How to Sit at the Table with Those Who Hurt & Offend You

dsc_0807-2“And I’m fractured
From before
And I wanna go home
Now it takes two
And it used to take one
It takes two
And it used to take only one”
-Ryan Adams, Two

*name has been changed

*Steven was one of twelve students in my classroom for children with severe behavior disorders. These children had been repeatedly kicked out of regular education classrooms and alternative schools. My classroom – that I taught with a co-teacher – was their last hope. To call this class of twelve students “challenging” was a severe understatement, but I’d accepted this challenge after reading through twelve massive educational files. Although I tried, it was unimaginable how twelve children could endure so much heartache in such a short time on earth.

Because of the trauma these children had endured, my heart was sympathetic to them. When they tried to hurt me, I held them. When they cussed me out, I did not take it personally. When they ran away, I ran after them. I knew they needed love more than anything, and that is what I vowed to give them while they were in my presence.

Their parents were another story. With every documented incident of abuse and neglect in their child’s file, my sympathy diminished. I found it impossible to love and accept the parents as I did their children, no matter how hard I tried.

Stephen’s mother was the hardest. Her beautiful, blue-eyed child came to school harboring such hatred in his heart. He used vile terms for anyone who was different than him—and difference was abundant in my classroom.

The one time Stephen’s mother came in regarding a behavior issue, she blamed two students for reasons that revealed deep-seated racism. When I pointed out the facts of the situation, she said vile things about me, my teaching ability, and my beliefs. The assumptions she made about me were so far off base and untrue, I was left speechless … and angry … and deeply offended. I hoped I would never have to be in the same room again with her as long as I lived.

Around Thanksgiving time, my co-teacher was inspired to provide the children with a memorable experience. With our help, the students would each make a traditional Thanksgiving dish. We would use the life skills and social skills they’d recently learned to enjoy a meal together.

I can’t remember the conversation exactly, but I believe my colleague and I talked about inviting the students’ parents. If I had to guess, I think I said something like, “Most of them won’t come anyway. That will just disappoint the kids. How about we let them invite their favorite school staff member instead?”

I would like to say I did that for the kids. But truthfully, I didn’t want to be around Stephen’s mother after the way she had offended me. I didn’t want to be around someone with beliefs so different than mine.

A few weeks later, our twelve precious students proudly revealed a long, colorfully decorated table of food to their beloved principal, associate principal, music teacher, and occupational therapist. Miraculously, the students had prepared the feast with only a few minor blow ups and breakdowns. As we dug in joyfully, Stephen leaned over to me.

“If y’all didn’t do this, I would never know the taste of turkey.”

I swallowed hard.

“My dad hates Thanksgiving so we don’t have it,” he continued. “My mom said to be sure and thank you.” And with that, he wrapped his arms around me and squeezed me with all his might.

“Well, I sure wish we would have invited her,” I squeaked out, feeling about two inches tall.

“Next time,” Stephen said. “We’ll do this every year, Mrs. Stafford, and Mom can come next time,” he smiled.

Unfortunately, there was no next time.

Steven’s family moved that spring, but not before his mother came in to say goodbye.

“You’ve been good to him,” she told me as she wrung her hands together nervously. “He never liked going to school ‘til this year.”

“Well, Stephen is very smart. If I need help fixing anything in the classroom, Stephen always offers to do it! He’s been such a good helper to me.” I said. “I know he is going to be just fine in Ohio.”

“He cried about leaving you,” she confided about her tough boy. Then she looked down at her shoes. “I know this is probably not appropriate, but can we have your address so we can write back and forth?”

I felt a tinge of worry. I thought back on the violent incidents I’d read about in his confidential file. I hoped and prayed this mother’s intent was good and wrote my address on a piece of paper and handed it to her.

For nearly five years, I received two and three-page letters from Stephen and his mother. Bit by bit, his mother shared with me her story; she showed me her scars; she revealed her pain and insecurities; she asked for guidance to be the best mother she could to her three children despite very challenging life circumstances.

