Once I reached fifth grade, I was allowed to walk home from school by myself. I could have waited for my dad to finish up at work, but I chose to walk two miles so I could be home sooner. I’d use my key to turn the door. The best feeling was shutting the door behind me. I’d actually lean against it and let out an enormous exhale. The world couldn’t touch me now. At school, I held my breath. Sucked in my stomach. Made sure I laughed only when appropriate and not too loudly. At home, I could breathe. My parents loved my sister and me “as is,” and it permeated the walls and floors of our home.
It didn’t surprise me that my mom was the first to notice my younger daughter’s dimming light when she was seven. Always being one to light up the world with her smile, the change in Avery had been evident to me too – but I’d come up with various reasons to account for the change, never looking at myself. After all, I’d stopped telling her to hurry all the time. I’d corralled my exasperated breaths and tapered the impatience in my voice. I’d deemed her a “Noticer” who paid attention to the most important details of life and people. Avery did things differently than me – than most – but I’d stopped fighting it. Instead, I tolerated it. But could I say I accepted it? Accepted her? No. And it was becoming impossible to deny the look of concern on her face as she left the house wondering if she was enough for the world.
I knew I had more work to do.
I designated the small room in the front of the house as the music room. It would be one of the few rooms painted a colorful hue – a soft, calming blue like the summer sky. It would be a place a refuge for my songbird. She excitedly set up her guitar, music stand, and microphone. She added notebooks and pencils for music writing. Each evening, donned in her favorite ratty old t-shirt with unbrushed hair, she’d go to the music room and play.
Yes, she was strumming and singing, but to me, it sounded like breathing.
It was her sigh of relief against the door.
“What did you write?” I’d ask, joining her after a few minutes.
She’d show me songs she’d written about being okay just as you are. Songs about God’s comfort and unfailing love. She’d sing the words to me, and I would marvel. It wasn’t long before she expressed her desire to play outside the music room to elderly people because “I just love old people,” she’d said smiling.
An invitation to a music therapy session at a local nursing home was our in. As Avery played along with the instructor, one resident was particularly happy and engaged. Her name was “Annie,” and she loved music above all else. Her favorite musician was Elvis. When we learned Annie hadn’t had a visitor in many years, Avery suggested we “adopt” her. She immediately began working on learning the song, “Fool’s Rush In.”
During our nursing home visits, Avery was unusually patient with Annie, pointing out birds and butterflies in the garden, asking thoughtful questions, and nodding with understanding to nonsensical responses. Sometimes when they painted, they giggled together.
Every once in awhile we’d arrive and Annie would be despondent or agitated. But never once did Avery suggest we leave or cut our visit short. She’d push Annie’s wheelchair outside where she loved to sit by the fountain. Avery would just sit with her and sing to her. It was as if to say, “It’s okay. I know you aren’t yourself today.”
One day, as we drove home from the retirement center, I said, “You are a delight, Avery.”
“I am?” she looked shocked.
“Yes,” I said immediately feeling sad I’d never mentioned it before. “You are delight-ful, and I love being with you.”
Her smile lasted for the rest of the day.
On our most recent visit to the nursing home, I was startled when I saw Annie. Her deterioration was quite evident; she was only a shell of her former self. I could not see any traces of the vibrant Annie from that initial music therapy session.
Annie was agitated and angry, and then she began to sob uncontrollably. That’s when Avery bent down, got close to Annie’s face, and began to sing softly.
And when she did, I heard the unmistakable sound of an exhale.
Annie had been holding her breath … but she was home now.
In my mind’s eye, I could see the door to my house – the one I’d lean against when I got home … the one I felt safe standing behind because it was where I was loved “as is.”
With Avery, Annie was home.
You are not yourself, but I accept you.
You are not feeling well, but I accept you.
You are difficult to handle, but I accept you.
Last Friday, I was invited to attend an award’s ceremony at Avery’s school. She was being recognized for the beautiful essay she entered in the county-wide “Honoring Our Heroes” writing program. Students were asked to recognize someone who has made a personal impact on the student’s life.
