A Question to Live By

small moments/small notebooks HFM

“Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” –Fernando Sabino

I was standing over the shrimp dip when a family friend approached me. Although he was known to ask thought-provoking questions, and this was my going away party, I was not expecting this one. “So once you get settled in your new home, what do you imagine that moment will look like when you feel like everything is going turn out okay?” he asked.

In one mere sentence my friend went straight to my greatest fears, my greatest insecurities, and my greatest hopes. Funny thing is, I knew the answer to his question. I’d envisioned it a thousand times as I’d prepared our home to be emptied. Tears began dripping my face. An unsightly sea of mascara, I was sure, but I could not stop the tears if I tried. My friend didn’t act like it was any big deal. His wife, who is also my dear friend, had probably exposed him to spontaneous sobbing a few times. My friend just waited. Then he listened.

“When my children come home from school and say, ‘I met a friend today, Mama.’ That is when I know it’s gonna be okay. One friend makes the whole world better, you know. One friend for each girl. That is the moment,” I replied. Then I dabbed my eyes with a yellow party napkin and smiled because friends like that just make you smile even when you’re crying.

I thought that conversation concluded over appetizers and farewell hugs, but it didn’t. For the past two months, that conversation has continued in my head.

As I pulled away from our old house, car loaded, and deafening silence from the little people in the back seat, I drove straight into a torrential rain storm. Well, this is definitely not The Moment! I screamed in my head, sad and angry and unable to see the yellow line through tears and rainwater.

A few weeks later, my friend’s question came to mind when my daughters’ best friends came for a weeklong visit and nearly knocked them down with hugs and squeals. This is The Moment! Yep! Everything is going to be okay. I sighed with relief.

But then a few days later we watched fireworks in an unfamiliar place surrounded by strangers and every boom made my child shudder and moan, “I want to go back home—our real home.” This sure isn’t The Moment! I thought with frustration.

And then Meet-the-Teacher day happened and my child was lovingly noticed by the P.E. teacher and introduced to the sweet principal and associate principal. Now this is The Moment! I thought leaping for joy.

But the next day it was swim team suit try-on day in a crowded locker room with no air conditioning. So sweaty. Too small. New team. Missing old team. Tears. Homesick. Definitely Not The Moment.

Hmmm. I thought. What’s the deal? When will it be THE moment everything’s gonna be okay?

That’s about the time my younger daughter, Avery, got off the school bus with a miniature notebook hanging from her neck with a long, green ribbon.

“What’s that?” I asked secretly delighted to see my child not just carrying, but actually wearing, one of my favorite objects in the whole entire world. By the look of sheer joy on my face, she may as well have been carrying a tray of Godiva chocolates or round-trip tickets to a tropical island.

“This is my Tiny Topics Notebook. Our teacher wants us to write down small moments in our life,” she said matter-of-factly while holding out the leopard print covered pad for me to see.

Is this for real? I thought happily. A Tiny Topics Notebook! Could there be anything cuter? I was practically salivating now. If Rachel Stafford knew anything, she knew about Small Moments and Small Notebooks. My speechlessness must have led Avery to believe she needed to elaborate. “Our notebook is going to help us write stories … you know, Mama,” she said in a tone that sounded a lot like ‘duh.’

Avery knows about my ridiculous collection of small notebooks with pages and pages filled with important scribbles. She knows they are kept with my most important documents and can never be thrown away. Avery knows I wear an utterly tasteless fanny pack when I take walks so I don’t miss documenting any ideas. It’s creative writing at the most unstylish level. Truly. But a second grader with a miniature notebook strapped around her neck is a whole different matter. It is adorable. For days, Avery wore that thing around. Pushing her glasses up on her nose as she jotted down important little details when the mood struck her.

I was dying to know what was inside that flip pad that fit perfectly in her little hand. One night as I was tucking Avery in bed, I asked if I could read her Tiny Topics Notebook that she placed next to her bed each night. Avery said yes and gave me permission to share. Each page held one idea:

“moveing to a new place”

“playing a song called Peace on my guitar”

“going to a new school”

“visiting a water park”

“I got nurves in swiming and I could not swim.”