I wrote back to her with advice, encouragement, and love. Each time I sealed the envelope and put it in the mailbox, I felt hopeful. I felt certain this divinely orchestrated connection would prove to be far more than an understanding between two very different women.

And it did.

You see, I think about Stephen’s mother a lot – particularly when my beliefs and opinions clash with someone else’s … when I have a choice to engage with or dismiss someone whose beliefs offend my own. I think about her when I have a chance to invite or exclude people who minimize or belittle issues I deeply care about. Stephen’s mother helps me choose love … effort … understanding … compassion.

Because honestly, I will forever live with the regret that I did not invite her to my table.

But all hope is not lost.

I have more chances … and one of them is coming up on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day 2016.

And so do you, my friends.

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Perhaps you’ve realized you have the same choice – and maybe it’s weighing heavily on your heart … creating angst and dread … causing you to consider cancelling altogether.

I would encourage you to sit down at the table …

With the person who offended you

With the person who doesn’t see who you really are

Sit down at the table …

With the person who can’t see past his or her own beliefs

With the person you find impossible to love.

Take a seat across from the person with whom you’ll most likely never see eye to eye.

Bring extra patience and extra openness, if you must—but sit down at the table.

Extending love to someone with a differing opinion does not mean you are agreeing with her or forsaking your beliefs – it shows you’re committed to moving toward a positive future.

Extending love to someone who revealed an unbecoming side of himself doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten – it shows you’re willing to see his story and scars within.

Extending love to someone who offended you does not mean you’re accepting such treatment – it means you realize you cannot thrive in a place of anger and resentment.

Extending love to someone who holds ill will towards you does not mean you don’t care – it means your life is not based on the opinions of others.  

Sitting down at the table despite past hurts and current turmoil shows you’re willing to see what an open heart can do to mend wounds, break down barriers, and create positive change for yourself and future generations.

Sit down at the table.

It might be your only chance to acknowledge that yes, you’re coming from vastly different places, but where you want to go is virtually the same.

Sit down at the table.

It might be your only chance to find out what the most unlikely, but truly extraordinary type of love tastes like.

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Friends of The Hands Free Revolution, thank you for being a mighty force for love, hope, and acceptance in the world right now. If you would like to gift others this holiday season with visual reminders to choose love, please enjoy FREE SHIPPING to anywhere up to $9.95 with the code THANKFUL (includes international shipping). Offer good today through Nov. 26, 2016 on all items including: metal cuffs, leather wristbands, and silicone reminder bands inscribed with these healing mantras:

ONLY LOVE TODAY
COME AS YOU ARE
SEE FLOWERS NOT WEEDS
TODAY MATTERS MORE THAN YESTERDAY
I CHOOSE LOVE

Check out the hand-lettered prints for:

GET OFF THE SCALE Manifesto
THE HANDS FREE Pledge
Only love today
XOXO BEFORE YOU GO

And one final note, gifting someone with one of my books is a huge blessing to me. It helps my publisher know my work is valued and should continue. My books include HANDS FREE MAMA, HANDS FREE LIFE, and ONLY LOVE TODAY (releasing 3/7). Thank you for being part of this community. I count you among my greatest blessings. 

To Build (or Crush) a Dream

dreamer #HFM
There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly. -R. Buckminster Fuller

When I get in front of a classroom of children, I am home. I was a special education teacher for ten years before I became a full-time author and speaker. On occasion, my two passions—writing and teaching children—collide. I go into these situations on high alert. If there is ever a time to pay very close attention, it is in a classroom. Because if I do, I know I will be the one to walk away educated and inspired.

Recently I had the opportunity to speak at my daughters’ new school. I was prepared to be enlightened. I was not disappointed.

This is my story …

My presentation for both second and fifth graders consisted of two parts. The first part described the steps I took to achieve my childhood dream of becoming a published author. The second part of my presentation was a lesson and group exercise on descriptive writing.

