An Unusual Term for Death that Helps Me Live Fully in Today

DSC_0219“It’s the perfect time of day
It’s the last day of your life
Don’t let it drift away
While your heart is still racing
It’s the perfect time of day.”
Howie Day

I avoided a particular closet in my house for two years. Stacked inside were five large, plastic bins stuffed with loose papers, writing notebooks, and keepsakes I didn’t have time to file before we moved two years ago. Coincidentally, the items inside the containers were collected during the first four years of my journey to a less distracted life.

For the past two years, I’ve wanted to go through the massive collection piece by piece, determining whether it should be filed or discarded. But the task was immense and intimidating. It was much easier to avoid the closet altogether and plan on doing it another day.

‘Another day’ finally arrived in July when I was taking a month-long break from blogging and posting online to spend time with my family and focus on an on-going physical pain in my body.

I was only halfway through the first container when I was generously rewarded for taking on this monumental task. There, among the disarray, was something that didn’t belong to me. It was a booklet of poems addressed to my dad. I’m not sure why I had it. I’d never seen it before.

Tucked inside was a note addressed to my father, dated 1965, right after the passing of his mother. I held the frail note gingerly, fearing it might disintegrate in my hands before I had a chance to read it.

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I went back and read the first sentence of the note three times: “We wish to express our sympathy to you and your family in the going away of your mother.”

the going away

It was an unusual term for death; it sounded like she was on vacation or enduring a long hospital stay or perhaps had retreated to solitude by choice.

the going away of your mother

I couldn’t get past it.

I’d gone away too. Perhaps my dad gave me this precious memento during one of his visits, and I was spread so thin, so worn down, so distracted by my maxed-out life at the time that I’d forgotten.

We can go away, even when we are here, can’t we?

I know that now.

I also know we can go away if we don’t take care of ourselves. I’ve been in enough imaging centers, heart & kidney institutes, hospitals, and doctor’s offices over the past year to see life’s fragility in ways I never wanted to see.

The sobering view has left an impression on me, often creeping into my daily thoughts and nightly dreams.

As I awaited my first visit with a pelvic pain specialist in mid-July, I had an especially memorable dream. The shutter of my bedroom window was open and my eyes were playing tricks on me. Groggily, I went to the window to get a better look. In my backyard, I saw row after row of white folding chairs. Was it a wedding? I wondered. No, no; it was nothing pleasant like that. In the dark, I frantically scribbled exactly what it was, what I didn’t want to forget come daybreak:

DSC_0588It said:

“Saw a sea of white folding chairs
But they were not for a celebration
They were for a funeral—my funeral
I said no. I want to live
Not die
Then I shall act like it.”

Even in my sleep, those words were written like a woman on a mission to live … a woman who did not want to go away, momentarily or permanently.

My middle-of-the-night ‘note to self’ reminded of the question my friend Kaitlin asked during my intimate birthday gathering in January. “What was your biggest lesson this year, Rachel?”she asked thoughtfully.

I didn’t even have to think. “How much I want to be here … and the importance of taking care of myself,” I said, getting choked on my words.

Although the four precious women seated around me knew about my surgeries and pain mysteries, I felt the need to further explain. “I got a text from Natalie the other day that said, ‘I love you, Mom.’ Seeing those words in a text message felt like a glimpse of the future. I could see my grown Natalie standing in the produce department of a grocery store or sitting on the couch in her apartment texting me those words – not because she had to, but because she wanted to … because I was a part of her life … an important part of her life. I want so badly to be here for that day.”

My friends nodded and wiped tears too. It appeared to be a universal hope to be here for days such as those.

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I don’t think it is any coincidence that the sympathy booklet belonging to my dad contains a poem that instantly captivated my attention. I refer back to it almost every day. It says:

“Build a little fence of trust
Around today …

 Fill the spaces with loving work
And therein stay.

 Look not between the shelt’ring bars
Upon tomorrow,

But take whatever comes to thee
Of joy or sorrow.”

 -Mary F. Butts

Build a fence of trust around today …

I have such hopes for that too.

It is a daily struggle to keep myself here, in the blessed perimeters of today—to avoid the constant urge to look ahead to tomorrow, next month, and years from now. It is a daily struggle not to worry about my children, the state of our country, my health and the health of the people I love. It’s a daily struggle to keep my brain focused on the here and now, not on the twenty tasks I need to accomplish by noon tomorrow.

