Living Hands Free

My family and I spent our last week of summer break on vacation in Cape May, a beautiful coastal town at the southernmost tip of New Jersey. As we drove past the last exit on the Garden State Parkway, Exit 0, we all exclaimed in excitement. There’s something special about coming to the end of something, or the beginning.

family bay

I made an important promise to myself before our vacation began – I would live “hands free,” inspired by Rachel Macy Stafford’s mantra. While I could use my phone to take pictures, and I must admit to posting a few on Instagram, I banned myself from all other social media, including Bloglovin, and restricted emails to emergencies only.

This is something I’ve needed to do for a while now, because technology has become a means of escape. It’s how I shut down and tune out. My family, that is.

family silloutte

The world within my phone is vibrant and engaging – it truly is! – and many of the friendships I’ve formed are genuine, but they are only one facet of my life. The other facet is the one vying for my attention while I scroll through Facebook, listen to podcasts, and click on an endless stream of articles and blog posts.

It wasn’t always like this. When my daughter was born seven years ago, smart phones were new. My phone had no Internet connection, no touch screen. My only way of connecting with the world beyond the confines of daughter’s nursery was texting, which even then wasn’t something I did often.

Four years and another child later, I had a smart phone and used it so frequently, that when my son was less than two, he’d toddle into the living room after a nap and hand it to me.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against having access to a world beyond my world, and I think it helped me get through some dark nights of endless nursing and wake-ups. But like anything used in excess, it spiraled out of control.

That’s one reason why I leapt at the chance to review Rachel’s new book, Hands Free Life: 9 Habits for Overcoming Distraction, Living Better & Loving More.

hands free life

I’d been reading and connecting to her wisdom through blog posts and articles for over a year. I even bought one of her beautiful bracelets, only love today, but I still struggled.

Then I read this passage in her book’s introduction:

Keeping track of life is much more than going through the motions of putting down the phone, burning the to-do list, and letting go of perfection. It’s something deep. Lasting. Permanent. It’s a conscious decision to focus on what really matters when a sea of insignificance tries to pull you away.”

That’s when it clicked. Yes, I bought a bracelet and nodded my head through her posts, but I had yet to make the practice a part of my daily life. Like anything worth fighting for, it takes effort.

There is a fear in choosing presence, in really seeing the people around you, in being seen. But there is more danger in not doing so.

On vacation, I took my children, one at a time, into the ocean. My daughter is a strong swimmer for a seven year old, and we went deep, but I held her arm and kept her close that first day.

I grew up with a beach loving father who instilled an appreciation and fear in the power of water. Never turn your back on the ocean, he’d say, and those words remain etched in my mind. As the waves came rushing toward us, I taught her the lessons my father taught me. She smiled and laughed as we bobbed up and down. As the days passed, she became braver, letting go of me and relishing the big waves, ducking down while pinching her nose shut, and coming up laughing.

I laughed along with her, but inside I was on high alert, never letting my attention waver for a moment. The ocean was rough during our visit, the tidal pull insistent, relentless. A reminder that it only takes a moment, for a life to be taken.

Later, as the soreness spread down my arms and legs, I thought about how fully present I was in the ocean. There was too much at stake to be distracted. I felt responsible not just for my daughter’s pleasure, but her life.

As I finished Rachel’s book the next day, I realized presence is a choice I can make every day.

My children know I love them in a big picture kind of way, but I also want them to bask in the warmth of my undivided attention.

Not every second of the day, of course. There will be times when we drift away, like my daughter did in the ocean, testing her skills and independence, and the same goes for me, when I’m off doing my work, my writing. But when I’m with my kids, I want to be with them, as if our lives depend on it.

Because they do.

These lessons, and so much more, are in the pages of Hands Free Life, a book of which I am certain has set the wheels of my life in a different kind of motion. Changes have already shifted our family dynamic in our house.

My daughter, who has her own only love today bracelet in lavender, asked me about the book. In a matter of days, she was saying things like, “Live hands free, mom,” with a gleam in her eye. She reminds me to put down my phone, and I do.

We also made our own version of Hands Free house rules, inspired by Rachel’s, as seen in her book and in the beautiful wood frame below.

Our version of Hands Free Rules inspired by Rachel's.

