A Difficult Life?

For many years a large banner has festooned the wall of my local supermarket. 

Advertising a charitable initiative that “helps children across Canada who are physically or developmentally challenged,” the banner features an adorable little girl sitting in a wheelchair.  Next to her (in bold so you don’t miss it) a headline screams: “Making difficult lives a little easier.”  

Every time I roll past this advertisement in my own wheelchair, I feel sad.

Sad for the beautiful little girl- that she is the poster child for what others have deemed “a difficult life.”

And, sad because when we believe that the presence of physical or cognitive challenges constitutes “a difficult life,” we both classify people with disabilities as “other” and we perpetuate a blanket stereotype that assumes people with disabilities are to be pitied.

 

It’s not that I don’t appreciate organizations and individuals that support children or adults facing challenges, or that  I believe extra and unique support is not needed in the face of challenges. My son attends a free social club for youth with disabilities that is a true highlight in his life.  My local library has a program where a volunteer brings me a bulging bag of books to read each month. A group from my church has brought to my family a weekly meal for the past 19 months; they will never know just how much that has blessed us.

In saying that the presence of disabilities doesn’t mean that a person should be classified as having “a difficult life,” I am also not in any way saying that living with disabilities is necessarily easy.

My own personal journey includes living with a severe form of chronic pain, physical disabilities that impact my ability to walk and limit my ability to speak, and the parenting of two young adults living with developmental disabilities.  Sometimes it is so difficult that I feel as if my body and soul and are being wrenched through a crucible.

But, even in the face of significant challenges, would I say that I or my kids have difficult lives of sheer misery? Absolutely not.

If there is anything my journey has taught me, it is that even in the face of severe difficulty and pain, a beautiful life is possible.  No matter what the obstacles in one’s path, peace is always an option, joy is always a choice, and loving those God brings across your path is always your privilege.

 

Whether or not we live with disabilities, it is a fact that each one of us is going to face innumerable challenges in our lifetimes. Workplaces are often rife with stress and poor interpersonal dynamics. Our children struggle in school or with making friends.  Our marriages go through patches so dicey that we don’t know if we will make it through.  Our bodies, or those of the ones we most love, get sick. We may even face a diagnosis that we are told will eventually take our lives.  For some, the pain can be so deep that it hurts to go on living.

And yet. Even in the face of loss and pain and tremendous struggle, a choice is laid before us.

We can choose to wake up each day with gratitude in our hearts—thankful for the breath still in our bodies, the sun that rests gently on our faces.  We can cherish the connections we have with our loved ones— both those loved ones who walk alongside us today and those loved ones who God has now called home.

 

 Even when it is hard—and sometimes the challenges that our lives bring us are brutally hard—we can choose to embrace the life that courses through our bones and to open our eyes and spirits to really see what a miracle it is that everything has aligned to create this amazing world in which we live. None of it was guaranteed to us, or deserved by us. And yet, here we are, alive in this marvelous dance of life.

To some it may seem counterintuitive.

I once had a woman run down the street after me as I rode Sophie (my power chair) through my neighbourhood.  Once she reached me, she thrust a twenty dollar bill at me.  Astounded, I asked her (using my writing board) why she was doing this.  “Well, you can’t speak. You must be in need. You must need money,” she answered.  Based on my physically disabled appearance, she had made a powerful assumption about what my life must be like. (I ended up donating the money to a family who genuinely needed it).

I once had another woman say to me that if she lived like I do- wracked by severe pain, struggling to relearn to walk and having faced so many other obstacles- that she would curl up in bed and completely give up.  She seemed shocked that I have made it a priority to live a life of joy and peace, and that happiness is a significant part of my daily world.

But long ago, I came to the realization that I can live in severe pain and be the most miserable and depressed woman around. Or, I can live with severe pain and yet embrace joy, reaching with my spirit towards the light,  growing in my heart love for the people around me.  When those two options are presented like that- I think almost anyone would choose the latter.

The thing is, we cannot always changes the circumstances we face, and the unfair hardships that come our way- but we definitely do have a choice in how we react to them and the courage in which we meet them head-on.

I know that there are people who read this blog who are currently facing even more trying times than I have faced. I don’t want to minimize the pain you are in.  Sometimes life is so incredibly, stunningly painful. I don’t want to diminish your need to grieve, to mourn deeply your losses. Sometimes the healthiest thing we can do in the face of hardship is to take time to grieve, cry, and fully feel the pain of the twisted path our lives have taken.

But in the face of your pain and struggles, I do want to encourage you to not give up on reaching for joy amidst your pain.  To embrace the moments before you. To  live your life fully even when the challenges are insurmountably high.  To live with the hauntingly beautiful awareness that each second and each minute and each day and each hour you have been gifted is one that is incredibly precious, incredibly beautiful, incredibly yours.

 

          

 

 

Pilgrimage of the heart

Some weeks ago I was riding Sophie (my power wheelchair) beneath a crisp blue Alberta sky when I encountered Gloria, an older woman from my neighbourhood.

Now, Gloria is a woman whose name suits her perfectly:  aged in her mid to late eighties, she has a spirit, spunk, and exuberance for life that is nothing short of glorious.  In fact, the first time  I saw Gloria (which was from a distance), I mistook her for my teenage daughter Samantha!

At the time, Gloria was walking down the street wearing bright neon blue running shoes and a ball cap jauntily perched on her head just like Sam often does (although Gloria’s cap was bedecked, no less, with avant-guard images of little skulls). However, it was her vibrant energy and the lithe and free way in which she moved her limbs that really had me momentarily thinking she was about seven decades younger than her actual age.

When I saw Gloria again on the day of my afternoon Sophie ride, this octogenarian casually mentioned she had just returned from a six-day walking pilgrimage along a sacred path in Spain.

Immediately, I was intrigued.  Walking used to be one of my all time favourite pastimes, and the idea of a pilgrimage where one spends day after day walking in peace and contemplation fascinated me.  (For more about the pilgrimage Gloria took at Catalan, click here.).

