A Time to Live

 

Christmas Post

If there is ever a time to let the screens go dark,
It’s when the twinkle lights go up.

If there is ever a time to bury the to-do list,
It’s when mitten-clad hands invite you to build a snowman.

If there is ever a time to live in a glorious mess,
It’s when pieces of wrapping paper cover the floor and holiday sprinkles decorate the kitchen.

If there is ever a time to ditch the scale and embrace the curves,
It’s when the table is lined with beloved family recipes and “Only Love Today” are the words you choose to hear.

If there is ever a time to take pause and give a real kiss,
It’s when the air is brisk and mistletoe is abundant.

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Place Your Hands On What Matters

A special thank you to the family pictured here who I called a day after I witnessed this extraordinary moment and was willing to recapture it with their camera for today's message.

My eight-year-old daughter recently performed in her holiday piano recital.

Normally I get teary-eyed watching my children in any type of performance, whether they are singing at the top of their lungs atop a rock at the park or whether they are in a packed auditorium with sheet music and a microphone.

But my child’s musical rendition isn’t what brought me to tears on this cold day in late December. It was a gesture so small and so inconspicuous that it could have easily been missed.

But because I am on a journey to grasp what matters, I am constantly searching for divine signs of inspiration along the way.

This was one such sign …

[Read more…]

How Do You Go Hands Free?

What does Hands Free look like to you? I am grateful to the many people who have shared their stories so this post could be made possible!

When I began my Hands Free journey a little over one year ago, I started alone. I was three months into it when I realized the transformation occurring in my life was too good to keep to myself.

So on December 13, 2010, I posted my first Hands Free Mama blog entry and invited the world to join me on this journey to grasp what really matters.

I have mentioned several times how grateful I am for your company. I have mentioned it publically in posts like “Within Reach,” “Did You Get The Memo?” and “How Kind of You To Notice.” I have also expressed my appreciation for your partnership in the Hands Free journey through personal email correspondences with my readers.

But today I am going to show you how much I love having you on this journey. I want you to see exactly why I love having you by my side in this battle against distraction.

Why is this important?

Because it is your Hands Free story that keeps me going on the days I fail miserably at grasping what matters. Yet, it is also your story that keeps me going on the days I succeed at grasping what matters.

While you anxiously await my successes, celebrate them, and even implement them into your own life, you graciously allow me to reveal my failures, learn from them and move on.

Your story keeps me going during the low times, the high times, and the times in between.

It is your story that keeps me going.

Therefore, I am compelled to share your story. Because your story is worthy of sharing, just like mine is. In fact, I find it quite beneficial to see what Hands Free looks like, not just in my life, but in the lives of my readers, ordinary people creating extraordinary moments by letting go to grasp what matters.

I have used the format “You know you’re living Hands Free when…” to present your stories because I think that is exactly how living Hands Free feels. It sneaks up on you unexpectedly and causes you to say and do things you didn’t say or do before.

The difference in living Hands Free and not living Hands Free is in the choices we make about how we are going to spend our precious time. Your Hands Free stories illustrate that point so beautifully.

Perhaps someone’s story will resonate with you, inspire you, or like me, motivate you to keep you going on your own journey to grasp what really matters.

Here are YOUR Hands Free stories …

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

you begin singing a medley of Broadway tunes, Christmas songs, and lullabies to your over-tired and cranky six-year-old only to find that you quite enjoy this moment of tranquility and continue singing softly in the dark long after he falls asleep.

You Know You’re Living Hands Free When…

you finally realize how many times a day you tell your children to “hurry up,” and decide you not only need to stop saying it, you need to stop living it.

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

your children hug you and you find yourself holding on a bit tighter and a bit longer than you did before.

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

you reluctantly step in to help your son practice kicking field goals and when it’s over, you are surprisingly declared “Best Field Goal Kicker Mom” on your street.

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

your daughter is home sick from school and instead of completing all the things you need to do, you sit with her and watch an episode of “Hannah Montana” that you both have seen a hundred times.

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

you submerge yourself in the community pool (hair and all), and while playing in the water with your kids, your daughter wraps her arms around you and says, “Isn’t it great being with your kids?”

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

you are frantically packing for your trip to California when you suddenly stop what you are doing, take a deep breath, and pick up the Bible because your eight-year-old son meekly asked, “Will you read to me, Mom?”

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

you interpret the shattering of your computer screen by your son’s flying flashlight as a wake up call, a second chance at living Hands Free, and begin limiting the time you spend on your computer to when he is at school or asleep.

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

you request that your employees place all electronic devices in a designated bucket as they enter meetings and conferences. Instead of giving you flack, some of them actually thank you.

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

you tell your seven-year-old son there will not be a story at bedtime tonight and as your tired body descends the staircase, you mumble a four-letter-word directed at Hands Free Mama, turn back around and say, “OK, but YOU have to tell ME the story.”

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

you bake cakes with your three small children and for the first time ever, you allow them to break their own eggs and put as many sprinkles on their cake as they want without using the word “germs” or “mess” even one time.

