Monday, October 28, 2013


I stepped inside the door of her classroom and quietly called her name, just as I do every day at that time.  She stood up from her desk, made eye contact with her teacher (who nodded) and exited the room.

As we walked down the hall together, I asked, "Where are your glasses?"

She sighed, looked down at the floor, and said, "I forgot them at home. Now my teacher says I am in trouble."

"Hmm..." I pondered, aloud.  "What does that mean: in trouble?"

"I don't know, she just said I'm in trouble because I forgot them."

"Did she give you silent lunch?"


"Do you have to walk laps at recess?"


"Well, it sounds to me like your teacher just wants you to know that she is disappointed you don't have what you need for school today."

"I guess..."  She was still walking with her head hung down toward the floor.

"Let me ask you something:  can you make your glasses magically appear, right now?"


"Are you sure? Cause I'll give you $100 right now if you make your glasses appear in my hands! Ready ... GO!"

She perked up a bit, smiling as she exclaimed, "I can't!"

"You can't?"

"I can't!"

"Interesting. Well, you know what that means? That means you just have to accept that you forgot them. You can't go back in time and change it.  And you can't change it right now. All you can do is come up with a good strategy for making sure you don't forget them tomorrow."

"Oh, I have one already! I'm going to put them on my backpack when I take them off tonight."

"Wow! You are seriously smart. Can you help me come up with a strategy to stop losing my coffee mug?"

She was laughing now, and she entered the resource classroom with her head held high.

Brene Brown

Trouble is a very real place that we put one another, and ourselves. It's a place of shame. There's no way out because there are no choices, no solutions.  Trouble isn't about a solution. It's emotional jail - you're locked in until someone decides they aren't mad at you anymore (or until you decide you aren't mad at you anymore).

Trouble doesn't fix problems. It doesn't restore relationship. And the few people it does motivate, don't come away with healthy results.  They learn to be people-pleasers rather than wise choosers, planners, and executers.

Trouble doesn't work.

Last night my daughter was exhausted.  We mistakenly assumed she didn't have any homework due this morning, so we were cramming it in after dinner on a Sunday night. No fun.

Eventually, I made the call. She'd done all she could do. It would have to be enough.

She was upset. She didn't want to be in trouble.

I asked her the same thing I'd asked the young student:  what is trouble?  She couldn't answer.  I suggested maybe trouble was that she wouldn't get full credit because the work would be late.  When she nodded, I reminded her that she has an A in that particular class, so she could afford to lose those points.  Anxiety still riddled her, though.  I encouraged her to type an email to her teacher, explaining exactly what had occurred (Grandma came to visit, we waited too long to start homework, she did math first because there was a lot of it, etc) and telling him that she'd complete the assignment the following evening.  This helped her, more.  Emailing him didn't have to do with the points; we still expect he will withhold those.  It had to do with their relationship.  What was really bothering her wasn't the grade.  What she feared was that he would be "mad" at her.  She didn't want to be in trouble.

A truth I tried to convey to the student and my daughter (and regularly, myself) is this:  
a person can only do what a person can do.  
What you should have done isn't worth talking about, except to create better strategies and systems to ensure that you do differently in the future.  
But in the present, this very moment, you can only do what you can do.  

And I think accepting that about yourself and others is a healthy practice.

Monday, October 21, 2013

truth stories: the peach

She was pushing 50, easy, but if she'd asked me herself I'd have guessed 38. She told us that she, too, has struggled with people-pleasing, and the nasty guilt-martyr cycle it perpetuates.  But that these days she's living a free life.  I could tell by her demeanor that it was true.

Then she told this story:

My mother came to visit me recently.  As we stood chatting in my kitchen, I picked up a peach off the counter and started to eat it. My mother stopped me short. 
"Diane!" (I don't actually remember her name, let's go with Diane)  "Diane! You get a bowl this minute, cut that peach up and eat it proper, with a fork".   
There I stood, a grown woman in my own house, and my mother was telling me how to eat a peach...
This is the story of my life. 
I didn't choose my mother, and she didn't choose me. We're stuck with each other.  And we love one another, in our own dysfunctional ways.  But I still get to choose.  
In this particular moment, I could see before me two equally free, loving responses.  Granted, there were a lot of not-free, not-loving responses available to me, as well.  But in that moment I was fully aware of two clear options - neither one better than the other.  Both free. And both loving. 
I could look at my mother and say, "Mother, I am a grown woman - a mother myself. I appreciate your concern, but please do not come into my home and tell me what to do. That is no longer your burden - it hasn't been for quite some time now.  When you do that, it hurts our relationship.  Please, just be here with me, your daughter, a grown woman who is completely capable of deciding how to eat this peach."  Then I could open my mouth and take a big, juicy bite.
Or, I could look into my  mother's eyes and recognize that, while I have found freedom, she has not.  Recognize that she does not begin to know how to have an adult relationship with me.  That love, to her, is telling me what to do.  That it meets some need she has, not unlike the many unhealthy ways I've gone about meeting my own needs over the years.  I could try to understand this, in her.  And, should I find that I can do so freely - with no resentment or coercion - I could choose to give my mother a gift.  Freely.  I could choose to say, "Okay, mother... " as I pulled out a bowl and a knife and a fork.  I could do this for her, because I wanted to. 
Now, if you think the second choice is more noble than the first, then you've already missed the point.  One is not better than the other.  There is no better. The question in both instances is, where does the action come from? Does it come from a free heart?  And is it motivated by a desire to love my mother, to enhance our relationship with one another?  Those are the questions I must ask myself.
Neither is a free option if it's motivated by an attempt to control my mother's response.  Her response is her own.  I would be just as guilty of manipulation and control if I chose my reaction based on how I might cause her to respond.  Her response lies within her realm of control - that's her free choice, not mine... I can consider her feelings, but I must not attempt to control her reaction.

"What did you do?" I asked. "Did you bite the peach, or get a bowl?"

She smiled, and only said, 

"There is always a choice. We choose to manipulate and be manipulated, or we choose to be free.  We choose to meet our own selfish needs through the equally ugly paths of angry defiance or resentful martyrdom.  Or we choose to meet the needs of others, through love.  There is always a choice."

Start choosing.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

truth stories: prepared/unprepared

I felt the familiar vibration in my pocket as I logged off the last PC.  There wasn't time to check and see who was calling, much less answer. One student was pacing his way through a mild seizure, while another was determined to watch Caillou on one of classroom computers. Both have autism.

"Work, then break", I repeated.

"NO WORK!  Caillou!" the younger student screamed.  He tried another computer. No luck. 

"Not gonna happen - I'm way ahead of you, pal..." I replied calmly.  Then I circled five problems and held up the paper for him to see. 

"One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Five math, then five minutes Caillou. Work first."

He glared at me sideways, and waited.  Sometimes I was sure I could read his thoughts: "I do believe this crazy lady is more stubborn than I am." Eventually he huffed, walked back to the table, and picked up his pencil.  I directed my attention to the older student who was still pacing. 

"How we doin, buddy?"

"I'm just having a little seizure."

"I know. Take your time. Rest here when it's over, okay?" pushing the trampoline-chair closer to him.  He nodded and continued pacing.  

I scanned the room. There were eight students in all, of varying exceptionalities. Everyone was busy, for the moment.  I pulled out my phone to check the number, hoping for a random sales call or maybe a doctor reminding us of an appointment.  Something I could ignore, at least for now.

No such luck. It was my son's school. 

I took a deep breath, then stepped out into the hall where two colleagues were talking in follow up to an   IEP meeting. 

"Can you cover me here for a few? Luke's school called, I need to check on it."

As I stepped into an empty nearby tutor room, I practiced what had once been difficult but has now become (mostly) routine.

I filled my lungs ... held it a moment ... then slowly blew it out. Several times. 

I reminded myself that my son has an autism spectrum disorder, and that some days suck. That I knew this, so no information that was brought to my attention today would be a surprise.  He is also a happy, healthy boy who knows he is loved.  There wasn't anything we couldn't face together, as a family.  

I opened my hands as I continued to breathe. Literally, but not in some exaggerated posture - just slightly. I asked for grace toward the person on the other end of the line. For wisdom and courage to make any necessary decisions. For strength to keep my focus sound.  And for protection of Luke's heart.  All this took less than a minute.

Then I dialed voicemail.  I had no idea what awaited me as I entered my pin, but I knew what it could be...

It could be as simple as him having stomach problems again. Or, it could be as severe as a principal calling to tell me that a teacher was pressing formal charges against him for pushing past her when she'd blocked the door in an attempt to prevent him from leaving her classroom.  Or, it could be one of an endless spectrum of possibilities that lie between the two.

