When life doesn’t go as planned

The late spring sunshine was streaming through an open window in the top room of my Grandmother’s small house on the quiet evening that I planned out my entire life.  Using my best penmanship, my thirteen-year-old self carefully crafted goal after goal and plan after plan, each more ambitious and exciting than the last.

By the time dusk had fallen, I had decided on everything from the college I would eventually attend, to the year I would get married, to the awesome career I would have as a traveling nurse in Africa, to the names of my future six children… to a whole lot more.

I didn’t imagine anything could get in my way.  Then, of course, life happened.
In the years that have passed since that quiet spring evening, not one of my plans has come to fruition in exactly the way I envisioned.  Some have come partially true- I don’t have six children, but I do have two.  I did go to university, but not the one I had expected to attend.  Other plans were completely off base- I certainly did not become a traveling nurse, nor have I been to Africa.

However, what is most different in my life are the things I did not envision on that quiet evening when I was thirteen and dreaming big dreams upon even bigger dreams.

While life has included so much good, I didn’t envision the challenges and hardships my life would also include.  I certainly never in my wildest dreams, saw myself getting into a car accident at the age of 19, an accident that would send me down a journey of progressive disability. I never expected that I would one day have to make friends with a wheelchair and a speaking device, nor that I would have to adapt my vision of who I am even when I physically cannot do all the things that others can easily do.  Things like walk or talk for more than short conversations.

It’s funny how goals can be like that.  It’s easy to do what I did as a thirteen-year-old and set out ambitious goals and life plans for the amazing and good parts of life.

But what do you do when the unexpected hits and that unexpected includes tragedy or loss or pain?

When you find your shaking self in a crumpled, smashed car with windshield glass shattered around you?  Or when you try with all your might, but you don’t get into the college program you hoped for or the job you spent years working towards?  Or when you have your perfect child, and that perfect child comes with a life-changing diagnosis such as autism or down syndrome or cancer?  Or when late one night you find yourself in a sterile hospital holding the hand of your loved one as with every breath they slip closer to eternity?

What do you do when the big plans you created for your life also are tempered with struggle?

Because the thing is, life is two-fold.  There are the blessings, but there are also the challenges that we all face at some points in our lives.

For me, going through my own difficult circumstances has taught me some big lessons.  I’ve learned that life is what you make of it, and that joy is always an option.  That we can choose to let the painful parts of our lives be like a pumice stone that softens our hearts and opens our spirits to love for others.  That we can allow love to permeate our hearts.

When we allow our hearts to break open and spill love to those around us, even when facing our own challenges or hurts, we discover life’s greatest gift, which is to be a force for positive in the life of another.
I used to be someone who always wanted only the best for my life.  Life has taught me that “the best is an illusion.” But that it is in the imperfections of life that we truly live.  It is in the struggles of life that we grow as humans and it is in the twisted pathways that find out who we really are. It is in both the joys and the pains of life that we most fully live.

On kindness

The early afternoon summer sun was reflecting off the bright blue water as my pre-adolescent self,  all scrawniness and gangly limbs, burst from the pool change room in a purple- dotted bathing suit.

I was a ten-year-old juxtaposition:  a little girl whose eyes were sparkling in anticipation of a fun afternoon in my friend’s grandparents’ pool, and yet at the same time also a child whose spirit had taken to hunching, an attempt to self-protect in a world I already knew could be confusing and sometimes painful.

My friend’s mother, Beth, stopped me right as I reached the water’s edge.

“You are so beautiful,” Beth said, smiling down at me. She touched my shoulder gently before sending me off into the pool to play.

It was a momentary, split-second interaction, and yet I stored her kindness in my heart where it still sits on this day many many years later.

Her simple words accompanied me through the not- always- easy growing up years that followed that sweet, innocent summer day. Years where I was the uncoordinated, frizzy haired kid who wasn’t quite sure of herself and often felt alone.

The balm of her words, along with additional encouragement from others, stayed with me as more years passed and I finally began to grow out of being an awkward, nervous teen and into the happy woman I am today.

It inspired in me a desire to pass along kindness to those I encounter and to do my small part to be an encourager of others.

I once somewhere read something to the effect of that we never truly know what the people we encounter each day are facing, and so we should always endeavor to tread gently.

The tracks we leave as we walk through life can be ones of hopelessness or hope in the lives and spirits of others.

It doesn’t take having a highly accomplished career or a ton of money or an amazing personality: having our hearts open and attuned to the small needs of others around us can change lives forever. I think this is one of the miracles of our world.

