Monday, November 23, 2015

LESSONS EARNED - Top 10 Lessons from the Be Better Bus Brigade

There is no possible way to justly sum up the past year of our lives.  The peaks and valleys took us to extremes that words can not full capture.  I have done my best to fine tune the thoughts within me that have resulted from these months on the road in pursuit of spreading the better and developing an attitude of gratitude.  I hope that you have enjoyed sharing in this journey with our family and from the bottom of our hearts, THANK YOU!

Having my world so drastically turned upside down by Andrew's death, stripped me of my identity, my confidence, and my purpose.  I was raw, broken, and vulnerable...then put on display. Looking back it felt similar to childhood nightmares of going to school without any clothes on and no where to hide.  Total vulnerability.  Neither the naive 10 year old child Juliann, nor the frightened 28 year old widow Juliann, appreciated the opportunities found in being vulnerable.  This tour allowed me to explore my most authentic self through vulnerability.  The idea of being vulnerable often has negative connotations: feeling exposed and unsure of ourselves.  But vulnerability is actually an opportunity.  Allowing myself to be real, open, and honest, even when it felt difficult, helped me make genuine connections.  Expressing our doubts, hopes or insecurities is tough.  But vulnerability, and the chance to express it, is what makes us human.  And it's in those times that we're able to see ourselves in each other, allowing us to be there for each other in our moments of weakness and celebrate together in our moments of triumph.  Never hide who you are because you're afraid. Someone out there, I promise, knows exactly how you feel.  Your journey in life is all about you; the real you!  I opened myself up to each person we visited.  They could see the good, bad, and the ugly; all of which, I believe, is the reason that I felt such unconditional love from them.  This love is the very glue that brought these friendships together.

Peace is something I think we'd all agree that we want, but how we get there can look very different. For some of us, it's about feeling like we've made the right decision or finding a sense of tranquility in our day-to-day lives.  For others, there are bigger concerns and daily struggles that interrupt our ability to experience real rest or a life free from violence.  For many, in ways big and small, finding peace is an ongoing challenge.  And while there's not one right answer to what real peace can look like, we all have the power to do our part.  This tour taught me what peace looks like for me.  I do not require a day at the spa or a yoga class to find my meditative and tranquil place.  I am encircled in peace when my kids lay down at night and they are safe and secure.  When I can kick my feet up and recognize that my aching body is a product of hard work and commitment to doing my part to better this world.  Peace is far less physical than mental for me.  I found peaceful moments in every state, in every environment, with all kinds of company, because such peace came from within.  Give yourself a few moments of tranquility today and reflect internally or in writing: where do you find peace and how can you share with others?  Do your best to spread peace to others and yourselves, today, and each day forward.

