A Heart-Shaped Leaf: notes from an adoptive mother

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Last week my 18-year-old son came into the kitchen while I was fixing dinner. He held a closed hand in front of me. “Open your hand mom.” I looked up at his smirk.

“No”, I said. “I don’t trust you.”

He pushed his hand closer to me. “Come on mom, just hold your hand out.”



I put my palm under his closed hand my eyes half squinting in fearful anticipation of the contents.

His fist opened and a single leaf fell into my palm. It was shaped like a heart.

“I found it in the yard mom. Isn’t that cool?”

He grinned.

I remembered the wild-eyed boy who entered my life when he was 9 years old; now he was a young man. I promptly placed the leaf deep inside the pages of a favorite poetry book.

Recently my husband, oldest daughter, and I, were rehearsing similar kinds of moments in our unique family story. We adopted all of our children when they were 9 years old or older. One of our favorite memories is the day our oldest daughter and her brother moved in. About an hour after they came in the front door, our daughter asked my husband, “So, how do you like having me live here so far?” It was an innocent question from a young girl who could barely comprehend what was going on that day.

In the nine years since taking them into our home, 2 others have joined our family. The journey to become family has been messy. We are like clay pieces in a mosaic. Not all the pieces in a mosaic match and they are all broken, but the art is beautiful.

Not all the pieces in a mosaic match and they are all broken, but the art is beautiful.

When we finished rehearsing the memories that day our daughter said to us, “I adopted you too.” They were words I never want to forget. I want to always see beyond the mess and to never be consumed by it. Rehearsing those moments and preserving little leaves in a poetry book is part of that journey.

Tina D. Stephens

author of The Common Hours




“Broken Shoes”-a lesson in gratefulness

In 1980 I thought my blue Traxx shoes from Kmart were the coolest shoes I had ever worn. They looked somewhat similar to the popular Nike shoe with the big check mark on the side.


Every year my parents bought me two pair of shoes for school; one pair of dress shoes for the classroom and one pair of sneakers for gym class. My parents always hoped my shoes would last at least 6 months. The blue Traxx didn’t last a month. A small crack quickly began to form across the tread under the ball of my foot. It wasn’t long before the crack was a chasm reaching across the entire sole. Without the budget to purchase new shoes my parents tried gluing them, but that didn’t even hold them together through a single gym class.

I remember the night my dad brought the silver duct tape in from the garage and wrapped my beautiful blue traxx in a very noticeable swath of silver tape. The next day I changed slowly for gym class and walked the dirt road to the baseball field behind our school. It was a hot spring day, the air was dry and still. I was looking down at my shoes as I walked on the road, kicking up a cloud of dust, that settled onto my shoes. The dust covered tape was still clearly visible. My classmates had run up ahead of me to the field. I wondered if they had noticed my shoes. Did they feel sorry for me? Would they make fun of me?

My beautiful shoes were broken.

I looked through the harsh sunlight at the field ahead of me. I had to go to class. I looked down at those ridiculous duct taped shoes and thought, “If I can be happy and proud to wear these shoes, I will be happy no matter what happens in my life.” It was an oath I would never forget.

At 10, I didn’t realize how many “broken shoes” in life I would wear or that I would need more than sheer determination. I thought the lesson on that hot spring day had been about holding my head high and bolstering through. But that isn’t what I had learned.

We all have “broken shoes”—things in life that have scared us or broken our hearts. Finding contentment or gratefulness with what we have gives us the power to thrive on the path of life. I had a choice that day to be defeated and bitter or to appreciate the things I had and to enjoy gym class. Every time I wear “broken shoes” and I choose to thank God for what I have, I gain empathy for others with “broken shoes”, and JOY on the path of life.


Let us choose to walk or run the path of life today with gratefulness to God. Reach out a hand to someone who has fainted along the way; encourage the ones who have slowed down, and run alongside others with a smile. Because really, we all have “broken shoes” in this one wild beautiful road of life.

1 Timothy 6:6-10New International Version (NIV)

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.

Tina Stephens

Author of The Common Hours, available on Amazon.com

Finding Serenity in a Chaotic World

McWay Waterfall along CA HWY 1
McWay Waterfall along CA HWY 1

Recently I was able to visit McWay Falls in California, a rare “tidefall” which is only visible from a footpath at the edge of California Highway 1. This waterfall tumbles from steep cliffs onto a small beach washed by aqua-blue water. I couldn’t help thinking as I looked at it, how wonderful it would be to rest on that beach or to walk under the waterfall. I looked for a path down but it became quickly evident it was only accessible by water.