“If God ever again blesses me again with the gift of walking, I’m going to go on a walking pilgrimage,” I declared to Gloria, using my writing board.

Immediately,  I knew it was true.  In that moment, I set a goal that if at all possible, one day I too would go on a walking pilgrimage.  Maybe not to Spain- but somewhere.  My very own pilgrimage of thanksgiving and hope.

As Gloria and I bid our goodbyes and I continued my ride through the neighbourhood with the sunshine on my face, I felt a tidal wave of emotions surge through my spirit: wistfulness and sadness juxtaposed against hopefulness and determination.

Sadness and wistfulness for what I have lost and how much I miss walking and other basic abilities that I used to take for granted.

Determination, because although the full extent of my recovery is yet unknown, my prognosis is to continue regaining some walking abilities.  My leg has been getting so much stronger in physical therapy lately, that I’ve set a personal goal of being able to take one step unaided (ie not holding on to my walker) by May 2018.

And full of hope, because if my journey has taught me anything, it is that my sense of hope (and joy and peace) cannot be based on temporal things that can change- such as if I can or cannot walk.  My hope must be built on that which is much deeper and does not change.

Nonetheless, I’d really really really like to be able to walk again.  But….to be completely realistic, after two years of working so hard just to get to the point where I can walk around my home using a walker (and still using a wheelchair when I go out of the house)… I do know that recovering enough so that I could one day go on a walk around my block would be a major accomplishment.  Something like a walking pilgrimage in Spain…. that would be a miracle far beyond what is realistically expected for me (like a million times far).

Then again., this is a world where we encounter miracles every day…. in the beauty of every flower that graces our earth, in the birth of every little baby, in the joy we feel when connecting with those God brings across our paths.One of my favourite sayings is that “we have yet to see what God has yet to do.”  I truly await to see what God will yet do with my ability to walk again someday.

However, as I rolled away from Gloria on that golden afternoon, I realized another truth.  I don’t need to wait until someday to take a pilgrimage in a far-off land.   I can do a pilgrimage right now, right here, right where I am in each moment. 

 

It is a choice, in fact, that we all have: to make each moment, each breath, each action that we take, a tiny pilgrimage of life. A pilgrimage of heartfelt thanks to God for bestowing breath in our bodies, life in our spirits, and the opportunity to be part of this incredibly amazing world in which we live.

For me: each time I go out and ride Sophie down the streets and throughout my neighbourhoods—that is a pilgrimage.  Each step I take on my walker; each hug I give a friend;  each cup of tea I serve with love on

Sophie’s tracks in the snow

my hand-me-down china teacups;  each time I choose joy in the darkness that can sometimes surround me—that is living out my life as if it were my own personal pilgrimage.

I’ve learned that every step I take in life, everything God gives me an opportunity to do, is a metaphorical pilgrimage in which my heart can be thankful.

It is the same for each of us.  Each time we don’t give up but choose to live courageously even when we are afraid; each time we choose to go forward on our life’s pathway; each time we love those people God brings into our lives—that can be one small step of a pilgrimage.

Of note, sometimes when one is on a pilgrimage the obstacles are very high. Just like on an actual pilgrimage in Spain, the path must sometimes wind long and tired legs begin to stumble, sometimes we who are on a pilgrimage of life become soul-weary. It is okay at these times to stop and take a break to rest, take time to regroup and rejuvenate and refresh the deepest part of our souls.

However, no matter how many times we have stopped along our journeys, the key is to always once again stand back up, start again putting one foot in front of the other, and to go forward step by step.  Most of all, it means to never, never, never give up.

That to me is true pilgrimage, the kind where heart growth happens and where peace is reached for with love. Living out each day, with every breath and every beat of our hearts as we embrace the Spirit’s peace.

Winter of Peace


On the last morning of October, we awoke to discover snow had fallen overnight.  While gentle snowflakes had dusted the earth for a few weeks prior,  this was the first real snowfall of the season.

From one day to the next, the natural world surrounding us went from a leafy golden autumnal to a crystalline snow globe, with temperatures well below freezing.

While winter can be wonderland pretty, I’ve long despised it.  In my corner of the world, winter lasts a good five or six months and heralds dangerously icy sidewalks and bitter temperatures that can dip 35 degrees below zero. With 15 hours of daily darkness by the solstice, winter means bone-chilling blackness. I used to start in mid-September counting down the days until spring.

But this year, I’ve determined to see winter in a new light, to embrace it with joy.

Having lost so many important physical abilities I used to take for granted would always be present (ie easily walking, driving, going hiking, doing stairs, or speaking more than for short periods), has shown me how precious a gift our lives are.

My spirit having undergone a transformation of realizing that each and every day is precious, I want to make each of my days count, to spend well the minutes, hours, days, and years that God blesses me to live. I no longer want to count down the days until spring. I feel a quickening in my soul to live fully… even in the winter.

None of us has any guarantees about tomorrow. Not one of us can say with one hundred percent certainty that tomorrow we will have the same abilities we have today. Even more sobering, tomorrow may dawn without the people we love still with us, or us with the people we love.

But what we can do is live today with intention, meaning, and purpose. We can live out our lives like a dance that we know will come to an end- and so give ourselves fully to each component in the dance.

What that dance of living fully looks like is unique to each of us.

For me, it means a dual focus on living a life of peace and joy in spite of my challenges and in finding ways to contribute to sharing love with those God brings across my path.

I am often inspired in this by the wise words of Mother Teresa (now Saint Teresa):

“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love… There are many people who can do big things, but there are very few people who will do the small things.”

For me, it is still very much a learning process, and there are often times that I fall completely short in my aspirations towards peace.

The first several days after the seasons changed and the snow fell, peace was very far from my spirit. My thoughts veered toward the negative, sapping my energy and leaving very few spoons left in my spirit to contribute to those around me.  (If you’re interested in the spoon theory, you can read about it here).

When my sense of peace takes flight, there is often an underlying reason. This time it was fear of the winter and what it might mean for me on a practical level as a person living with mobility disabilities.  Last winter was very hard, and I don’t want to repeat that experience this winter.