The last line of Avery’s essay read:
“My mom is my hero because she accepted me for who I am, and she inspired acceptance to spread in the world through her writing.”
I had to sit down for that.
This child’s statement was monumental – not just for me, but for anyone who wanted to know how to truly love another human being.
I’d nearly settled for giving Avery what she needed to get by: tolerance.
But her dimming light indicated tolerance was not enough.
So I gave her acceptance – a place to breathe … to be herself … to cultivate her gifts.
As a result, she was able to give acceptance to someone else – someone who just happens to be at the end of her life.
Is there any greater way to begin a life than with acceptance?
I don’t think so.
I used to think listening was the most important action parents can do to build up their children … now I think acceptance is key.
To be the one who doesn’t try to change them.
To be the one who sees all that is good in them.
To be the one who identifies their unique contributions to the world and encourages them.
To be the one who delights in them and tells them so.
Of all the things you can give your loved ones today, try acceptance. Be the door to home they can lean against and exhale.
Who knows? Someday you might surprisingly be called a hero – not the kind you see on fancy awards shows or on the news for triumphant acts of bravery. I’m talking about the hero who quietly, behind the scenes, on a day-to-day basis holds out their arms and offers refuge from the world – the one who holds out their arms because they see something worth saving.
You might have not started out that way.
That’s okay, me neither.
But a very special little girl taught me it’s never too late to do what you wish you would’ve done yesterday.
And she really has this whole ‘life’ thing figured out.
Today is the day, my friends!!! ONLY LOVE TODAY releases into the world! Through my most honest writing yet, I reveal my own struggles to hold onto what's most important, and make what’s most lasting the top priority in my everyday life. Designed for busy individuals, one short reading is enough to inspire a powerful perspective shift with lasting impact. Early readers are experiencing profound transformation in their hearts and homes simply by reading a few pages each day. Here are just a few of the beautiful things people are saying about ONLY LOVE TODAY:
- That’s what Rachel Stafford, in her newest book Only Love Today, has given to us: Help. Drawing on her experience as a writer, a teacher, a mother, she dedicates herself to helping readers overcome distraction and perfection to live better and love more. Stafford uses an engaging storytelling style, but she doesn’t just write her stories… she hits them close to home like a batter hits a ball out of the park. She paints her memories in such vivid colors that I can see them too. She writes encouragement so tangible that I can almost touch it. –Laura Jane
- I have followed Rachel’s blog for years now, and in her, I have found a cyber big sister/neighbor/dear friend. That is the magic of Rachel Macy Stafford. Her heart and her presence are in her words. The image is the reality. You can trust her. As I was talking about this book to my parents the other night and reading them some of the underlined, starred, and tear-stained passages, these four words summed it all up, “She has changed me.” –Beth Blake
- The author reminds us that the antidote for aching regret is love. Love for the people we let down, and love for our imperfect selves. That’s what is so beautiful about Rachel’s message, Only Love Today. It reminds me that love, like everything else of value in my life- sobriety, parenting, faith, creativity- is a practice. A verb. And every day, every moment of every day, is an opportunity to love better. Laura Perry Parrott
- When Rachel writes about slowing down and stopping, about listening and curating moments for the sake of spending time with the people who matter most to us, she’s writing about you and me. She’s writing about our relationships, about our humanity. But she’s also writing about the things going on inside our own skin, our own tendencies to not listen to ourselves, to neglect the parts of us that may be asking to be heard. –Kaitlin Curtice
ONLY LOVE TODAY is now available at Target stores, Amazon, Barnes & Noble. There are still some signed copies left here. Friends, if I may be so bold and tell you that release week is THE most important week for authors. With every purchase, I get closer to the possibility of being able to continue writing stories and books that help others for years to come. I am grateful to those who support my life's work by purchasing my books. Thank you for being part of The Hands Free Revolution. I'd be grateful if you tell someone else about ONLY LOVE TODAY.