We can choose to be grateful no matter what.  I've wondered day in and day out on this tour, "how can I teach my children gratitude"?  Naturally, teaching the kids to understand the difference between "wants" and "needs" is a good place to start.  Our family ends each day with a beloved ritual of stating out loud what we are truly grateful for and what made us happy that day.  It has begun training our minds to focus on what we have, rather than what we've lost OR on what we want.  The brain works better when it is positive.  My favorite time of the day is when we sit together as a family and focus on the positives in our lives.  A simple two-minute daily exercise has rewired our brains to scan the day for the positive and helped us realize how truly blessed we are for all we have; our family, support system, food, grandparents, clothes, toys, friends, and our community.  This has helped us to count our blessings...not our problems.  The very origin of the trip was this desire to express gratitude to those individuals who buoyed us up when we were drowning.  Grief, desperation, and fear were all curbed as a result of the loving kindness and generosity shown to us by incredible human beings across the country.  All of these attributes, i.e. gratitude, compassion, love, and kindness are synonyms derived from the soul.  There is a universal language spoken and understood among all human beings.  Therein you will find laughter, the act of smiling and embracing one another, deep exhales, shoulders to lean on, sorrowful reactions to tears, and gratitude.  Just as having concern for others is a universal tendency when tragedy strikes, so is the thankful heart found within the recipient of that gesture.  I recognized myself as the recipient of countless kind and charitable acts.  Receipt of this service came with a call to action.  What would I do to show thanksgiving and to recognize those who blessed my family in such abundance?  My cup was running over with goodness.  I needed to give some of it back in whatever capacity I was able.  For me, it came in the form of a 9 month bus tour around the country, knocking doors and delivering small tokens of appreciation.  This, of course, is not the only way to express gratitude.  The impact comes not in the way in which we say thank you BUT in the time and energy set aside to do so.  Have you thanked the people in your life who assist you?  Your children's teachers, the babysitter, your mother and father, your neighbors, your pastor, your friends...???  This tour opened my eyes to how impactful a "thank you" can be...particularly when it is least expected.  Naturally, "thank yous" slip out of our mouths by way of the computer programming inside of our brains known as manners. Above and beyond that, I challenge you to grab a pack of thank-you cards at the store next time you are there.  When someone makes you smile or your burden is lightened by the service of another, jot down your gratitude to them.  The impact will be far reaching and the tangible note will be something they can refer back to throughout their those moments where perhaps they need to know that they have made a difference. The gratitude we express can often be as meaningful as the act that prompted it.

Denial is my arch-nemesis.  We stare each other down, going toe to toe, neither willing to give up the fight.  Seeing as Andrew is still dead, I am still a single Mom, and nothing has proven otherwise, I must say that I am losing, terribly.  The only solution that will end this shut out is a full court press on my end known as "Acceptance".  I can overcome this battle by accepting what is, letting go of what was, and having faith in what will be.  Gaining the understanding that sometimes the bad things that happen in our lives put us directly on the path to the best things that will ever happen to us.  Sometimes you have to accept the fact that certain things will never go back to how they used to be.  There is an upside to converting to this way of thinking...from NOTHING, you can create ANYTHING.  When our life is cluttered with hurt, anguish, resentment, bitterness, denial, or pride...we are held captive as a prisoner to our heartache.  There is just simply no way to see the light at the end of the tunnel when we are bound and determined to deny that we're in a tunnel in the first place.  Acceptance for me has been grace.  A way out of torment.  My eyeopener to the light at the end of the tunnel.  I have the ability now to create anything that I choose with the remainder of my life.  I don't deny what has transpired; rather, I learn from it, grow with it, and build upon it.

People tell me that it is unreasonable to speak in the present tense about Andrew.  As if I am suggesting somehow, someway, that he is still living.  To them I say that I see him alive and well in our four children every day.  I share with them the continual way that he moves, touches, and inspires people to be better.  If he can do that much good in a world where he no longer has a physical presence, than I HAVE NO EXCUSES.  I have two hands that can serve, two feet that can walk, a beating heart that can love and forgive, eyes that can see people in need, ears that can hear suffering, and lips that can offer comfort.  All of which leave no excuse for me to feel incapable of living a full, complete, and happy life.  I am working to leave a footprint that may compliment that of my husband's.  It only came about by Andrew losing his life that I learned how to truly begin living mine.
"To live" is a verb.  It sounds simple, but it's important and all too often taken for granted.  We experience truly "living" through our senses...what we hear, smell, touch, taste and see.  Eyes are not the only windows to the soul.  The other senses offer four more windows to penetrate our soul if we wake up and really live; smell the flowers, pick up a new sport or hobby, taste new foods, visit a museum, or go to a concert.  Each of my senses have been awakened and cleansed on this tour.  I held hands with a widow in a nursing home, smelled the rain in the air over Niagara Falls, saw Denali National Forest from the air and on foot, listened to advice from amazing people who shared their life experiences with me, and tasted cooking from all 50 states.  I was blessed to walk paths tread by trailblazers, witness miracles happening in the transformation of hearts and countenances, partake in the richness of our country's history, and above all else...give thanks for the encouragement I received to live again.  If we truly learn to experience every emotion and every feeling to the fullest without hesitation based on fear or doubt, without denying its existence, then we can say we really LIVED.  Do not allow this one life you've been given to be dictated by social conditioning, so-called modesty, past stories, hesitation , denial, cultural codes or expectations of others.  I ask you, "Why not?  What do you have to lose?  What does restraining yourself from living fully give you? " You can chose how you live and IF you live.  Start by becoming ever more aware of the present moment and live in that moment without questioning it, without trying to see the future, without asking when, where, who, what, and how.  Just living life as it comes, as it feels, as it is.  All of our lives will look different when our time here is over.  That doesn't make one right and one wrong, it's what makes us wonderfully unique.  Brilliance can be found in our differences.  People around you won't always understand your journey.  And that's okay.  They don't need to, it's not for them.  I can assure you that I am not put together at all.  Nor am I broken.  I'm recovering...finding the beautiful in the ugly and stitching it into my life.  Regardless of the fabric which I have stitched thus far, one thing's for certain...I am woven into each and every stitch because I am actively living.  And I don't plan to stop.