You see, in the summers I ride Sophie (my power wheelchair) around the neighbourhood, which allows me a sense of freedom and the ability to leave my home independently and ride to places like my favourite neighbourhood café, bakery, and organic stores, as well as on paved ravine pathways.  etc.

Last autumn, I took the advice of Sophie’s Californian maker and parked her in the garage for eightmonths (The guy we contacted was utterly astounded when told I live in Canada and asked if it would be safe to ride Sophie over ice and in temperatures as low as minus 35).

But by parking Sophie, I was trapped in my home for almost the entire winter, other than short trips to stores and the like on weekends with Eric, or to medical appointments with my parents. That isolation inside my home was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever faced, far more challenging than learning to live with mobility and speech disabilities.

I made it through that winter isolation by inviting a lot of people over to visit, hosting some groups in the house (including a GYSD group for creative people), and doing various creative projects.  But it wasn’t easy.

 

As soon as the weather warmed up slightly, Eric dragged an old lawn chair to our front lawn, where I’d sit in the sunshine, as happy as the first crocus of spring.  In May, we got Sophie running again- and all through the summer I was incredibly happy on the little Sophie Rides I’d take.

And so last week when the snow again fell, I felt myself marooned by fear of what the coming next several months might look like.  I’m not a person who enjoys being trapped in my home.

 

RIding Sophie last spring

So I made a few decisions.  The first decision is to push Sophie’s limits as much as I can.  I’m going to keep driving her for as long as absolutely possible this winter (at least until the weather dips below minus 15 and/ or the snow builds too high up to navigate safely, or it gets too icy). I am hoping this results in maybe just three or four months of parking Sophie this year instead of eight months like last year.

 So far, Sophie has done exceptionally well in the snow and freezing temperatures. I’ve enjoyed some special rides over the past week, including some night time rides that made me reminisce of open air sleigh rides my family would take each Christmas season long ago when I was a child. (Most of the photos on this blog post have been taken during my snowy Sophie rides of the past week).

Jezebel, my friend/ neighbour’s sister’s cute little dog, enjoying the snow.

Because I also know that there is going to come a day this winter when Sophie again gets parked in the garage, I cherish this time to be outside enjoying the winter even more.

But even more importantly, I’ve made the decision to remember a powerful lesson my situation has taught me. This is that joy and peace can be separate from the circumstances of one’s life.  If we can choose to embrace a spirit of peace and joy in our hearts, then we can live fully no matter what we are facing in our lives.  However, if we tie our joy and our peace to things that can change- such as our health, careers/ education, life circumstances, people or relationships, or the material items we possess- then our joy and peace will be tenuous, always open to fluctuation.

When we open our souls to embrace peace no matter what our days bring, it is like cracking open a nondescript rock and finding the most beautiful gleaming gem inside. To live a life of peace is an incredible gift, one to be cherished. 

And so, this winter I’m choosing to embrace peace.

Peace in Brokeness

Today is the International Day of Peace.
In honour of this special day, I thought I’d share an excerpt from the book I’ve been working on lately about embracing peace while living with hardship.                                         
I wrote this excerpt last night while sitting with a special group of creative friends working on projects. We meet every so often in my home.  (Everyone is welcome, so if anyone reading this wants to join the group, leave me a message in the comments section or on Facebook and I’ll send you the details on our next meeting).
Peace in Brokenness
By Jenna C. Hoff

I sit with a group of friends in my living room, my skin warmed by the heat of the little fireplace next to me. It is a fake, electric fireplace without real flames; it’s imitation logs glow orange-red into the quietness of an evening punctuated by frequent laughter.

My face is smiling, my heart is open, I am happy- and yet hidden deep inside my spirit is the ever-present drummer’s dance, pounding in line with my heart’s ever-present rhythmic beating. A dance of fear- of not being enough, not being accepted, not being worthy.

I sip hot tea as I sit so quietly in my broken body that cannot walk without a walker and is often in a wheelchair.  But In my spirit I run and run and run until I can run no more. I run until I finally remember peace.

Remember the peace that has come at a hard-won cost for me. Remember that peace is always a choice, joy is always an option, and love is the way I want to live my life. To live each day as I can, knowing that I am not perfect and that that is okay. To live the moments of my life in gratitude, with a heart that embraces those God brings across my pathway.

To remember that we are all, every one of us, hurt in some way inside, and that when I try to hide my own hurt with smiles, I not only deny my truth, but create an artificial environment for those around me.

Because true peace doesn’t mean perfection. It doesn’t mean saying that everything is alright all the time- it means embracing our wholeness in all our broken humanity. And also embracing the healing too that comes into our lives.

It means being real.  It means accepting others, and filling the world around us with love.

It means accepting with an open heart that most of those around us also hurt in some way- and creating an environment of acceptance.

And so, I take a deep breath, and open my heart, with all its wounds and scars and brokenness. I smile and laugh- and this time it is real.  I relax my shoulders, let that little electric fireplace bring genuine warmth far past my skin and all the way down through me to the person I really am inside.

 

And then.  Then the warmth brings love, which pours inside me, mingles through my spirit.  I thank God for the moment, for life and love and friends who share an evening of laughter.

 

What does peace mean for you?

I used to believe that peace meant perfection.  The brightest smile, the happiest spirit, a life infused with joy.  No cracks showing.

 

 

I took me a long time to learn that true peace means embracing with loves both our whole selves- and those around us. Peace means admitting our brokenness, feeling it, knowing it. It also means relinquishing that brokenness- allowing heat and light and warmth and love to flow into the cracks in our souls.

Like molten light and red lava warmth, when we open our spirits, in flows healing. And the shatteredness of hurt and cracks can come together. In fact, it is through those cracks that healing best flows into our spirits. When we hold our spirits tightly in perfectionism, we close off ourselves to God’s healing flowing in. When we open ourselves, through those cracks will flow that lava of love and peace and joy.

