That Happens to Me Too

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“What if I had your heart?
What if you wore my scars?
How would we break down?
What if you were me and what if I were you?
What if you told my lies?
What if I cried with your eyes?
Could anyone keep us down?
What if you were me and what if I were you?”
-Five for Fightng, What If

When my daughter Avery gets strep throat, she celebrates. She rejoices in full force because she cannot go to school until she’s had her antibiotics for 24 hours, yet she feels perfectly fine.

It’s a win-win.

That was precisely the case on this memorable day. With one dose of Amoxicillin down the hatch, she began her celebration. She announced to no one in particular that she would be having “alone time with Mom” while her medicine worked its magic and made her “stref throat un-contagious.”

I accepted the fact that I would not get much work accomplished that day, but I knew I would be enlightened in other ways. This particular child has that way about her.

After getting an ID tag for our cat Banjo, we headed to Avery’s favorite fast-food restaurant. While I stood and line and ordered, she chose a cozy booth in the back. Within minutes, the server slid my tray of food across the counter towards me. As I reached for the tray, a young man wearing a pristine shirt with the restaurant logo stepped forward. With a solemn expression he asked, “May I carry it?”

The man’s tone was unfriendly and lacked emotion, but his eyes said otherwise. I could have very well carried that tray myself, but I felt the need to oblige. I could tell he wanted to assist and I should accept.

The tall young man with sandy brown hair stiffly carried our food to the table. Along the way, I asked him how his day was going. His mechanical use of pat phrases reminded me of some of the students I taught in special education.

He sat down the tray in front of my daughter, and I smiled and thanked him. He did not smile back but simply nodded and strode off to see if other customers needed assistance.

“Is he special, Mama?” my daughter asked curiously while opening her ketchup. For years she’s heard so many stories about my former students with behavioral and learning difficulties that she can actually refer to them by name.

“Yes, he is. His job is to carry trays, put trash in trashcans, refill drinks, and things like that,” I explained.

As she inserted her straw into the creamy milkshake, she smiled brightly, “I am glad he has that job. Out of all the jobs in a restaurant, I think the helper job is the perfect job for him,” she said confidently before taking a long sip.

milkshake happiness

A few minutes later, the young man came back and asked if I needed a refill on my drink. I told him I would love a refill and what beverage I was drinking.

“Remove the lid,” he said robotically.

With short, quick strides he returned with a cup that was filled to the brim. Because it had no lid, the soda spilled when he set the cup down. The look of distress filled his eyes and his face became flushed. I grabbed my napkin before the liquid could drip onto my lap.

I was just about to say it was okay, but my child beat me to the punch. And her response was far better than what I was planning to say. “That happens to me,” she said looking straight into the young man’s face with a reassuring smile.

She did not say the usual, “It’s okay,” or “Don’t worry about it.”

She said, “That happens to me.”

Who knew such love, compassion, understanding, and human kindness could be contained in four simple words?

The waiter looked down shyly, and I detected a slight sigh of relief. When he left, my daughter repeated her initial thoughts about the man. “I am glad he has that job. He is good at his job.”Apparently a little spilled soda didn’t make him any less of a good helper in her eyes.

A few minutes later, I carried our tray to the trash receptacle. Because she’d spent most of her time drinking the milkshake, Avery’s full glass of ice water went untouched. Much to my dismay, the paper cup tipped and hit the floor with a thud. As ice cubes and water spread across the floor, my eyes searched for our helpful friend. Unfortunately, he was nowhere to be found.  Instead, a waitress came from behind the counter to survey the damage. She did not try to hide her displeasure.

“I am very sorry,” I said sincerely. “Luckily, it’s just water,” I added.

With a disapproving shake of her head, the waitress turned on her heel, probably to fetch a mop. There I stood in the middle of what was now a pretty good-sized puddle. I suddenly felt very small and slightly embarrassed. I was back in middle school, all eyes on the one who clumsily dropped her tray on the cafeteria floor.