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

the sign your daughter made for your computer that says, “Do not use until you cuddle,” is no longer needed.

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

you hear joyful commotion in the background when you call your husband who is at home with the kids. He says, “I decided to blow off my to-do-list and go Hands Free; the kids and I are playing football.”

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

you witness your son’s triple play, the congratulatory words from the opposing team’s coach, and exchange smiles with your son from across the field while painfully realizing distraction could have easily robbed your son of his mother’s presence in that unforgettable moment.

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

you forget your iPad on vacation and instead of having a panic attack, you see it as a sign, a blessing, and an opportunity to connect with your family.

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

You send your spouse the link to “Joined In Silence,” and ask if you can discuss it tonight when you get home. It then leads to a fruitful discussion about ways you can help each other limit distraction and deepen personal connection.

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

your husband agrees to go to yoga with you and accidently forgets his phone, resulting in the most connected sixty minutes the two of you have shared in a long time; you vow to forget the phone more often.

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

you get up early and throw on a hat, fully intending to fix your hair after the morning activities, but it doesn’t happen because you’re too busy playing and having fun; you decide you’ll be wearing your hat more often.

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

your brother-in-law won’t get in the pool with the rest of the family and before you can stop yourself, you quote a line from your favorite post, “Fully Submerged,” by saying, “You are witnessing a moment in time that will never occur exactly this way ever again. And there is only one thing missing from it.”

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

you are pushing the kids in the double stroller as they watch movies on their iPods. Suddenly you announce it’s time to “turn off, get out, and collect!” Everyone comes home with the most beautiful collection of rocks, leaves, flowers and memories.

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

you realize how critical the “hellos” and “goodbyes” truly are and make a commitment to stay off the phone when picking up or dropping off your children.

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

your afterschool coaching duties are unexpectedly canceled. You excitedly anticipate all the things you are going to get accomplished at home when your son asks, “Will you play Pick Up Sticks with me?” You decide the chores can wait.

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

you read Hands Free Mama posts like “Tipping The Scales” and “The Girl With The Broken Smile” to your children at bedtime.

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

you announce to your regular walking partners that you will no longer be taking your cell phone on your weekly jaunts so you can devote your entire focus to them.

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

you no longer view the handprints on your glass door (which belong to your grandchildren) as something that needs to be wiped off.

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

you enact “Wireless Wednesdays” at your home where all adults and children refrain from using all electronics and instead connect with one another.

You know you’re living Hands Free when…

you decide that seventy-two years is long enough to beat yourself up over your weight and decide love and acceptance towards your body is how you want to live the precious days that remain.

And finally…

You know you’re living Hands Free when …

you begin viewing life as a million little “Sunset Moments” and you decide you aren’t going to miss anymore.

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What’s your Hands Free story? If you have one, you know I’d love to hear about it. Simply use the “contact me” button at the top of the website or post a note in the comment section. If you don’t have a Hands Free story yet, you know what to do. All it takes is pushing away (or turning off) distraction and choosing to grasp what matters.

Thank you to each and every individual who has ever shared a Hands Free story with me. Not only did you take the time to grasp what mattered with someone you love, you took time to encourage others by sharing it.

Keep sending me those emails, commenting on my blog, and even stopping me in the grocery store parking lot to tell your stories. When someone shares his or her struggles or triumphs, it fuels me in such a powerful way to continue sharing my own.

Give It A Rest

The birthday of the United States (a.k.a. The Fourth of July) is right around the corner.

Americans will spend the day celebrating our independence with fireworks, cookouts, and being with family.

Yet, most of us will still be dependent…and not just a little dependent…very dependent.

I am referring to our dependence on technology, specifically the phone and the Internet.

Being “connected” (via our phone or computer) has become our number one source of stimulation, yet it is also our downtime.

Being “connected” is our work, yet it is also our play.

Being “connected” is how we use time more efficiently, yet it is also how we kill time.

Being “connected” is how we associate, yet it is also how we detach.

Being “connected” is just a way of life…like eating and sleeping; it’s just what we do.

Dependent?

Oh yes, indeed.

Now at this point, some of you are probably thinking, “I know people like that, but that is not me; I don’t have a problem with excessive use of my phone or the Internet.”

I ask that you continue reading, for three reasons:

1) On the Hands Free journey, there is always room for awareness.

2) On the Hands Free journey, there is always room for improvement.

3) On the Hands Free journey, you often discover you’ve been missing something.

Which is exactly what happened to me.

Despite the fact that I have spent almost an entire year reducing both external and internal distraction in my life, I was still missing a major piece of the grasping what matters puzzle.

And I didn’t even realize it.

This is my story…

Several weeks ago, my daughter got an aquarium for her eighth birthday. You might remember the post, “Tipping The Scales,” which explained how she chose to forgo gifts and a birthday party to become a full-fledged ichthyologist.

The aquarium was brought home a few days before her birthday and my husband was kind enough to assist her in the complicated set-up process.  Granted, my daughter had done extensive research about the fish themselves, but there were many things she had yet to learn about creating an environment that would keep them alive.