“painting nails with my sister”

small moments/small notebooks HFM

Of course in my head, you know what I was adding to each detail, right? This was Not The Moment. This was The Moment. This was Not The Moment. This was The Moment. Because of course, little people have Moments and Not Moments too.

“These are all very important details,” I said proudly. “I like how you write about the hard moments as well as the happy ones,” I added as I carefully placed the notebook back in its special spot next to her head.

“Well, sometimes there are bad moments, but if I keep looking, there’s always a good one that pops up. So I keep on looking.” Just when I thought that little notebook couldn’t get any more precious, that little author of mine spoke those very wise and hopeful words.

I instantly knew that Avery and I had two people we must thank. I would have to thank my friend back home. His question had served as my Tiny Topics Notebook. The act of looking for The Moment and distinguishing it from Not The Moment became a practice of expectancy and hope during a difficult transition for me. We would also have to thank Avery’s teacher. Through this journaling process, the hard moments were less discouraging because Avery realized a good moment was bound to come if she kept on noticing.

And now I hope to help you. Pretend we’re talking over an insanely delicious chip dip or the best guacamole you ever tasted and you have your favorite adult beverage in hand. And let’s pretend I ask you a question. Pick the one that makes you stop for a moment and maybe even makes you tear up a little.

What will that moment look like when that long-held resentment begins to wane?

What will that moment look like when you begin to love yourself “as is”?

What will that moment look like when you begin choosing calm reactions over angry outbursts?

What will that moment look like when you stop delaying your life with “as soon as I …” and start living now?

What will be that moment look like when you begin to move forward and stop looking back?

What will that moment look like when you stop putting off your dream and take the first step?

What will that moment look like when you decide to live by heart and not by outside pressures and opinions?

What will that moment look like when you forgive yourself? 

What will that moment look like when you start to believe things are going to turn out okay?

I hope one of those questions becomes an on-going conversation in your head over the next few weeks, months, or even years. And I hope it inspires you to keep looking. Because there is something to be said for preparing your head and your heart for That Moment …

In the act of looking for That Moment, it becomes a real possibility rather than a far-fetched dream.

In the act of looking for That Moment, you find it is not a single moment, but rather a meaningful collection of moments that keep fueling you forward.

In the act of looking for That Moment, you gather the courage to keep showing up, even when it’s scary, even when it’s hard, even when it hurts.

In the act of looking for That Moment, it has less chance of passing you by.

Last Sunday my family walked into a new church with new friends … new friends we met through a recent blog post … … new friends who said, “It seems like we were best friends before and then we got amnesia and found each other again.” That kind of friend. And there was one for each girl. And there was even one for me.

It was The Moment alright. Maybe it was even The Best One so far. But in any case, I will keep looking for more moments. After all, there are many tiny notebooks to fill.

small notebooks to fill #HFM


Friends of the Hands Free Revolution, tell us your stories. What Moment are you currently looking for? At what Moment did you know things were gonna be okay? Each week, your experiences shed a little light on someone else’s darkness. Thank you for sharing your hearts. 

*Update: My friends, thank you for the overwhelming response to my recent post, “How to Change Someone’s Story/The 6-Second ChallengeThe story of Avery’s P.E. teacher picking her out of a crowd to let her know she mattered … that she was beautiful … that she was welcomed at her new school has gained international exposure and inspired hearts worldwide. It has also made a tremendous impact on a personal level (which I alluded to at the end of today’s post). I ended up sending the blog post to Avery’s P.E. teacher to let her know she ignited something powerful in the hearts of many, many people. Little did I know she would connect me to a woman who has been reading my blog since its induction … a woman who has a unique Firefly of her own … a woman who felt like a long-lost sister. Recently our families got together and needless to say, it felt like HOME—or like best friends who got amnesia and found each other again (as our new friend Annie said). I am incredibly thankful for this divinely orchestrated union of 3 families and wanted to offer a glimpse of this happiness with you, my faithful companions on this journey …

The P.E. teacher who ignited a spark felt 'round the world ...