I have been reflecting on the importance of serenity, for some time, especially in our chaotic world. I started thinking about McWay Falls: a private beach and waterfall paradise. What I did not mention about McWay Falls was the crowd of people who clamored at the edge of the cliffs to take pictures of this beautiful sight. Similar to the crowd on those cliffs, I think there are a lot of people wanting to experience serenity in life only to find it seemingly inaccessable.


Like every human I’ve had many days where I have experienced stress. I had an experience a few years ago that made me realize I needed some serenity in order to be a healthy mom and human. I was busy with a big project at work when I received a phone call from the school principal. One of my kids had gotten in enough trouble that it required a meeting with me and the school principle. After the meeting with the principal, I dropped my teen off at the house, ran to the store to figure out dinner, then rushed back home to cook dinner. After eating, my husband and I started cleaning up and helping with homework. Homework involved two hours of Math, class projects, and tears. Eventually I escaped to the backyard, where I often retreat, to watch the sunset in peace. About the time I settled into my adirondack chair with my ice tea in hand, a police helicopter starting circling. I remember looking up and thinking “really?” That was the moment I began my quest to find the elusive serenity in my chaotic world.

During my quest I realized I was stuffing every down moment with answering emails, texts, and browsing social media on my all efficient smart phone. Not only was I busy with work and children, I wasn’t taking any time to relax and recharge. I started to take small steps in changing my habits. At first I was uncomfortable because I felt unproductive if I wasn’t filling every moment with action. I started with small steps which you will see below. I’m hoping to provide a boat today for you to find your way to the inaccessable beach.

  1. Enjoy morning coffee without my phone or tv. This is often done on the back porch where I enjoy watching the clouds or small wildlife that venture into the yard.
  2. Stand in check-out lines with my phone in my purse. This was very uncomfortable at first. I ended up seeing a few friends I would have missed if I had been on my phone, or I would simply enjoy a moment free from texts. Standing in line without the phone was an easy way to grab a peaceful moment in a busy day, and (as the mother of 4 teens) I stand in grocery lines often.
  3. Watch the sunset every night the weather permits. It’s easy to let a day go by where you never get outside except to walk from a building to a car. Going outside to watch the sunset reminds me how big the world is and how big God is. My problems or stress become small. Not only did God make this world, he made it beautiful like maybe he wanted us to enjoy it.
  4. Take a nap on my day off from work. Again it’s easy to think this is unproductive but resting will recharge your brain and your energy. On days I cannot fall asleep I lay down and read a book.
  5. Zen doodle or grown up coloring. I have always enjoyed doodling, I find it helps with my memory retention and creativity. I took to Pinterest this year to learn zen doodling. Here’s a link to my board. Tina’s doodle art board on Pinterest. You can also find coloring books online for grown up coloring. Don’t laugh, this has become such a big trend that these coloring books are often out of stock. Here are some zen doodle I drew which you can download and color. Please feel free to share your colored results to my email at tinadstephens@gmail.com.gypsywindDownload gypsywind pdf.underwaterDownload underwater .pdf
  6. Play the piano for fun. This applies to any hobby. Participate in something you enjoy not to learn something new, but to purely enjoy it. For me, playing the piano is very relaxing and enjoyable.
  7. Lie in a hammock outside and watch the clouds. 
  8. Sit in the grass on a blanket and read a book. 
  9. Take a walk or hike for fun, not fitness. I like to occassionally walk or hike when I can feel free to stop as often and as long as I want, to enjoy the scenery or a flower or some wildlife.
  10. Savor more memories to myself than the number of them I share on social media. I’m learning to take life in and savor it just for me or just for my family. As soon as I share it on social media I’m waiting for ‘likes’ or opinions. It’s good to keep some things in my heart where it can continue to warm my soul. I know that was really cheesy but I think you know what I mean.

10. Yoga or Holy Yoga. Stress can make your muscles knot up which can cause back and neck pain. Yoga is a great way to stretch and relax and it increases balance. Holy yoga accomplishs this while listening to relaxing christian music and to scripture being read. Here is the facebook page of a local holy yoga instructor whom I recommend. Holy Yoga instructor in Scottsdale.

That’s it for this Friday. Enjoy your weekend and find time for serenity in your life.  Go ahead, get on that boat and float to your deserted beach; you will be better for it (and so will your family).