(in case you're wondering, blocking a student's exit is completely against all protocol. she was not injured in any way, and no charges were filed, but the ordeal still ranks as one of the worst I've yet to face in my life. Luke left that school soon after, but that teacher is no longer there. I hope she's found  a profession that better suits her.)

I prepared myself for what it could be. I had to, I'd learned to. These practices have kept me centered and steady over the past few years. They have made the difference in who I am and who I can then be for those around me.  They keep me out of the closet.

But this particular day, I wasn't at all prepared for what awaited me on the other end of the line.  What I heard left me in tears, despite my mental and emotional preparation. 

Listen for yourself....

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

truth stories: the phone call (part 2)

My original plan was to intentionally leave that story hanging, using it as a parable of sorts as we continue to explore ways we make life work (or fail to).  But since many of you are nagging me about what happened next...

I met with the preschool director and pastor later that same afternoon.  They'd been blindsided just as I was; each apologized profusely and encouraged us to stay.  I told them I had no intention of leaving.  I'd volunteered to chaperone a field trip later that very week, and I'd be damned if I was going to miss it. Yes, I did say that out loud, and the pastor grinned (to his credit).

A couple of days later, Luke and I boarded a school bus along with his classmates, his teacher, and half a dozen other moms.  They knew I knew what had happened, and I knew they knew I knew.  Awkward.  Thankfully, Luke was oblivious. 

It was October, so we (predictably) visited a farm/pumpkin patch.  Luke spent most of the time off to himself, exploring or digging in the dirt; that suited me just fine.  I enjoyed being with him in the sunshine and the quiet.  But when it was time for the animals, he made his way to the front and pressed his face against the fence.  Near us, a mother pointed to the large birds in the field, exclaiming in a high-pitched drawl, "Look, sweetie! Look at the cute ostrich! Isn't he cute? That ostrich is so cute! What a cute ostrich!"  Luke, who hadn't spoken all morning, tugged at her shirtsleeve and said flatly, "Excuse me, that's an emu."  The farmer immediately exclaimed, "You are absolutely correct, little man - those are emus." High-pitch cute-lady rolled her eyes.  I bit my lip and chuckled to myself, feeling better than I'd felt in days.

The situation at the school continued to be miserable, but I was determined to stick it out - until a few weeks later, when the special education teacher who came to see Luke several days a week pulled me aside.  She said, "I know you think it's best for him to be with typical peers, but I really wish you'd consider placing him in one of our Bright Beginnings classes. There's room at the Plaza Rd location, and the teacher is fantastic. He is not going to flourish here, this setting is far from ideal."

Now, I must confess:  at this point in my life I still cared far too much about shallow things like "the right part of town" and "where the Jones's kids go to school" and a lot of other stuff I now consider to be useless nonsense.  Also, Charlotte locals keep in mind:  today, Plaza Midwood is one of the coolest parts of town,  but ten years ago the only time I heard the area mentioned was because someone had been shot.

I couldn't think of a worse idea.

Still, I agreed. Reluctantly.

The first time I drove my baby down 29 to Central Avenue, I stifled sobs.  Why would I bring him here?  He's liable to get shot in a drive-by while playing on the playground!  And what would the other students be like?  Poor, ill-behaved kids from troubled families?  It wasn't fair, he didn't belong with kids like that ...

Did you catch that? Did you hear what I was thinking?
Was I any better than the mothers who wanted my son out of their kids' school because he was different? 

But let's wrap up this story...

Plaza Road was a god-send.  Luke benefitted from the best teacher, assistant, and therapists I could've imagined for him.  They weren't put out by his little quirks and needs; in fact, more often than not, they were a step ahead of him.  Best of all, he started to engage more with his classmates, who accepted and befriended him.  We both have fond memories of Plaza Rd Preschool, and the Bright Beginnings program will always hold a special place in my heart.

side note:  Ironically, we now put two of our kids on a shuttle bus every morning that transports them to a public, arts magnet school downtown, where the student population is truly diverse. Some kids have doctors for moms or the district superintendent for a dad - others are literally homeless.  They come in every color, gender identity, and sexual orientation (as do the teachers and staff).  We value this as a critical part of their education.

While there's really no ending (Luke is now 15 and enjoying 8th grade), I hope I wrapped things up enough to satisfy curiosities.

This is one of my stories.  The what's of your personal stories will differ greatly from mine, but the how's?  I believe much of those, we share.  We'll draw those out, as we continue on together.

