spent with the ones who hold you down.

Who holds you up? This is your chance to let them know. Click the “share” button below and send this message to an angel who held you up. Who knows? Maybe someone will send it to you. You never know what action you do (or did) in someone’s life will create, “The Angel Impact.”

The Beauty Inside The Fold

Before I became Hands Free I loathed folding clean laundry. The unsightly mile-high heap created a persistent bother (similar to a wart) whenever I caught sight of it passing by the laundry room. Eventually, I couldn’t stand the eyesore any longer and would force myself to fold it, which typically meant putting off playing or interacting with my daughters while doing so.

“Not right now, sweetie, I have to fold laundry.”

I hated the words as they came out of my mouth. I don’t even want to guess how many times I said them.

But now things are different.

Don’t get me wrong, a laundry fairy did not magically appear. We still have dirty clothes that transform into a heaping pile of “Downy fresh” mess.

But I don’t loathe the thought of folding clothes anymore because the way I fold clothes is different now.

I stopped worrying about how quickly I could get it done once I started.

I stopped worrying if the folds would be “just right.”

I stopped worrying if the proper items would go in their designated piles.

I stopped focusing on the end result and instead focused on the process.

You see, now I have a helper. My four-year-old daughter actually gets excited when I come out of the laundry room and all she can see are my legs beneath a mountain of clean towels barely contained in a way too small laundry basket.

The first time I folded laundry with my daughter, my patience was sorely tested. It required breathing techniques that I didn’t know I could perform.

I let her start out by folding washrags. I carefully showed her how to position the square-shaped material and bring the corners to meet. Once in a little square, I demonstrated how to place it neatly in the official “wash rag stack” next to the towels.

Then with high hopes I said, “OK, it’s your turn.”

My four-year-old made a nice little round ball out of her washrag. She disregarded my organized stacks and made her own haphazard piles of washrags about the room and under the couch. She wrapped her Barbie dolls in them. She laid them on the floor and skated on them. She became sidetracked and many towels were left unfolded.

But we laughed.  And I had never laughed while folding laundry before.

So we folded laundry together again. And again. And again. And again.

I am grateful she did not give up on me.

Over time, she began folding washrags so beautifully that she graduated to regular sized towels. Her corners lined up. Her piles resembled stacks. She even raced to the kitchen to place them in the proper drawer.

Now she can even fold her daddy’s workout t-shirts while giving an on-going commentary: “Why does Daddy need two red t-shirts? Oh, wait a minute, this one isn’t red; it is orange. Daddy has an orange work out shirt and a red one. I like the red one best. Which one do you like best, Mama?”

But my favorite part of Folding Time is when she unexpectedly busts out in song and dance. Generally, this occurs when she delightfully pulls a pair of boxer shorts from the basket.

She stands up and holds them against her hips and declares, “Time to do the Chicka Wa-Wa Dance!” Then she stands up and sings a made-up song (that actually has a catchy tune) about clean underwear.

As I sit in awe of her neat stacks and entertaining musical routines, I can’t help but envision when my four-year-old is twenty-four and she is folding laundry.

I can imagine her smiling to herself as she recalls our beloved Folding Time.  Maybe it will be the whiff of familiar laundry detergent or a pink washrag that triggers a cherished memory of her and I sitting side by side among our sturdy stacks, shared conversation, and laughter…lots and lots of laughter.

I almost missed out on this special bonding time because I wanted it done now and I wanted it done quickly.

I was this close to missing out on what really matters because letting my child fold laundry would  “take too long.”

And to think I almost missed out on making this beautiful memory because of being solely focused on the end result.

Folding laundry with my daughter. Who would have thought something so simple could make such an impact?

The beauty inside the fold is what I would have missed.

Just the thought of living my entire life without ever seeing her do the “Chicka Wa-Wa Underwear Dance” is enough to make me weep.

But thank God, I don’t have to….because things have changed, and I am just getting started.