Tina Stephens

author of The Common Hours, available on Amazon.com

-the photo I took above of McWay Falls can be downloaded as a computer desktop background to remind you about serentiy-

10 Ways I chose Joy when I was really depressed.

joy is serious

(unprofessional advice from a human who doesn’t have it all together)

Depression is something I have battled off and on my whole life. The years of 2013 and 2014 were unlike any other depression I have experienced so far, and now I refer to it as my Great Depression. I went to bed many evenings with a heavy heart and woke up feeling like life had been sucked out of me. There were a few days when I lost sight of the value of living. For me, 2015 has been a year of new thinking, a time of embracing joy.

Last month I went to an Imagine Dragons concert where the lead singer, Dan Reynolds, shared about his lifelong battle with depression. I have contemplated sharing my battle too for some time. After listening to Dan Reynolds and how encouraging his message was to me, I realized how important it was to let others know they are not alone in their struggle with depression.

I am listing below 10 ways I chose joy when I was really depressed. I made the list during those difficult years from reading newspaper articles and listening to people I respected. As I look over it, the list feels orderly and tame and does not reflect the chaos going on in my life at the time, or how difficult it was to put one foot in front of the other when I wanted out of life. These were choices I made to become a healthier person and to change my thought patterns.

Joy is not accidental, it’s the result of healthy choices.

I had allowed my emotions to be controlled by the circumstances around me and this was my effort to change. I do not regret making these choices. I now embrace life for the gift it is and hope to remember the lessons that will help me the next time I battle depression.

First I list them, then I explain them:

  1. Pay attention to my spiritual life.
  2. Be physically disciplined.
  3. Develop healthy friendships.
  4. Do acts of kindness or mission work.
  5. Be grateful.
  6. Develop strategies for bad emotions.
  7. Leave room for peaceful moments.
  8. Recognize the battle inside my head.
  9. Put the choice of joy in front of me.
  10. Recognize the contributing factors that put me in depression
  1. Pay attention to my spiritual life.

This was the first choice I had to make because no matter how much effort I put into life I knew God had to be the core and he was the source of my stregnth. It seemed God was silent but I knew the chaos was blocking my hearing. I had to keep listening.

It seemed God was silent but I knew the chaos was blocking my hearing.

My relationship with God has always been important but I was in a place where I did not even have the emotional energy to plan what I would read from the Bible every morning. I was given a daily devotional called “Jesus Calling” by Sarah Young. Every day I would read the thought for the day and the verses attached. Eventually I moved into reading the Psalms. I would flip the pages until I found a sorrowful Psalm and read/pray it. It was very comforting to think that David, a man after God’s own heart, had some really bad days too. If a Bible verse stuck out to me, I would spend days reading it. I had a running dialogue with God. Sometimes I sounded like a child telling God how awful things were. I remember lamenting, “God, I think I have learned enough lessons for now.” I knew he could handle my real feelings. Over time, the prayers changed as I learned to trust God more than I ever had before.

  1. Be physically disciplined.

I fought this step. Everything else in life hurt. Why should my muscles and my stomach hurt? Hot apple cobbler and lots of rest were all I felt up to. I had to force myself to make healthy choices knowing someday I would be glad I did it. I started with a goal of 3 days a week at a gym. As I gained strength, I pushed myself to more calories and time. If I messed up I didn’t tear myself down, I tried again the next day. I spent most of the 2 years failing to meet my goals, but I started every day trying again. Failing wasn’t the problem, giving up was the problem.


  1. Develop healthy friendships.

I wanted to isolate. I was sick of being asked “How are you doing?” , because I never had a good answer. I pinpointed some people in my life I could trust. Meeting for coffee or hiking gave us time to talk. At first, I admit I vomited my emotions on them, monopolizing the time. Then I began listening to their stories. When I began listening I learned I was not the only human to experience depression or difficult times. Sometimes I was shocked and encouraged when I heard other women voicing the exact feeling I was having. I was not alone in my battle.

  1. Do acts of kindness or mission work.

An act of kindness reminds me that I am not the only human on the planet, and we all need help at times. I was fortunate enough to have the unique opportunity to go on a mission trip to Guatemala during this bad time. I walked in villages where poverty was evident and I participated with a team that drilled a well for clean water and taught hygiene lessons with Living Waters International. These people were experiencing great hardships in life and yet they smiled and greeted us. There is nothing like helping those in need to put your life in perspective.