Yes, come to find out, fish are fragile; they die easily…especially in the first initial hours of their new tank.

Are you kidding me? All this trouble, and there’s still a 99% chance they will die.

The young salesman at the fish store was wealth of knowledge, but the more he talked about purifiers, filtration systems, bacteria, residual ozone, ammonia, and waste, the more I dreamed about the simplicity of a cute, cuddly cat.

As you can probably tell by now, I am not really into creatures that do not have fur. If I am going to put forth time, effort, and money into keeping something alive, I want to be able to hold it and cuddle with it. (Call me crazy.)

But my daughter had chosen fish with every ounce of her being. And through every Fish List she created and every fish fact she rattled off, I Saw Promise. I saw her grasping her own Hands Free version of “what really matters,” even though it was not my version of what really matters.

But that did not mean I was going to clean the aquarium.

In fact, I wasn’t really planning on having much to do with the fish at all. That was her dad’s “thing,” so I kindly stepped aside and allowed that “bonding experience” to occur.

So as Brad the Salesman continued to educate and suggest overpriced necessary aquarium supplies to the eager learners, my youngest daughter and I ventured to the other side of the pet store where animals with fur were located.

Three hours later we were home, standing in front of our very own aquarium. The water had been treated and the fish had been freed from their bags. (Don’t freak out, Fish Advocates of the World, this was after the bags had been properly “floated.”)

I really can’t tell you what was happening in the fish tank because my focus was on the faces of my children.

Pure and utter joy…

Delight and amazement…

Wonder and bliss…

Happiness…good old-fashioned happiness…

If grasping what really matters had an expression, I think it might look like this…

I was so grateful that I had not allowed my aversion of slimy, furless creatures to prevent this moment from occurring.

(But I still was not about to change my mind about cleaning the tank.)

Within a few hours of the aquarium coming to life, our leather ottoman had a new location. It was no longer situated in front of the chair with which it matched. It had a new home directly in front of the fish tank, which happened to be in the natural walkway of our family room. (I know because I tripped over it not once, but twice, while walking through late at night and have a large bruise on my shin to prove it.)

When I decided to leave the ottoman in its new location, I had a mini Hands Free celebration in my head. These are the moments when I know I am making progress in my effort to let go of distraction (and perfection) to grasp what really matters.

I refer to these momentous achievements as, “Hands Free Baby Steps.”

In years past, having the ottoman in front of the fish tank would have bugged me. I would have to push it back to its proper place time and time again. Now, it doesn’t bother me at all. OK, maybe a tiny bit. Well, let’s just say, I can live with it. And that’s progress.

But there’s more…

What is even greater progress than allowing the ottoman to remain in front of the fish tank is the fact that I find myself sitting there. A lot.

I find myself sitting there when the children are not even around.

I find myself sitting there when I have many things to do.

I find myself sitting there when I was originally on my way to doing something else.

I find myself JUST sitting there (and not because I am checking to make sure my “furless friends” are still alive, although I do that, too).

Just.Sitting.There.

Although this is my daughter, this is exactly what I look like when I am sitting, just sitting, at the fish tank.

That, my friends, is unusual behavior for me….sitting, that is.

And for the first time in probably several years, I am sitting there thinking about nothing. And when I mean nothing, I mean I am not thinking about yesterday, tomorrow, or two hours from now. There is no thought of the past or the future; I am in the NOW.

I am completely lost in the motion of the colorful fish, their tiny tails effortlessly flittering them from one side of the tank to the other.

And as they are suspended in serenity, I watch their little mouths open and their delicate gills flutter. How calming it is to watch fish breathe.

At times, I even find it hard to pull myself away from this captivating presentation of beautiful nothingness.

I felt the need to explain this atypical behavior to myself. I was convinced that I must have just embraced the fish (as much as you can embrace anything without fur, that is).

But then I was enlightened.

Several kind readers of my blog sent me a link to an article on CNN.com entitled, “Does life online give you ‘popcorn brain’?” by Elizabeth Cohen.

I would strongly suggest reading the whole article, but here I will share two lines that were particularly powerful for me:

“The worry is that life online is giving us what researcher, David Levy, calls ‘popcorn brain’ –– a brain so accustomed to the constant stimulation of electronic multitasking that we’re unfit for life offline, where things pop at a much slower pace.”

And then this line, “We can’t just sit quietly and wait for a bus, and that is too bad because our brains need that down time to rest, to process things.”

The article goes on to explain how long-term Internet usage can actual cause physical changes in the stucture of our brain. And not in a good way.

Oh my. Popcorn brain. That term is disturbing to me…but a frighteningly accurate description of my thinking process in my waking hours.

In my spare moments, which are far and few between, I do feel a need to check my phone or the Internet to see what’s been “happening” while I have been away.

And even though I have been putting forth more and more effort to live in the moment and focus the precious people that stand before me, my mind still has the tendency to wander, to be in “planning mode,” even when I am still.

So I ask myself: When DOES my brain have a chance to rest?

I could only think of one place.

When I am sitting in front of the fish tank.

No wonder I keep finding myself there.