 

“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” ― Mother Teresa

Jenna’s Second Cafe Review: Route 99 Family Diner

Restaurant: Route 99 Family Diner

Address: 8820-99 Street, Edmonton

Rating: 4.8/5

Date Visited: February 15, 2017

Meal: A Daddy-Daughter Lunch Date   

Reviewers:  Dad (aka Tom Schentag) and Daughter (aka Jenna Hoff)   

“We just love our regulars,” Jessica, the young waitress at Route 99, confided as I paid my (reasonably priced) bill.

“In the evenings when regulars come in, I sit down to visit and have coffee with them, and marvel at how their children have grown since I held them as tiny babies. Often the owner comes out from the back to say hello too.”

Indeed, it was the friendly atmosphere that really stood out to my dad and me when we had lunch at this family owned (by two brothers) diner not far from my home. (So close in fact that my dad was able to wheel me on down 99th street to it, forgoing all the hassle of packing my wheelchair into our van).

The one issue was mild difficulty with wheelchair accessibility (door slightly narrow; no automatic button to open door; some ice obstructing ramp out of parking lot etc). It’s amazing and humbling to realize how things I never used to think twice about (ie the width of a door) now are such a big deal in my life.

However, from the moment we wheeled on in, we were embraced into a world of old-time diner charm, from the cherry red booth seats, to the fun and eclectic decor (which included a bright yellow traffic light; funky signs,  multiple Marilyn Monroe posters; a
holographic Elvis; a  giant silver airplane wing and much much more). This would be the perfect place to play I-Spy.

The food was so delicious (ample portions!), the staff so nice, and the cool decor so fun that it was a wonderful experience.

My dad and I gave it a 4.8/5 rating.

If you’re looking for a fun diner experience for your family I would definitely recommend this
place.

As I left the diner, I told the waitress to add me to her list of regulars.

 

 

 

Want to join me on my next cafe review?  Let me know in the comments and we’ll plan a date 🙂

Do you see a woman or a wheelchair?

I’m still shuddering from a conversation I had this week.

Riding my power chair Sophie last spring

 

“When people see you, they see your wheelchair and not you as a woman,” an acquaintance, who I’d recently met and who does not have disabilities herself, said to me. “Around you, people must feel awkward, uncomfortable, and will try to give you a wide berth. They will avoid eye contact with you and hurry on by as if you are invisible……

 

My communication device

Given you communicate with a writing board, they will also assume you are……” her voice trailed off as she twirled her finger beside her head to give the universally disrespectful symbol for someone who has cognitive disabilities or mental health struggles. Her expression conveyed this perception would be most terrible.

While the acquaintance was full of righteous anger on my behalf against the injustices she assumed people must feel and perpetrate towards me, her words hurt.  In my immediate family, two people have cognitive disabilities, my beloved grandma has dementia, and others have fought brave battles against mental health conditions. These are the people I most love in this world.

I’m still adjusting to what it means to have had my own disabilities become much more visible over the past year, and so her words also left me shaken, doubting of self, and confused about the motives of others.
One of the things I value most in this world is the ability to connect with people and form genuine, warm relationships with those God has brought across my path and into my life. It hurts my heart to think that something as superficial as a piece of metal on wheels that carts me around could get in the way of that.

Fortunately, as I look back over the past year, I can recall very few incidents of judgment, compared to time after time after time of genuine kindness, acceptance, and love from the people in my life.  I have some great people in my life who have shown me acceptance based on who I am.

I’m quirky, I admit it.

Strangers sometimes do take a while to figure out how to relate to and communicate with me, but that could be just as much from the fact that I wheel to the beat of my own drummer.  More often than not, after a few moments of conversing with someone new, I sense that the foundational blocks of a relationship have begun construction, in much the way it was in the days before my disabilities were visible and easily apparent.

While I am grateful that my own experiences have largely been positive and contrary to my acquaintance’s negative assumptions, it was an eye-opener to me.  In rapid succession, I then stumbled across two statements this week that further opened my eyes and showed me how education is still needed.

The first was  by a well-known contemplative author whose work I have previously enjoyed:

People with disabilities “are considered marginal in our society. They don’t make money; they are not productive and all of that, but they are the real poor. Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor.’ Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Blessed are those who care for the poor.’ Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Blessed are those who help the poor.’ He says, ‘Blessed are the poor.’ That means the blessing of God is right there in their vulnerability, in their weakness, and that is what I experience.”- Henri Nouwen

When we group society into one collective thought group that considers people with disabilities as marginal, we close the door to free thought as well as grace-filled acceptance of people despite any abilities or disabilities, weaknesses or strengths they may have to offer as a person.  We begin to think in the opposite manner from everyone belonging and having something to offer (beyond offering a “blessing” to others).