Peace means accepting those around us where they are at.  Accepting them with love, embracing them with a welcoming and open heart.  It means building a life where people feel both safe.  Safe to be themselves as they are, with all the pretenses brushed aside. Safe to know that imperfection is okay- in fact it is welcomed, because it is the story of our shared humanity.

It is from our imperfections that we grow, learn, and become more centered in the trueness of who we are and begin to live lives of healing, love, and true peace and joy.

Blue-Skied Street Festival Musings

Yesterday was a crisp, blue-skied September Saturday. My family and I,  along with Sam’s best friend, paid a visit to the Kaleido Family Street Art Festival.

We had a blast participating in various forms of street art, watching an African ariel and drum cirque perform, and experiencing a powwow.  I got to paint bright purple dots on a giant duck, as part of a collective community painting project.

 

Dancing by the River Cree Nation

There were food trucks galore, but my kids especially loved the bannock given out at the powwow.

 

 

Grandma’s house of 5 decades.

The festival was down the block from where my grandma lived in a tiny house for five decades, my second home all throughout my childhood. It’s in a neighborhood that over the years has had its share of socioeconomic challenges and crime.

Ten years ago, after a frightening encounter with local troublemakers, one young mother decided to “take back the neighbourhood.” She implemented various initiatives including this annual street art festival, which now draws tens of thousands of people from all over the city. It’s a story of how one determined person can change everything.  

It’s a blue-skied kind of story.  In writing this blog post, I looked up the deifinition of blue-skied in The Free Dictionary and was enchanted:   Not limited by conventional notions of         what is practical or feasible; imaginative or visionary. 

It’s how I dream of living: to not be stopped by the obstacles in my life, but to seek imaginative and visionary solutions.

 

Joe at the festival

Last year when we were asked if Joe could move in with our family on one day’s notice, I had people tell me it was a terrible idea and I was absolutely crazy. On paper, my disabilities and own needs were too high to become a fulltime, live caregiver of a young man with disabilities.  But God put an imaginative, blue-skied spark in my heart, and I knew in my spirit it was the right decision for my family. And, while it certainly has not been an easy situation, having precious Joe join our family has been one of the most wonderful things to happen to our family.

by the duck I helped paint

Yesterday at the festival, we had some interesting blue-skied interactions with strangers. Because of my atypical wheelchair with leg extenders that have my legs sticking out, I don’t tend to blend in with the crowd, and so as almost always happens when I go out, a lot of strangers approached me to say hello.  I’ve met some interesting people this way and yesterday was no exception.

In the first blue-skied interaction, the cutest little boy ever, his face covered in blue face paint and his smile bright and friendly, zipped up to me in his power wheelchair.  He was eager to interact and seemed to have none of the self-consciousness that I sometimes feel in my own wheelchair.  This was a child determined to live life well on his terms.

Not long afterward, there was a black-skied interaction that brought me to a blue sky realization.  An elderly woman using a walker approached Eric and me to tell us she “raised a handicapped child who could do nothing” and it was amazing to see me “being taken out in public.”

This saddened me for her former child.  The thing is, nobody can do “nothing.” Even a child with extremely severe cognitive and physical disabilities who cannot move, communicate or intentionally interact is doing “something” through their presence, life, and selfhood. In my former career as a physical therapist specializing in pediatrics, I met incredible individuals with the most severe forms of physical and cognitive disabilities, whose souls touched mine and who I remember vividly to this day.

The lady then added it must have taken a lot of courage for me to go out (given my disabilities). This upset me. To tell me this is to put me in the class of “other” and to stay a step away from me, seeing my differences instead of my personhood.

It isn’t truly courageous for me to do something anyone else would do, such as go out to a public art festival with my family. There is little difference between a person who can’t walk so uses a wheelchair to be able to fully participate in a fun festival, and a person whose eyes don’t have clear vision, so uses a pair of glasses to be able to fully participate in a fun festival.

Cool Sam enjoying the festival

Yesterday was just me living life as large as I can, celebrating a sunny September Saturday with joy- just like the thousands of other festival goers.  Just like the endearing little boy with the bright smile that I’d earlier encountered as he zipped energetically along in his power chair.  He was a happy little boy having fun on a blue-skied day.

I was steamed for a while.  However, I’ve been reading a great book this past week that has encouraged me to try to realize people typically do the best they can with the tools they have on hand. And also, to try to find the best possible reasoning for why someone may do or say a certain thing.  I couldn’t think of anything positive about this woman’s reasoning and was thinking she was ignorant, so I asked Eric for his thoughts.

“Maybe she was scared herself to go to the festival,” he answered quietly.

That stopped my angry heart in its tracks.  How quick I had been to judge this woman with a heart of superiority, to think her ignorant.  However,  a heart of compassion is open to noticing the fear a person may be feeling themselves, or the pain they may be in. Pain that is kept so close to their own hearts that it cannot be readily seen by me.  How easy it is to judge, but if I really want to have blue-skied thinking, a heart of compassion is the way to begin.

The final blue-skied interaction occurred a little later on when I locked eyes with another elderly woman with a gentle smile. She too was enjoying the festival, and like me, she too was being pushed in a wheelchair by her loving husband. But unlike my husband, her husband was quite elderly and a little frail.  Pushing a wheelchair did not look easy for him, but I watched as he carefully, painstakingly, pushed her up and down the street, all around the festival.

Earlier in the festival, I’d participated in a “share your love” booth covered in hearts where I wrote in chalk my definition of love.  I’d written, “Love is gratitude for life, each other, and shared connection.”

But as I watched this sweet elderly couple having a grand time together, delighting in a blue-skied day, I thought to myself, “now that is a picture of what true love really looks like.”

The story of the baby bird: on parenting adopted kids and fighting for what is precious

One afternoon in early spring, I was sitting out on my front lawn, the sun startlingly warm against my face, in the pleasantly shocking way spring sunshine is after a long winter.  I spotted two blue jays eagerly eying the large old pine tree in my neighbour’s yard.