As I spoke to the children, my teacher training quickly spotted the ones who were having trouble sitting still … the ones who were weary to raise their hands but clearly had something to say … the ones who were fiddling with something inside their desk, perhaps thinking of their own passions. I tried to draw the children out, sustain their attention, and create a safe environment where all ideas were accepted and respected. When it was time for the students to craft their own sentences, I was pleased that most of them looked comfortable and engaged.

As the students worked quietly, I was able to interact individually with each one. Their unique personalities surfaced during these brief exchanges—their comments and posture revealing details about their life experiences, their confidence, and their strengths.

As I was preparing to leave the fifth grade classroom, a boy asked for my autograph. This idea started a trend. As the children lined up with blank notebook paper in hand, I felt compelled to write more than my name or “Live Hands Free.” In black Sharpie I wrote, “Go after your dreams!” Then I paused and asked each child, “What is your dream?”

Every single child had an answer.
There were no hesitations.
There were no duplications.

Every single child, no matter how reserved or how outgoing … no matter how serious or how silly … no matter how neat or disheveled, had a dream. And more importantly, every child had a twinkle in the eye when speaking about it.

[Read more…]

Before You Decide All Hope is Lost …

hope

*name has been changed

“My dad wasn’t perfect. He lost his temper sometimes. He worked too much. He experienced periods of depression. But even through the rough patches, my dad always listened to me. He was never too busy, too distracted, or too desolate to listen to what I had to say—even in the rough patches.

And despite what the critics say—that giving a child our undivided attention creates a child who thinks the world revolves around him or her—I believe otherwise. Having a parent that listens creates a child who believes he or she has a voice that matters in this world.” –Rachel Macy Stafford

When I shared the above quote on The Hands Free Revolution page I received the following reader comment: “I listened to my kids. Now they won’t talk to me. Reading this makes me feel guilty. Let’s see how your kids turn out in twenty years.”

Although it isn’t always easy, I try to glean insight from all the comments I receive—even the negative ones. And this one really got me thinking.

[Read more…]

Embrace The Reminder

A few weeks ago, the flu hit our home hard.  Instead of simply wreaking havoc for a few days and then moving on, this mega-virus hovered. It would tease us by appearing to be find its way to the door, then only to turn around, prop up its feet and announce, “I’ve decided to stay awhile!”

After ten days of being “home bound” with one or both of my ill daughters and experiencing excessive sleep deprivation, I was exhausted. I was grouchy and irritable. I longed for just two peaceful minutes alone. I dreamed of the days when something other than a sleeve of Saltine crackers sounded good for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Let’s just say, to even think about being Hands Free at that time was just about enough to put me over the edge.

But through this journey, I have learned the times I most resist going Hands Free are the times I most need to go Hands Free.

And sometimes I need to be reminded of that.

Part of this Hands Free journey is being “open” to the reminders and then to embrace the reminders with open arms (even when all you really feel like doing is crossing your arms stubbornly against your chest).

I felt like crossing my arms against my chest, but instead I embraced the reminder.

This is my story…

On day ten of the miserable homebound period, a dear neighbor kindly dropped off my oldest daughter’s missed schoolwork. Although I was in the worst mood, and the mere sight of that blasted red take-home folder brought expletives to my head, I managed to smile and thank her.

Before she turned to leave, I desperately needed to let someone know how I was truly feeling.

I peered out the door, but I was very careful not to get my germy breath and unkempt self too close to my neighbor’s personal space. Through clenched teeth I confided, “I have not been out of the house in ten days. I am about to lose it.”

I didn’t expect her to have an answer. But she did.

My sweet Southern friend said, “Why don’t y’all go feed the ducks?”

Go feed the ducks? That was not what I had in mind.

I was thinking more along the lines of going into seclusion for a few days.

Then she even offered to give me the bread to feed the ducks.

Either she is just truly kind and generous (which she is), or I really did look like I was about to lose it.

Why don’t y’all go feed the ducks? And I even have bread you can use. It’s so fun. The girls will love it.