“Build a fence around today,” a divine whisper says. That is the answer – not an easy one, but it is an answer.

What is required to build a fence around today? I ask myself.

Eye contact

So I look at my daughter’s face when she speaks to me.

And I am building.

Time

So I knock on her bedroom door and say, “May I come in and hang out for a bit?”

And I am building.

Inconvenience

So I say yes to her occasional Starbuck’s request before school even though it doesn’t fit in my schedule that day.

And I am building.

Sacrifice

So I participate in her interests even though they are not mine.

And I am building.

Presence

So when I am in her company, I try to be there—all there—with her.

And I am building.

Awareness

So when I speak to her, I think about my words; I listen carefully to hers; I breathe in her smell; I study her face.

And I am building.

Self-care

So I go to my weekly therapy even though the process is humbling, the pain makes me cry, and the progress is barely detectable.

And I am building.

I am building a fence of trust around today—investing in it, protecting it, holding it delicately before it disintegrates in my hands.

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I finally got to the last plastic bin the other day. Although I’d wanted to clean out this massive container for two years, it wasn’t meant to happen any sooner. It was destined to happen now, when it could be appreciated as the gift it truly was.

At the very bottom of the fifth and final container, the ultimate treasure awaited me. It was a Mother’s Day booklet written in kid penmanship—the most exquisite font under the sun. My daughter had written: “My mom is special because … she’s here.”

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That was the year I came back.

And this is the year I decided I want to stay—right here in today.

So each day, I will build a fence of trust around it. I will keep it hydrated with eight glasses of water. I will keep it in the sunlight as much as possible. I will tend to it with love and affection. There will be weeds along the fence; I know. But I will focus on the flowers, particularly one of them blooming right in front of my eyes. This one takes my breath away. Although I’d be blessed to see the day she’s all grown up, the day I most want to be here is today.

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My friends, when I shared a vulnerable reflection about what it means to “get better” on the of the Hands Free Revolution Facebook page recently, the comments indicated many of us share health struggles that remove us from life and diminish our hope. Although pelvic pain is not the most comfortable topic to write about, I will continue sharing to give someone else comfort or hope. Thank you for the encouragement and courage you give me to keep sharing. Many of you have been using the hashtag #onlylovetoday or #handsfreerevolution on Instagram so I can see you and your precious ones wearing the “come as you are,” “see flowers not weeds,” and “only love today” metal cuffs. It brings me tremendous joy to know the mantras I use are working so positively in your lives as well. Today is the final day to use the promo code for free domestic shipping on all items in the Hands Free Shop. Use the code: LOVESCHOOL at checkout. 

 Upcoming speaking event news & ticket links:

  • My speaking event in Diablo, California sold out very quickly, and I am so sorry some of you were not able to get tickets. The lovely event coordinators assure me seats are expected to open up. Please email carol@cpcdanville.org to be placed on the waitlist. 
  • Registration is now open for my October 6th speaking event in Clarksville, TN. I will be speaking at the Tickle Me Pink Luncheon which supports the Clarksville YMCA’s After Breast Cancer program (ABC). Click here to purchase tickets.
  • The ticket link for my speaking event in Chattanooga, TN on Tuesday evening, October 4th will be posted soon. This event is hosted by the MCR Foundation which provides resources for families affected by eating disorders in the Chattanooga area. Watch their website and Facebook page for ticket link coming soon. 
  • I am delighted to be the keynote speaker at the Spirit of Life women’s retreat in Mandan, ND on November 3rd. Click here to access the save-the-date page for this event. This is a free event and you may choose only to attend the luncheon/keynote portion of the retreat.

    Thank you for walking beside me on this life-changing journey to live better & love more in the time we are given. I cherish you.

Taking Off the Ticking Clock

 

taking off the ticking clock #handsfreemama.com

It was while watching my daughter eat a sno-cone on a summer trip to the beach that I experienced a life-changing epiphany.

Truth be told, it was our second trip to The Sno-Cone Shack in three days. (Believe me, these were not your average sno-cones.) On this particular visit, Avery got a scoop of wedding cake and a scoop of cherry. I don’t think I will ever forget how delicious that unlikely combination of flavors tasted when  my daughter gave me the very last bite.