After I had a few days to process the “Popcorn Brain” article and consider my severe negligence of resting my brain, I found myself thinking about my dad.

I still have vivid memories from my middle school years of my dad’s after work tradition.

Dad would change out of his office attire, then he would go to the formal sitting room of our house and lie down on the floor in complete silence. (The carpet was actually lime green, which alone is a fact not easily forgotten.)

My dad’s hands would rest upon his chest, yet he would not close his eyes. He would just simply lie there and think.

As an easily annoyed thirteen-year-old, I found his habit odd; I thought it was very weird. It looked like the most boring activity in the whole world. I honestly could not fathom what he could possibly be thinking about, and why he had been doing this for as long as I could remember.

Even now when he comes to visit my family for a weeklong stay, there is always a time period each afternoon where I see him sitting in a comfy chair on my back porch. I assume he is asleep, but he’s not. He is awake. His eyes are blinking. He is watching the trees in the ravine behind my house. He is listening to the birds perched upon the deck. And he has the most content, peaceful smile on his face, just like they did twenty years ago when he stretched himself out on the lime green carpet.

And now I know.

He’s resting his brain.

He’s processing life.

And I am not questioning that behavior anymore. You won’t catch me calling it “weird” or “strange.”

Because he is the only 72 year-old I know who looks like he’s younger than 50.

He is as sharp as a tack.

He is of healthy body, mind and soul.

He is focused, relaxed, and engaged.

He is “with it.”

And if there is anyone who has lived his life epitomizing the meaning of grasping what really matters, it is my dad.

There’s something to be said for being independent of technology, cell phone usage, daily distraction, and mental stimulation…even if it is only for a few minutes each day.

Giving your brain a rest creates a pause. And in that pause you can catch your breath.

Because we all know what happens we stop breathing.

We stop living.

Just ask a fish.

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Are you interested in having some independence from distraction and mental stimulation? I am, too. As members of The Hands Free Revolution, let’s make Independence Day truly a day of independence.

This Fourth of July, turn off your computer, shut down your phone. Give your brain a rest.

How?

Feed fish in the lake…
Catch a lightning bug in your hand…
Stare into the light of a sparkler….
Look into the eyes of a loved one…
Watch a gorgeous sunset…
Feel the rain on your face…

Take a moment to rest your mind, body and soul. Because the most restorative breaths are the ones taken in the pauses of life.

*If you think this is a worthy message, please share it. In your hands, this message has the chance to make July 4th truly a day of independence for many.

Did You Get The Memo?

The readers of this blog have been doing something I wasn’t expecting.

But as I have discovered on this journey, the most meaningful things come unplanned; the most powerful things come unexpectedly.

This is YOUR story…

A few weeks ago I learned that my blog was brought up during a business meeting.

Apparently someone mentioned being overwhelmed by commitments, communication overload, and the inability to enjoy their family time.

“Have any of you read Hands Free Mama?” One of my readers asked the group.

When they shook their heads no, she immediately went to a computer and pulled up the blog entry entitled, “Dear Distracted Dad.”

She printed it, copied it, and distributed it to the curious group.

Once everyone read the entry, she said, “Now let me tell you my story.”

This is what she said:

When my son asked me to go on his field trip, I had no intention of taking an entire day off to spend thirteen hours on a field trip. But he was very persistent, and I finally gave in. This post, “Dear Distracted Dad,” deeply resonated with me when I initially read it. I saw myself in him! So I knew what I had to do. I took the day off, told my assistant not to call me unless it was a real emergency, and left my phone in the car for the entire day.

My son quickly realized that I didn’t have my Blackberry.  He commented that he couldn’t believe I wasn’t on my phone, and then he actually thanked me. That is when I realized how critical it was that I went on this trip and more importantly, that I truly spent the day with HIM.

This person did not have to share her story with the group, but she did. Why? Because the simple act of putting away her phone for the day made a profound impact on her child. And once you feel the powerful connection created by being Hands Free, you want others to feel it, too.

When you cross over into the joy that is Hands Free, you want others to come with you. It happens to me every day. And it’s happening to you.

A day later, I received this message from a reader:

I was driving home from my mom’s house the other day when I saw a beautiful little girl jumping on a trampoline in her back yard. She had the most beautiful curly blonde hair. I had to stop my car for a few moments just to watch her. She was in complete bliss – bouncing up and down on her trampoline with her curls just flying wildly. It made me happy to see that much “pure” happiness in her.

I was hoping that her mother was standing in her kitchen… looking out the window at her lovely, happy child in the backyard.

Just in case she wasn’t… I pulled around to the front of the house and left one of my business cards tucked under the “flag” on her mailbox. I wrote handsfreemama.com on the back in big red letters.

I hope the next time I drive past their house that I see both of them jumping on the trampoline.

This reader did not have to leave my website address on that mailbox, but she did. Why? Because her eyes have been opened to the beauty found in the simple, every day moments, like pure elation on a child’s face. And she realizes these moments must be savored before they are gone, never be retrieved again. And once that realization happens to you, you want others to have it, too.