If you want to make changes in your life that reflect your heart, you can pre-order Rachel’s book (offer ends September 7th) and receive a free digital copy of her New York Times Bestseller, Hands Free Mama. A book that I’m about to read next.

Being Here

be here 1

I’m having some trouble being here. Not here on the blog, but here in my life.

Over the past few months I’ve started a new blog (this one!), rejoined Instagram and Goodreads, signed up for Twitter (yes, I know I’m late), and after years of holding out, I’ve joined the ranks of every other person I know and opened a Facebook account.

Initially, I tried to ignore Facebook because it seemed like an online high school reunion, which I had no interest in taking part in (still don’t). But also because it reminds me of yearbook culture [shudder].

I still get sweaty palms thinking about middle school yearbook season. I remember trying to act all blasé, like I didn’t care about how many signatures I collected, or which boy scribbled his name on top of his grinning snapshot, and then the next thing you know I’m sprinting down the hall with every other seventh grade girl, collecting as many signatures as possible.

Fortunately, because I’m so late in the game, the competitive feeling has subsided and most of my high school alumni have already (perhaps) tried and failed to find me. It’s quite possible I’m overestimating myself. At any rate, I’m happily cultivating a small and genuine group of “friends.” It’s also been an unexpected delight to reconnect with those I’ve lost touch with over the years.

But all this online involvement comes at a cost.

My time. My attention. My focus.

There is pretty much NO reason at all to be alone in our lives, to be bored, or quiet, or still, ever. I know I reached rock bottom the other day when I was cooking dinner, and in between steps of the recipe, refreshed Twitter and checked my Facebook status.

UGH. This is why I hesitated to rush into the yearbook fray, because I know myself, I know how susceptible I am to distraction, to checking out.

We are all guilty of this, of course, but sometimes it comes at a cost higher than we’d like to pay.

Eight years ago I spent the afternoon with my mom, about a week before she lost consciousness forever. She sat in her usual reclining chair and we watched TV while my dad attended his company picnic, a celebration my mother hadn’t been able to attend in several years.

My mom seemed more out of sorts than usual. She kept asking me to help her stand up. Just let me put my feet on the floor, she kept saying, agitated at my reluctance.

At least let me try, she said, growing steadily more furious. I can’t do it, mom, I kept saying, I’m sorry. Please, I begged, stop asking me.

But she wouldn’t. Finally, I lowered her chair so her toes were grazing the floor. See, I said, helpless with despair, it’s not working.

Furious, she ripped her gaze away from me and stared at the TV leaving me feeling more alone than I had ever felt in her presence.

You need to understand, my mom was a paraplegic. She had a severe form of multiple sclerosis and hadn’t walked, let alone stood on her own, for at least a decade. Listening to desperate pleas to stand, as if we, her family, had been withholding this ability from her, tore at my heart.

This was years before smart phones, but I did have a laptop. I remember checking my email and staring at a ridiculous celebrity gossip site. Anything to create distance from my mother’s pain and my inability to help her.

It breaks my heart, even after all these years, that I tried to escape from her weeks before she left me forever.

Escape has its consequences. The price for checking out can be steep.

I’m not saying there isn’t a time and a place for the pleasure, guilty or otherwise, of reading say, the New Yorker, or E!

Technology is a brilliant way to stay in touch with friends, keep up with news around the world, and read beautifully written blogs filled with life and writerly advice.

But when all you do is click, when you can no longer bear to hear the noise of your life, it’s a problem.

Sometimes I think I stay online because I am so afraid of missing anything. But if I’m not careful, I will miss my life.

This isn’t news. There are – ahem – a bazillion blog posts, not to mention books, about the risks of living online instead of off. But this is my wake up call. I need to focus.

focus rock

I need to Be Here.

That’s the reason for my rock, the flip side of focus, to remind myself where I’m supposed to be. While cooking dinner, driving with my family (as a passenger!), playing with my kids, spending time with my husband, and writing.

So, if you wonder where I am, that is where. Here. In my life.

I’d love to hear from you, if you can spare a moment, to learn how you balance – or not balance – your online and offline lives. Do you schedule out your social media time? (Something I’m considering.) Do you put away your phone at certain times of the day? What is ONE thing you can do, right now, to be more present in your life?