The side door that lead to the drive-thru line suddenly burst open and there appeared the young man. Oddly, he didn’t even glance at the spill. Instead he looked directly into my eyes and said, “It’s all good.”

Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure his employee training didn’t include that line. Oh no, that line came straight from the heart.

It’s all good.

I looked down at my shoes, now dripping with moisture. The water had made its way around chair legs and into tile cracks. But when I looked at the way the liquid spread across the floor with absolutely no boundaries, a beautiful thought came to mind:

Compassion spreads.
Compassion is contagious.

Just a few minutes prior to my H2O disaster, a little girl with uncombed hair and a milkshake mustache had offered kindness to a young man working hard at his job. When he made a mistake, she stepped into the mess with him by letting him know she makes mistakes too. Little did I know, he would offer kindness back to me when I was in need of a little compassion and understanding.

We are all just waiting for someone to notice—notice our pain, notice our scars, notice our fear, notice our joy, notice our triumphs, notice our courage.

And the one who notices is a rare and beautiful gift.

I’d once written those words about Avery and her perceptive way of seeing the world and those around her. But in that moment, I knew there was more to that theory:

The one who notices and responds with empathy can create a ripple effect. Because compassion spreads … compassion is contagious.

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I suddenly faced an uncomfortable truth about myself. I know how important it is to respond with empathy, but in my daily life I often forget the power of compassion. Among the busyness and the hurry, honest mistakes became bigger deals than they actually are. Among the daily distractions and pressures, small blunders are treated like major catastrophes. How easy it is to sigh with exasperation as if my whole day is ruined by one tiny mistake that might inconvenience my life for a whole two minutes. How easy it is to forget that I make mistakes too.

As Avery and I walked hand in hand through the restaurant parking lot, it was clear why I felt so inclined to pay attention that day. It was so I could write the following manifesto and try my best to live it each and every day I am blessed to be alive:

Let us notice each other’s pain and ambivalence.
Even if we are different.
Even if we don’t wear the same clothes.
Even if we don’t have the same job or the same IQ.
Because in our hearts, we are more alike than we are different.

Let us acknowledge each other’s slip-ups and failures with compassion and grace.
Even if it does cause a mess.
Even if it takes a moment of our time.
Even if it’s the last thing we feel like doing.
Because in our eyes, we are all just looking for someone to stand beside us in our mess.

Let us respond with patience to the mistakes of our children.
Even if we’ve never made such a mistake.
Even if we saw it coming.
Even if we are at our wit’s end.
Because in our memory banks, we can all remember standing in the school cafeteria with the eyes of judgment upon us.

Let us notice when someone is struggling to get it right, fit in, or please.
Even if it’s not perfect.
Even if their hands shake.
Even if someone else does it far better.
Because in our souls, we are all hungry for acceptance.

Today my goal is to take a page from Avery’s book:
to rejoice in the day ahead
to notice and respond compassionately to efforts and emotions
to let no one stand alone in their mess by saying, “That happens to me too.”

Will you join me? I believe these aspirations, carried out individually and collectively, have the power to heal what ails the world.

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The story you just read is an excerpt from my second book, HANDS FREE LIFE. Through truthful storytelling and nine life-changing Habit Builders, I show readers how to respond to their loved ones and themselves with more patience, presence, acceptance, and love despite daily distractions and societal pressures. Gifting someone with one of my books is a huge blessing to me. It helps my publisher know my work is valued and should continue. I have also written HANDS FREE MAMA which answers the questions many people ask after visiting my site such as, “How do let go of my distractions and scale back my over-scheduled life?” and “How can I find my long-lost joy?” My third book, ONLY LOVE TODAY: Reminders to Breathe More, Stress Less, and Choose Love, releases on 3/7 and is currently available for pre-order.

For other meaningful and unique gifts for the holidays, please check out the leather bracelets, metal cuffshand-lettered prints, and vintage t-shirts in the Hands Free Shop — they are excellent visual reminders that love makes good things possible. Thank you for being part of The Hands Free Revolution community. I cherish your love and support. 

