Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Ramps, Fireflies, and Letting Perfection Go!

Last weekend, we were invited to the outdoor kitchen of Wade's predecessor at work. It was pretty much a perfect evening. Freeman made pizzas in his outdoor oven while we feasted on his homemade guacamole as well as an appetizer pizza made of scrapple and apple butter (scrapple is a new food for us....). By the time we began to enjoy the mouth-watering pizzas, the lightning bugs were out in abundance. Under the glow of string lights,  the conversation flowed and not only did it cover a myriad of topics, it also included everyone at the table -- no matter how old or how young. It was truly a delightful evening.

This weekend, my dear lifetime friend and her family passed through our new town. We met for lunch, took a driving tour, stopped for coffee but still wanted more time together. But in our temporary dwelling we barely have room to seat our family much less guests. And you can continue a full in-depth conversation from any room in the condo -- and I mean ANY room! I had a moment's hesitation before saying, come on, let's just go hang out at our "house." But it was only a moment. We loved having our friends in the condo -- somehow the crowd made it feel more like home.

And so I re-learned a lesson that I really always knew. I desperately want to gather people under the glow of string lights, serving homemade yumminess, and hopefully enjoying the beauty of the fireflies. But the reunion with our beloved Alegrias would have been no sweeter in that environment. The conversation would have been no richer. The love between adults and children alike, no more enveloping.

See, I needed the reminder that the hospitality is in the gathering -- not in the perfection.

Should I repeat myself? 

The hospitality is in the gathering -- NOT in the perfection.

I have wasted countless energy plotting how to be invited into the homes of our dear ones. I legitimately fell in love with Arizona when we were recruited there for an interview because most homes were ranch-style. I just knew friends could invite us over because the wheelchair would be able to enter. I had already wasted valuable energy fretting that the wheelchair was a hold up. I have wasted years thinking that if only we were back in the land of magnolias, we would be invited inside our friends' homes -- it is the hospitality state after all.

I have wasted countless emotion when neither Arizona's ranch homes, nor the hospitality state equaled an abundance of dinner invitations.

And yet, I far prefer counting the amazing invitations we HAVE received:

Our sweet friends in Minnesota who lived up THREE flights of stairs. Geiza, the dad, would carry Benjamin up, get him in a chair and then come back for his wheelchair. This sweet family of six never failed to open the doors of their three-bedroom condo to me and my three. The triplets would play and play and play with their children. The wheelchair didn't matter. No one flinched at the space it took up. No one flinched at the EFFORT it required. The gathering occurred regardless of a language-barrier. And the welcome was always resoundingly warm.

Our precious NICU nurse and her beautiful family. Laura and Jay not only invited us for dinner on a one-night visit in their city, Chicago, but they built a ramp to get us in their home so they could gather us at their table. I will never forget.

The boys' best friends in Arizona.  Both Sean and Josh found a myriad of items to serve as ramps to get Benjamin in their homes. Both mothers rearranged furniture so that there was room to drive. And neither minded when the gatherings lasted into the wee hours of the morning EVERY SINGLE TIME!

But here is the real lesson I am learning and trying to process: Just because I adore being gathered into my loved ones' homes, and just because I adore gathering my loved ones into my home, DOES NOT  mean that everyone loves to gather. The act of gathering is stressful for some, it is hard. I much much (much much) prefer to just open my home and gather my dear ones than to stress anyone out! And so I am hoping my new home will be one where friends will gather -- new friends, visiting old friends, friends of my children....all! And I am proclaiming that I will celebrate any time we are invited into someone else's home but will not in any way waste energy wondering why if we are not. I am laying that down RIGHT HERE. (Hold me accountable, will you?)

So call your friends, gather them for dinner, watermelon, or just some yummy dessert -- even if the space isn't completely decorated, even if the kitchen sink is overflowing with dishes, even if. And if opening your home stresses you out, invite them to meet you in the back yard, at a restaurant, or just offer to grab dinner and bring it to THEIR house.

The important thing is to gather. To gather with your people.

Carol - The Blessings Counter

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Do you know what halcyon means?

Halcyon Days.

