From Merely Surviving to Truly Living: A One-Step Plan

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“We’ll never be as young as we are now
The faces in the crowd are thinning out
And I’m not saying stick around, but stick around
And we may never have another like today, tomorrow is brand new start away
And we’ll never be as young as we are now, as we are now.”
–Saint Raymond, As We Are Now

2015 ended with a few words I thought I’d never hear:

“Well, there’s no need to make another appointment today. Hopefully, I won’t see you for a long time.”

I was standing in my doctor’s office when I heard those glorious words. My doctor worked closely with my urologist (one floor down) and my gynecologist (across the street). They all agreed that with my internal pain slowly subsiding, my elevated blood pressure back to normal, and having pristine blood work and kidney ultrasound results, I was free to go on with my life.

It wasn’t until I pushed the elevator button—the one I pushed with shaky hands over and over throughout the past year—that I was overcome with emotion.

“I won’t be back here for a long, long time,” I whispered, both as a promise and a prayer.

I would never be able to un-see what I saw at my impressive collection of hospital stays, CT scans, and medical appointments over the past year. But what I saw at the cardiovascular institute for my recent kidney ultrasound offered the greatest motivation to care for this precious body God gave me.

A long, healthy life doesn’t happen “by accident,” and I knew some of my poor habits would catch up with me eventually. Although I am a daily exerciser and healthy eater, I still had two problem areas that could greatly harm my health. I still hadn’t kicked my on-going Coke Zero addiction and often sacrificed sleep to get work completed.

“It’s time,” I said out loud, knowing the new year was an ideal time to ditch old habits and begin new ones.

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Hope for the Angry Child

heart inside you HFM

“If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.”
-Emily Dickinson

I haven’t spoken of this experience for over fifteen years; I have definitely never written about it. Yet, when the memories of this time came rushing back, I had to pull off the highway and find a gas station where I could scribble my notes. It’s taken four weeks to transform my notes into readable form, but I have no doubt the timing of this message is perfect for someone reading today. This is my story … and Vince’s* story …

*Name has been changed

I had just one year of teaching under my belt and was taking classes towards my master’s degree in special education. Though barely qualified to teach students with challenging behavior disorders, I quickly assessed that academic training wasn’t going to make me a successful teacher–it had more to do with the connections I made with my students.

The way this particular school set up its special education program for behaviorally challenged students allowed me to form lasting bonds with my students. Rather than having a self-contained classroom, I had one-on-one time with each of my sixteen students throughout the school day. By providing direct support to the children and their teachers, the school district believed these exceptional students could be successfully mainstreamed into a tradition classroom. Furthermore, it was not unusual for me to work with a particular student for multiple years.

Such was the case with Vince*. Vince had compliance and anger issues but we had made significant strides in our first year together. Vince was an adorable child who looked forward to our one-on-one lessons and my frequent check-ins to his regular classroom.

On this particular evening, a typical event for a new school year was taking place. It was “Meet the Teacher” night. All the teachers were lined up, preparing to walk across the stage as we were introduced. As we waited for the principal to take the podium, I noticed Vince’s mother making her way through the crowded gymnasium. She was coming straight toward me in breathless haste.

When she spoke, I thought I did not hear her correctly – there was no way I could have heard her right. As the blood drained from my face, I leaned closer praying I had misheard. Vince’s mother repeated the words that seemed incomprehensible, unbearable, and repulsive to my ears.

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Finding Lost Joy the Way We Find Lost Pets

joyless

“Come back, Joy.
Come back, Gratefulness.
Come back, Energy.
Come back, Zest.
I’m looking for you.
And I won’t stop until I find you.”
–Rachel Macy Stafford

The last two blog posts I’ve written about softening and dreaming have uncovered a painful truth: Many of us have lost our joy. Many of us are simply going through the motions. Many of us see the way our irritability hurts the ones we love—but we continue our unpleasantness anyway. We taste the bitterness of our words before they come out of our mouths—but we say them anyway. Many of us can’t remember the last time we were the party … the gathering place … the heartbeat of our family. Many of us have lost our joy and haven’t the slightest idea how to get it back.