When you cross over into the joy that is Hands Free, you want others to come with you. It happens to me every day. And it’s happening to you.

One of my readers tried to describe the Hands Free concept to her retired father, but she could only cry. Through her tears, she said, “Could you imagine what it would mean if we could really live like this?”

Her father’s profound, yet disturbing, response was this: “Your generation has reached a true crossroads in the Information Age. The pace of progress has dismembered us as humans.  Our ability to connect with people is withering.  We long for this calm presence of mind that we must willfully work to get.”

When I initially read his comment, I was speechless. I felt overwhelming sadness and despair. I couldn’t take my eyes off the word “dismembered.”

Helpless thoughts filled my head and weighed heavy on my heart. We have lost control of our lives; it is too late for us.  The warp speed pace we keep, our tightly packed schedules, and our obsession with technology is the norm now; we are too far-gone to come back.

But then like a tiny beacon of hope, I thought of the woman who passed out my blog entry at the business meeting. I thought of the woman who left my website address on the mailbox. I thought of the way my inbox fills with messages like, “Please keep writing!” and “Thank you for changing my life. Someday my children will thank you, too.”

And that is when I realized there is hope for our generation and hope for the children of our generation.

Being Hands Free is not just what I want. Others are longing to hear this message, too. And once they do, they hold on to it just long enough to feel its impact, and then they graciously pass it on to someone else.

In your hands, the message to grasp what really matters is multiplied…

If you have ever clicked the “share” button,

If you have ever forwarded one of my posts via email,

If you have ever posted my website on your Facebook page,

If you have ever written about Hands Free Mama on your own blog,

If you have ever “tweeted” one of my posts via Twitter,

If you have ever told someone to check out my website, you are the reason…

You are the reason that a child was the focus of dinner conversation instead of the screen of a Blackberry.

You are the reason that a child was tucked into bed with a story and “Talk Time” instead of being rushed away.

You are the reason that someone talked to her child in the car instead of talking on the phone.

You are the reason a family drew closer, a couple reconnected, a grandparent was listened to, and a mail carrier was blessed.

You are the reason that instead of continuing to be dismembered, fractured, incomplete, distracted, unfocused, and disconnected, someone is starting to become peacefully whole.

Like me, you have discovered the joy found in living Hands Free is too good to keep to yourself. Like me, you want to live in a world where grasping what matters is more important than holding tightly to perfection, distraction, and the insignificant.

I didn’t expect to have so much company on my journey to go Hands Free. But now, I can’t imagine walking this path alone.

In your hands, this message has a chance to alter life as we know it.

And I see something peaceful, something real, something stunningly beautiful just upon the horizon.

And I know you see it, too.

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Memorial Day weekend is just around the corner. Make it a weekend worth remembering!  Choose one idea from this list of Hands Free tactics and do it this weekend. Now spread the love of The Hands Free Revolution by clicking the “share” button below and let someone else know about the joy found in living a Hands Free life!

The life-changing possibilities of these two actions are endless. What a gift you hold in your hands. Thank you for being a part of the The Hands Free Revolution!

No Thanks Necessary

The week before Easter, I had a proposal for the good people of The Hands Free Revolution. I asked that we ban together and collectively recognize those who are underappreciated and often forgotten.

And our targets were the faithful trash collectors and mail carriers that diligently serve us in rain, shine, sleet, and snow every single day.

I asked that your family choose one day of the week leading up to Easter to leave a small token of appreciation on your trash container or in your mailbox. I made this request in a post entitled, “There Will Be Tears.

It was my hope that our gestures would touch someone’s heart to the deepest level, the level at which emotion is so moving it is revealed through one’s tears.

And happy tears are the best kind of tears.

My daughters and I had recently left treats for our trash collectors and mail carrier on Valentine’s Day, (you can read about the amazing results of that action in “The Clean Lines of a Loving Heart”). Yet, the girls were excited to do it again, this time uniting with our entire neighborhood and possibly with my blog readers from all over the world!

They were excited about the possibilities, and so was I.

In my neighborhood, Thursday, April 21st was the day.

Unfortunately, it happened to be one of those mornings. (You know the kind of morning where you are surprised that one of your children is not dropped off at school with a disoriented expression, still in her pajamas, sporting major bed-head, munching on a Pop-Tart.)

Well, at least we managed to get the two Easter baskets to the end of the driveway and another one safely tucked inside the mailbox.

But aside from depositing the treats in their proper location, every other intention I had that morning managed to slip right through my fingers.

I planned to catch the garbage collectors en route and witness their surprised reactions first hand.

 

It didn’t happen.

I planned to drive around the neighborhood and take pictures of the colorful gifts that sprinkled life onto the dismal, gray trash containers.

It didn’t happen.

I planned to stop at each treat, read the children’s beautiful notes (while wiping away tears), and admire every creative illustration.

It didn’t happen.

I planned to hug the life out of Mrs. Jackie, my mail carrier, when she delivered my mail.

It didn’t happen.

I had all the best intentions. But yet,

I didn’t get to see their joyful faces.

I did not get to see the precious hand-made cards.