The P.E. teacher who ignited a spark felt ’round the world …

Our Firefly's light making us smile ...

For three new friends, we sure felt a lot like old friends. So thankful for this little Firefly’s light.

When You Get it Right … and When You Don’t

what's right 2 handsfree mama

“I must have done something right,” the father of a nineteen-year-old young lady was telling me after having fixed my troublesome garage door.

Although his daughter had drifted a bit during her early teen years, she was now coming over to her parents’ house on the weekends and was genuinely enjoying spending time with her parents again.

The repairman’s eyes lit up when he talked about the renewed relationship with his daughter. He seemed relieved about how things had turned out.

“I must have done something right,” he had said a few minutes earlier.

His oldest daughter is nineteen. My oldest daughter is ten. I don’t want to wait nine years to know whether or not I’ve done something right. Because now is when I need to hear it.

Now—when I am in smack dab in the middle of raising her.

Now—when I feel the pressure to examine every choice I make, wondering how these choices will affect her now and in the future.

Now—when I want to trust my gut and live by heart rather than simply go along with mainstream opinion or “expert” advice.

Now—when I need little glimmers of hope to cling to each day.

So I decided not to wait.

Each day for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been looking for a little rightness—a little what-is-right-in-my-world.

Notice I say “a little.” Because what I am talking about is practically unnoticeable. It’s hardly note-worthy. And it’s definitely not anything worthy of public sharing—at least not according to societal standards. But that’s why it’s working for me. That’s why it’s encouraging to me. Because looking for what is right in my world – in my day – in my hour – is far more encouraging than looking for what is “right” in my world according to social media, societal standards, or popular opinion.

I invite you to take a look. Maybe this list will inspire you to see what is right in your world today.

[Read more...]


enough handsfree mama

Sometimes I find myself sitting behind the wheel of the car thinking,
Enough with the bickering.
Enough with the chauffeuring, the gas-guzzling, the bumper-to-bumper.
Enough with the gum wads stuck between cracker-crumb filled crevices where nice leather seats used to be.
Enough, I say. Enough.

Sometimes I find myself staring at my reflection in the mirror thinking,
Enough with the wrinkles, the puffiness, and the sleep-deprived eyes.
Enough with the loose skin and the unstoppable gray hairs.
Enough with the laugh lines that look anything but happy.
Enough, I say. Enough.

Sometimes I find myself standing in front of an open refrigerator thinking,
Enough with the meal prep: morning, noon, and night.
Enough with the picky eater, the slow eater, the dirty dishes, and lack of counter space.
Enough with finding the unachievable balance of nutritious and kid-approved.
Enough, I say. Enough.

Sometimes I find myself gazing at photos of tropical beaches and secluded getaways thinking,
Enough with the perpetual ticking clock,
Enough with the steady stream of demands, the dust bunnies, and missing library books.
Enough with the needs of others that never seem to be satisfied.
Enough, I say. Enough.

But then something happens to pull me out of my negative abyss and set my head on straight.

[Read more...]

Today Let Me Appreciate

“To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven.” -Johannes A. Gaertner

The message came in late one night. My husband and I had just arrived home from a wonderful evening with dear friends. Thanks to the lingering warmth of flavorful sangria and the company of those I love, I felt peaceful and relaxed. But in less than sixty seconds, a five-sentence message turned my blood ice cold. My hands, hovering over the keyboard, began to shake. The words on the screen became blurred through my tears.

There were few details included in the message. But in this case, details were simply not needed. A reader of my blog was telling me her child had been murdered in August.

Each day I read – no, make that skim over – this eight-letter word in the news. But tonight there was no skimming. I read it over and over and over again. There was something about reading it here, in my inbox, from a dear soul one email message away that grabbed me in a chokehold. Murdered. For a few moments, I forgot to breathe.