I've become very familiar with the expression, "Biting off more than you can chew".  Four kids and a dog on a bus for a year, not to mention everything else that came along with it, was no small feat.  I consider myself a tough gal, yet there were some days that my body just said...NOPE.  In those moments where the devil on my shoulder attempted to convince me to throw in the towel, the word that kept me going was "Commitment".  Our existence is founded upon our agreements about one another.  You are only as good as your word.  It is our commitment to our word that outlines the agreement people have about us.  Comments such as "you can't believe anything she says", "he's always late", or "you can trust him". Those are all agreements people have about others based upon how they have or have not kept their word.  Commitment is difficult, especially when you have days where you are less than motivated.  However, it is imperative that you remain good to your word if you wish to make a positive impact on the lives of others.  If they believe in you, in turn they will trust you, and ultimately they will break down their walls and become vulnerable in your presence. And as previously discussed, that vulnerability allows for genuine connections and unconditional love.  This is true for strangers, friends, and family alike.  I have a brother who in addition to being brilliant beyond belief, is notoriously late.  That will forever plague the way that people see him.  I am horribly impulsive.  This is an agreement that people have about me.  They know that more often than not I am not thinking logically and rationally, but rather with my heart on the spot.  My mother is the most selfless and humble person on the planet.  Her commitment to her family has created the agreement we all have about her that she will give the shirt off of her back without hesitation.  I could go on and on, but you get the picture.  Be committed to your word and it will become iron clad in the eyes of those with whom you interact.  In turn, you will have doors opened to you to make a deep and lasting impact in this world.