Because I didn’t hurry her.

Because I said, “Take your time, baby. We don’t have to rush.”

Because that big ol’ ticking clock that I wore around my neck during my impatient Hurry Up Years had been left behind. Without the squeeze of that ticking clock around my throat, I could breathe; my child could breathe. I was all there with my daughter on that unforgettable day.

stopped saying 'hurry up' #handsfreemama

I ended up writing about the sno-cone experience and provided a painful glimpse of what life was like when I pushed and prodded that same little girl through her day. I had no idea millions of people would eventually read those painful truths—but even if I had known, I still would’ve written it—for the people walking around with the heavy clocks around their necks.

I had the chance to edit the story before The Huffington Post published it. I remember looking at the live preview thinking I should probably add something like:  “While it is important to have unhurried moments in life, it is equally important to instill a sense of responsibility and promptness in our children.” After all, I was a teacher for ten years. I know full well the importance of promptness and dependability.

But I didn’t change one word of that story. Not one. I knew I would take some heat, but I was okay with that. I was writing to The Clock Wearers of the World—the ones functioning at one speed and one speed only … the ones “hurry upping” their loved ones through life even when it wasn’t necessary … the ones who’d lost sight of what really mattered by living in constant state of urgency. I knew breathing was becoming labored for those wearing the ticking clocks heavy on their chests. I knew because that is how I lived for so long.

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‘Choose Love’ 21-Day Challenge: Part 2

choose love challenge 2

* On September 22, I posted a passage on The Hands Free Revolution page illustrating how ‘Choosing Love’ as a first response might play out in a typical day. The concept deeply resonated with many people. I’ve added it to this post and decided now was the perfect time to bring back this transformative 21-day challenge. Let love start this day. Let love end this day. Let love transform the minutes in between …

I never know where interviews are going to take me – but I can almost always be sure they will take me back—back in time. And although most days I try my best to look forward, sometimes it’s enlightening to reflect back and see something I can only see with time. This is my story, as well as a challenge, should you choose to accept.

It was this, the second to last question during my interview on Better Worldians Radio that stirred something inside me: “With the success of your book and popularity of your website I imagine you could be busier than ever. How do you keep the balance and keep living Hands Free?” asked Gregory, one of the show’s hosts.

I briefly described several strategies I used when I began my journey that are still in practice today. Wanting to place emphasis on what I feel is the most important one, practicing daily distraction-free rituals, I shared this story …

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This Is Important

Two weeks before my first kidney surgery in July, I felt a sense of urgency. There were things I felt I must do before I was wheeled into the operating room. I needed to attend a morning service at a historical church I’d been yearning to visit. I needed to play Scrabble on the front porch with my daughters using the same board my grandma and I used. I needed to hear the sound of the ice cream maker, gather with friends and barefooted children, and eat icy goodness like my dad made when I was young. I needed to send a round of handwritten cards to special individuals who encouraged my writing dream. I needed to write love notes to my family.

And I did.

I did all these things and my family obliged.

Even though it was a long drive to the church. Even though they didn’t really love Scrabble. Even though homemade ice cream isn’t easy to make, they said yes.

ice cream HFM

When I said, “This is important to me,” my family listened. They did not ask questions.

Interestingly, as I was honing in on what was important to me, I was better able to see and hear what was important to them.

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Turning a Moment of Shame Into an Anthem for Life

sidewalk 1“It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart,
But the welcome I receive at the restart.” -Mumford & Sons

* Dedicated to a beautiful gypsy warrior named Beth

I put my earphones in. I pushed ‘play’ on my new favorite band that recently opened for Mat Kearney. I set out to walk toward a little clarity, but it arrived much sooner than expected. Something that had been weighing on my heart all day suddenly became so clear. It was an answer to a question that had become my hourly prayer. With tear-filled eyes, I began typing a text message as fast as my little pointer finger could type.

A man walking his dog approached me from the other direction. I smiled warmly at them and said, “Good evening.” That’s when the man said, “Are you going to look at your phone the whole time you walk?”