This quote makes stigmatizing assumptions that a person with a disability is “less than” anyone else and has less to contribute. I don’t know anyone who wants to be seen as marginal or “the poor.”

Further, to state that people with disabilities do not make money or be otherwise “productive” is certainly not the case for all people who have disabilities.  There are plenty of people who contribute highly in life, regardless of their disability. Many people are not poor financially, nor lacking in social connections. This is the expectation I have for both of my kids, who have plenty of abilities to contribute to society as a whole.

Likewise, many people with disabilities are not able to work or earn money.  However, I’ve never met a person, disabled or otherwise, who didn’t contribute in some way to the world around them.  I used to work in group homes and schools with individuals with extremely complex physical and cognitive disabilities and some of these people contributed to my life in such meaningful ways, that I still think of them with regularity many years later.
From the bonds we form with each other, to the love in our hearts, to the fact that as living and breathing humans we reflect a sacred image through our very humanity… we all have a place in the world.

In terms of blessings…. I do hope God’s blessing is on me, but I want it not be thought automatically so if the only criteria is that I have disabilities. I’d prefer someone dislike me for my stubbornness or the paralyzing shyness that can strike at the most inopportune of times than like me because the fact that I use a wheelchair is seen as a marginalized weakness that brings blessings.

The second quote, by Michael W. Higgins, does the opposite of “marginalizing.”

“The people who are disabled are our reward.  And they remind us of the deeper truths, the truths that sustain us as a culture, humanize and enoble us…..Those who are intellectually ad physically challenged have no time for illusions; they force us to confront the reality, not the false dreamscape of humanness.  They are the true sentinels of our larger hope…

….There is something very particular in their kindness, in their afflications…… a great and liberating mystery to touch the bodies of of those who couldnt communicate verbally.  In fact it was unnecessary to do so; their bodies proclaimed ‘love me.’  Such a communication arose naturally from their very depths of who they are- they are their bodies, broken, rutprued, fragile, incomplete.  But theirs are wrapped in love…..The tenderness of the disabled heals us, breaks us free……”

On the surface, this may sound like kindness.  But delve into the meaning and it becomes clear that to view a person as a reward to “us” because of “their” innate humanity or kindness in affliction is to create an “us versus other” world. To see a person as a sentinels of “our larger hope” solely because they have a disability is to patronizingly give that person a wide berth that prevents seeing him or her as a human being.

It takes courage sometimes to reach out to each other, despite any differences we have.
My own experience being in a wheelchair has opened my eyes to the fact that it is not our differences that separate one from another, but our fear of those differences.

However, when we look into our hearts, we discover we’re all not so different after all.   Inside of every heart is a desire to be seen as we are, to be accepted for who we are, to know that we matter, and to be deeply loved.

I’d love to hear YOUR thoughts!

Why we said yes

The question that would change my family’s lives forever came completely out of the blue on a hot summer afternoon last August.

I was stuck at home, remembering what it felt like to splash in an outdoor pool or dig in my garden or pick saskatoon berries in my favourite, hard-to-find haunts throughout Mill Creek ravine.  Longing for the activities that had been a staple of my summers for every year until this one.

I was grappling, as I still do on a daily basis, with what it means to live life with a spirit that craves adventure and excitement, but lives in a body hampered by physical disabilities.  Wondering what my purpose really is and how I can contribute to the lives of others when the dreams I dream seem so far out of reach.

Then a text appeared on my phone.  Alerting me that a situation had arisen for our daughter’s older brother, asking if my family would be willing to have him move into
our home.  We had one day or less to give our decision. If we said yes, he’d arrive the following day to spend the weekend, would go to a summer camp for the next week, and move in for good 10 days later.
Shaking, I texted Eric and we began to discuss.
On the surface, it made absolutely little sense.  Eric and I are both planners and deliberate decision makers.  Prior to adopting our daughter in 2010, we had spent a year jumping through hoops such as a rigorous home study, an ocean of paperwork, intense meetings with social workers, a two-month class about parenting young children who have experienced trauma, financial and medical evaluations, and more.
Even after we had been tentatively matched with our daughter, it took another three more months of meetings with her own social worker, her school officials, and her foster parents before “Welcome Home Sweet Home Day” happened.  That day, when our then nine-year-old daughter joined the family, was one of the best of my life.

We had been well prepared for that new adventure. However, for planners like us to have less than one day’s notice to give a decision as to whether to suddenly open our home, family, and hearts to become fulltime caregivers to an adult with disabilities? At a time when my own disabilities were (and are) in a challenging place?  That was like stepping into the great unknown!