They seemed to be “house shopping,”  flying around the tree and hopping from branch to branch, perusing the tree for suitability for their spring nest. I was rather pleased when they deemed it just the right niche to raise the young that would soon come, building their nest high up in the old pine.

Photo by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

All spring long, I saw the two birds happily flying around the tree, swooping from the towering old elms on the nearby boulevard before gently landing way up high on the pine’s sturdy boughs.  Although their nest was too high up for me to see, I knew it likely possessed the treasure of the ages- new life.

As time passed,  I imagined them tenderly caring for their new spring chicks; I couldn’t wait for when they’d begin to emerge from the nest and begin to fly.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, something terrible happened.  And, while the ending was very sad, it taught me some lessons on the fragility of life and on what it means to fight for that which is most precious of all.

My neighbour’s little granddaughter was out playing in the magical, sun-lit fairy world that exists beneath the trunks of pine trees when she found one of the jays’ babies.  It was tiny and injured, having fallen from the high up nest and crashed down to the hard concrete ground below.

Knowing we have had pet birds for years, my neighbours called for my help.  As I wheeled on over to where they had all anxiously gathered in a circle, my deep hope was that this was a case of mistaken identity. Perhaps it was not an injured baby nestling, but instead, a fledgling learning to fly, taking it’s first tentative foray out of the nest and into the world.  That kind of little bird definitely would not need human intervention.

However, my heart sank as I saw the little bird. It was definitely more nestling than fledgling, too young and underdeveloped to be on his own outside the safety of his nest. It would have been cruel to leave him lying there, injured, to fend for himself against the myriad of cats that live on our street.

As my neighbour scooped him into the safety of a cardboard box, he gave out a plaintive cry- a heartwrenching baby cry that any parent- animal or human- recognizes.

Several of us ended up spending 90 minutes trying to figure out how to help the little one.  We tried calling our local animal wildlife rescue organization, but couldn’t get through their phone lines.  We nearly took him to a nearby veterinarian.  However, after I turned to Google, we learned the best thing to do would be to try to return him to his nest (apparently it’s a myth that the mama bird would reject him if handled by humans).

Neighbours working together to help the baby

Another neighbour, who lives across the street, arrived with a big ladder.  He attempted to climb up high in the tree- but still couldn’t reach the nest. So, we decided that if we couldn’t get the baby to the nest, maybe we could create a little nest on a lower branch for his parents to come to him.  There’s nothing like a parent’s love for a hurt child, and we hoped the mama bird would come feed him and care for him in the box in the tree.

 

Carefully grasping the box in one hand, one neighbour climbed up the ladder, then balanced it on a branch.

Sure enough, soon Mama and Papa Jay were flying around the box chattering anxiously to each other.  Mama even clambered on to the edge of the box and peered down at her baby. However, this caused the box to wobble so much that we feared the box and its precious cargo would soon crash on back down to the ground.

After retrieving the box, another neighbour, came by with an ice cream pail, which was soon lined with branches and the softest of moss.

The baby was carefully transferred into the pail, which was hung up in the tree. We all left quietly, hoping against hope that magic would happen and the Mama Jay would come save her baby and make everything right.

 

Except, she didn’t.  She couldn’t

From a window in my house I waited and watched as the Mama flew near, then away, then near again, landing plaintively on the fence by the tree. Her anxiety was palpable.

I knew exactly how she felt.

One of our kids has had some challenges the past few weeks.  It is incredibly hard as a parent to see your child struggle. I’ve had a lot of days where my heart has been in my throat, trying my best to help but wondering often if my chosen actions are what is needed to help.

As a  mom of a teen and young adult, one of the themes in our family over the past year has been preparing our kids for the day when they will eventually leave the safety and comfort of our nest. (Or, to attain as high a level of independence as possible, even if that looks like disability- assisted or supported living).

This past year has been awash with working to help our kids gain skills, such as riding the transit, learning basic money handling, safe decision making, and being able to go into the community independently.

The years prior to when kids are getting ready to fly the nest aren’t easy for any child/ parent but are especially challenging when developmental disabilities are present, and also when the child didn’t come to the nest in the typical way, such as in my family.

When you are parenting children who have lived through trauma and who joined the family at older ages through adoption/ caregiving- sometimes the stakes seem that much higher, and any potential fall from the nest that much harder.

There’s a reason why people say the early years are incredibly important in a child’s development and health. When those years are difficult or full of hardship and loss, the impact is life long.  It can make for some very, very challenging times for the child as they transition into young adulthood.

And so, my heart went out to the mama jay as I watched her from the window.  I was sure that she would do everything in her power to help her own hurting, injured little baby.

But then…. she flew away…. and didn’t return again to her baby. I cried.

Cried for the baby bird…. and cried because sometimes the obstacles seem so high for my kids that I just don’t know what to do to help them.  Those are the days I hang on for all I’m worth, my tears and prayers leaving tracks through my soul.

Some time later, my neighbour crept up the ladder to peer at the baby. And, I cried some more: all the pitching in of so many people had not been enough to save him. He had died in the tree in which he had begun his life, swaying in the gentle wind, under the big blue sky.

I reflected later why so many of us on my street had all stopped everything in our busy lives and taken so much time and effort to help the baby jay.  The answer, I realized, was that he was precious to us.  He was worth the time and energy and effort, and even though we had not been successful, we had done what we could for the precise reason that this tiny bird was precious to us and we were invested in its well-being and success.

The analogy to my own kids hit me really hard. Things in older child/ teen adoption or caregiving are often not easy- for child or parent.  But, it is worth it.  Worth it because, so much more so than a baby bird, a child’s life is precious, the most precious thing in all the earth.  All children are precious. And when a child has gone through hard times that have wounded his or her spirit- we as the adults in that child’s life are called to do all we can, to drop everything, and devote our lives to helping that child in a healing way.

All the tears, all the pain, all the struggles are worth it to invest in the life of a precious child who has not had it easy, but who deserves as much of a good life as any person does.