Do you have any household tasks that you do with your child or teenager? If so, please leave a comment or email me using the “contact me” button. And if you don’t, there is always today. Instead of grumbling in misery while you cook dinner, clean the house, or shovel snow, why not grab a little friend and make a memory.

The Magazine Gesture

Yesterday I wrote about encouragement. I received such a positive response that I am “encouraged” to write more on this topic today. See how beautifully that works?

Today’s story illustrates that expressions of encouragement, support, and love need not come in fancy packages. They need not be spoken or written with eloquent speech or lavish word usage. They need not require enormous amounts of time, effort, or cost. They simply must come from the heart.

And this Hands Free Mama is learning more and more each day that simple is good.

And giving from one’s heart is on my list of what really matters.

Here is my story of how a bound collection of glossy pages became a symbol of encouragement and love, not just once, but many times over…

If you have read “Sunset Moments,” then you know that when my husband and I moved from Indiana to Florida, I experienced deep heartache for the familiar faces of family and friends back home.

Well, fortunately, that didn’t last forever. Shortly after that life-changing sunset, I met a friend.  Or as I referred to her in a poem I wrote to her years ago, (before Train used the term in the hit song), my “Soul Sister.”

We were both attending the party of a mutual friend. Within moments of arriving, we were drawn together like magnets.  Once we began chatting, we found that not only were we both new to the area, but we shared many interests.  The way we stood closely together bonding over hairstyles and homesickness, our husbands thought perhaps we were former high school friends or long-lost cousins.

I had not only found a friend, I had found a life-long friend. You know the kind of friend that despite just meeting, you feel like you have known all your life.

My friend was, and still is, extremely thoughtful. One of her little acts of kindness was collecting People magazines after she read them and setting them in a bag on my doorstep.

There was something uplifting about arriving home from a long day of teaching school children to find a bag full of delicious magazines beckoning me to relax and unwind. I instantly knew the evening ahead consisted of cozy pajamas, “Who Wore It Best,” and “Star Tracks.“ (This was before I had children of my own, as you probably already guessed by an evening of such leisure.)

But there was something more to the magazines than just the entertainment factor. It was the fact that they were there at all.  A bag of magazines does not magically appear on a doorstep. It only arrives because someone decided that instead of throwing the magazines in the recycling bin, she would save them, bag them, and drive them over to a friend’s house.

The meaning behind this gesture was clear:

Someone is thinking of me.

Someone loves me enough to bring a little happiness to my day.

I didn’t fully realize full the magnitude of the magazine gesture until we had to move again, this time to southern Alabama.

Again, I found myself in uncharted territory, not knowing a single soul. I vividly remember being lost as I tried to drive home, (this time with a three-year-old and a four-month-old strapped in the back seat), unable to read the street signs through my blurring tears. But unlike the Florida experience, a miraculous sunset did not provincially appear on the horizon to bring me hope.

During the first few months in our new home, I was very depressed. My husband wanted so badly to make me feel better. He so badly wanted things to be all right. I know with certainty that he spent hours and hours each day trying to figure out ways to bring light into the dark hole I was in.

I can almost imagine his line of thinking when he figured out this idea: Well, I can’t transplant her Florida friend here, so I will do the next best thing…People Magazine! And if one magazine can bring a smile to her face, just imagine what two will do. Yes, that’s it, I will throw in US Weekly, too!

Yes, my sweet husband, in his effort to bring me a little piece of what made Florida my happy home, ordered me not one, but two magazine subscriptions.

Every time the magazine arrived, I felt a little spark of comfort as it triggered fond memories of my friend and the way she delivered the visual delights to my door. And now there was an added spark; it was the fact that my husband put time, thought, and effort into this weekly treat for me.

The meaning behind this gesture was clear:

Someone is thinking of me.

Someone loves me enough to bring a little happiness to my day.

One short year later, my husband was promoted, and we moved again to the city in which we now reside. We moved into a community where many other “out-of-towners” live, which makes for a very friendly community. The same neighbors who welcomed us at our door with coffee cake, dinner, and well wishes also reached out lovingly as a surrogate family. I instantly had friends…and of course, two magazine subscriptions.