So why did we say yes?

The first reason was we knew this young man very well, knew he was an absolute delight and quite special.  Since her adoption, we had made it a priority to have our daughter and her brother maintain their sibling bond, having him over for visits every month or so for over six years. He had become very dear to us over the years.  Had we not had this close bond already established, it would have been much harder to make a sudden decision.

First visit, 2010

We also knew we already had a solid family life to offer the young man. When we adopted our daughter, we had to learn how to be in parental roles, as well as how to establish family routines such as bedtime story reading, kid-friendly suppers, teacher meetings, and appropriate discipline and parental guidance.  But by this stage of the game, all that was already part of our lives.  It wouldn’t be a huge leap for us to go from one to two young people in our nest.

But those were the reasons why it could work in theory for us to embrace this sudden new venture; they weren’t the reasons why our hearts said yes.
The biggest heart reason was love.  In a world where people often greet each other with suspicion, where boundaries can be sky high, where it is easy toclose ranks with one’s “own”, loving with an open heart can be a foreign concept.

And yet, love is what we all crave.  Some of us hide it with better masks than others, but deep down, in all of our hearts is a cry for acceptance.  To belong.  To matter. To be unconditionally loved. Love is what heals even the most painful of wounds.

Both Eric and I have been recipients of radical love. Both of us have faced challenging, traumatic experiences and losses in our lifetimes, and both of us have been graced by the accepting, healing love of others.  We have experienced first hand in our own hearts how instrumental sacrificial love has been in helping us grow into the people we are today.

And so we said yes.

It has been one of the best decisions we have made as a family.  It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been a surprisingly smooth transition.  This young man waltzed into our lives and set up shop in our hearts.  It has been a true joy to have him here with us, and I will be forever thankful for the privilege and opportunity of caring for him.

I’ve learned from this situation that even though I physically cannot do the things I long to do, even though my disabilities prevent me from experiencing aspects of life I yearn for,  that I can still be part of the most important aspect of life. And that is love.

To love and be loved…. that is what life is about.

Jenna’s Cafe Review: Blue Chair Cafe

Welcome to my first Cafe Review!

When seeking a nice restaurant for brunch with my family this weekend, I put a request on Facebook for recommendations close to home.  I was so intrigued by the many unique and interesting cafes suggested, I decided to make a New Years resolution to visit each of them over the coming months.

I thought you might like to join me on this adventure, so in between my regular Days of Grace posts, I’ll be writing about my little cafe trips.  Or better yet, come along in person on the next cafe trip!

 

The Blue Chair Cafe: 9624 76 ave, Edmonton

Rating: 4.3/5

Date Visited: January 7, 2017

Meal: Brunch                        

Other: Not to be confused with the Blue Plate Diner                                                            

Don’t you just love places that turn out to be much more than their initial appearance indicates?  Located in a nondescript strip mall, the little cafe we went to yesterday was as great a place as the story that inspired its name.  

As the friendly waitress conveyed the story to me, some time ago a man was traveling in Thailand when he came across a cafe with tiny blue chairs. He so loved this little cafe, that when he returned to Canada his own little Blue Chair Cafe was born.

The highlight of visiting the Blue Chair cafe was its welcoming atmosphere and funky decor. A good sized stage (with blue lights shaped like a chair) is set up for live music nights. According to the waitress, the music genre is often blues, jazz, and folk.

 

 

 

Smoked salmon benny

 

The food, advertised as “hand-
crafted from scratch,” was delicious, and garnered ratings between 3.6 and 5 by my food loving crew (this time made up of Eric, Joe, Sam, Granny Annie, and me).

 

 

Huevos rancheros

From the moment I took my first bite of huevos rancheros, the flavour transported me back to a long-ago trip to Costa Rica.  For a moment, I remembered the girl I once was, who worked all year at a grocery store to save money for a service trip after my grade 11 year.

It’s had to imagine myself as the same girl who once was strong enough to trek through a mountainous rainforest, mud coming up past my boots, rain streaking my whole body, adventure thrilling my soul. Sometimes, as I sit in my wheelchair,  I wonder if She truly is gone forever.

Monkey in Costa Rican rainforest

However,  adventure comes in all forms. While I may not be able to hop a plane and fly to an exotic locale anymore, as 2017 dawns my goal is to seek out adventurous living close to home.  Perhaps this New Years Cafe resolution is a small way to start.