She made it hard to say no, but it sounded like A LOT of effort. And all I really wanted to do was go in my bedroom and put a pillow over my head…or perhaps be productive and begin reducing the size of the enormous mound of dirty laundry that had accumulated in the last ten days.

I wanted to keep those arms tightly crossed against my chest. I did not feel like being Hands Free right now.

But instead, my inner Hands Free voice (which tends to interject some pretty unconventional thoughts at some of the most inconvenient times) said this: “Embrace the reminder.”

So I did.

“Girls!” I called. “Do you want to go feed the ducks?”

They looked at me strangely. Was it because they didn’t know we had ducks in our vicinity? Or was it because Mom would surely not leave the house looking like, well, like she had been home sick in the company of sick children for ten days.

“Miss Susie said it is really fun,” I added. I couldn’t believe now I was the one doing the convincing.

They looked at each other excitedly and then back to me. Smiling they said, “YES!”

And then the “Hands Free Rachel” that often ticks off “Control-freak Type A Rachel” did something quite unusual.  I told them to simply, “Go get dressed in anything you want,” the way their laid-back Daddy does.

They intelligently opened the front door to briefly assess today’s weather.

Discovering it was around 55 degrees and overcast, one put on shorts, a tank top, and flip flops. The other one wore a sweatshirt, a jean skirt and knee high boots. Go figure.

Both had perfected the “messy” up-do, but not in a good way.

Me? Let’s just say I fit in well with their hodgepodge of mismatched style and seasonal variety. Then I used my trusty standby…the good old hat, and we were out the door.

As we rode to the pond, the anticipatory smiles on the two faces of my pale children began to ease my grumpiness.

But it wasn’t until we arrived at the pond and began tossing the crumbs that my “funk” was completely lifted.

Maybe it was the smell of the fresh spring air in my tight and oppressed lungs…

Maybe it was the way my four-year-old referred to the two large geese as “Mama Duck” and “Daddy Duck” and the regular sized ducks as “Baby Ducks”…

Or perhaps it was the hypnotic ripples in the clear water as the ducks glided forth…

Maybe it was how the bird song snippets coming from the trees silenced my negative thoughts and replaced them with praises of gratitude…

Or perhaps it was the fact that we were throwing whole-wheat waffles (or as my four-year-old refers to them, “The yucky brown kind”) and graham crackers, yet the ducks seem to really enjoy this unusual fare.

Maybe it was all those things.

But in a matter of minutes, I felt renewed. The frustrations and exhaustion of the past ten days were lifted. The light that had been missing from my darkened spirit was found again.

And all it took was a reminder.

I was reminded that Mother Nature holds healing powers.

I was reminded that fresh air removes the heaviness in one’s heart.

I was reminded that joy on children’s faces is a glorious sight for tired eyes.

I was reminded that tranquility found by the water’s edge creates a blanket of calm around tense shoulders.

I was reminded that refuge from the storm can come in the form of feathers and crumbs.

I was reminded beauty is multiplied in the glow of natural light…even hair that has not been brushed for days.

I was so powerfully reminded of this essential truth: It is in the times that I least want to go Hands Free that I most need to go Hands Free.

And from now on, instead of crossing my arms, I will try to remember to open them wide.

Where do you go to lift your spirits when you are down? What places do you visit serve as reminders of what’s important? What people in your life replenish your depleted energy supply? Go to those places. Be with those people. Uncross your arms; open them wide. Grasp the reminder and renew your soul. Do it today.

The Steps of A Hero

I have had the privilege to witness the Hands Free transformation of one of my readers, an investment banker working in New York City.

Every time I see message in my inbox from my long distance partner in this Hands Free journey, I look forward to reading the latest developments in his personal quest to grasp what really matters.

It began with a message three months ago. He described the cutthroat environment in which he worked. He described the permeating greed that both motivated and destroyed. He described the cost of working long hours to those he held dear. He spoke of the absence of pure and simple respect and human kindness in the world around him.

And when he wrote to me he said, “I am not sure why I am writing you all of this.”