Older child adoption is a common theme in media- from books to movies to magazines.  What nearly all these stories have in common is what I call the “Anne of Green Gables” premise: a child is moved out of difficult circumstances and then sails off into the sunset with their new family, with all traces of pain vanquished, all hurt easily gone and healed. The child, in fact, brings easy joy into the adult’s life, enhancing things for all the adults around.

The reality is often different, and there can be many hard times. That’s not the way it often goes, in large part because as adults we are to be there for the children, and not them for us. The reality, I’ve discovered through our journey and the many other adoptive and foster-care families I’ve met over the years, is that it is often not easy. There are often hardships and pain and sacrifice involved. But yet, because that child is precious, every hardship is worth it.

And, oh, there is joy too.  Often deep joy.

That joy comes in bonding with a young life and knowing that no matter what their earlier years consisted of, that you are doing what you can to give them a good, happy, healthy life for the remainder of their childhood.  The joy comes because there is nothing more precious than a child.

Being involved in adopting/ caregiving of children/ young adults is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but by far it is also the best blessing God has ever given me.

For all my days, I will thank God for my precious children, and I will fight with every ounce of my spirit for them.

 

 

 

 

Love 101 (Lessons on love and forgiveness from my grandmother)

Last Sunday night, Eric and I went to visit our favourite 101-year-old, Grandma Horne. (All photos on today’s blog were taken at that visit). She is about the cutest little older lady ever.

 

When I was a child she continuously invested in my life in tangible, physical ways such as through home cooked soups, handmade sweaters, way-too-competitive games of crib, enthusiastic attendance at my sporting events (with her little dog Tuffy in tow, a tiny poodle with curly white hair who looked just like her), tender advice, and warm, ample hugs.  But even more importantly she offered to me the most valuable thing in all the Earth: love.

Now at 101, there are no more soups or sweaters or enthusiastic cheering. She cannot give me advice about life, even though sometimes I yearn deeply to hear her perspective on a problem I’m facing.  Dementia has stolen all that.
But dementia, while a worthy adversary, hasn’t stolen everything.

Far more important than the pots of homemade soup (the recipes of which are stored in my heart anyways),  is her love, which remains unchanged. In fact, she brims with love.

 

Sunday night she kept kissing my hand and exclaiming things like “Jennifer, I just love you so much!” or “I’ve loved you from the first hour of your life!”

Sometimes my life can have pretty big challenges, but how can I ever complain when I’ve known love like that in my life?

Having experienced the transforming power of love in my own life challenges me to prioritize love towards those God brings across my path.

That sounds good on paper, but unfortunately, at various times in my life I’ve been pretty hit and miss with that.  Words come easily to me, and I cringe sometimes when I think back over the years of my life to times I’ve used hurtful, creatively cutting words that may have wounded others. I can tell myself that the other person deserved it because they were being hurtful first- but that is an excuse.

Because the truth is simple:  when love is shared, people stand tall. When love is absent, spirits crumple.

Grandma Horne has also taught me about love shown in the form of forgiveness when hurt.

Many, many years ago, I was a minor party in an event that caused my grandma an afternoon of pain and embarrassment.  I regret it to this day.

However, my Grandmother’s response to the situation became a great teacher to me. She never once wavered in her love for me, didn’t hold it against me, and continued on treating me with the same gentleness and care she always had.  She never made me feel less than because I hadn’t taken a different course of action that day.

It is a pathway that I want to follow in loving others who have caused me pain.

However, it certainly isn’t easy.  Long, long, long ago, someone hurt me in a way that caused me such great pain that all these years later I still feel the aftershocks in my daily life.  An area I’d like to grow in is to find a way to love that person despite their actions.

Because, love means opening our hearts to another, even when they have hurt us.

However, let me clarify that love doesn’t mean not setting boundaries or being cautious.  It doesn’t mean allowing someone to cause continual abuse or hurt or pain in our lives.

Sometimes the most powerful way to love someone is with an emphatic, very firm: “NO.” Sometimes love means making known what that person did in the light of day, so that they cannot perpetrate harm towards another.  Love doesn’t mean allowing ourselves to continue to be a victim.

Love does mean genuinely, in our heart of hearts, truly wanting the best for another person’s life.  Of wanting successes and blessings and joy and peace and happiness to fill the other person’s life and heart. Of being gentle and tender in spirit towards that person.

My Grandma’s love, as well as love I experienced from others such as  Eric and my parents, has been a healing balm to my  spirit.  It helped me to grow into a woman today who has a heart and desire to genuinely love others.  I know what it is like to hurt deeply, and so I want to be someone that never causes pain in another like that. I want to be a force of peace and joy and love in others’ lives.

Unfortunately, anyone who has lived on this earth for more than a short period of time has known hurt at some point.  It is, terribly, a painful reality of living- and that means that there are a lot of wounded people walking around with pasted on smiles on their faces that hide bleeding hearts.

And sometimes the result of a bleeding heart is a person who isn’t gentle.  Which is where in the past I’d jump in with my own caustic words.  But where from now on I hope that I instead seen an opportunity to bring gentleness and love to someone who might be facing things I don’t even know about.

One thing I truly believe is that all of us, no matter our stories or backgrounds or life experiences, truly desires to be deeply loved. And when we receive love, we are changed forever.

Never, never, never underestimate the transforming power that love can have on those around you.

Love can help heal a multitude of broken hearts, and love is what changes our world for the better.

Love really is the most important thing in all the Earth.

 

 

 

 

The field trip

There is a little field in the midst of the forest, a five-minute walk from my house. I used to walk often to this field,  at least a few times per week if not daily. If I needed a break from life I’d head this way- sometimes early morning, sometimes mid day,  sometimes even late at night, admiring the moon as She peeked through the tall trees.

This is the field where Sam has spent the last four years building a log fort, perfecting it more each year. We took our family Christmas photos here in the field a couple years in a row, and shared countless picnics here too.

Sam’s fort, built over several summers

I can’t tell you how many times over the last 16 months that I’ve missed this field, have mourned the loss of being able to dart out my front door and walk through my friend, the forest, to this beautiful little spot.  Of seeing it changing through the seasons.