And then I went there—crossing that line of “what if” and for one split second tried and to imagine if my child …

I can’t even type the words.

And cowardly, I couldn’t even imagine such devastation … so I quickly retreated back to the safety of here and now. I bolted upstairs, taking two steps at a time, to get to my precious children. I found them, as I prayed, peacefully sleeping in their beds. With each child, I rested my head on her chest just to feel her breath, just to feel her life.

In that moment, I made a silent vow to my dear reader one email message away that I would not say: “There are no words.”

[Read more...]

When Sweat Meets Tears

I applied extra strength deodorant…three times.

I had an arsenal of frozen water bottles in my possession.

I donned airy, Dri-fit clothing that allowed for optimal air circulation.

Every single hair on my head was secured as far away from the back of my neck as possible.

I slathered myself with the recommended amount of sunscreen and pulled down my baseball cap.

I applied one more coat of deodorant in huge strokes, reaching far outside the usual areas of application.

Was I embarking on a trip to the blazing hot center of the earth?


Was I heading to the first swim meet of the summer season?


And I was dreading it.

I like to be hot about as much as I like to drive in unfamiliar territory. (If you want a good laugh, check out my “Trip to Nowhere” post.)

And when you are talking summer swim meet, in Alabama, at four o’clock in the afternoon, you are talking The Three P’s of Hotness:

Prolonged Hotness (four hours, but who’s counting?)

Pronounced Hotness (103 degrees that particular day)

Penetrating Hotness (sweat invades places in your body you did not know sweat could go)

And what sealed my dread with a nice sweaty little kiss was the fact that it would be my first experience as a swim meet “timer.” This means you don’t simply sit in hotness waiting for your child’s brief 20 second swim performance in between hours of other events, you STAND in hotness with a timer and clipboard hoping you don’t miss your child’s 20 second swim performance.

Did I mention I was dreading it?

Before the meet began, timers were called forward for a brief training on their duties.

By this time, I was already perspiring from the process of carrying three heavy bags packed with towels, clothing, and an array of activities to combat boredom from the parking lot to the pool deck.

The sweat dripped down the side of my neck, which in fact, possessed four painful red indentations created by the straps of three lawn chairs and one cooler that I somehow managed to carry along with the bags.

My four-year-old would make sure I noted that I did not have to carry everything; she kindly carried her own Polly Pocket bag, which could actually be defined as “heavy” considering it’s filled with small dolls and clothes that have been collected over a five year period.

(And yes, I pause here to admit there is a slight problem with over packing for swim meets that I promise I am working on…I really am.)

So while I awaited my timer training, we were told to pair up with a partner who would hit “go” on his or her timer at the same time we did to ensure our results were correct.

In my irritable “sweatiness,” I was in no mood to make “friends” with anyone.

I surveyed the partner prospects and set my sights on the quiet looking dad standing off by himself.

I hoped fate would smile on me, leading him to walk over and offer to be my partner.

No luck.  Instead, I got the bubbly and ever–so-friendly mom who quickly held out her hand and introduced herself.

Things were not going as planned.

We were then instructed on the timing process and assigned our positions. I was in lane three, positioned directly beneath the scorching hot sun and squeezed between the diving block, the disqualifying judge and my new timer “friend,” Sarah.

In other words, I was tucked in a nice and cozy spot where I could not move my extremities and air would never have the chance to reach me.

As my skin began to sizzle, I looked up to see if a magnifying glass had been placed over my head.

Finally, the age six and under swimmers were called to the blocks. My timer finger was ready and hit “go” at the moment I heard the start buzzer.

When the pint-sized swimmers finally reached the other side, timers were required to ask them their name to ensure we were recording the right time for the right child.

Most of the six-year-old swimmers seemed confused by this question. Some stared at me blankly. Others looked around to see if I was really talking to them. One child even replied, “I don’t know.”

It was going to be a LONG night.

After the next few heats, it was my daughter’s turn. She was in my lane. I felt a sharp pang of excitement knowing I was in a perfect position to see her swim.