Next up:  another phone call story... 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

truth stories: the phone call

I have no idea what I am doing. You might have figured that out by now.

First I wrote about acceptance. Soon after, my beloved Tracy wrote this; she asks wonderful questions that I don't necessarily have answers to, but I do have a lot of thoughts about.  Now I want to go back and rewrite that entire post, but I won't.  I'll just have to write another one. Soon.

Then I wrote about thought work. I stand by what I shared, but with exponentially increasing moments of "don't be hearing me saying that because that is NOT what I said".  I'll get back to that, too. Eventually.

I'm fairly certain a good Ann Lammot quote would make me feel a lot better right now, but I can't even decide which phrase to lift.


Just keep writing, Michelle.

Today, I'm resisting the urge to clarify. It would be self-indulgent and more than a little crazy-making. Instead, I'm going to tell a few stories that keep rising to the surface.

Why am I jumping from answering deep questions about life to telling stories?

Because I believe they hold the potential to express what I'm trying to convey better than any amount of eloquent exposition.

They are true stories.  Are they truth stories?  I guess we'll have to see.

I was standing in the kitchen of our old house, when the phone rang. The voice on the other end was hesitant.

"Um, is this Michelle McConnell?"


"Yeah, um ... you don't know me. I'm so sorry to call you like this, but I can't do this anymore. It's just not right."

"Who is this?"

"My daughter is in preschool with your son, Luke. The letter you shared with us that first week? That's where I got your phone number..."


"Yeah, and ... well, it was real sweet of you to introduce yourself like that. We've never had a child with autism in the school before, and ... well, I guess you know some people aren't happy."

I stiffened. Yes, I'd heard. 

my Luke, about 10 years ago
Two years prior, a developmental pediatrician gave Luke a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder for his third birthday. We'd enrolled him in this particular church's preschool because it was small, close by, and friends spoke highly of it.  It was of vital importance to us that he remain with typical peers, and at that time we still thought "Christian" meant best, so it seemed ideal.  The public school system sent therapists and special educators into the setting, to support him there.  It had taken months of meetings, phone calls, and emails to put everything in place.

But it was turning out to be far less than ideal.  He was curious and busy, quiet but friendly, sometimes challenging but never violent.  Still, his very presence made some people uncomfortable.  The rumor-mill was working overtime.  I knew this.  I'd hoped my letter would proactively suppress the drama.  

I'd hoped.

What sounded like a stifled whimper jolted me back to the mystery phone call. Was this woman crying?

"I'm sorry.  It's just wrong."

"Wha- I don't understand?"

"The parents (sniff). They called a meeting with the pastor and the preschool director - they are all there right now! I just couldn't go. They are demanding that your son be removed from the school. No one wants him there. They're saying our kids won't get the instruction they need to be ready for kindergarten because he takes up too much time. They're saying if he doesn't leave, then they will.  All of them.  I'm so sorry, I just had to tell you ... "

My legs gave way. I slid down the front of the refrigerator, sending magnetic letters and numbers across the kitchen floor. I can't say for sure whether I managed to mumble a "Thank you" before hanging up the phone.

I spent the rest of the day in a sort of shock, outwardly trance-like but inwardly swinging between wild rage and all out, black-hole-depression.

(to be continued)

Thursday, October 3, 2013

stop it


"How do you not hide in the closet with your head between your knees?"
(part 3)

This will be a short installment.  I have a hot date with a pretty awesome guy I met 20 or so years ago.  We agreed to shoo the kids off to bed early, then cuddle in front of some serious quality television:  World's Dumbest __________ on TruTV.   Doesn't really matter what's in the blank, it works for us.  If you haven't laughed till your stomach hurts with your true love lately, make it happen.

But I do want to say something here, first. Some of you resonated with my thoughts on thoughts.  That's good.  Unless it's bad.

If you're beating yourself up, feeling guilty or depressed after reading what I wrote, I have two words for you.

And already know what they are.

All together now!

thought work


"How do you not hide in the closet all day with your head between your knees?" (part 2)

Acceptance seems so passive, doesn't it?  Many of us don't like that.  We want to do something, we want to feel that we control something.

Well, in my experience, surviving this life without regularly beating yourself or someone around you up involves plenty to control.


I grew up hearing in church that the tongue is impossible to tame, that it wields the very power of life and death.  But in recent years I've been struck by something further; the tongue, for me, represents our outer life.  I'm talking about the entirety of what we put out there:  what we say, write, tweet, or text.  Even the vibe we give off when we roll our eyes, stiffen our bodies, or huff.  We should control these things, because they do real damage.