I know the feeling.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

That difficult period of my life came back to me one day as I was out for a walk. A handmade sign stapled to a telephone pole caught my eye. Franklin the cat was missing. I stopped and studied the lovingly made poster despite the winter wind trying to move me along. My eyes became wet just thinking of those who loved Franklin and desperately wanted to see his furry face again.

Come back, Franklin. I pleaded in my head. Come back.

I’d pleaded those same words about Joy a few years prior. Oh how I’d longed to see Joy’s optimistic face and feel her enthusiastically squeeze my heart and hand.

When I got home from my walk that day, I wrote a poem. It seems fitting to share it today–perhaps more than ever.

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One Long, Overdue Question and a Sky of Possibilities

dreamer“For all the heartbreak dreamers waiting for the light
Looking for just one reason to get through the night
Every long lost believer caught in the fight
All the heartbreak dreamers gonna be alright
Everybody sing.”
– Mat Kearney, Heartbreak Dreamer

Several months ago my daughter Avery and her classmates were presented with a surprise Chick-fil-A lunch by an author friend of mine who deeply appreciates her Noticer existence and firefly light.

On the day of the celebration, the author had prepared a special note for Avery’s teacher to read out loud. The author explained the reason for the party as this:

“Dear Avery, I hope you and your classmates enjoy this special treat. It’s my way of honoring you and saying ‘thank you’ for all you’ve done to inspire so many (including me) just by being who you are – a light who shines from within and a Noticer. I also hope you appreciate just how incredible and how beautiful those two ‘invisible’ gifts are and that you will never stop being you.”

As those words were read, the expression on my child’s face was nearly indescribable, but I will try. Beyond an enormous smile that could not be contained was equal parts joy … certainty … clarity … relief … peace … and fire. Oh yes, behind Avery’s little pair of eyeglasses was a fiery determination I’d never seen before. And above Avery’s head, the Sky of Possibilities opened up. For a brief moment I was a mind reader, feeling quite certain what she was thinking: I am somebody, and I have a gift worthy of sharing.

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One week later, Avery began writing music; I am talking real songs, real chords, and soul-stirring lyrics that might be heard on the radio today. Coincidence? I think not. The gift of affirmation is mighty powerful—it has the power to become belief, inspiration, and courage when given at a pivotal time in a person’s life.

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A Vow to ‘Soften’ So Your Loved Ones Can Shine

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I received a booklet from each of my daughters for Christmas. Some of the pages made me laugh. Others made me cry. But a few pages stood out.

“I love when you talk to me like a friend.”

“I love that you love my opinion.”

“I love how you never are mean to me.”

“I’d be lost without your love.”

It’s not often a person receives tangible signs of progress—an unexpected measurement of how far she’s come.

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love #HFM

My Hands Free journey started as a mission to let go of my millions of distractions and my need for perfection. As those outer barriers dismantled, my inner barriers did too. I felt myself being less of a controlling manager and more of a peaceful nurturer. As my inner barriers weakened, my ability to respond more lovingly, more patiently, and more openly grew.

My friends Lisa and Shawn call this process softening, and I just love the image that word creates and the feeling of calm it brings.

To me, softening has come to mean pausing, breathing, reflecting, surrendering, accepting, opening, and revealing.

But there is more – and this is the kicker:

Softening means seeing—truly seeing.

By responding to others and myself with more compassion, patience, and acceptance, I’ve begun to see less in black and white and more in color. I had no idea my loved ones had so many colors until I began to soften so they could shine.

waves HFM

As New Year’s resolutions or “word of the year” bounce around in your head this week, I hope this one sticks: soften. It is doable. Its benefits reach far beyond you. It is life-changing and life-giving. And even a little bit of softening goes a long way.

