Pocket Scrapbooking with Project Life

Cultivate a good life and record it.



good life by julie gagen

Part of cultivating a good life is finding your light.

My father used to say, “Whatever you do, no matter how hard it is, do it with a smile.”

My sister left her son, Cal, with me on a Saturday night while we were out getting pizza. It was October 2013. Just a week prior, my career had abruptly come to an end. Chris and I were in the middle of renovating our new house. My mom was about to move. Our daycare provider had quit without notice. And everything felt remarkably out of place. Unsettled. Chaotic.

Cal and I had lingered at the pizza shop that night. We rarely had time alone together and I always felt a responsibility to him. To teach him. To guide him. To help him however I could. So when he expressed interest in learning about how my car worked, I took the time (a long time) to answer his questions. We discussed the function of every button, every vent, every component of my car’s dashboard. At least twice.   

When we came home with the pizza, my sister was gone. And we knew she wasn’t coming home.

For most of her life we knew this day would come. Not consciously. But she always had an undertone of defiance. And despite her intellectual disability and despite her then 6-year-old son, she always seemed to be looking for something else. For an escape. For a chance at a different life. 

I wanted so badly to fall into the sadness of the moment. Of my lost career. Of the stress of our daycare provider. Of the loss of my sister. Of the concern for her well-being. Of the state of my nephew.

And yet somehow I knew that the best thing – the only thing I could do – was to find the joy. In every possible moment.

And that’s exactly what I did.

The first few months were hard. Our lives were in transition. And everything – home, family, career, relationships – felt like it was in remarkable disorder – especially with Cal. His behavior was difficult, he wasn’t potty trained, and he could barely speak. He was six.

Most mornings we built Lego towers before breakfast, then spent an hour getting dressed, getting out the door, and off to school for dropoff. It was a struggle. The boys rarely listened. And no matter how early in the day we started to get ready for school, we were late.

When Cal would play with my 1-year-old son Max, they required constant attention. There were a lot of tears. A lot of fights. And a lot of difficulty sharing and playing together. And I worried.

But I told myself, “There can be joy here.”

Afternoons were harder. Pickup occurred in the middle of Max’s nap. And play in the afternoon – with two tired, rambunctious boys – was never easy. We couldn’t go anywhere without the boys causing a scene. We couldn’t stay home. And I felt so tired, frustrated, and overwhelmed at the state of everything. I felt helpless. And I kept thinking, “It’s too much; I can’t do this.”

But I kept going. And that’s when I found the phrase. A phrase I would come back to many times that year: “Find the joy, be the light.”

Our moment of change happened after school. In the cooling weather and the fading light, I used every ounce of my imagination to influence and adjust situations for the boys’ needs. I was determined to find joy. So we went to apple farms where we could roam isles of empty trees. We visited petting zoos that were on their last days of the season. We stumbled over uneven ground on abandoned farm rows. And we chased crows from pumpkin patches.

And every time it got hard, or overwhelming, or the boys acted out, I told myself, “Find the joy, be the light.”

And with that phrase in mind, I taught the boys how to roll down hills, imagine oceans in place of brittle grass, and play soccer in open fields. We ran and jumped and imagined. We climbed and explored. We rode trains to the city. We adventured to historic places. We experienced our little corner of the world.

As the months passed, we did a lot of major stuff, too. We had Cal’s disability diagnosed, repaired years of dental negligence, requested and developed his independent learning plan for school, improved his diet, and helped him through major dental surgery. We went to a dozen doctor visits. A dozen specialist visits. We taught him to dress himself, to brush his teeth, and we potty trained. We’ve taught him independence, self-reliance, and empathy. We taught him to speak. To be kind. To listen. And we loved him and cared for him. And we found our joy.

Now, our lives are full of love, family, togetherness, and adventure. And while we still have hard moments, as all families do, in those moments I’m able to refer back to the phrase “find the joy, be the light.” That phrase has helped us through so many difficult days. So many times when things got hard. So many times when I wanted to give up. It’s our way of starting over. Beginning again.

It is amazing how one phrase, a few words, can transform a moment in a fundamentally profound way.

What’s your phrase?

Julie Gagen is a part of our 2015 Creative Team. She lives in New England with her husband Chris, her son Max, her nephew Caleb, and her two dogs, Cassie & Pepper.

Connect with Julie  ::  Blog | Instagram | Twitter


24 Responses

  1. Mariangeles says:

    Beautiful story. TFS :)

  2. Kathryn says:

    Love this, Julie. Thank you and God bless you!

  3. Becky C says:

    “It takes as long as it takes” is mine… Thank you for sharing yours!

  4. Helen says:

    Beautiful. It so happens that “Find the joy, be the light” is the phrase that has kept me going, too, through some long, hard and seemingly never-ending events in our personal life (domestic abuse – divorce). Loved reading your piece. Thank you so much.

    • Julie says:

      Helen – that’s amazing. So are you. Life can be so hard on us sometimes, but with it comes the opportunity to grow. I’m glad you found this phrase too. :)

  5. laura g. says:

    thank you for sharing your story and your insight…life is tough and it helps to know how other people get through it…bless you and your family!

  6. Mandy Bopp says:

    I am in a puddle. So beautiful and moving-you have an amazing story. Thank you so much for sharing it with us this morning. Much love and light to you and your sweet family.

  7. Ashley s. says:

    Thank you. This will be my new phrase. Beautiful.

  8. Monica says:

    I’m speechless! Such a beautiful story about NOT GIVING UP! That little boy, Caleb, will forever remember your family for the love you’ve showen him.

    • Julie says:

      It’s amazing how much he’s grown this year. And I feel like we’re growing with him and because of him. Thanks, Monica!

  9. Leslie says:

    Wow!! Your story is absolutely inspiring!! Thank you so much for sharing it with us. You are truly amazing!!

    • Julie says:

      Thanks for reading, Leslie! When you put things out into the world there’s this moment of pause afterwards. I’m glad you enjoyed it :)

  10. Dee Dee Driver - Tangent, Oregon USA says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. It is encouraging and uplifting. I pray God will bless you and your family. My phrase is “It is what it is”. Then, I find the best way to deal with it.

    • Julie says:

      Dee Dee – YES. It is what it is. Acceptance is the simplest – and the hardest – part. Once we do that, we’re free to adapt. Address. And move through it. Thank you!

  11. Jody says:

    Wow! That brought tears to my eyes! You are a generous person to share your life. What a lot of work! Thank you for sharing!

  12. Julie says:

    Sorry for the tears but thank you SO much for reading and for your kind words. :)

  13. Tricia says:

    Beautiful story. Thank you for sharing what has probably been one of the hardest, yet rewarding parts of your life so eloquently. Cal and your son are privileged to have you raising them!

  14. Kris says:

    Wow…what an amazing story you shared! I so loved reading it although it made me cry. I am a busy Mommy to two beautiful children with a fun-loving and supportive husband, but at times I feel very overwhelmed. Thank you for sharing your story and for helping me to find strength while I am also trying to find my way! I will think of your beautiful and inspiring story as I repeat your mantra! Blessings!!

  15. Amy says:

    Thank you for your words. I read them a few days ago and then couldn’t remember where I read it. Your story touched me and I wanted to Reread it. I am glad I found it again. Since I read your story I have been thinking of how to find a mantra. Then a friend of mine told me hers and I fell in love with it. Infinite love and gratitude. Like yours it reminds me that I am okay and will get through whatever comes my way.

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