Before Today Ends

before today ends handsfreemama.com

Today I hear …

Whining about her sister having a bigger scoop.
Slamming doors.
The relentless buzz of the dryer–a load needs folded … again.

But I also hear …

“This dinner ‘tasteses’ good, Mama.”
The C-chord sounding a bit like heaven on a tiny ukulele.
Tender, loving words in her sleepy bedtime voice.

This is what my life sounds like today.
And if I close my eyes and listen very carefully, that which sounds heavenly can overpower the noise.

Today I see …

Wet towels carelessly abandoned upon the bathroom floor.
Toothpaste blobs inhabiting the sink.
Weeds where flowers used to be.

But I also see …

Gentle hands putting dolls tenderly in their place.
A hole where a tooth used to be—her last baby tooth to go.
A love note written in kid penmanship resting on my pillow.

This is what my life looks like today.
And if I open my eyes and look very carefully, that which appears divinely perfect can outshine the mess.

[Read more...]

When Life Isn’t Pretty

“I want to see beauty. In the ugly, in the sink, in the suffering, in the daily, in all the days before I die, the moments before I sleep.” –Ann Voskamp

“I want to see beauty. In the ugly, in the sink, in the suffering, in the daily, in all the days before I die, the moments before I sleep.” –Ann Voskamp

*name has been changed

Just before the new year, a popular monthly publication requested permission to publish “Loving a Child Through the Challenges of Life” in their spring edition.  As if this opportunity weren’t surreal enough, it would include a photo shoot and a video interview.

The child in me – the one who spent hours filling notebooks in her lemon-yellow bedroom – was giddy at the thought of my writing being published in a magazine that my parents and grandmother often read. But what thrilled me even more was that the message of hope contained in the article would reach a worldwide audience.

Little did I know this experience would offer another chance at letting go to grasp what really matters in life.

This is my story …

[Read more...]

What a “Hands Free” Fall Looks Like

It all started with an innocent glass jar filled with heavy cream.

I watched as my 9-year-old daughter shook and shook with excitement until … ta-da! Real butter! She even made a batch of toast so the whole family could try her succulent creation.

“It has no chemicals, no fake ingredients. This is not processed food; this is called REAL food,” she declared as if taping an infomercial for “The Butter Shaker 5000.”

My 6-year-old daughter needed no persuasion; her small hand, which happened to fit perfectly inside the jar, went in for another heaping spoonful. Toast was completely unnecessary.

As I watched my children enjoy the natural goodness of this simple culinary treat, I felt a tinge of discomfort. However, I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why I felt such unease.

A few hours later, I discovered my open lap top computer. Posted on the screen was a PowerPoint slide show the kids had created. The title was: “How to Make Halloween Costumes For Kids.” With each click, I watched my youngest child transform from a fairy to a witch, from a “cheer girl” to a scary monster—all with a few stitches of fabric and a whole lot of creativity.

There it was again—that uncomfortable feeling. When I should have been marveling, I felt like crying.

Shouldn’t I be the one making homemade butter?

Shouldn’t I be the one making handmade costumes?

I know, I know. It is so wrong. I’m the one who just weeks ago was declaring the fabulous freedom to raise a child.

But I am human. And I live in the same world you live in—the one where afternoon snacks can resemble palm trees if you arrange the apple slices and carrot sticks just so on the colorful plate … the world where back-to-school means coordinated outfits in earthy tones with unsmudged eye glasses sitting perfectly on bright, shiny faces … the world where organizational cork boards align kitchen walls so you don’t forget the easily forgettable letter sack containing an object that starts with “C.” (Which consequently, I have discovered is an object that is virtually impossible to find at seven o’clock in the morning.)

[Read more...]

What a “Hands Free” Summer Looks Like

When I started writing this blog, I made a promise to myself. I vowed to be the real deal—meaning whether I am being Hands Free or writing about being Hands Free, I promised to be open, honest, and authentic about my successes and shortcomings on this journey to grasp what really matters.

Simply stated, there is no faking Hands Free; there is no half-way Hands Free. Either I’m distracted or I’m present. Trying to mentally and emotionally exist in two places at once is like trying to live life with one hand. And I tried that for two long, draining years—it doesn’t work. I have found that I can only grasp what really matters in life with two free hands and one committed heart.

So with that said, I’ve come to a decision about summer. And I share it with you because we all have responsibilities that beg for our time, attention, and energy.