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Consider Being Softer: It’s the Gift They’ve Always Wanted

soften #HFM

“You don’t have to go looking for love when it’s where you come from.” -Werner Erhard

During a nightly walk, my younger daughter told me she wanted to visit a nursing home like we did before we moved. “There’s just something about old people,” she explained. “It makes me sad sometimes when I see them. I just want to cheer them up.”

“Okay,” I said, both pleased and surprised to learn this about her. “Let’s plan on it. And as soon as we get home, I want to show you something.”

After Avery got into her pajamas, we gathered in her bed and I pulled up this video. I’d watched it more times than I care to admit. In this touching German commercial, an elderly father fakes his death in order to get his busy children and grandchildren to come see him for the holidays. The way the man’s sullen face transforms to elation when given the gift of time and presence makes me weep.

I thought I was alone in this emotional reaction to mere commercial—but it turns out, I wasn’t.

When it got to the part where the man comes around the corner revealing he is alive, my child began to cry. She covered her face. “I can’t stand it. It makes me sad and happy, Mama,” she whimpered.

“Me too,” I said. “I feel the same way.”

Avery leaned her head against me like two kindred souls who knew it was okay to be soft together … to be open to the pain and joy of others … to cry if you are moved.

I gave her that gift; I thought to myself. And suddenly a long-held cloak of shame lifted—the one that labeled me a terrible gift giver. It stemmed from an experience at age eight when I hurriedly stuffed a flimsy ten-dollar bill in a plain envelope for my sister’s Christmas gift. On Christmas morning the money was accidentally discarded with the crumpled wrapping paper. My family searched and searched but couldn’t find it. My sister seemed so sad that Christmas morning, but it wasn’t about the money. I knew she would be smiling had I put a little thought and effort into her gift that year—had I not been so selfish. Putting my needs and my agenda ahead of everyone else’s was an on-going problem of mine, and it could not be ignored whenever birthdays and holidays rolled around. What in the world will I give? I’d wracked my brain knowing what was required to give a meaningful gift was often more than I was willing to give.

Until this year.

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Note to Self: You Don’t Have to Have the Answers Today

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“We are all ready,” my 12-year-old daughter messaged me with a picture of two smiling early morning faces. Days before, she’d assured me that she and her sister didn’t need anyone to care for them when their dad and I left at 5am to go to the hospital. She assured me she could get them up at 6:30, fed, and ready at 7 o’clock. I had faith in them; I said okay. And like any good Type A list-maker would, I left a checklist, being sure to mention the importance of waking her little sister up gently.

So there I was donned in my surgical gown and ghastly cap—teeth chattering, no less. But instead of worrying about my impending surgery, I thought about how things were going at home. Would they get themselves off to school okay?

With one message and photo, my question was answered. One big fat tear ran down my cheek. They could do it. They could do it. What a beautiful answer I’d just received.

Shortly after I received the text, I was wheeled into the operating room. I was greeted with cold air and lively music. I was usually good at ‘name that tune’, but I couldn’t remember the title of that familiar song. I knew I liked it though. It was a good dance song.

“I forgot you played music in the operating room!” I said to the nurse as if we were walking into a club. Music is my thing. It often serves as my warm blanket in trying times. I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten about this little operating room “perk”.

“Some patients don’t like it,” the nurse said. “But many do.”

“Well, I love it,” I said enthusiastically hoping she’d turn it up. Instead she instructed me to transfer myself from the bed to the operating table. I knew exactly how to do it. I felt like a pro.

Within minutes, the anesthesiologist was giving me information and a cool rush was felt in my IV.

“It’s too tight on my arm,” I said in a shaky voice that felt like it might crack.

“It’s because I gave you some medicine. Don’t worry. We’ll take care good of you,” said a voice of calm.

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Clues to Cling to When Facing Life’s Mysteries

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On Sunday I woke up with the feeling of angst. Monday was the day I was going to my urologist’s office to learn the findings of my recent CT scan. I’d done a really good job of not thinking about this day over the Thanksgiving holiday. But on Sunday morning I could not keep the anxiety at bay. I kept envisioning what the doctor would probably say.