I did not take any photos showing the incredible number of participants in this community gesture.

I did not get to see the results of our actions.

I did not get to see how it all turned out.

And I didn’t get to see if there were any tears.

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement.

I felt like I truly let you all down. Everyone wants to hear how the gift is received. Everyone wants to hear the happy ending.

But then my Hands Free inner voice came to my rescue. (For as many times as that voice can annoy me with ridiculous requests, it does manage to keep Control-Freak Excessive Planner Extraordinaire Rachel in check.)

And this is the poignant reminder I received from my Hands Free inner voice:

A multitude of children just spent the last several days shopping, baking, icing, creating, stuffing, writing, drawing, and even praying for complete strangers.

These children did not do this because they were going to “get” something; they did not expect to have a reciprocated Easter basket on their doorstep when they got home from school; the thought of a “thank you note” from the trash man didn’t even cross their mind. Those are not the reasons why they did it.

The reason they made treats and set them in an unusual place was for one simple reason.

They did it to make someone happy.

Pure and simple. No strings attached. No “thanks” necessary. Just wanted to make someone smile.

That’s all.

(If that is not a lesson for the Hands Free Mama in training, I don’t know what is.)

Now this…THIS….is exactly how I want to live my life: Expressing love and kindness to those around me without expecting anything in return, without expecting a reciprocated favor, without waiting for a thank you… simply expressing acts of kindness to others because it is the right thing to do. Because that is how I would like to be treated. Because exhibiting love toward someone else without a hidden agenda is a generous and content way to live.

And if these children could set their gifts upon the trash can with the mere satisfaction that they PROBABLY made someone’s day, then surely I could be satisfied with that, too.

Now at this point, I could wrap this baby up and tie it with a bow.

But there is more to the story. And it is too good not to share.

As I have seen time and time again on this journey, the best things come from the unplanned. The most meaningful things are unexpected. The best things come when I simply let things BE, when I let them unfold the way they were meant to unfold.

A few days after I let go of the need to know how everything turned out, I received this message from a dear neighbor:

I just happened to see Miss Jackie on the day of her surprise and wanted to tell you about it…

Miss Jackie pulled up in our driveway to give me a package. My three-year-old son and I came out with her Easter basket.  She began to cry. Through her tears, she said, “I have never experienced so much love and gratitude from a neighborhood like this before.”

Then she opened the door to her truck. There stood a heaping pile of cards and gifts.

She pointed to the abundance and said, “This is better than Christmas! Y’all have blessed me! Y’all have blessed me so much. You just don’t even know.”

And then she began to cry again.

The next day, I opened the mailbox to find this:

Our sweet mail carrier had written a thank you note to the multitude of families who had given her a treat that day, even taking time to lovingly attach a purple curled ribbon on the outside of every card.

Even though I fully realized that the beautiful outcome of this gesture of kindness was not the part that mattered, I will admit it is nice to know…

It is nice to know that most people want to be a part of making someone’s day.

It is nice to know that children still choose card making and cookie baking over video games and iPads.

It is nice to know how easy it is to touch someone’s life.

It is nice to know parents welcome the opportunity to teach their children the importance of kindness.

It is nice to know the power of many hands coming together toward one goal.

It is nice to know people still write thank you notes.

It is nice to know that little things do mean a lot.

It is nice to know there are still happy endings…even if you don’t always get to see them. 

Oh yes, and it is nice to know people still shed tears.

It sure is nice to know that yes indeed, just as I hoped, there were tears.

And they were the happy kind.

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If you think this is a worthy message, please click the “share” button below. In your hands, this message holds the power to touch the lives of hundreds of people who are often forgotten and unappreciated. It doesn’t take much to spread a little love … whether you see the happy ending or not. 

Visit “The Hands Free Revolution” on Facebook for more inspiration and tips on how to let go of distraction and grasp what really matters in life!

Healing Hands

I am part of the “Me” generation, a generation that has been described as selfish, preoccupied, distracted, and egocentric…among other things.

And I have been guilty of living up to every single one of those characteristics.

But there are times when I rise above it.

And when I do, I want to believe that a little trait of the “Me Generation” is striped away.  I would like to hope that a fraction of my unsightly self-centeredness disappears, never to rear its ugly head again.

In desperate times, there are hands that rise to the call. Even hands, like my own, that most often think of personal needs and the needs of my own tight circle of friends and family.

This weekend, I witnessed what can happen when hands let go of the material, the insignificant, the unimportant, to grasp what really matters.

This weekend, I witnessed what becomes of hands when they come together and reach out outside their inner circle to those in despair.

They become Healing Hands.

Because when tragedy strikes your backyard, a cold harsh reality hits you between the eyes and breaks your heart in half.

Suddenly you realize the difference between “us” and “them,” is a matter of five miles, is a slight change in wind direction, is the placement of your home.

With a frightening realization you discover the difference between “us” and “them” is a radical cancer cell, a clogged artery, a misjudged runway, a reckless driver, or a deadly undertow.

You realize the difference between “us” and “them” is simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

You realize it could have just as easily been “us,” instead of “them,” standing in utter despair and shock wondering where life as you once knew it has gone.