All at once, shame washed over me. I was brought back to a painful time in my life when my phone was an extremity … when the ding of electronic notifications pulled me away from loving eyes and tender arms … when I took dangerous risks at stoplights and justified them with flimsy excuses. All at once, I felt like that distracted, overwhelmed woman who once came painfully close to losing everything that mattered most.

I almost kept walking. I almost lowered my face in shame. I almost berated myself. But I am not that person anymore.

And there was something that needed to be said, so I stopped walking.

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A Moment Longer Than Necessary

“Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.” ~ William Arthur Ward

 

While growing up, I periodically told my sister something I never told anyone else. 

“I think I’m going to die young,” I’d tell her matter-of-factly long before the popular song made such a dismal fate sound glamorous.

“Don’t say that, Rachel!” she protested the first time I said it. But after that initial disclosure, my sister seemed to get used to me saying it, especially around my birthday each year. By my twenties, my sister’s reaction to my depressing prediction was always compassionate and often inquisitive.

“Why? Why do you think that, Rachel?” she asked me as we drove to the mall on a bitter cold January day to shop for my 22nd birthday gift.

I didn’t know why. All I knew is that I could envision my demise like an intense movie trailer. In my 30-second preview, I could see I was around 33 or 34 years old and it happened on an Interstate.

Much to my dismay, my husband and I moved from Indiana’s slow country roads to Florida’s six-lane super highways right before I turned thirty. Naturally, that time in my life held a subtle sense of foreboding. To add to my worries, it was necessary to travel on I-75 to get to many places I needed to go.

I’d driven on plenty of Interstates in the Midwest, but this particular thoroughfare was different. It was faster. It was bumper-to-bumper. There was no shortage of intimidating eighteen-wheelers barreling past. And no matter what time of day it was, I could always count on seeing numerous roadside accidents. By age thirty-two, I had a precious baby in the backseat of the car as I drove that 12-mile stretch. I remember my hands becoming so sweaty that I could barely grip the steering wheel. I remember praying the entire way, hoping that particular trip would not be my last.

But here is where the goodness came in …

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Finding Hope in the Before & After … It’s Not Beyond Repair

"Who I am becoming matters more than who I once was. Today matters more than yesterday." -Rachel Macy Stafford (signs by Avery, age 8)

“Who I am becoming matters more than who I once was.
Today matters more than yesterday.”
-Rachel Macy Stafford (signs by Avery, age 8)

 

Six weeks ago my eight-year-old daughter was fitted with a palatal expander to address several dental issues. In the four visits we’ve had to the orthodontist, one thing never fails to happen. My daughter pauses at the BEFORE and AFTER bulletin board and studies every bright smile, every straightened tooth, every hope-filled gap. As we enter and before we leave, my child stops to study the transformations as I stand beside her quietly. Along this Hands Free journey I’ve learned there are times when I must not rush my child. Standing in front of the BEFORE and AFTER display is one of those times. I let my Noticer look until she is ready to move on.

At home I am required to take a tiny pin key (pictured above) and stick it into minuscule hole inside the expander. My daughter dutifully opens her mouth as wide as it will go, allowing me to see inside the dark cavern of her mouth. From there, I slowly turn the wheel downward until the next hole appears.

As I turn the wheel her upper dental arch expands by a hair. A single hair. You would not think a hair of expansion would hurt, but it does. My child presses her hands against her nose in an effort to relieve the pain. Although there are often tears, she is always brave. I can’t be sure, but I think my daughter imagines the AFTER picture during this process. She knows there is a reason for this pain. And although the transformation cannot be seen as it is happening, someday it will be seen. And perhaps those beginning their own transformations will find inspiration from her BEFORE and AFTER photos.

applianceAround the time my daughter got her expander, I received a heartbreaking e-mail message from a blog reader with an especially challenging question. “Everything is broken in life—my marriage, my relationships with my children, my feelings about myself. Where do I start when there is so much to repair?” the reader asked desperately.

I was not able to form an answer to this dear reader for many weeks. It wasn’t until my child and I stood at the BEFORE and AFTER display most recently that I knew what I would tell this woman yearning to bring joy and connection back to her life.