A December Creed (For Those Who Wish to End a Hard Year on a High Note)

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To smile so warmly people can’t help but smile back

To be so present in the now that long-held regrets fall off my radar

To have so little expectation it’s commonly exceeded

To have so much compassion it commonly spreads beyond boundary lines

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How to Sit at the Table with Those Who Hurt & Offend You

dsc_0807-2“And I’m fractured
From before
And I wanna go home
Now it takes two
And it used to take one
It takes two
And it used to take only one”
-Ryan Adams, Two

*name has been changed

*Steven was one of twelve students in my classroom for children with severe behavior disorders. These children had been repeatedly kicked out of regular education classrooms and alternative schools. My classroom – that I taught with a co-teacher – was their last hope. To call this class of twelve students “challenging” was a severe understatement, but I’d accepted this challenge after reading through twelve massive educational files. Although I tried, it was unimaginable how twelve children could endure so much heartache in such a short time on earth.

Because of the trauma these children had endured, my heart was sympathetic to them. When they tried to hurt me, I held them. When they cussed me out, I did not take it personally. When they ran away, I ran after them. I knew they needed love more than anything, and that is what I vowed to give them while they were in my presence.

Their parents were another story. With every documented incident of abuse and neglect in their child’s file, my sympathy diminished. I found it impossible to love and accept the parents as I did their children, no matter how hard I tried.

Stephen’s mother was the hardest. Her beautiful, blue-eyed child came to school harboring such hatred in his heart. He used vile terms for anyone who was different than him—and difference was abundant in my classroom.

The one time Stephen’s mother came in regarding a behavior issue, she blamed two students for reasons that revealed deep-seated racism. When I pointed out the facts of the situation, she said vile things about me, my teaching ability, and my beliefs. The assumptions she made about me were so far off base and untrue, I was left speechless … and angry … and deeply offended. I hoped I would never have to be in the same room again with her as long as I lived.

Around Thanksgiving time, my co-teacher was inspired to provide the children with a memorable experience. With our help, the students would each make a traditional Thanksgiving dish. We would use the life skills and social skills they’d recently learned to enjoy a meal together.

I can’t remember the conversation exactly, but I believe my colleague and I talked about inviting the students’ parents. If I had to guess, I think I said something like, “Most of them won’t come anyway. That will just disappoint the kids. How about we let them invite their favorite school staff member instead?”

I would like to say I did that for the kids. But truthfully, I didn’t want to be around Stephen’s mother after the way she had offended me. I didn’t want to be around someone with beliefs so different than mine.

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An Empowering Way to Respond to Hurtful People

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“Cause peace and love ain’t so far
If we nurse our wounds before they scar.”
Alicia Keys

I can vividly remember certain times in my life when I have been deeply hurt, shamed, excluded, or violated by someone.

I clearly remember wanting the violators to understand the pain they caused, offer me a genuine apology, and hear them pledge to never do it to anyone else.

That happened once.

All the other times, there was either no resolution or no remorse. I walked away from the painful experiences feeling angry, conflicted, hopeless, and confused.

When my daughters began coming to me with their own hurtful experiences, I felt a familiar wave of unsettledness. In a few cases, there was somewhat of a resolution. But most of time, resolution did not happen. The person who inflicted the pain was either unremorseful, unaware, or unchanged. My children’s hurt was their hurt to bear and to deal with as best they could. As we talked through it, I wondered, is this it? Is this all we can do when someone hurts us?

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I Stood in Line to Vote & Saw Something Everyone Should See

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* Written while standing in an early voter line for two hours on Friday

The one standing behind you—she’s nervous and wonders if you notice her fidgeting.

The one in front of you—he’s desperately hoping he’s not going to be late to work. He can’t afford to be late.

That one in the yellow sweater—she just had a fight with her son. She’s practicing what she’ll say to him tonight.

The one wearing the Cubs ball cap is still riding the victory high. Gotta love that guy’s permanent smile.