Uh-oh! This is a phrase that is overused, misunderstood, and quite frankly, scary as hell.  Why would I want to rely on myself when I have so many people in my corner who appear to be far more capable than I?  Perhaps if we understand more fully what this means than it will be positive and thought provoking, not an endorsement to the insecurities and fears that we host within ourselves.  It can often be hard to believe in yourself, especially if you feel like you have nothing to offer or are unworthy of certain things.  Before you go any further, you must accept that you ARE worthy and you ARE capable.  It is difficult to see the amazing qualities inside of ourselves.  Humility is often viewed as self-deprecation and lack of confidence.  They are mutually exclusive.  It is quite possible to have a humble nature and loving disposition while loving and believing in yourself and your limitless possibilities.  Take stock in what you have already accomplished, set goals for the things that you wish to accomplish, and seek out opportunities to utilize your skills and begin to accomplish them. Without a conscious awareness of it, you will begin to care for yourself and build your confidence.
Routinely throughout my life I've been guilty of having a determination to fail.  I didn't recognize that about myself but it could be found in the dissection of my comments..."I don't believe these ideas will work for me", "That's not really my strong suit".  Etc.  I was riddled with an undercurrent of self-doubt.  The unspoken thought that drove those comments was "I DON'T BELIEVE IN MYSELF". Perhaps you can relate?  These doubts may manifest themselves in small ways such as worrying about not being able to implement a few changes to our daily routine.  But a lack of belief in yourself will limit you no matter how great the ideas or opportunities are that you are exposed to in you life. I had to ask myself, "Why are you determined to make these ideas NOT work for you? Why are you searching for reasons why these ideas won't succeed instead of figuring out a way to make something positive happen?"  This trip has shown me that the biggest difference between happy, successful people and unsuccessful, unfulfilled people is this...successful people are determined to make a situation work for them rather than playing the role of the victim and searching for reasons why a situation won't work.  Successful people have the belief that they can turn their goals into reality.  We must be willing to think differently and experiment with new ideas, trusting that we'll discover a way to make them work for us in a powerful way.
We all deal with uncertainty and failure differently. Some of us trust that if we move forward anyway then we'll figure it out.  I am thankful that this trip has taught me how to be one of these people.  It was made abundantly clear to me as I was planning this trip that no one in my family or circle of influence had ever done anything like this before.  I didn't have anyone to learn from in this regard or to model my trip after, yet I trusted that I would figure it out anyway.  When I've discovered an opportunity that sounds awesome but that I'm not qualified for (which happens often), I trust that I'll figure it out and go for it anyway. The ironic truth is that the circumstances we often use as an excuse for our inabilities to do things are the very fuel that will allow us to succeed on that path.  For example, when I found myself a broken down widow, I was convinced that I didn't have anything left to offer.  I was a shell of the woman I had once been.  Little did I know that the interest in others to hear my story came from my widowhood and my intent to rebuild myself from the ground up.  Without that tragic interference in my life, my journey wouldn't have been as fruitful and magnificent.  You are confined only by the walls you build yourself.  I have learned to believe in myself.  This confidence has made the difference for me again and again.  I didn't need supreme intelligence, opportunities, or resources.  Just a simple and undeniable belief in myself.

8.  HOPE
Hope: a word we use often in our everyday language.  Hope is easily defined, "to trust in, wait for, look for, or desire something or someone, or to expect something beneficial in the future".  If only it was that easy to obtain and adopt into our lives. Generally, hope is needed most by those who are struggling, worried, suffering, lost, and bitter.  It is easier said than done for someone at the end of their rope to "Trust. Wait, Look. Desire, Expect". When you are that consumed with heartache it is all you can do to survive...and even that can be a difficult choice some days.  So, where and how do we accumulate this "hope"?  I often talked about hope in a nonchalant and superficial way.  "I hope the kids clean up.  I hope I get to sleep before 10:00.  I hope it isn't blazing hot tomorrow."  The bottom line is: kids will be kids, I probably won't get 8 hours or sleep at night until my kids go off to college, and I shouldn't live in Arizona if I don't like the heat.  Do we use the word hope so often that we are out of touch with the reality of what hope really is?  I HOPE that every village in the world will soon have clean water.  I HOPE that those who are homeless on the streets are safe tonight.  Those are issues more deserving of our hope.  If our "hope" is something that can be replaced with "I would like" instead of "I pray", then it probably should not be of priority to us.  I have learned on this tour that I needed to reconsider what I was really hoping for.  I HOPE no other wife loses her husband while fighting wildfires.
Real, genuine, hope for a brighter tomorrow is crucial.  It will keep the positivity flowing throughout our communities and the eagerness to help one another navigate the storms of this life.  I was stopped dead in my tracks during our time in Oregon as I spotted this homeless man on the side of the road.  He was holding a cardboard sign, as has become customary for those who are seeking some assistance.  I looked closely to see what he'd written on his sign, while digging through my purse to locate whatever I had that may meet his needs in some small way.  To my surprise and overwhelming admiration for his kindness, I read the writing on his sign...