[Read more...]

The Hands Of Time

There is a special place located in Indiana that was instrumental in setting my Hands Free journey into motion. I wrote about Conner Prairie when I first started this blog. You can read about that day and the Hands Free epiphany that occurred in my post, “Look Up.”

Here I am now, on the verge of celebrating my one-year anniversary of living Hands Free. I don’t think it is a coincidence that I recently had the opportunity to return to the place that got it all started.

Nothing on the Hands Free journey is coincidental.

This is my story…

About a month ago, my daughters and I had the chance to visit Conner Prairie, an interactive history park.

Walking on the rustic grounds of the outdoor museum is truly like going back in time. This is how I described Conner Prairie the first time I wrote about it:

Conner Prairie is designed as a historical town complete with a one-room school house, blacksmith, general store, baby animal barn, and town doctor, just to name a few of the features.

Not only can you walk inside these structures, but the women, men, and children that work there dress and speak according to the time period in which they portray. For a little girl who dreamed of being one of “Pa’s” daughters on “Little House on the Prairie,” I was as excited as my children were about this experience.

Although I visited Conner Prairie just eleven months prior, I felt like I was seeing it with new eyes. No longer am I an outside observer of the slower, simpler, undistracted life that the museum represents, I am a participant. I am a participant.

Eleven months ago, I so desperately wanted to sequester myself in one of their old fashioned hotel rooms, forever abandoning my life of buzzing cell phones, addictive technology, overcrowded calendar boxes, overwhelming requests, and endless to-do-lists.

But I knew I couldn’t stay there forever.

Reluctantly, I walked away from Conner Prairie eleven months ago, but I took something with me. I carried a new awareness, a profound realization: Although it was not possible for me to live in a placid country home of 1822, I was determined to take aspects of this simple, undistracted life and apply it to my own.

Now here I was, almost a year later, back on the fertile soil where my journey began.

So how did I do? Did the Hands Free tactics I incorporated in my daily life in the past eleven months enable me to grasp what really matters? Was I any closer to living life the way my heart yearned to live?

As my daughters and I walked through the historical “town,” stopping to go inside the school house, the hotel, and various old homes, my mind was flooded with Hands Free moments that had occurred over the past year…moments that would never have happened if I hadn’t made a conscious effort to replace daily distraction with moments of simplicity, stillness, and spontaneity.

First, we stopped and spoke to a lovely young woman named “Dorcus” dressed in traditional garb of the 1800s. Her long cotton dress gracefully spilled over the weathered bench on which she sat.

In her hands, she held a small quilt patch pierced with a needle and thread.

I watched in awe as she generously handed over her almost complete sewing project to my eager eight-year-old daughter and began guiding her.

Although Dorcus had clearly spent much time and effort on the creation, keeping it in pristine condition seemed unimportant to her. Apparently, she knew this experience would be much more meaningful and memorable if the children had a chance to try it themselves.

As I witnessed her kind gesture, I was reminded of the times I let go of perfection, as well as the need to get something completed “quickly,” in order to create meaningful experiences and lasting memories for (and with) my children.

I recalled many laughing sessions with my four-year-old laundry helper over the past year. I thought of every dish my daughter and I washed together and the multitude of muffins we baked while sharing with her my favorite childhood memories of baking and cleaning with my own mom.

As my oldest daughter described a potholder she recently made to Dorcus, I reminisced about the many lessons my daughters taught me this past year. I thought of my daughter’s dream of having an actual school in our playroom, the way she chose to sponsor the girl with the broken smile, and the lessons three preschoolers taught me on the day I drove fifty miles in the wrong direction.

By setting aside my own agenda, worries of messes and personal inconveniences, I watched my daughters grasp what matters to them and learned more than I ever could on my own.

Next, we came upon a tiny house derived of white washed wooden planks. Through the cracks in the structure, the most enticing smells escaped. Inside two robust women with perspiring foreheads pinched fragrant dough with strong, thick fingers.

They kindly asked my children if they would like to help prepare meat pies.

My daughters happily accepted the request to help. They were quite apt when it came to rolling the dough and stuffing it with tender meat, but placing it over the fire was a bit intimidating. After all, we bake in a oven, not over an open fire spitting intense flames.

As my daughters bravely attempted to overcome their fear, I was reminded of the moments I had gone beyond my own comfort level in order to grasp what really mattered.