That one in the floral scarf – she’s almost finished with chemo. Never has she been so grateful to be exercising her right to vote.

That new mom two rows over saw her baby’s first smile last night. She had no idea a smile could change her entire outlook on life.

Sunsets make that guy in the plaid tie weepy. Probably because his mom always pointed them out when he was a kid.

The gal with the curly ponytail is obsessed with that new show, This is Us. She DVR’ed it and is going to watch tonight.

The guy rubbing his chin is hoping to get some time off so he can take his dad fishing. He’s smiling to himself just thinking about the serenity of the water and their special connection that requires few words.

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Who I Was Behind Closed Doors Offers Hope for Negative Times

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“We all get to see
Who we grow up to be
And anchor when in doubt
An ocean when in drought
We aim for it all
We lift of these walls
To make this house our home.”
–Blue October, Home

While visiting New York City recently, my daughter lost her wallet. It contained babysitting and pet-sitting money she’d worked hard to earn over many months. While in the midst of her trying moment, a good Samaritan eating breakfast with his family stepped in. Although my daughter only knew his first name, city of residence, and occupation, we hoped it would be enough to let him know the impact of his loving action. I wrote the following public post:

Dear firefighter Gary from Phoenix who helped my 13-year-old daughter in NYC yesterday:

Last night my daughter got home from her special trip with her Grammy and Pops. She had so much to tell us about the memorials, the statues, the skyscrapers, the shows, and the people she saw. But once we were alone in her bedroom, her suitcase still untouched in the corner, it was you she talked about.

How you helped them look for her lost wallet when she was so distraught

How you expressed deep concern when you could have just gone about your day

How you somehow knew she’d lost an amount she’d worked hard earning for many months

How you looked into her tear-stained face, pressed money into her hand, and wished her a happy birthday

How you insisted she keep it when she said that wasn’t necessary

Her exact words last night were: “Mom, I was just kind of speechless. I just couldn’t believe a stranger would do that.”

This is the girl who prepared for this trip by watching 9/11 documentaries. This is the girl who was struck again and again by the way people helped each other. She said, “Look how people are running TOWARDS the pain and suffering instead of running away.”

Firefighter Gary, thank you for turning toward my daughter in her moment of despair. You did more than redeem a moment, a day, a trip … you redeemed humanity in the eyes of a 13-year-old girl. You confirmed that the helpers on the screen fifteen years ago still exist today. You confirmed that despite what she sees and hears on the news, good people of the world are still out there spreading hope like it’s their job.

My daughter was speechless yesterday, but last night she was not. And I wanted you to know what she said about you and what she will remember about that trip forever because of you. I hope this message reaches you.

With love and admiration,

Rachel Macy Stafford, an eternally grateful mother

#onlylovetoday #livelikegary

Six hours.

That is the brief amount of time it took the post to reach Gary. I’d severely underestimated the power of good people to deliver good news, and that gave me hope.

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The Best Advice for Loving Those Who ‘Feel It All’

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“Life is better when you open your heart
You don’t always have to act so hard
Just be as you are.”
–Mike Posner, Be As You Are 

*name has been changed

“I had a terrible dream last night,” I told my 10-year-old daughter Avery on a recent Saturday morning. “I dreamed Annie* passed away.”

Annie is a seventy-nine-year-old old woman we met at a retirement home last spring when Avery played her guitar in a music therapy session. Upon learning Annie had not had a visitor in years, Avery asked if we could “adopt” her. We’d been visiting Annie for several months now.

The news of my terrible dream caused Avery to abruptly cease her morning waffle-savoring process. She knew “bad dream” for me meant vivid images, tearing-from-your-bed panic, real tears, and racing heartrate. Avery knew my nightly dreams were more intense than my everyday reality.

“Well,” Avery said, her face softening. “We better go see her, Mama.”

It did not surprise me Avery knew exactly what I needed her to hear.