Juliann with the Smile-Man
I'm saddened that I waited so long to write about this as I have now forgotten his name, however, I will never forget the lesson I learned from him that day.  He wasn't asking for anything.  Rather, he was doing whatever he could with the little means that he had, to try and lift another's spirits.  He was not focused on himself.  He was not concerned only with his own happiness.  He turned his HOPE for a brighter future into a platform to provide that light to others.  He understands what it means to spread the better because he has taken it upon himself to live that way.  What he lacks financially, he has made up for in kindness and charitable acts.  He HOPES not only for his own well being but that we can all find something to smile about.  A true lesson of selflessness, sacrifice, courage, and of course...hope.

As I write this, I think of those who may read it...and those who won't.  I think about those people I was blessed to meet, as well as those I wasn't.  I think about my family, and yours.  It is not about what family unit God sent us to...we are all in this together.  The barriers and walls between races, denominations, sexes, social classes, and demographics were broken down on this tour.  When you stop and look another human being in the face, you will see your brother or your sister.  Human suffering IS our responsibility as a member of this human family.  Another's need is our concern when we have the ability to lend a hand.  Our weaknesses can be strengthened by those with whom we encircle ourselves.  The support for me and my children came from households and businesses all over this country.  I will forever cherish the opportunity I had to meet hundreds of these brothers and sisters of mine.  I have a passion within me to be more like them.  I wish to emulate the purity of their hearts and seek out opportunities to help my fellow man the way that they have done.  There are people in each of our neighborhoods who set a wonderful example of brotherly kindness.  Let's strive to be that neighbor, that brother, that sister, that friend.  We do not have to do this alone.  God will not give us anything we can not handle...without giving us the people around us who will be able to help us through.  We each have a plan for our lives, all of which include an army of others participating in our success.  Allow others to be there for you as you strive to be there for them.  We are all in this together.

This trip was hinged upon the phrase, BE BETTER.  Those words hold strong, significant, and very poignant meaning to me.  It fueled our quest.  It motivated our growth.  And as the trip went on it transformed and evolved into something new.  One of the most foundational beliefs of humanity is that we can become better.  It is always possible for human beings to improve.  It IS possible to raise the bar in our own lives even if the world around us accepts average as their normal.  We need to believe in ourselves and in each other.  YOU have the power to turn your hopes and dreams into reality.  If you truly believe this, you will be willing to test, experiment, and try new things even when you feel uncertain.  If you don't believe that it's possible to make new things work, then it's hard to make any progress.  No matter how good the ideas are, nothing will work for you if you don't believe in it.  And most importantly, nothing will work if you don't believe in yourself.   We must not compare ourselves to others.  Worry only about being better than you were yesterday.  We are our own worst critics, give yourself credit where credit is due.  Pat yourself on the back for your desire to make positive changes.  Celebrate the small victories in your day.  At the end of your life, you will have no one to blame for what you did or did not is all up to you.  Your life is a result of the choices YOU make...if you don't like your life, it's time to start making better choices.
Take advantage of each day like it's the last day of your life!



Monday, November 16, 2015


Something miraculous happened today!  The end of this chapter.  All of the long days, weeks, and months living on the bus, tens of thousands of miles, mountains of thank you cards, hundreds of new friendships, 49 states, and just like that...we were done. We have taken this road less traveled all the way to the end.  It is time to say goodbye to the mobile life and embrace the serenity of home.  
Ryder, Shiloh, Tate, Jason, Choice, and Juliann

Ryder, Shiloh, Tate, and Choice
Ryder, Shiloh, Tate, and Choice
Ryder, Shiloh, Tate, Jason, Choice, and Juliann
Our journey from Indiana to Arizona took 3 days.  We made very few stops on this drive as we had already visited each of these states previously on our tour.  We did, however, make a stop by Dodge City...home of the original "cowboy".