I read a book once, when my big kids were very little, where the narrator used that term to describe the season where her children were young, running around her backyard. I remember thinking I knew what she was saying but had never heard the term before so I looked it up.

According to my search, halcyon, in its adjective form means:  Denoting a period of time in the past that was idyllically happy and peaceful.

That word has echoed in my thoughts for years -- are THESE the halcyon days? Oh no wait, THESE must be the halcyon days.

The truth is with three children all the same age, then an added fourth -- peaceful was never an adjective that popped into any one's head to describe us.

Further, I have been chasing idyllic my entire life -- picturesque and blissful! I remember this house in the neighborhood between my mother's work and my great-aunt's home (those were my exploration boundaries as a child.) that I rode my bicycle by daily. It had a cute little front porch. and the windows had quaint little shutters. And the sweetest white picket fence. In the spring, daffodils would fill the flower beds and in the fall, the leaves on the tree just inside the fence would rain down on me as I drove past imagining the sweet little life of the family that lived within the walls. I was convinced they were living my idyll. I wondered how I would ever convince them to sell me that home as soon as I grew up.

Of course, life would take me far from my bicycle boundaries before I could buy a home. And my family of six would have been hard-pressed to fit into that sweet little house from day one. But the dreams of a little girl form the idyll of the big girl, right? And so I have sought porches, shutters, and picket fences for a long long time.

But happy? Oh we have had happy! Three bouncing babies with the sweetest smiles and a capacity to love that far exceeded their little bitty size brought more happy than I could ever imagine. And then when eight years later, the cutest little redhead was born to us, I thought my heart might burst with happy.

Happy has never been in short supply in our house. Of course, neither has pain, or heartache, or sadness. Over the years, I have longed to minister to other mothers with premature babies. And yet, I am aware that my family's road from prematurity is not idyllic, it isn't dream.

And so part of me was guarded when the triplets were young about reaching out. But as my amazing children have grown, I have become bolder -- knowing without a doubt that my trio can offer hope to those moms. Because hope and happy are only possible when you have been through the pain, the heartache, the sadness.

Perhaps you know that I just had a big birthday. Big. Huge. I turned 50. We have celebrated for almost two months and embraced and praised God for the years. But as the celebrations wind down, I can't help but once again wonder about the halcyon days. With one foot in one state and one in another as we continue the long distance commute for another school year, I feel overwhelmed by hard good-byes, exciting hellos, and the exhaustion of packing, unpacking, and making a home. I wonder about finding the idyllic. And then reprimand myself that happy and peaceful beat idyllic all day long. (And then I continue only searching for homes with a front porch -- some things are just hard to change.) 

I mean maybe halcyon days are beyond me. And on woeful days, I think yeah, maybe. But I am a girl who rather hates dwelling in the woeful. And so in my optimistic moments, I rather think we are on a grand adventure with more idyllic days ahead, more friends to gather, more memories to share, more porches to rock on.

But still. This summer I feel burdened that far too often we are submerging ourselves into a social media-minefield of what appears to be everyone else's halcyon days. We post the photo that captures the best of our best. We post the kitchen without any dirty dishes and a smiling family. We don't post the challenges of eating for our son. The smiling birthday party shots don't tell you that the air conditioner malfunctioned moments before the guests began to arrive. The vacation shots that show our smiling family in front of a picturesque fountain in a delightful piazza in Rome does not tell you the story of the angst of navigating the wheelchairs into oncoming traffic because the sidewalks were not accessible.

Far too many of my friends are finding pain in looking at only the idyllic right now. Far too many are hurting and fighting for their very lives while we fight for the picture-perfect dream. And so I desperately want us to keep sharing -- oh, you know that photos are my love language -- but I also want us to be more real with each other, to share the hard and the struggles, to remember that a good friend celebrates with us when we celebrate but also cries with us when we cry.

I am going to keep searching for my front porch -- but I promise to be real there. Ya'll will come rock with me? Won't you?

Carol - The Blessings Counter

Monday, July 2, 2018

The Good. The Bad. And the Ugly.