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I Was Perpetually Angry Until Joy Became My Goal

 

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“If I could say anything, anything
What would it be?
A good question for a distant reality
I would tell you that I love you
Even when it didn’t show.”
–Tristen Prettyman, Say Anything

I typically don’t read many Facebook status updates—and I especially don’t read them multiple times—but this particular one stopped me cold. It was an observation shared by my friend Nicki Salcedo. Whether penning a novel, an op-ed piece, or a Facebook status update, Nicki’s words never fail to provide enlightenment and introspection. This was Nicki’s informal, yet powerful observation:

“Nighttime soccer practice. I see a family I know. They have back-to- back practices for their girls. That amounts to three hours of soccer on a Tuesday night. 

Me: “Wow, you guys have a long night.”

Dad: “Yeah, but I’ve got to head over and cut my son’s hair. He has cancer. He’s in the hospital. I’m going to Northside.”

It is 7:30pm at night. We live across town from that hospital. The dad leaves. He calls his daughter the best nickname when she plays. He admits he doesn’t know much about soccer, but he’s learning.

I think about all these angry parents. Angry people. For what? They have everything and want more.

The quiet ones simply enjoy seeing their kids kick a ball.” –Nicki Salcedo

It was no mystery why I read Nicki’s observation three times.

Nor was it any mystery why her words made me cry.

I was that angry person.

I know because my husband had the courage to tell me. Something along the lines of: You walk around the house looking angry all the time. Your face is always set in a scowl.

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What The Kid Sitting Alone Wants You to Know

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“Everything’s in line
But I am bruised
I need a voice to echo
I need a light to take me home
I kinda need a hero
Is it you?” -Demi Lovato, Nightingale 

One of my very first students as a special education teacher was Annie. She taught me so much about living a “feeling” life, and her parents were some of my greatest encouragers. Over the years, I’ve kept in touch with this special family, but especially since Annie’s dad John was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago. John recently began a new medication and he’s felt better than he has in years. Much to my surprise, they asked if they could visit my family and me. To them, the 500-mile drive was irrelevant; John had something he wanted to say to me.

Within minutes of arriving, John thanked me with tears in his eyes. He said Annie would not be where she is today without me. I wanted to point out that Annie was the one who changed me, but it was not the time. Perhaps now is the time.

When Annie became my student, I was fresh out of college, just beginning my master’s degree in special education. I’d never had a student with autism. I did a lot of listening and observing. What I saw in Annie amazed me. I wanted her peers to see it too. I often sat with her in her classroom, in the lunchroom, and on the playground to help her use the social skills we worked on during our sessions together.

I remember how Annie and I would find a place at the empty lunch table and children would gravitate towards us. Little girls with bouncy ponytails and brightly colored socks eagerly squeezed in. I wasn’t naïve; I realized the children wanted to know this new young teacher who always wore a warm smile, gracefully mastered platform wedge heels, and coached the high school girls’ tennis team. Although I was the initial appeal, it was Annie who stole the show.

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“I Hurt With Her,” She Said & I Took Note

dsc_0841Imagine if you asked yourself for a minute,
What if I had your heart?
What if you wore my scars?
How would we break down?
What if you were me?
What if I were you?
-Five for Fighting, What If

“Did you see the girl with the big smile, Mama? I hope we’re friends someday,” my daughter said as we walked away from the lemonade stand just days after moving into our new neighborhood.

I saw her. Oh yes, I saw that beaming of ray of light. My heart did a summersault when my daughter was introduced to L. The girls were going into the same grade, and they both were new to the area.

Within a few weeks, the girls were inseparable. Their shared love of music instantly bonded them. For hours, they’d sing and dance in the basement—their voices more confident and assured together than alone.

The quickly developing bond between two friends was solidified on a painful bus ride home shortly after our move. I took note that fateful day, occurring exactly two years ago. I knew it was important to remember what I witnessed. So when my husband sent me a photo of the two girls on the football field the other night, I knew it was time to share their story and the photo.

Let me just say, this is more than a friendship, and it’s more than a photo. It is a goal … a model … an aspiration of what we could be if we collectively agree to take note.

This is their story …

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