 

Back to the Blue Chair,  my one complaint was with wheelchair accessibility.  While the restaurant itself was wonderfully accessible, getting inside was a challenge. The parking lot was not snow blown, meaning it was hard to navigate the wheelchair.  Even worse, we could not find a ramp from the parking lot to the sidewalk leading into the cafe, just a sharp curb.
However, once I made it inside, it really was a nice experience.  As Eric commented, “it’s definitely a place visit again.”

Thanks for reading my first cafe review!  Do you have a favourite cafe? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!   Also, please tell me if you’d like to come along on the next cafe review adventure.  The more the merrier!

 

 

 

Of sunshine and rain

Unveiling the new Days of Grace
Welcome to the new Days of Grace blog! I’m so glad to have you join me here.

Beyond my own stories, an important purpose of this blog is to give YOU an opportunity to respond to the posts and share your own ideas, stories and thoughts.

While I had many people tell me commenting on the old blog was near impossible, you should now find commenting quite easy. That makes me excited as I’m eager to hear what’s on your heart and happening in your life!

And now, without further ado… on to the first post. (Please don’t forget to leave a comment :0)  )

Of sunshine and rain

By Jenna C. Hoff
Have you ever found that sometimes the most profound realizations touch your heart when you least expect?

There I was a couple of weeks ago in my favourite indoor greenhouse, the discomfort of sitting in my ill-fitting, cumbersome contraption of a manual wheelchair deeply contrasting with the cheery holiday displays and lovely home decor items chicly scattered all about.

Eric was gallantly attempting to maneuver me through aisles of glamorously decorated Christmas trees, past shelves of kitschy artifacts, and around oversized plant pots and tropical greenery when a simple wooden sign caught my eye.

It read:

Anyone who says sunshine brings happiness has never danced in the rain.

The profound simplicity of the statement caught my heart. I found myself speechless (and not just because I have speaking disabilities and often communicate by writing).

To say I love sunshine is an understatement.  Give me the choice of a day at a park or a mall trip, and I’ll choose the great outdoors every time. Sunlight breaths life into my soul.

Now that it is physically challenging
for me to leave my home (it requires Eric or my dad  to lift the wheelchair down our front stairs, wrangle me into the van, and drive me somewhere), I find the sun especially precious.

Sunlight streaming into porch

Our house is fairly dark inside (not a lot of south facing windows), but the front of our house has a little, glass-enclosed porch that beams with sunlight.
Nearly every sunny day, I make like a disabled jack-rabbit for the porch, where I literally gorge my spirit on sunlight. These sun-lit hours are critical to both my sense of self and maintaining my emotional wellbeing in the midst of physically challenging circumstances.

I think that’s why the sign’s words struck me so deeply.

This past year I’ve had to make so many significant adjustments, from the biggies like losing the abilities to drive and go for walks in the little creek I love at the end of my street, to the littler ones like not being able to stand at my stove and bake cookies for my family.

water glass

As I write this post, sitting here in the sunshine of my little porch, I’m thirsty. While I could heave my body onto my walker and back into the main area of the house to get a glass of water, if I do that, it will be another hour or two before I have the stamina to get myself back across the house and into my porch. By then, the afternoon sun will have dipped so low in the almost- solstice- sky that it no longer streams into the porch.  I choose to stay thirsty, but with sunshine on my face.

In order to not completely lose it in the face of losses I would never choose, and to keep my sense of peace and joy, I’ve been learning to relinquish. To feel fully the painful emotions associated with the losses, but then to let the pain float away. To allow the sunshine to warm both my skin and soul.

But sometimes the sun doesn’t shine.  I’ve certainly had my share of days this past year where the pain of my challenges has overwhelmed me. Days where Facebook helpfully reminds me of a post I wrote in 2015 or 2014 or 2009, a time when my body could do so much more than it currently can.

Or, I look back to when I was much younger, long before chronic pain became a scourge in my life.  When the body I inhabit could race down a soccer field, ski down a mountain, cartwheel through the world.  Physically whole.

Those are the days I cry- physically, emotionally.  Those are the days the rain comes for me.

The sign struck me as a profound invitation to recognize that it is not only in the sunshine my spirit can soar.  During the rain of life I can dance.

For all of us, life is not just about sunshine and happiness but also about pain and loss.  About growing despite, perhaps, being planted in soil that is too acidic or too dry or too rocky. About never giving up even when the days are difficult and guarantees hard to find.

Beauty reflected in a mud puddle

At no point in life for any of us will everything always be one hundred percent perfect.  We will always face challenges alongside our live’s joys and the earth’s beauty.
But we do have a choice to live as fully as we can, to dance even when it rains.