Your only prayer, your only saving grace, comes in the form of a healing hand.

And despite what you might think, a healing hand does not require extensive effort, excessive monetary funds, or even a large amount of time.

In fact, if one hand reaches out in some small way to help, the results can be astounding.

If one hand expresses care and concern to one single person, the impact can be immeasurable.

In a small neighborhood with limited, sporadic, and in some cases, non-existent electronic communication or power, this is what healing hands can do.

In a matter of hours, my neighbors filled my garage with supplies for those devastated by the storm.

In two days, a small community packed seven trucks and SUVs full of needed supplies for the tornado victims.

Because of these healing hands, a mother had her first meal in three days.

A hungry baby finally received a bottle of formula.

A traumatized child held a stuffed animal and cried.

A pair of shoes was placed on a battered pair of feet that had gone for days without.

A father who used his body to protect the lives of his family was given new clothes.

Someone received a bar of soap, batteries for their depleted flashlight, clean diapers, hand wipes, a chance to quench his thirst, a chance to catch her breath, a chance to see a brighter day ahead, a chance to see they are not forgotten.

And because of these healing hands, there were tears. Lots of tears. Grown men and teenage boys wept at the sight of seven truckloads packed full of supplies given by people they had never even met.

And as we stood side by side in prayer with those who had endured sights and sounds no human being should ever have to bear, I thought to myself:  This could be me standing here wondering how I will ever get my life back.

This time it is not me, but it is my brother. It is my sister. It is my neighbor.

And there is no question what I must do.

I am simply the messenger on this journey to grasp what really matters. And by the grace of God, I have this message to give:

No matter how close or how far you live from destruction, disaster, poverty, homelessness, desolation, disease, and pain, there is someone within arm’s length who needs your healing hands.

Put down your cell phone, your remote control, your to-do list. Set aside your schedule, your calendar, and your list of daily activities.

Set aside your own agenda and your own needs; let a tiny part of that “Me Generation” that lives inside all of us completely fall away.

Let go of the daily distraction that we are so easily fooled into thinking MATTERS and instead go Hands Free and…

Hold someone up for air.

Hold someone who can’t stand.

Hold someone into the loving light of hope.

Hold someone in the grasp of your healing hands.

Because there is a very thin line between “us” and “them.”

And one day, one terrible, devastating unforgettable day, you might just wake up and find yourself on the other side.

And I pray that a healing hand will reach for you, my friend.

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A personal note from the Hands Free Mama:

My source of communication since Wednesday has been sporadic, but at certain times, I have been able to receive messages and phone calls of care and concern.  And although I haven’t been able to respond to each one personally, I want you to know something: Your concern and well wishes matter more than I can ever express in words. In so many ways, you have let me know that I matter to you. And that is all any of us really want in life, just to know we matter. I will never forget every single one of you who reached out your healing hands to my family, my state and to me. Thank you. Thank you.

I will be in touch personally with those of you who have asked for a specific family to be an “angel” to once I get those specifics and regain Internet connection to my home. The Angel Impact lives on in you.

Take a Look In My Closet

My friend, Lori, doing what she does best.

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

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

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

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

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

I will never forget the look on her face.

Relief.

Pure and simple relief.

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

I hugged her tightly and we both laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think so.

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

There May Be Tears

On Valentine’s Day, my daughters and I put a little happiness in one of the most unsuspecting places for people who least suspected it.

We remembered those who are often forgotten. And the results were profound.

Our trash collectors were completely dismayed to find colorful bags of goodies sitting next to the trashcan. When we saw their reaction from our upstairs window, it appeared as though they may have never seen such a sight.

After the shock wore off and they realized the bags were actually for them, it was just about the most joyful expression I have ever seen on faces that seldom wear a smile.

A few days later, I found out that our mail carrier also had quite a reaction to her unexpected Valentine sack. A neighbor of mine found out directly from the mail carrier how she reacted when she discovered her treats in our mailbox that day.  A handmade thank you note and cookies from my daughters brought her to tears. Brought. Her. To. Tears. Really? That is all it takes to touch someone deeply?

Well, in that case, treats for the forgotten and underappreciated will be happening more often around here.

In fact, the girls and I will be placing Easter baskets in the most unsuspecting places for people who least suspect it…again.

Something tells me that even though they received a treat at Valentine’s Day, they will not expect to find an Easter basket next to the trashcan and in the mailbox.

Luck like that doesn’t typically happen twice.

But we’re making sure it does.

Would you care to join us?

The Dollar Store is a great place to start…

My oldest daughter proudly used her own money this time because she has learned that even small hands and inexpensive things can mean a lot to someone else.

My youngest supervised from the cart. Eggs: check! Candy: check! More candy: Check!

They both loved stuffing the eggs all by themselves.

They made sure to add extra sprinkles and extra sugar because “Being a trash collector is hard work,” said my four-year-old.

They enjoyed making the signs so there is no confusion as to who the gifts are intended.

And whether or not we are around when Miss Jackie opens the mailbox, we’ll know. Oh yes, we’ll know.