I recalled several puzzles I had (embarrassingly) struggled to put together under the encouraging guidance of my four-year-old, reluctantly getting my hair wet at the pool, choosing a bike ride with my children over Superbowl party prep, and playing the violin after a twenty-year hiatus.

In the past eleven months, I had attempted activities that weren’t really “my thing,” that I didn’t necessarily like to do, but did them in an effort to connect with the people I love.

Next, we headed into the quaint general store. The gruff salesman in a stiff black cotton suit pointed out many tempting items to my wide-eyed daughters who thought they must be dreaming when he announced prices that did not have the word “dollars” at the end.

My oldest daughter gravitated toward a china set in robin’s egg blue and my youngest child drooled over sassafras candy sticks that only cost one cent (even though she had no clue what sassafras was).

My youngest daughter was interested in purchasing a twenty-five cent bag of flour at the general store.

As my daughters carefully examined the interesting items surrounding them, I thought about my own delicate, priceless moments that I was able to witness and absorb in the past year. By slowing down and focusing on the now, instead of racing to the next activity or event, I was able to see exquisite beauty in even the ordinary details of life.

Over the year, I had collected enough hellos to buffer the impending goodbyes I will surely face. I waited joyfully, instead of impatiently and angrily. I watched a humble man get an unexpected gift and a sick child succumb to the peaceful refuge of sleep.

By refusing to let a ticking clock run my life, I was able to slow down and see providential signs everywhere….in the clouds, on windowpanes, and in the eyes of the people I love. I accepted these divine signs as confirmation that I am on the right path leading to what really matters.

Once we toured the outer “town” area of Conner Prairie, the girls summoned us inside to the interactive part of the museum. My mother-in-law took the girls to the papermaking station while I had the pleasure of caring for my eleven-month-old nephew.

I spotted one of those silly mirrors in the dress up area. Knowing how much babies love mirrors, I carried my little dude over. (And I really must mention, my nephew has hair that puts Johnny Depp’s coif to shame and should be admired regularly.)

I slowly peeked his angelic face into the mirror and my cheesiest voice asked, “Where’s Sam?”

From the first glance, he loved it.

With every peek into the mirror, his wheezy, sucking air style of laughing became louder and louder.

On what seemed like the twentieth peek, I realized my nephew was not the only one in the mirror who looked incredibly happy.

Suddenly I saw the woman holding the baby…literally and figuratively holding life in her hands. And on her face was the pure joy that comes from living, not simply surviving each day or getting through each day, but living each day with purpose, presence, and gratitude.

In that moment I saw how far I had come in one year.

I am now able to put into words what I couldn’t bear to write before….

Before, I was living life with one hand.
One hand always making a list,
Checking things off…checking things off.

Before, I was living life with one hand.
One hand always planning ahead,
On to what’s next…On to what’s next.

Before, I was living life with one hand.
One hand always trying to please,
Make everyone happy…make everyone happy.

Before, I was living life with one hand.
One hand always striving for an illusion,
Make sure it’s perfect…make sure it’s perfect.

Before, I was living life with one hand.
One hand always reaching full speed,
Don’t slow down…don’t slow down.

Before, I was living life with one hand,
But then I realized one-handed living is not really living,
Not living at all.

Deep in my soul, I yearned to grasp what really matters.
And I knew I couldn’t do it with one hand.

So I let go.

I let go of distraction.
I let go of perfection.
I let go of excess.
I let go of chaos.

And when I finally had two free hands,
I embraced life.

I embraced life with two free hands and one whole heart.
And THAT is when I truly began living.

Conner Prairie 2011: My hands are free; my heart is full.

*************************************************

Is this the end? Does my journey to grasp what really matters end here?

My next post holds the answer. I hope you’ll come back.

In the meantime, evaluate how you are doing on your own journey to grasp what really matters. What signs of progress have you witnessed? I’d love to hear about them.

Or perhaps you are still unsuccessfully trying to embrace life with one hand?

Isn’t it time to let go? Let go of a little distraction, a little perfection, or a little chaos. It only requires baby steps to making a big difference in getting closer to what really matters in this one precious life we have to live.

Let go. Do it today.

Embrace The Reminder

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

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

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

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

And sometimes I need to be reminded of that.

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

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

This is my story…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it was all those things.

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

And all it took was a reminder.

I was reminded that Mother Nature holds healing powers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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