It is technically accessible by my power wheelchair (not my manual chair)….but it isn’t easy. Although I could once walk here in five minutes flat, practically with my eyes closed, the wheelchair ride is a longer one, in large part because the wheelchair can’t cut through the secret forest pathways I used to take to the field. I have to circle the neighbourhood and go through several streets to reach it. The length of the ride is longer than my typical riding endurance, and it isn’t a smooth ride.

It involves riding the chair along a busy street, down a  big hill, up another hill, and then navigating over a hard ledge to go from the pavement onto a gravel forest path. Then it is a bumpy ride down a jagged, slightly sideways slanted dirt path in the forest that, with a little rain, can turn into muddy hazards for wheelchair wheels.

I haven’t even attempted to make it to the forest’s edge since last autumn, and haven’t been back all the way into the field since I could still walk.

But….today is a beautiful day in May and more than ever my spirit needed to be in the field today.  So I got Eric to get Sophie (as I’ve named my power chair) out of the garage before he went to work this morning.  Then, I gathered my courage this afternoon, clambered onto Sophie,  and road off towards the field.

The marsh is beyond these trees

Several times I almost turned back. At one point I got terribly stuck in the mud. That was after I had ridden 2 FT off the trail to look at my favourite marsh that appears each spring in a hollowed out spot in the trees, a genesis spot for new life. Sure enough, I did get a good look at the marsh as the sun sparkled over it, but then I could not get back on the trail! Back and forth, I forced Sophie’s joystick…. to no avail: the wheels kept spinning in thick mud. What to do?

You sure realize in a moment like that just how vulnerable a position it is to be a person who can’t  walk! I was imagining being stuck in that muddy spot for hours until Eric finished work and could come rescue me! However, I gave the joystick one last try…and fortunately, somehow the chair twisted out of the thick mud!

As I approached the final hill, a small hill that nonetheless felt like Mount Everest, with the field in sight, an older man walking with his 3-legged dog asked me if I really thought my chair could make it down the hill and through all the mud.

I looked and it was muddy….but not as muddy as the mud I’d just gotten out of! It’s amazing how empowering it is to have extracted oneself from a muddy situation!

“I don’t know but I sure hope so!” I wrote back on my writing board with a wide grin on my face.   Then I zoomed down that hill with nary a problem!

And…..I made it into the field! I got myself off Sophie and onto a raised wood platform at the field’s end.  Here I sit now, penning this story on my phone.

Beside me, as I soak up the sun like a contented old tortoise, stands a big beautiful tree. It is the only tree in the field that bursts into flowered bloom each spring. It is Loveliness herself, this beautifully blooming white tree, bedecked like an early spring bride.

I still have to ride home, and I know I’ll be paying for this ride tonight……but it is well worth it.

Worth it because some of the most beautiful, meaningful things in life come with a cost. The cost can be high, but there is no price too high for living life fully and well.

And so, as I sit here outside in my favourite field, enjoying the sun on a May afternoon, listening to chickadees sing, watching dogs frolic through the field, and seeing the trees wave in the gentle breeze, my heart bows down and says, “thank you.”

 

Don’t feel sorry for a tree: the choice to grow upwards in hard times

“I feel sorry for trees,” I mused to my husband Eric some months ago.  We were sitting outside together on our back deck under the big old pine tree I love.  A cool, late autumn wind was whipping through the nearly barren branches of the apple trees across our yard.

“While the rest of the world moves around where it wants to go, experiencing new sensory delights and interacting at will, trees spend their entire lives standing in one spot,” I continued. “How boring it must be to never have a change in viewpoint, to always experience the same location over and over.”

Eric looked over at me with compassion.  He knew the heart of my comment wasn’t really about trees.  It was about me. About what it is like to go from being an able-bodied person who could easily move wherever I wanted to go to one for whom mobility is a challenge.

About requiring physical assistance to leave my own home (ie to carry my wheelchair down our front steps and lift it into our van), meaning that I now spend the majority of my days inside our home.

I do get out a little: now that it is spring, I can get myself to a chair on my front lawn to visit with neighbourhood passerbyers,  And, on evenings and weekends when Eric isn’t working, he and I do take the kids on adventures to restaurants or parks. My parents are also great about driving me to needed medical appointments during the week.

But it is a far cry from my old life of independence and mobility. Truly, losing the ability to just dash out my front door whenever I want, and spending a lot of time in the same continuous physical environment (my home) has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever faced, harder than losing the ability to walk or easily speak (I can still speak at little at times).

And so, I felt like I could relate to a tree that spends its life rooted in one spot while the rest of the world moves on by.

Eric’s next words startled me.  “Of course trees move,” he said quietly. “However, instead of moving across the ground like animals do, trees grow in an upward direction.”
The profound simplicity of Eric’s word’s stunned my spirit.  He was right.  From the earliest moments when a seed drops into the ground, trees (and all plants) are in a constant, vibrant state of motion.  A true, upward dance of life.
In fact, it is one of the greatest miracles I’ve ever witnessed, to push a tiny seed into naked dirt and then over time to watch it grow into a beautiful, strong plant. A tree that reaches towards the Heavens.

From the moment that plant begins its life until it dies, it grows.  Upwards.  Towards the sun. Towards the sky.  Towards Life Itself.

 And sometimes, when the tree is big and strong, it nourishes the lives of others. Not just through its fruit, but when a mama bird chooses to build her nest within it’s safe boughs.

In a flash, I realized that the same can be true in my life as well.  Even though I cannot easily move around and no longer have the physical abilities I once had, I can choose to grow in an upwards direction.  I can continue to grow in spirit and heart and love and compassion.

And it doesn’t just apply to my life:  the same is true for every person on earth. For you as well as for me. No matter where one is  in his or her life or what obstacles one is facing,  upward growth is always a choice.

Not everyone’s situation is the same as mine: most people can easily leave
their homes and go to the places they want to go.  However, each of us will face times in our lives where we are not where we would be if we had the choice.  The challenge is to find the way to grow upwards, like a tree, even during those situations when moving forward is not an option.

