Hold tight; you're slowly coming back to life.
I'll be keeping your head up.
Let go of all your haunted dreams tonight.
I'll be keeping your head up.
*name has been changed for privacy reasons
Six weeks ago, I was feeling unsteady, depleted, and far away from myself. I was finding it difficult to do my job … to respond or communicate … to do laundry … look presentable … and leave the house. I knew my fragility was a result of extending myself beyond reasonable limits and neglecting to give myself proper time and care after multiple surgeries and an intense book-writing period.
It went against every fiber of my conscientious, people-pleasing nature, but I began declining or flat out ignoring the many requests of my time and energy that kept pouring in despite my vow to create some breathing room. The world is not going to give me permission to stop; I reminded myself. I am the only one who can give myself a reprieve. I decided my family and my emotional wellbeing were going to be my focus during this restoration period I called ‘coming back to life' … my life … as opposed to accepting a depleted life lived according to other people’s demands and expectations.
I knew it was no coincidence that around the same time I created breathing room to reconnect with my heart and the heart of my family, two volunteer opportunities fell into my lap. Even more convincing was they were on my daughters’ “wish list” when we moved to our new state almost two years ago. To be a volunteer at an animal shelter was Natalie’s wish. To “adopt a cute, elderly person” was Avery’s wish. In the busyness of life over the past two years, I’d nearly forgotten my daughters had once expressed the desire to have these particular opportunities.
And now here they were.
At the same time.
When I was trying to create breathing room.
As you can probably guess, my initial reaction to these opportunities was irritation. Really? I am having trouble getting my own cat’s liter box clean right now. How am I supposed to garner the energy to leave the house and clean twelve of them?
I remember how difficult it was to get myself ready for our initial cat cleaning and cuddling session. I remember looking in the mirror thinking that all the blush in the world would not be enough to bring life to my colorless cheeks. But then I thought about how my daughters jumped up and down in the middle of Petsmart when the shelter coordinator introduced herself and said, “Would the three of you like to become volunteers?”
The first time we worked with the homeless cats, I was struck by the way my older daughter Natalie stepped forward to coax the difficult cats out of their cages in order to clean them.
“I will speak softly and gently,” she said about her strategy. “I will not rush him out of the cage. I will just stay close so he knows I am there to help,” she explained as if she’d been a Cat Whisperer all her life.
I watched Natalie work wonders with standoffish Salty and hissing Bob. She sat there doing exactly what the coordinator told us to do with our eyes to gain the animal’s trust. For minutes on end, Natalie patiently lowered her eyelids slowly and let the cat sniff her pointer finger until it came forth.
As I watched my daughter calmly connect with each animal, the words “pet therapy” popped into my head.
And then I had this thought:
Yes, it is good we are here for the animals, but it is good they are here for us.
The first time we went to the retirement home as official volunteers, Avery and I came to visit a resident named Annie* that we’d fallen in love with during a music therapy session. All it took for Avery to insist we “adopt” Annie was to hear the healthcare worker say, “I can’t recall Annie ever having a visitor.”
“We can be her family, Mama!” Avery had said … and that was that.
As we walked through the halls to Annie’s room that first time, many residents lined the hallway in wheelchairs. Some of them recognized Avery from the week before. “It’s the little girl with the guitar!” a few of them said excitedly. Others reached out their shaky hands to touch her. Avery stopped at each wheelchair, giving hugs to the ones who opened their arms.
“Please play us a song,” a woman with silver hair and bright pink slippers said. Avery obediently opened her case and played the song she knows best, “Amazing Grace.” They’d heard it last time, but it didn’t matter.
By the time we got to Annie, Avery was smiling from ear to ear. She quickly pulled out some paints to show Annie what we were going to do.
“We heard you like to paint,” Avery said.
“Because I am an artist!” Annie exclaimed, coming to life at the sight of the art supplies.
Avery and I smiled knowingly at each other thinking maybe her comment was like when she said she dated Elvis and her BFF was Loretta Lynn.
But once Annie began to paint, we saw a true artist emerge.
“That’s so good, Annie!” Avery encouraged as she admired Annie’s painting and worked on her own.
We painted for an hour as Annie told us her hopes of her daddy getting her a new wheelchair and how her mama makes all her clothes. Avery nodded attentively at this precious woman she dreamed of adopting two years ago.
Yes, it is good we are here for the nursing home residents, but it is good they are here for us.
In fact, lately Avery and I have been going to the retirement home after tough days. The night before our last visit, I’d found Avery awake at 2am, moving rapidly about her room as if looking for something. She was agitated and confused, much like Annie gets when she thinks her roommate has stolen something from her.
“I need to finish the packet! The answer is 100!” Avery cried as she scurried around in sleepy confusion.
My heart dropped. I knew exactly what this tormented sleepwalking was about. That next morning, she was due to start the first day of standardized testing.
I gently reminded her that she’d finished her practice packets, and it was time to rest. “You don’t have to do anything but sleep,” I assured her in hopes of taking the pressure off this normally carefree child. It saddened me that Avery was so overcome with stress and worry it was impacting her sleep.