There will be tears.

How many trash collectors and mail carriers do you think we could impact this week? How many unappreciated and often forgotten people could we make feel loved this week? Readers from New York to California, grab your kids, your neighbor kids, or your grandkids and show them that little hands hold the power to make someone smile. I welcome you to send me the joyful details and even pictures to rachelstafford@handsfreemama.com. Or post them on The Hands Free Revolution Facebook page. Now click “share” below and spread the good news that this is the week to go Hands Free To Make Happy Hearts! Who knows just how much you will touch a life? There may even be tears.

UPDATE: To see the results of our actions, check out “No Thanks Necessary.”

I Had It All

Last weekend I was inspired by my readers to “raise the bar” on my growing desire to live Hands Free.

So I did something that was challenging for me. I turned off my hand held communication device and my computer on both Saturday and Sunday, as described in my post, “A Major Turn Off.”

Thought of such action may have caused heart palpitations and sweaty palms for some (including myself).

But to others, the thought of such a measure was no big deal because they spend every weekend that way. (Insert “pat on the back” here.)

But regardless of how ludicrous OR how simple my personal challenge appeared to you, you did not judge. I thank you for that.

We have discussed this week that “baby steps” into a Hands Free life are often required. And whether my baby steps are the same, different, more challenging, or less challenging than your baby steps, there is no room for judgment in this journey…only encouragement.

Thank you for the encouragement.

So how did it go? Several of you have asked. Thank you for asking.

There are only four words to describe my weekend with no cell phone and no computer…

I had it all.

Because I let go of distraction for two whole days, “all” life has to offer was in my grasp. And with it, I realized two things:

- I never realized how much “daily distraction” makes its way into my home, into my thoughts, into my happiness, and into my life through my cell phone and my computer.

(It might just be me, but that realization sends shivers up my spine. Would I purposely open a vent that allowed carbon monoxide to invade my home? Of course not. Then why would I keep the pathway of distraction “open” so that it can poison my “family time” by preventing personal connection and purposeful interaction?)

- I also fully realized how daily distraction has a sneaky way of stealing time, that precious rare commodity that once we lose, we never regain. Every time I get on to check email, Facebook, or search the Internet, suddenly a large chunk of time is gone. Is that really how I want to spend my precious family time?

And only by turning my computer and phone off completely for two whole days did I have these powerful revelations.

For two days, I could breath easier. The laughter came easier. The ability to relax came easier, and it remained longer.

Why? Because I had time.

Time was in my hands…instead of the other way around.

And in that precious time, I had it all…

I had time to laugh.

I had time to dance.

I had time to make sweet creations with little hands.

I had time to add the sprinkles. (Life is just better with sprinkles, don’t you think?)

I had time to sit down and enjoy every single bite of Daddy’s homemade pancakes and waffles.

I had the time to help my daughters make someone else smile.

I had the time to help my daughters make someone else feel better.

I had the time to dig through a box full of memorabilia and old cards from my childhood.

This is a card my grandma, who has since passed, wrote to me when I was five.

I had time to stand in amazement.

My mom saved my first haircut. I was amazed to see my hair was the same color as my youngest daughter's hair.

I had time to watch my daughter stand in amazement.

My seven-year-old was amazed at the similarities between her handwriting and my seven-year-old handwriting

I had time to climb a hill and feel a sense of smallness, gratitude, and wonder.

I had time to see strength and perseverance in a little girl who used to say, “I can’t do it.”

I had time to do something I loved to do twenty years ago.

I had time to see what it does to children to see their mom doing something they seldom see her do.

My four-year-old was entranced by her mama's violin playing.

I had time to read my Bible and hear the God-given messages that are felt in moments of stillness.

The simple act of turning off my phone and my computer for the weekend allowed me to be IN the moment. I was not thinking about past mistakes or planning ahead to next week. I was not thinking about all the things I could be getting accomplished. I was simply being in the moment…the glorious God-given moments found in the ordinary, mundane delights of a rainy Saturday morning and a clear blue Sunday afternoon.

Instead of being “half-way” there by dividing my attention into worthless sections, I was focused solely on what mattered in each beautiful moment. Not once did I think about the moments behind me or in front of me; not once did I think about the moments going on in someone else’s life, or what I thought should be going on in mine.

Instead, I had it all.

Being in the moment allowed me to fully experience each smile, every laugh, each word, every emotion and every touch.

And if something tragic happened to me come Monday morning, I can’t think of a better way to have spent the last two days of my life.

Because for those two days…I had it all.

And this weekend? Well, there’s no question. I am going to have it all again.

And you you can, too.

Last weekend a reader in Maryland, a reader in Colorado, and one in Michigan let me know that they were joining me in my challenge to “unplug.” It sure felt great to have not only the support, but also the accountability. I wonder if, like me, they realized it was not only easier than expected to go without a phone or a computer, but also more rewarding than expected. What do you think? Could this be your weekend to “Have It All?” Need a partner? Click the “share” button below and send it to someone you love. There is no better gift than the gift of time.