I’m sorry, but we didn’t see anything.

 Because those are the words I’ve been hearing for many months now from several doctors despite many tests.

I decided that preparing myself for no answers would be the best route. At least I won’t be any worse off when I come out of the office than going in; I told my shaky heart over and over.

But uncertainty is hard. Uncertainty is uncomfortable—especially when you are one who likes to know, plan, and prepare.

I went to my paper calendar and reviewed the week’s appointments and events. My twelve-year-old daughter walked up and lovingly leaned against me. “Tomorrow you go to the doctor, Mama,” Natalie said knowing this was an important day. “What’s he going to say?”

“Well, he will tell me the results of my CT scan, and then we’ll go from there,” I explained, not really knowing what else to say.

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Day Openers to Breathe More, Stress Less, & Carry You Through

“Hope that you spend your days
And they all add up.
And when that sun goes down
Hope you raise your cup.”
 -One Republic, I Lived

Last weekend my 12-year-old daughter prepared a special birthday gift for one of her best friends. As a generous gift giver from an early age, it did not surprise me that Natalie put great thought into gathering her friend’s favorite things. Having outgrown the tendency to re-gift gently used items from around the house, the basket was filled with items Natalie purchased with her hard-earned babysitting money. What did surprise me about this gift were the envelopes tucked inside. My younger daughter discovered them while admiring the gift before her sister left for the party.

“Wow! This is so thoughtful,” I told my older daughter when she discovered her little sister and me bent over the gift basket. Natalie quickly gathered the envelopes up. I sensed she didn’t want us to make a fuss over this special touch, but I had to ask, “What’s inside the envelopes?”

“Just inspirational messages,” she said as she hugged the basket to her chest and headed to the door. “They’re just words to help my friend through situations that might come up.”

day openers HFM

day openers HFM

day openers HFM

Just words to carry her through.

There was nothing just about that.

Although I could not know for sure, I felt certain those envelopes would outlive the Eos lip balm. They would be more coveted than the warm PJ pants. They would be remembered long after the party was over. At the age of 12, this child got it—she got the point. I live each day of my life desperately wanting to get it too.

But so often I fall short—especially during chaotic, busy times like holidays. I get caught up in what’s on the outside—the tasks, the preparation, and how it looks. I forget what’s underneath—the memories, the connections, and how it feels. In light of personal health struggles and worldly tragedies, I don’t want to miss the point this holiday season.

Perhaps you don’t either.

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When You Want to Pull the Blanket Over Your Head, Do This Instead

hospital #HFMThe smell of hospitals in winter
And the feeling that it’s all a lot of oysters, but no pearls
All at once you look across a crowded room
To see the way that light attaches to a girl.
–Counting Crows,  A Long December

A few days ago I went to the hospital for a CT scan of my abdomen and pelvis. When the technician shut the door so I could undress, I was alone with my nerves, heart rate monitors, and a pair of oversized scrubs. I nervously looked around the room.

I was looking for warm blankets.

There weren’t any, but I had faith there would be some. I vowed to keep my eyes open as I peeled off my clothes with shaky hands. About an hour later, I found what I was looking for … and maybe it is what you are looking for today. This is my story, may it bring hope where it is needed today …

When I had two kidney surgeries five months ago, they were at two different hospitals, two weeks apart. At the first hospital, my teeth chattered a lot. Before the surgery and after the surgery, my teeth constantly rattled. My kind nurse said, “Oh honey. We need to get you a warm blanket.”

She walked off briskly and came back with a clean white blanket that had been warmed to a perfect temperature. I could not believe it. It was such an unexpected kindness … an absolute luxury … a going-the-extra-mile action that I didn’t think people did anymore. My teeth stopped chattering almost instantly.

“Thank you. Thank you,” I said for this perfect gift I could hold both figuratively and literally in my time of fear.

I ended up asking for warm blankets more than pain meds during my stay. I was pretty sure they had healing powers.
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