The next afternoon, we went to see Annie. The weather was beautiful so we asked if she’d like to go outside.
“Would I!” she exclaimed with great enthusiasm.
As we entered the courtyard, Annie lifted her hand toward the small waterfall lined with rocks. Apparently she wanted to get closer so she grabbed the armrests of the wheelchair and tried to stand up. Immediately an alarm sounded. Avery looked like she was going to cry.
“You mean Annie can’t get up when she wants to?” she said looking at her friend like a caged bird who would never fly again.
I nodded. “It’s for her own safety, honey,” I said. But even that reason to be confined to a chair felt hallow.
We scooted Annie as close to the fountain as we could. Avery said she’d explore the rocks for Annie and come back to report on what she found.
I studied their faces—Annie watching the little climber in the sun and Avery looking back happily as she scaled the rocks. There was such peace on their faces, as if they escaped reality for a few minutes to enjoy nature’s sweet freedom.
Yes, it is good we are here for Annie, but it is good she is here for us, I thought.
The other night Natalie downloaded all the pictures we’d taken over the last two months on my good camera. She was getting started on her new role of managing the website for the cat shelter where we volunteer. She offered to keep it up-to-date so the new cats will have a better chance of being adopted.
When the pictures pulled up on the screen, I noticed some photos of me with Annie and the cats I hadn’t seen before. I was struck by what I saw. That same look I’d seen on Natalie’s face when she sat with the cats … that same look I’d noticed on Annie and Avery’s faces as they painted or sat in the sun was on my face: peace … joy … and freedom, settled into my tired features.
In the photos I saw my old self: Happy, relaxed Rachel. For too many months, I’ve been allowing the expectations of others to dictate my life … my time … my energy. And for fear of disappointing my publisher, my readers, my colleagues, and myself, I’ve tried to meet all the requests and expectations at a detrimental cost. I forgot I am only human, and I need room to breathe, time to think, and rocks to climb too.
When I walk into the little cat room or hold Annie’s hand, the voice of pressure and expectation ceases.
And I am pretty sure I know why.
When I remove that lonely cat from the cage and hold it close to my chest, he is momentarily free.
When I take Annie outside where the wind blows back her hair, she is momentarily free.
When I spend time with those who have nowhere to be and no one to be with, I am momentarily free. Because in the company of these precious souls, there is no expectation, no endless list of wants, no need to be anything more or less than I am. In the company of lonely souls, I am enough. My mere presence is enough.
I imagine it feels very much the same for my daughters. In the presence of those confined by cages and wheelchairs, their delicate hands and eager smiles are welcomed sights. No one to tells the girls how to sit, what to say, or what percentage needs to be met. Here, Avery’s guitar notes are in perfect pitch. Here, Natalie’s haphazard broom sweeping does the job. Here, the gaps between their teeth go unnoticed. The length of their shorts and the size of their jeans are unimportant here. To those longing for someone to sit with, my daughters’ mere presence is enough.
As I watch my daughters in their divinely orchestrated new roles, this is what I see:
When Natalie speaks in gentle whispers, the frightened animal is momentarily free.
And so is she.
When Avery sings an Elvis song in her angelic voice, the aging listeners are momentarily free.
And so is she.
Here, there are no expectations—just love and presence—and that is enough.
Although I was afraid I might start to cry (which totally embarrasses my daughters), I said this anyway: “It is them who save us.”
They give us a purpose.
They give us a chance to breathe.
They give us time together.
They give us divine invitations to love and be loved.
It is these precious souls who brought me back to life—my life—where peace settles on my features and resides within my heart.
The lonely and the confined—they live near you too. And they would love nothing more than for you to just sit with them and forget about your worries for a bit.
Truly. They would love nothing more than your love and presence—absolutely nothing more.
Dear ones, thank you for being part of The Hands Free community. It is my hope that my story inspires you to create some breathing room in your life to do something that fulfills you, centers you, or restores you. Please let us know in the comments if you have been motivated by this and what ideas you have in mind. If you already have a restorative place or activity that is void of expectation and pressure, please share. We can learn so much from each other!
I am very much looking forward to seeing my Denver friends on May 14, 2016 from 10am to 12pm at Denver First Church. You can purchase tickets for this event by clicking here or calling 303/761-8370 or emailing Krisb@Denverfirstchurch.com. Friends in TN, CA, and ND, please check out my speaking event page to see the three other cities I will be visiting this fall.
Friends, if you are looking for a meaningful Mother’s Day gift to say thank you to someone special or to have for yourself as a visual reminder to choose love over distraction, perfection, and pressure, please check out the unique gifts in the Hands Free Shop. Use the code: MOMLOVE for free domestic shipping from now until 5/2. Items ordered by 5/2 will arrive in time for Mother’s Day.
Thank you for walking beside me, dear ones. On so many days, you are my writing fuel and my heart's encouragement. I love you.