*name & story have been used with permission
A little over four years ago I started my Hands Free journey to let go of distraction and grasp the moments that mattered. It became my daily practice to write down the little moments of meaningful connection that I would’ve missed had I remained tethered to my devices, pressures, and regrets. What I experienced during my designated Hands Free pockets of time was so powerful I knew it was meant to be shared. I started publishing my daily Hands Free successes and failures on a blog. This helped me stay accountable to my goal—to live more and love more in the precious time that I’d been given. But there was more. My willingness to share my story was unexpectedly reciprocated. Each day for the past four years, I’ve heard from people I do not know. But they tell me their stories and inspire me in ways I could not be inspired alone.
Recently I opened my inbox to this:
“I have you to thank for the light bulb that lit up inside of me that turned into a flaming inferno of wanting to connect with my children. I have you to thank for the belly laugh (the best laugh that I have had with my oldest in years) that I would have missed had I not been in a ‘Hands Free Zone’ that I’ve designated and stuck to. I have you to thank for the wall in my kitchen (which is against my obsessive compulsive nature) that I have posted blog entries and favorite quotes from your book. This wall is what I look at when my baby is crying so loudly that I want to rip my hair out—your words are the caution cones that tell me to slow down and embrace my screaming baby and laugh. I have you to thank for my life, my children's lives, and the amazing mom that I never knew I could become to them. I have you to thank for raising me from the dead; for that I will be eternally grateful. Thank you for saving me.”
This message was written by a single, full-time working student/mother. I could see her in her kitchen. Her eyes weary from lack of sleep … baby food stains on the front of her shirt … her older child’s homework splayed across the counter along with bills and school reminder notes. I could see her trying … trying … trying. I did not know this woman, but I adored her.
Attached to the e-mail message was Fallon’s completed assignment for her psychology class. It was a short description of her fall semester goal: Keep Things Simple. To her this meant trying to avoid “overwhelm” which she knew had a negative impact on her mood, her progress, her sleep and of course, her children. “Keep Things Simple means not sweating the small stuff, getting tasks completed in a timely manner, not over exaggerating, and eliminating unnecessary stress to enjoy my life to the fullest,” she wrote.
Fallon listed several strategies that would help her reach her goal. First, her Inspiration Wall filled with meaningful quotes and artwork by her children would act as a visual reminder to “slow down and not miss life.” Second, a daily planner neatly organized and color coded would enable her to keep track of appointments, assignments, financial responsibilities, and family needs. Third, she designated “Hands Free Zones” around the house and during certain times of day that would be device free. Lastly, she placed two open books on her kitchen table with pens and highlighters. “The Bible and a book that my older son bought me for my birthday this year, Hands Free Mama. These two books are food to my soul, reminding me to slow down and not miss my life,” she’d written to her psychology professor.
I did not know this woman, but yet I felt as if I did. Fallon's steps toward a more present, gratitude-filled, and simpler way of life sounded an awful like my own when I started my journey. I wanted more than anything to see this brave, loving, and hard-working mother succeed. And because one of my purposes in life is to encourage others, I wrote her back with words of affirmation and support. I also sent her a few more signs for her Inspiration Wall and a bracelet because hers had faded from constant wear and bath time submersion.
Over a span of several weeks, Fallon and I corresponded. We both felt we were connected for a reason. During the day, I often found myself wondering how she was doing. I most wondered if she was receiving any signs of confirmation – signs that she was on the right track – like loving smiles, unexpected tender words, “Sunset Moments” that had been vital to fueling me forward on my own journey.
The other day I reached out to check on her. Much to my delight she said her older child was sharing more information with her than he used to be too shy to bring up. Instead of “I don't know” she was being provided with voluntary information about friends, teachers, and what interested him at the moment. Fallon also noticed he was asking her to engage in activities with him that required time and presence. They’d recently set out twenty plastic cups, filled them with water, and marked them with a point value. The two of them laughed and bonded while tossing a badminton piece into the cups over and over. Due to her newfound availability, this boy (who used to race off to the television) was now inviting her to join in activities with him.
The results of Fallon's intentional presence were not as obvious with the ten-month old baby, but there was definitely a notable difference. “I am slowing down to show him flowers and plants and watching his face as he discovers new things. He will look at me and talk in baby language with his eyebrows raised, and I can tell he is really telling me something serious. More than anything though, I am remembering the time I am present with him—like when I stopped in the middle of cleaning the kitchen to dance and sing, his little face happy and mesmerized by this little moment with his mama. Being able to remember these moments is my greatest gift,” Fallon said.
I could relate. I could remember. One of the most reinforcing results of giving my undivided attention to my loved ones was the peace that settled over my frantic mind and productivity-driven soul. Never in my life had I ever felt like I was right where I was supposed to be until I gave myself permission to Be Where You Are.
I vividly remember one particular evening in the beginning stages of my journey when I gave myself permission to stop thinking and stop moving—to be fully available to take that moment in.
Let’s just be here. I thought to myself that night as I tucked my older daughter Natalie into bed. I’d been reading bedtime stories to her for many years, but my mind was always somewhere else. I was always eager to close her bedroom door. But my newfound awareness on my Hands Free journey motivated me to want to Be All There.