Sorting through the thousand or so photos I took over the last two weeks, I am struck by the absolute beauty of this trip. I am overwhelmed with gratitude that we had this experience. And after a semester having my family separated by thousands of miles, I confess that I took as many photos of my crew as I did the scenery and I do not apologize for that even a little bit. (Especially since we left Mason studying off the coast of Spain so already we are separate...again.)

But I am also keenly aware that my photographs are of the good moments. I don't stop and photograph the hard times -- though I try to be honest about them -- and so am always struck when people comment about how happy we are "always".....seriously, that is not our reality and I don't want you to think it is.

So, if you are interested in a traveler's tale, please grab some coffee. I have about a million photos I want to share and might get a bit long-winded!

Let's start with the good:

1. Gelato. Holy smokes, the gelato was so divine. And this little gelato spot in particular made us smile for a myriad of reasons -- not the least of which, they recognized us upon our return and welcomed us back!

2. Entrance Fees.  We usually only paid for one or at the most one adult and one child. Italy's policy is that those with disabilities enter free, as does one companion. 

View from the Coliseum!

3. The history.  From the Arch of Constantine and the reminder that it was Constantine who returned to Rome demanding everyone become "Christian." To the Coliseum, where for 390 years, battles were reenacted, executions were held, prisoners were fighting wild animals for their freedom, and all in the name of entertainment. In those years more than 400,000 people died.

We saw the forums of Rome's mighty leaders. We toured the Vatican and saw the Sistine Chapel (I posted photos from those sights here and also here). And toured St. Paul's Basilica, built where Paul is buried. Seeing the actual chains from when Paul was imprisoned was emotional. 

And convicting. Paul wrote from his prison cell:

"I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances." Philippians 4:11

Oh, I need to have that level of contentment.

Outside of St. Paul's.

Inside St. Paul's Benjamin had plenty of room to navigate.

The eternal flame burning at the altar where Paul's prison chains are housed.

For perspective -- the columns were huge at the Basilica.

4. The pizza. Need I say more?

5. Tour guides. We made a wise decision prior to our travels and hired an accessible van for two days in Rome, the drive to our ship, and to also meet us at the port of Livorno to take us to Pisa and around Florence. On these days, Benjamin had to navigate the roads much less and Mason had to walk the cobblestones much less. They still had to....but the reprieve between major sites was a nice change.

We used www.romeconnection.com for these drivers and tour guides. They did an outstanding job helping us navigate the ancient cities!

With Marco, our tour guide for two days in Rome. Marco got us into and around the Vatican as if it were easy -- it is not. We were so thankful for his expertise!

With Heliana, our fantastic tour guide in Florence! The history this woman knew was incredible and so fascinating! 

With Florin -- our absolutely delightful driver! He and this van were an absolute game-changer!!!

6. The views. Once upon a time, I read a little book -- "The Red Sails of Capri" -- aloud to Cate that promptly drew her teenage-siblings' attention and enthralled us all. We have dreamt for years of visiting Capri. It did not disappoint.

And of course, my archaeologist son, Mason, was thrilled to visit Pompeii. He worked harder than he has ever had to in order to navigate these enormous cobble stones of the ruins but did not stop smiling the entire time!

Under an arch in Pompeii with Mt. Vesuvius behind them! Look at the size of those cobblestones!

The tour guide was enthralled with Mason's enthusiasm and knowledge. Of course.

She hardly had to break a sweat to hold it up! :)

She didn't either! (And no, the boys would have no part in the silly photos!)

Overlooking Florence in all her splendor!

And from the bridge in Florence.
A calanque (creek)  in Cassis.

In the village of Cassis, France.

7. Family Time. Oh man how I loved needing a table for SIX for every dinner!!

The Bad.

1. When we clicked wheelchair-access on the Disney Cruise site, all excursion options disappeared. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. We considered not taking the cruise at all. Not taking the trip at all. But the bottom line was that I desperately wanted my crew to experience Italy. And I also knew that Disney would ensure our rooms at night and our meals were accessible. Beyond that we were on our own.

So, Benjamin was able to tour Rome. Because we flew there and arranged our own tours.

Shrader SIX in the Coliseum!