From my post, I marveled at her speed, the formation of her arms, the quickness of breaths.  I clocked her time AND managed to give her a congratulatory hug. The smile on her face indicated she was very happy I was the first face that greeted her on the other side.

For a brief moment, 19.24 seconds to be exact, I forgot about the threat of heat stroke.

After the age eight and under swimmers concluded the freestyle event, timers moved to the other side of the pool.

The older children are required to do a 50 or 100 yard swim, which means we were able to ask the swimmers their name before they swam.

Coincidentally, the first girl I asked possessed the same name as my daughter. How could I not cheer for her?

Once I hit “go” on the timer, I found myself cheering for a girl I didn’t know, but had a name that I love.

In that moment, I made the decision to do that for all the competitors in my lane. I figured that since I was privy to the swimmers’ names, I might as well cheer for them.

Once the seconds started on my timer, I supportively called out the name of the child swimming his or her heart out in the lane before me.

When the swimmers got out of the pool, they always wanted to know what their time was.

Perhaps it was the teacher in me or perhaps it was the hopeful look on their dripping wet faces, but I didn’t just tell them their time; I also told them what a good job they did.

Most swimmers seemed initially surprised that The Timer Lady had words of encouragement, yet they all smiled in return.

As I clocked each swimmer’s ending time, my timer partner and I compared. There were never any discrepancies in our times; there was no drama. We developed a perfect rhythm between timing, recording, and being ready for the next heat.

We even had time to engage in a little small talk.

I found myself enjoying the company of a woman who had a gorgeous smile and displayed a beautiful connection with each of her two daughters as they periodically came by for a quick hug.

About half way through the meet, I couldn’t believe the time. Two hours had flown past. The sun had dipped down below the side of the building; I was basking in the glorious shade. I even noticed the hint of a slight breeze in the air.

It was then that something monumental occurred to me.

I was standing in the front row of life’s greatest moments:

A child’s determined face as she wills every ounce of her body, heart, and soul to touch the victory wall.

A new swimmer pleading with his little five-year-old arms and legs to just keep going as all the on-lookers cheer his name….

An enthusiastic coach high-fiving his swimmers and reminding them to have fun…

A serious young competitor catching a glimpse of her parents at the end of her lane and suddenly breaking into a smile…

A teenage swimmer reaching out to his long-time opponent to offer a good luck handshake…

A swimmer’s dedication to her sport so evident in her defined muscles and incredible endurance…

A nervous little brother being hugged and encouraged by his older, more aquatically experienced, sister…

Happy healthy children,

Proud and loving parents,

Sunshine and fresh air,

Laughter and conversation,

All here in one place for me to witness, absorb, and celebrate.

And I had a spot in the front row where I could not only feel the splash of the entrance, but the emotion of the exit…the beautiful, heart-warming emotion of the exit.

Around eight o’clock p.m., I found myself collecting The Stafford Family’s 199 entertainment and beverage items scattered about our “camp.” That is when I had another realization.

I realized I must really learn to wear flat shoes; I realized I was so hungry that I might even consider eating “food” from the concession stand; I realized there was an atrocious smell in the air that was coming from me.

But I also realized my heart was full.

And I can’t get that feeling just anywhere.

I had to go where I did not want to go in order to get to a place I long to be…

A place of gratitude,

A place of contentment,

A place of awe,

A place of harmony…

And next time I have the opportunity to go that extraordinary place, I think I will try not to kick and scream the whole way there.


We all have activities and responsibilities in our life that we rather not do. Yet, a negative inner dialogue of dread and complaint merely becomes a distraction from the gifts of that experience. And there are gifts in every experience we have in life; even if the only positive aspect you can come up with is, “I am alive to witness this experience.”

Being alive is definitely worth celebrating, don’t you think?

*When I need to be reminded of the gift that is simply being alive, I visit the beautifully painful writings of Jo Julia. Jo is coming upon the first anniversary of her husband’s death. At Dear Audrey, Jo writes letters to her young daughter about her daddy, about death, and about life.