I would say this:

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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 wrote this post five months ago, but I knew the moment I wrote it that I would post it on January 1st. I’ve discovered that ‘Moving’ and ‘Moving On’ require many of the same skills … many of the same braveries … many of the same hopes. If you are ready to move on from the challenges and disappointments of 2014, take a look. Even if you have seen this message before, it might look different today. My friends, it’s a New Year, but more importantly, it’s a New Day. Let’s start looking for That Moment When.

 

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.

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An Invitation to Live, Really Live

“Come outside, Before the world gets any colder, And you and I get too much older. ‘Come outside,’ she said. ‘Come outside,’ she said.  Climb out your window.” -Counting Crows

“Come outside,
Before the world gets any colder,
And you and I get too much older.
‘Come outside,’ she said.
‘Come outside,’ she said.
Climb out your window.”
-Counting Crows

Recently I’ve found myself driving like my seventy-four year old mom. I’ve been double and triple checking before making left turns. I’ve gone a mile out of my way just to avoid a dangerous intersection. I’ve also been chewing my food slowly so I don’t choke and taking a multi-vitamin. I’ve been determined to do the best job I can of keeping myself alive.

I didn’t connect these heightened safety precautions to my current project until I came to the conclusion section of the book I am writing. My hands began shaking as I typed the closing thoughts that I’d been waiting … living … and making cautious left turns in order to finish. And although I knew my editor would probably remove these final and unnecessary words, I typed, “The End,” in fancy font at the close of my 63,714-word manuscript. And then I cried. I cried because I lived to tell the story.

This particular book was not the easiest to book write, not that any books are—a fact I failed to appreciate until I actually wrote one. This book called for my deepest truths and my most painful reflections. But even more, it called for me to trust that the words would come in due time, not in Rachel’s time. Knowing the deadline for submitting this manuscript to my publisher would sneak up on me as far-off events often do, I tried writing this book last fall. I wrote lots of notes. I wrote lots of ideas. I wrote chapters that I ended up trashing. It was not time. I tried writing this book again in the spring. I took lots of notes. I wrote down lots of ideas. I wrote chapters that I ended up trashing. It was not time. And then summer involved moving boxes, anxious children, tearful goodbyes, and new territories to navigate. I didn’t even try to jot notes or cultivate ideas. I allowed myself to be in “receiving mode” rather than “producing mode.” I decided I would live. I would taste. I would cry. I would walk. I would laugh. I would read. I would say yes to as many Moments That Mattered as I possibly could. I ended up filling lots of little notebooks with experiences that only come from living, real living. And when my family felt settled in our new home, my husband and I went to a Counting Crows concert at a beautiful outdoor venue in our new city. I thought I’d heard every lyric Adam Duritz had ever sang, but on this particular night, he was the master of improvisation. “Round Here” turned into a message my soul had been longing to hear. “Climb out your window,” Adam sang. “Come outside before the world gets any colder, and you and I get too much older. Climb out your window.”

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How to Change Someone’s Story

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This summer my family moved to a new state. Over the past couple months, I’ve repeatedly heard my younger daughter say, “I still don’t feel like this is home. It feels like we’re on a trip, and we need to get back.”

Sometimes she says it through tears. Other times she says it just matter-of-factly. And sometimes she even laughs about it. This fluctuation of emotions pretty much sums up the ups and downs that go along with moving.

But I must admit something. My daughter’s recurring comment, whether said through laughter or tears, has worried me. You see, this particular child is my Firefly with glasses that sit on the tip of her nose. She has prominent freckles and unruly hair that refuses to behave in a smooth and orderly fashion. This child is a Noticer with a keen awareness of other people’s struggles and fears, especially her own. On more than one occasion she’s maturely expressed that she is “different” from the rest. This child is a friend to all but not really attached to one. She marches to her own beat, makes up her own lyrics, sings like no one is listening. What happens to someone like this when thrown into a new environment with people who know nothing of her inner gifts? Back in our former community, she was loved and celebrated “as is”. We are now in a much bigger city where life is fast and unfamiliar. Would her light brighten or dim here? I’ve wondered many times.

Well, I was just at the height of my worry when something happened. I guess you could call it a game changer. In this case, I’m calling it a story changer. I share this experience as a means of grasping what matters in a fast-paced, overly distracted, pressure-cooker world. Whether we are lost or we are found, just a few moments with open hands and attentive eyes can turn things around.

This is our story …

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