But I knew why.

Although he was technically writing to me, the message he wrote was to himself.

I know this because last July, during my Breakthrough Breakdown moment, I stood where he stood…

It is the moment you realize what you once thought was important is not.

It is the moment you understand what mattered before does not matter now.

It is the moment you begin to see the truth so clearly that it can no longer be denied.

It is the moment you begin to see that living the way you’re living now is not the way you want to live anymore.

And then either you decide it takes too much effort to change what you have been doing for so long. Or you decide enough is enough, and you begin to make changes.

Which is exactly what my friend did.

Since that first email message he sent to me, I am thrilled to report…

-He went on a three-day vacation without his two Blackberries and phone for the first time in three years.

He came to the defense of his colleague after he was blatantly disrespected and mistreated by their boss.

-He offered his employees time off so they could attend special family occasions, like birthdays and graduations. (After years of being expected to simply miss them due to work.)

– He took his son to the library to see what the infamous literary character “Froggy” was all about.

And the latest from the man who worked seven days a week for most of his adult life? Well, I will let you read it for yourself:

“I no longer work on Sundays.  I only work on Sunday night after everyone is asleep. I started a “Breakfast with Owen” on Sunday. Today we went to Whole Foods and the hot bar. Next Sunday, we are going to the local diner. And then the local IHOP after that.”

The pictures he included of himself with his adorable little son on a few of their adventures brought tears to my eyes…happy tears, of course.

I was amazed at how far my friend had come on his Hands Free journey in such a short time. Yet the words he used to describe his latest Hands Free actions were “little steps.”

From where I stand, I don’t see little steps. I see his accomplishments as huge, monumental, life-altering steps. I wonder if his wife and sweet baby boy might feel the same.

However, I find myself clinging to the term “baby steps.”  I love the fact that “baby steps” or “little steps” implies my friend is working toward a goal. He might not know what that goal is, but he wants to keep growing toward something more.

What is equally as important is the fact that it most often requires “little steps” to reach a goal. After all, when you have been living much of your adult life holding on tightly to “distraction, “ it is naturally going to take time (and baby steps) to let go of those detrimental habits.

And what stands out above it all is the fact that he took those first steps. We all know the first steps are often the hardest.

I recently told him he was my hero. He refuted and told me I was his hero.

But I will tell you why he is my hero and could possibly be yours.

This man gives people like me hope. If HE can take steps to live a Hands Free life…this man who works in a cutthroat, money hungry industry for a quick-tempered boss in one of the fastest paced cities in the world, then so can I.

Although he and I are different in many ways and live thousands of miles apart, we use the same Hands Free tactics to “let go” of distraction in our daily lives. And through these tactics we have both experienced beautiful, life-changing results.

What this means is grasping what matters is a universal desire. Letting go of distraction is a goal many of us want to reach in our time here on this earth.

Whether we put on a suit to go to work or rarely get a shower before the day is over, whether we go all day giving sales pitches or avoiding those who pitch a fit, whether we get paid for our work in dollars or paid in hugs, we all share the same realization. We realize time is fleeting. We realize there are no guarantees in life. We realize there is no certainty that tomorrow will even come. And because of this realization we know we better grasp what really matters while we can, in order to witness all the “Sunset Moments” happening around us before they are gone forever.

And we are learning that in order to fully grasp something with our heart and hands, we must first let go. Letting go of distraction begins with baby steps. Baby steps, my friends.

And no matter where you come from or where you have been, we all have it in us to take our first step.

Think about you how you are living your life. Do you hold on to distraction more tightly than you grasp what really matters? Does the daily distraction in your life cause you to miss moments that you won’t be able to get back? Do you have a desire to take your first (or maybe your second, third or fourth) step into a Hands Free life? Feel free to use the “contact me” button and write down your thoughts. It might just become the Breakdown Breakthrough moment that will begin your journey. Then tune in tomorrow. A list of Hands Free Baby Steps will be awaiting your arrival.