It’s not always possible to visit a foreign country. Locally I participated in activities with the organization Feed My Starving Children. Even more practical, I tried to open my eyes to the world around me; handing a bag of McDonalds food to a homeless person; helping an elderly person reach for something in the store; paying forward for someone’s coffee.

5. Be grateful.

No matter my circumstance there is always something to be grateful for. Sometimes I would make a list so I could remind myself of all I had. Depression is very in-focused so I also tried to make a habit of telling other people what I was grateful for in them. Gratefulness changed my daily perspective.


  1. Develop strategies for bad emotions.

During my Great Depression my emotions were strong. I could be extremely happy, sad, or angry. My best strategy for anger was going to the gym. Many times I would hit the gym fuming and by the time I was finished my emotions would be regulated. Sometimes all I needed was a walk around the block. If my depression was hitting the red level I would reach out to a trusted friend. Sometimes a phone call, sometimes coffee, and sometimes hanging out at their home. Isolating in a red zone of emotions could allow room for me to make really bad choices. Survival meant staying in contact, staying accountable.

(On a side note, I found that jumping on bubble wrap or smashing old electronics can snap me out of a negative mood. I keep bubble wrap on hand at all times.) 


  1. Leave room for peaceful moments.

I am very self competitive. Achieving and moving is where I feel good, but it can tire me emotionally. I learned how important it was to leave room for rest. Rest can come in many forms. Here are some of the things I did: read a book on a blanket in the shade of a tree; take a slow walk around the block; float in the pool and stare at the sky; zen doodle (something I will share in my blog next week); take a nap on my day off; enjoy a hobby; visit a prayer garden. 

  1. Recognize how serious the battle inside your head is.

I have a rule: no serious conversations after 10pm and if something is bothering me in the middle of the night I pray about it, but don’t act on it. If it is still real the next day, then I act on it. If I only listened to what my head told me, I would be in trouble. I have a lifetime supply of negative comments that rehearse themselves on bad days; It’s worth fighting the battle of recognizing and combatting these unhealthy thoughts. I learned to balance things with good reading or listening or rehearsing my thoughts out loud to a friend or counselor.

  1. Put the choice of joy in front of you.

I am forgetful and need constant reminders to do things. If you visit my cubicle at work you will see what I call my “joy wall.” During 2014 I started collecting quotes or beautiful pictures online which I printed and put on a wall in my office. It is now covered with quotes and beautiful pictures that remind me to choose joy every day. Here are some of my favorites for you to download and print.


joy verse

key to happiness 2

god is up to

  1. Recognize the contributing factors that put me in depression.

Now that I’m looking back at those years, I know it’s important for me to recognize what put me in that long depression. I know there will be other dark times and I hope the things I learned this time will shorten the severity or duration. I had allowed myself to be too tired for too long and I was adjusting to major life changes when we adopted our third child. Life at times is messy, really messy but here is hope. Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.

If you know someone who is struggling with depression, please be patient and kind.

Feel free to share this with a friend if you think it would help. Have a joyful day.

Tina Stephens

Author of The Common Hours, available on Amazon.com

A Common Hours Story: The Wind Stallion

  This is for my readers who finished The Common Hours and had only a small glimpse of Sarah’s Wind Stallion. 

a photo taken on the Pine Creek in Pennsylvania

The trees at the very top of a mountain, many miles to the east of Williamsport began to bow under the persuasion of a late-summer wind. Straight across the ridge the wind played with pliable branches. For no reason, maybe just for fun, it changed its course to lower trees whose boughs twisted and turned willfully. Down the mountain, the wind passed through one row of trees after another, a chorus of rustling leaves rising into the air.

Then the wind reached a quiet riverbank. It did not stop to ponder; it pushed across the surface of the still water, sending expanding ripples out ahead of it. On the far shore it reached a wooden dock where is waltzed with dead leaves.

A little girl was standing on the dock. Five-year old Sarah was holding her mother’s hand. She had been watching. Sarah smiled as the waltzing leaves danced across the dock toward her. When the wind and leaves reached the hem of her skirt they compelled it also to join in the waltz. Then the wind playfully lifted Sarah’s wavy locks of hair before it left to play in a nearby meadow.

Sarah watched it disappear knowing the secret that only her and the tress knew. It wasn’t only the wind that had passed her by. She had been in the presence of the Wind Stallion.meadow-blog

Tina Stephens

Author of The Common Hours

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