Shiloh, Tate, Juliann, Choice, and Ryder
Choice, Juliann, Tate, Ryder, and Shiloh
Choice, Tate, Jason, Ryder, and Shiloh
Choice, Tate, Shiloh, Ryder, and Juliann
Choice, Tate, Shiloh, Ryder, and Jason
Going to Boot Hill was like stepping back in time to the Wild Wild West.  The stark contrast between this atmosphere and that of New England, where we were just a few days ago, was a realization of just how close we were to home.  

We took a good hour acting as Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp before continuing toward playing the part of a suburban family living in Queen Creek, AZ. 

Juliann, Choice, Ryder, Shiloh, Tate and Rusty
Ryder, Tate, Jason, Shiloh, and Choice
Shiloh, Choice, Tate, Ryder, and Juliann
Shiloh and Tate
Shiloh, Choice, Tate, and Ryder
Shiloh, Choice, Tate, Ryder, Rusty, and Juliann
Tate and Choice
Ryder, Shiloh, Choice, and Tate
Choice and Tate
The wheels on the bus were going round and round.  That was until this sign from heaven was too good to pass up. :-) 

Tate, Shiloh, Choice, Ryder, and Juliann
While I still have the kiddos on loan from Jesus, we thought we'd spend a few moments just playing together.  In a way, celebrating the feat we'd accomplished together over the past 9 months. 

Ryder, Juliann, Shiloh, Choice, and Tate
Shiloh, Choice, Tate, Ryder, and Juliann
Juliann and Jason
Then all at once, for the first time sense March, we saw this sign...

Ryder, Shiloh, Tate, and Choice
Oddly enough, it was also the first time on this entire trip that we saw snow.  The irony.

Ryder, Shiloh, Tate, and Choice
Snow, no snow.  We didn't care.  I will admit that I appreciate "home" more now than ever before. It's fascinating how going on a journey that focused on an understanding of every other state in this great country, enabled us to more fully appreciate our own.  

A big sigh and invitation to rest seemed to accompany every road sign from that point forward.  It was another 4 hours from the time we passed the state line to when we pulled into our driveway. 


By that time I had already arrived at my destination in "Snoozeville".  You can imagine the peace that filled my soul when I awoke from Dreamland to find myself gazing at my front door.  

A million thoughts ran through my mind along with a flood of emotion.  (I will share a few of those thoughts in an entry to follow).  So many abrupt conclusion. 

The bus will forever hold a visual memoir of these memories we worked to achieve.  The back of the bus is now home to a plethora of stickers from across the United States.  This has been a fun way for us to document the various landmarks we'd been blessed to visit along our journey.  
Be Better Bus
Home needed to have a representation of this chapter in our lives as well.  For that purpose, we've collected mugs from all across the country.  This is how we spent our first day home.  After Choice helped me collect the necessary supplies to build a cedar-wood wall around the pantry, we went to work.  

We now have a mug wall that will serve as a daily reminder of this monumental time in our lives. The powerful moments, the times when I broke down, the emotions of gratitude and thanksgiving, the joy, the laughter, the love, the healing...

Mug Wall at home
Mug Wall at home
I admit that after a year of putting myself out there, I tend to have strong feelings such as these...

But even stronger than the desire to hideaway and rest, is the longing for others to experience a small dose of our 9 eyeopening months on the road.  I am going to work to compile a publication comprised of each individual story.  Who we met, what we learned, and ideas of how we can all be a little bit better to one another. 

A big thank you to everyone who allowed us into your homes and your lives along the way.  Whether we knocked on your door as we made our way across the states, or you tuned in on this forum to support us...every prayer, encouraging word, and kind embrace fueled our tanks to make it to to the finish line.  My heart swells inside of my chest with the recollection of the many acts of service that were done on our behalf.  I am extraordinarily blessed, and humbled.   Thank you all.

Stay tuned...more to follow...