It could be that your obstacle is a frustrating, unfulfilling job that doesn’t seem to be moving you forward in the direction of your dreams.

Or maybe you are at home with a cranky toddler, cleaning up toys and messes and spills day after day that never seem to end.  Maybe you are in a relationship that is struggling. Or maybe you are not in a relationship at all but wish you were.
Maybe your once noisy home is now too quiet because the kids have grown and moved off to start their own lives and the partner you envisioned loving forever and growing old with is no longer here.
Or maybe you sometimes wonder if you are doing enough…if you are enough.  That is something I worry about frequently, particularly since I’m Iiving a life so vastly different than the one I envisioned.

However, Eric’s words encouraged me to grow my life from the ground up. Starting from where I’m at and stretching my spirit towards the sky.

Even though I can’t drive on out to coffee shops on my own, I’ve made a point the past few months of opening up my home to invite friends, acquaintances, and neighbours over for tea.  I’ve opened my door and heart to people both younger than me and older than me, people from various backgrounds and life circumstances vastly different than my own.  I’ve gotten to know and love some really neat people who I may otherwise not have had the opportunity to build relationships with.
I stumbled across a letter writing website that asks for letters of love and encouragement to be sent to folks all across the world experiencing hardships.  Somehow, when I sit down to pen a letter to someone facing hard times, my own problems are put into perspective.

When I have a bad day, sometimes I still look out the window at the world passing by and cry.  But other days, more and more, I’m able to remind myself that hardships are a part of life.  We can either let them hold us back and break us, or we can let them be springboards to upward growth.  Every obstacle can be a seed we plant in the ground that will grow into a strong tree that grows upwards towards the sky.

The choice is always ours to grow wherever we are. To find ways to live and love and laugh and smile through the hardships, to give deeply to those around us.  To dance through life like a tree, growing ever upward towards the beautiful sky.

 

 

 

What matters most

My family came over for Sunday Supper the other night, a tradition started years ago when I was small and we’d all pile in the car and drive over to my Grandma’s house.

Family Supper circa 1984

 

Some things have changed over the years, most notably that the meals are no longer held at Grandma’s house, but mine.

And also that the hearty meat- and- vegetables- and- potatoes- and apple pie types of meals Grandma would always cook for Sunday Supper have been replaced by either takeout or a potluck where everyone contributes something.

I find myself yearning to be able to cook  big meals like she did, but standing long enough at the stove to cook an elaborate meal for a large group is an ability I lost 16 months ago, along with so many other things I once saw as key to a good life, like being able to walk and drive.

It isn’t easy, but this situation is teaching me to cherish and celebrate what matters most in life.

With these Sunday Suppers, what matters most is not the elaborateness (or lack thereof)  of the food we eat, but that we are amongst some of the people we most love in all the world.

After supper had ended this past Sunday night, we finished up the evening with a little walk and roll down the street.  Our family parade was made up of two of us rolling along in wheelchairs, one rolling on a longboard and the rest walking along on foot. While I wish so badly that I could have been one of the walkers, what mattered most was being outside in the early spring evening, feeling the sun’s warmth as she gently kissed our cheeks.

I think Grandma, aged 101, had the biggest smile of all as she sailed down the sidewalk (pushed carefully by Eric) with the evening sun on her face. It made all of us smile to see her so happy.

I strongly believe that one of the things that matters most is fully living the gift of life God has granted each of us.  However, between my physical disabilities and the other special needs some in my family live with,  sometimes this feels as hard as trying to swim against a deep current.

I’m slowly discovering that a good life can be built when one deliberately seeks out creative ways to approach the challenges, with the goal of living life as much as possible in the face of disability and struggle.

It’s an approach my family, in particular my parents and my aunt, have taken with my Grandmother. Quite frail, she lives in a nursing home for people with severe dementia and high physical needs.  On the surface, it might not make sense to take her out on grand little adventures.  None of the other residents, many in a physically healthier state than her, have left the building in months.

However, the smile on her face when she shares a Sunday Supper with us as she has done for decades reminds us that being together is truly what matters most.  She is so very fragile, and yet that is all the more reason to sprinkle her life with fun little trips out of the nursing home.  Even though she doesn’t remember these outings five minutes after they end, in the moment while she is doing them she has a blast. And spending time loving on her is a way to honour her for the love she showered on all of us all our lives.

I believe it is good for my kids to be around someone whose spirit has accumulated the wisdom that comes from a life that has spanned everything from the horse-and-wagon days to the computer age. Even if she is not able to communicate that wisdom to them verbally, her wisdom shines from the gentleness of her spirit; the easy joy in her smile;  the softness of her wrinkled hands.
To me, she is a great teacher, probably the most impactful one I’ll ever meet in all my life.
 She and I never really had big conversations over the years where we sat down and discussed the meaning of life or other important topics. Instead, she taught me about what matters most through the tenderness of her hugs, her delight in the small things, and the deliciousness of the soups and cookies she was always baking whenever I would go to her home (which was multiple times per week for all the years of my childhood).
Eric and Grandma sailing through an early spring evening.

Now, in her fragile state, she teaches me still about what matters most. Not so much through her actions anymore: there are no more home baked cookies from her stove, no more slightly lopsided sweaters knitted with the greatest of love.

However, what matters most remains in plenty: her love for her family and her mischevious and spunky personality.
Seeing her live with joy and contentedness even in the face of her challenges encourages me in the face of my own struggles to not just persevere, but to smile deeply and to find creative ways to have fun and live well.
Beautiful Samantha

It inspires me with my kids to try to make my focus on their abilities and all the things they can do.   And to keep striving for solutions so they can participate as fully as possible in life’s joys and activities.

And it reminds me that for all of us, our abilities or disabilities are but just a fraction of who we are as unique individuals with things to contribute and with deep, loving connections to establish with those around us.
And so, I gather my family close, draw my wheelchair close to grandma’s, and gently squeeze her wrinkled hand in mine.  And then we all walk and roll off into the evening sun, cherishing together what matters most.
.