“There’s no way you can do it,” my inner critic scoffed at such a lofty goal. “You’re Queen Multi-Tasker. You are a hurrier, a checker off-er, a ‘why do it later when you can do it now’ person through and through. You are a moving target—even illness cannot stop you!”
But love could. Love could stop me.
I knew I was not a patient, Take Your Time Person. I was always thinking ahead and experienced guilt when I felt like I was being “unproductive.” But all hope was not lost. I could fake it. I could act like a Take Your Time Person. I could do it for my child.
I searched my memory bank for a person who made me feel like I was the only person who mattered when I was in her company. Instantly I thought of my second grade teacher who would allow me to read my multi-page stories to her. Ms. Paluska would tuck her hand beneath her chin like she actually enjoyed this time with me. She would nod enthusiastically. She would smile as she listened. There could have been a classroom of twenty-five second graders going nuts behind her but you would’ve never known. I was the only one in her world during those moments.
And now there I was, laying next to my child, wanting so badly to give her my full presence. I was not a patient person, but I would act one. I could act like Ms. Paluska.
For the first time in a very long time, I did not think about the dishes in the sink … or the messages in the inbox … or the trash needing to go curbside … or the ache in my hip in need of an ice pack. “Let’s just think about the little girl in need of a little time with her mom,” I said to myself.
I focused on Natalie’s sun-kissed hair falling across her cheek, the way her pillow smelled like Suave shampoo, and the way my breath steadied in time with hers.
And when she noticed I wasn’t in a hurry to leave, she talked. And I talked. And then ten minutes or twelve minutes, it didn’t really matter. I stopped watching the clock. I shut her door feeling calm, content, and connected to my child and my own heart. I vowed to do it again the next night. For a handful of minutes each night, I could Be All There.
It wasn’t always easy. Sometimes Natalie would say “stay” and it took every ounce of strength in my body to oblige. That is when I would count. I would count to 50 or 100 in my head. And every time I mustered up that little extra time, Natalie would say something important, funny, or simply whisper, “I love you.” I would be thankful I stayed. I would be thankful I did not miss it.
Just the other night, out of the blue, Natalie said, “I like the way you take your time putting me to bed.”
I actually looked over my shoulder. She couldn’t be talking to me, I thought. “Take your time” were words that had nothing to do with me.
Well … they didn’t used to.
But I guess they do now.
I had to fake being a Take Your Time Person, but eventually that is who I’ve become, at least to this little girl at tuck-in time. And does it really matter how I got to this place? Does it really matter how you or I get to the place we want to be? Whether it’s signs plastered on your walls, books opened on the bedside table, strings tied around your pinkie, promises written in ballpoint pen, or the best acting you’ve ever done in your life, these are all ways of getting where you want to go and becoming who you want to be.
Because in the end, those on the other side of your undivided presence feel what you want them to feel. Important. Loved. Heard. Those on the receiving end of your loving presence are left better than they were before. And isn’t that the ultimate goal? I think so.
The Presence Pledge*
I hope after spending an hour … a day … a lifetime in my presence,
I leave your heart fuller,
your smile wider,
your spirit stronger
your future brighter
than you could have ever imagined by yourself.
© Rachel Macy Stafford 2014
*The Presence Pledge is now available in two styles
Like Fallon, posting signs around my house to slow down for love and silence my inner bully were vital to my Hands Free transformation. Sayings like, “XO Before You Go” and “Only Love Today” that I once wrote in black Sharpie are now available as beautiful prints. The Presence Pledge was recently created in gold foil and sea foam green due to your many heartfelt requests. I extend a huge thank you to my sister-in-law, Stacie, for being the amazing force behind the Hands Free Shop. I write the words and she brings these tangible reminders to life and to the homes of readers all over the world. The Hands Free vintage tee’s are on sale for $12. When I throw on that t-shirt it puts me in a frame of mind to really let go & live.
Here is a life-changing opportunity that can bring you closer to your goal of a more meaningfully connected, simpler, gratitude-filled life:
A Simple Year: 12 Months of Guided Simplicity – I am so honored to be one of twelve simplicity authors who will be sharing wisdom designed to help you simplify your life. Check out the twelve topics for the course here. Along with inspiring and informative articles that will come right to your inbox, there will also be a live webinar each month where you can connect with the authors, ask questions and meet other people on a similar path. The live webinar will be recorded and provided so you can view anytime. All the information you need to know about the course and early-bird sign up is here.
Friends of The Hands Free Revolution, please share your current goal for living better & loving more. What’s working? What’s not? We can learn so much from each other. I am grateful to walk beside you on this journey. Your messages fuel me.
P.S. Don't forget I will be sharing strategies to let go of distraction & perfection with Experience Life magazine in “A Healthy Revolution: The Virtual Conference.” This is a FREE online event where you can hear from today's most progressive experts about how to live happier & healthier even in the face of real challenges. In my interview (airing 8pm CST 10/20/14), I will be describing my first steps to a less distracted, more meaningfully connected life & what I do when I find myself slipping back into old ways. I will also discuss how living Hands Free has changed how I relate to my spouse, my parents, close friends, & complete strangers. I hope you will join me!