There were enough magazines to go around to several of my friends.  I loved presenting a paper-back pick-me-up to a dreary-eyed friend after a long night with her baby. I delighted in being able to provide a collection of “light reading” to a worried friend before her husband’s hospital stay. And I was happy to provide a stack of “must-reads” to a sick friend who was bed-ridden for a short time.

In addition, I would regularly drop them in the mailbox of one of my dearest friends, often throwing in a CD of my newest downloaded tunes or two banana muffins I had baked with my daughters.

It wasn’t until my friend moved from this particular house that she revealed just how special the magazine gesture had been to her.

She explained that she had already taken all the boxes from her home and was pulling away one last time when she said her eyes fixated on her mailbox.

She said, “I was O.K. until I looked at my mailbox. But the thought of opening my mailbox and never seeing another unexpected surprise from you made me incredibly sad.”

Just as it had been for me, those magazines represented something far greater than mere pages to peruse before turning out the light.

The meaning was clear. You know it by now, but it bears repeating:

Someone is thinking of me.

Someone loves me enough to bring happiness to my day.

You will often hear me say I am simply the messenger on this Hands Free journey.  It is by the grace of God and by the people in this story that I have this message to give.

Today’s message is this:

Whether it is a glossy People magazine or a worn and weathered book, whether it is a store-bought muffin or a homemade cupcake, whether it is a handwritten card or a typed email message, the meaning is all the same:

Someone is thinking of me.

Someone loves me enough to bring happiness to my day.

Take five minutes and go Hands Free. Turn off the TV, the computer, let the dishes sit, or the laundry go unfolded. Take five minutes and show someone they matter.

Encouragement.

Such a simple, yet, powerful, gift to give.

Do you have any simple acts of kindness like the “magazine gesture” that you do? If so, please share them where it says “leave a reply” or send me an email via the “Contact Me” link at the top of my website. And if you are just arriving at this place, it’s not too late. Because now you know how easy it is to encourage someone. In fact, a magazine on the doorstep can mean more than you may ever know.

Within Reach

Dearest Readers,

I reached out my hand and you took it.

In one short week on the web, my hands have been grasped in a way I never dreamed possible. I am humbled that you have put your faith in me to deliver the message that many of you say you have been longing to hear. I may stumble; I may fall along the way. But now I know I have been blessed with many hands to help me up and right my path. And you know I will do the same for you.

Today is not your typical post. Instead of sharing a Hands Free experience as I normally do, today I will share a Hands Free experience that I am anticipating. You see, this will be my first ever Hands Free holiday. I am certain the upcoming holiday will look differently than it has in the past. I regret that this change did not occur sooner, but I chose not to dwell on that. I am focusing on what I can do differently today, what I can and will do differently on my first Hands Free holiday.

This year, I will absorb every smile, every gasp, and every joyful remark as my pajamas-clad children discover the magical proof of Santa Claus. This year, I will not be distracted by the meal preparation I need to begin or the holiday wrap that liters the floor. This year, I am going Hands Free.

This year, I will savor every delectable bite of my family’s favorite recipes, allowing the flavors to trigger my most treasured holiday memories as a child. This year, I will not be the first one to clear the dishes from the table. This year, I am going Hands Free.

This year, I will surround myself in the cherished memories of my relatives shared across the dinner table and amidst the arms of the sofa. This year, I will not be sidetracked by what is going on outside the walls of my own home via email, Facebook, internet, or television. This year, I am going Hands Free.

This year, I will delight in the sound of every precious laugh, every gust of wind, and every piece of tranquil silence that graces my ears. This year, I will not ignore the beauty of the sounds around me due to multi-tasking and rushing about. This year, I am going Hands Free.

This year, I will express every ounce of gratitude that fills my heart and touches my soul. This year, I will not fail to recognize every single blessing that God has bestowed upon my life. This year, I am going Hands Free. Thank you, God, for awakening me. It is because of You that I am going Hands Free; and I am never going back.