He was able to see the tower in Pisa, and sight see in Florence. Again, because WE arranged the van and tour guides who would give us an accessible option.

My fab four in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa!

All six Shraders able to see the Duomo in Florence!

But he wasn't able to get off the ship in Capri. Or Marseilles. Or Cannes. So he and Dad stayed on the ship. He enjoyed every minute. He loves that boat. He WON six out of six Disney Trivia contests, was known by many families around the ship due to his wins, and thoroughly enjoyed himself. But still. He missed Capri.

Only four Shraders could see the majesty of Capri.

 And Cassis.

And he missed the short walk we took through the streets of Cannes. And the crepes at the little sidewalks. And we missed sharing all of this with him and with Wade.

2. Cobblestones everywhere.

Giant cobblestones in Pompeii were a physical challenge but my archaeologist son still smiled every minute!

3. Exhaustion. We walked five to ten miles every sight-seeing day. The weather was lovely and yet, the sun got hot as we tried to rapidly see as many sights as possible. This trip was not for the faint of heart. Not even a little.

Girls napping while we wait for lunch (Pizza, what else?!) in Sorrento!

The Ugly.

1. Rome arrival. Detailed here. I can't even go into that again. Sigh.

2. My attitude. Oh man. In the first days of our time in Italy, I desperately wanted everyone to love it as much and as intensely as I had dreamt about them loving it.  And the hard-to-navigate roads, coupled with inconsistent curb-cut-outs of Rome were leaving Benjamin frustrated and a bit frantic so we needed to help him drive. This led to some short tempers. Ok, this led to my short temper. One day, I will learn to get my expectations out of the way.

Luckily, we remembered to flex before we were too many days in and the trip because much much more enjoyable after that.

3. Taxi in Barcelona. We disembarked Saturday morning in Barcelona. We had to get Mason to his Field School and so had opted to just fly home also. We booked our transfer from the ship to the airport through DISNEY. As guests poured off the ship, they loaded charter buses for their transfers. Not one was accessible. We were told to wait. We waited. They called for us and led us to a small van with a steep ramp. I mean steep ramp. The "van" was not tall enough for Benjamin to get into and you know, keep his head on. :)  We measured and angled and finally reclined him, drove him up the crazy ramp and then raised him back up as much as possible. The vehicle didn't hold us all and our luggage. So Wade and the luggage went on one of the buses. The kids and I in the taxi. (I will commend the taxi and bus drivers and say that they worked very hard to stay together. At one point, the bus driver pulled to the side of the road to wait for us. He obviously read our discomfort with being separated in an unknown city/country.)

3. Arriving back in Philadelphia. Same song, hundred and fifteenth verse. Plane lands. Passengers get off. Wheelchair does not arrive. We wait. Aisle chair arrives. I have to explain Benjamin can not get into that until his chair arrives. Entire flight crew gather round us. THANKFULLY, they all understood and just sat down and visited with us. But we waited 45 minutes for his wheelchair to be unloaded and brought to the jet way. Seriously, can I say AGAIN, that the time lost in us forcing airlines to have a lengthy flight turn-over could be avoided if they engineered a way for his wheelchair to lock down instead of having him transfer out of his chair!! (Before you criticize me, please know the drawings have been done and are actively being considered. I didn't just come up with this idea! Check out this video!)

Traveling with a disability is a struggle. We have left Mason in Spain where he is doing a field school at an ancient burial site. He is walking up five flights of stairs for housing, hiking through brush for half an hour, and working in the sun on his knees and belly all day. Clearly, we don't avoid the hard stuff. But really, there is no reason Disney can not provide excursions from this wonderful cruise itinerary that make it easier for families like ours to travel. I want to encourage families to not be afraid to explore the world -- but until companies like American Airlines, Disney, and other travel companies decide our patronage is valuable, and make an effort to ease the travel burden by providing more accessible options, I can only say that seeing the world is worthwhile, and seeing the world is hard.

I have some jet-lag to overcome but if you want to come by and see the other thousands of photos I wasn't able to include here, just give me a shout! :)

From the overlook in Florence!

Carol - The Blessings Counterwww.romeconnection.com