Dear Readers, I know I don’t need to explain why I must sign off for a few days. After all, we are in this together. And we all have our very first Hands Free holiday to experience, absorb, savor, treasure, and grasp like we never have before.

It is in reach, my friends. This year, it is in reach.

Sincerely,

Hands Free Mama

Untapped Treasures

My dad holds my youngest daughter on his lap while he tells both girls about his memories of being in the Peace Corps in Africa.

Last year, a few days after Christmas, I got a phone call I never wanted to receive. Occasionally, I had let my mind tip-toe over to this dark place of “what if,” but quickly finding it unbearable, even to imagine, I would promptly retreat back to what was safe and alright.

On this night, I was suddenly pushed into the dark, but I did not come back empty handed. It is my privilege to share what I grabbed a hold of and have held sacred ever since.

My dad was on the other end of the line, and his voice was soft.  He began the conversation with,  “Everything is OK.” Immediately my heart rate increased.

Dad explained that Mom was in the hospital. The doctors thought she had a stroke.  He explained memory loss was one of the signs that indicate a stroke.  Although she had just been to my home for a weeklong Christmas celebration, she could not remember being here.

I thought of the many times my mom’s eyes had sparkled with tears of happiness watching her grand-daughters practice their homemade play, make a gingerbread house with Paw Paw, and sing “Away in a Manger.” I covered my mouth for fear the sob that yearned to be set free would escape and cause my dad, who was barely holding it together, to breakdown.

I pictured my dad in their home alone and scared. His best friend and spouse of 48 years lay in the hospital, and their present and future had changed suddenly; perhaps never to be what it was ever again.

My heart ached for my dad, but I was sorry for more. In a matter of 60 seconds, I thought I had lost so much. And what brought the searing emptiness and overwhelming sorrow was that I didn’t know what I had lost.  Oh, precious Mom, what have I lost….what have I lost?

Gone with my mom’s memory of our 2009 Christmas together were stories of her childhood. Did she ever have a dog? Did she ever cut her own hair? What was her favorite birthday? Gone with the perfectly browned crust on her pecan pie of 2009 were the stories of her teenage years. Had Judy always been her best friend? What sort of mischief did they get into?  What was the most memorable dance of her high school days? Gone with my daughters’ 2009 rendition of “Silent Night,” that brought my mom to tears, were the invaluable stories of her life.  Tell me more about your two years in the Peace Corps.  Tell me about the snowy day I was born. Tell me what you love the most about Dad. Tell me your greatest joy. Tell me your biggest regret.

Unlike so many stories of health scares, this one had a happy ending. My mom was diagnosed with a “mini stoke” also known as a transient ischemic attack. Her memories of Christmas of 2009 came back, thank God; they came back, along with all the memories of her amazing and beautiful life.

Although I had not had my Hands Free Breakthough/Breakdown at this time, I was not too distracted by all the other “stuff” to realize I had been given a second chance. I had been given a “do-over” to hear the answers to the questions that were treasures inside my mom just waiting to be discovered.

Since that day, I ask my parents more questions.  My daughters ask them more questions. And we listen. We do not listen while we do other things.  We listen with our ears, our eyes, and our hearts. And these stories and facts fill the empty spaces that had once been.

Just the other day, I had several housekeeping duties to do before my husband’s employees came for dinner.  But I called my mom instead.  We talked so long that the fully charged battery on my phone went dead.  And in that conversation, I discovered a hidden treasure, and it was a keeper.

My mom told me that she wished she had let things go more when my sister and I were young. She said she was always feeling the need to go from one thing to the next without stopping to enjoy the present moment.  And that was her biggest regret.

And through this Hands Free journey, God willing, that will not also be mine….or yours.

Has a health scare, a death, or a national/local tragedy ever caused you to appreciate your life and vow to do things differently, only to go back to your “old ways” days or weeks later? What can you do today to capture something sacred that may be gone without a moment’s notice?

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