But if we were to start inside - changing our very thinking - then we wouldn't have to work so hard at taming our tongues or our tweets.  If we didn't allow ourselves the pleasure of rolling certain negative thoughts around inside our heads, then we wouldn't have to live in fear of them one day escaping and causing real harm.

I believe the focus must be our inner life, not our outer life.  That's real self control.

I know how abstract this is, so I'll try to add some flesh to it. A mother comes home from work, cooks dinner for herself and her son, cleans up the dishes, then walks through the house picking up random dirty laundry and dropping it in a hamper.  She doesn't complain out loud, but inside she's thinking,

"It must be nice to come in and eat, then get up and leave again without a thought. I wish I had someone to wait on me hand and foot. I stayed up late last night making sure that practice uniform was clean but does he appreciate it? No, he just drops his clothes on the floor, expecting me to pick them up..." 
Now imagine this.  The same mother completes the same tasks, but this time she's thinking,

 "I'm so glad he comes home for dinner, I know most of the players just grab a sandwich between school and practice.  He said he had a good day, but I wonder how things are going with that friend of his? Maybe he'll talk to me about it over some chocolate milk when he gets home tonight." 

And she smiles to herself that, even though he's taller than her, now, he still loves it when she makes him chocolate milk.

As she picks up the laundry, she doesn't think about what she's doing, but about what he's doing.

"I know he wants to be a starter and he's worked hard, but if it doesn't happen this year, I hope he'll be okay with that ..."
I've given a simple, fairly benign example here, but I hope you can see how far-reaching the implications are. This shift in thinking, played out over days and weeks and years, results in a completely different person.  The second mother doesn't have to work hard to tame her tongue, because her thoughts are for those she loves.  Her heart is pure.

Now, I know that I've lost some of you - I know that. For starters, some of you think the son should pick up his own damn laundry! To you, I propose this:  the mother in our story has made a choice to pick up that laundry.  In both scenarios.  No one has forced her to, she has chosen to.  That opens subject matter for another post, which I hope to get to, soon (remind me if I don't, will you please?)

Forget the details and focus with me here.

Others of you, though, think the second mother's type of existence is reserved for saints. That she isn't even human.  That being that way every day isn't remotely realistic.  That some of us were just born with certain temperaments and that's the way we are.

I say otherwise.

We choose what to think. We choose what to believe. And we can change.  We choose to repeat the same damaging cycles over and over again, or we choose to change them.  Changing them involves work, such very hard work.  It's not easy, I grant you that.  But don't say it's impossible, because that's a lie.

Negative thoughts are addicting - they are just too comfortable and familiar and privately enjoyable to give up.  And so, in a sick little codependent cycle with ourselves, we attempt to meet our own needs by rehearsing them over and over again inside our heads.  And (like any addiction) left to ourselves, I do believe we are helpless to change them.

I have a great fondness for the 12 steps of AA. I know too many delightful people who have experienced personal, spiritual transformation as a result of them not to.  And while I do not mean to minimize the damage alcoholism can and does cause, I propose that negative thinking - selfishness, resentment, bitterness, martyrdom - do the same.  A person whose life -whether outwardly, or secretly within themselves - is characterized by this way of thinking, is doing very real damage to themselves and everyone around them.

The challenge to change our thinking is no less of an undertaking than the challenge to give up any addiction.  In fact, the recovering alcoholic would be the first to tell you that his or her great battle exists first and foremost within the mind.   I only experience success in this daunting task as I rely on my source, my Higher Power.  There's no need to get hung up here; AAphrases it, "God as we understand him".  I call it the Holy Spirit (as Jesus and Ghandi both did) or sometimes The Good God taken from Victor Hugo's  Monseigneur Bienvenu.

This is a practice for me. I sit with the Holy Spirit, opening myself up to what I believe to be an unlimited source of Love and Light and Goodness fully available at every moment.  I am aware of the Spirit's presence around and within me; I literally breathe in grace.  Sometimes (not often) this lasts for days, as I retreat away in solitude.  Sometimes it lasts a few minutes, as I intentionally step away from life to meditate and pray.  Most often it lasts seconds, as I pause just long enough to say, "Help" like Anne Lammott or "Thy sweetness" like Amy Carmichael.

That's the source, the starting point. And, at least for me, it's crucial.

But asking for help isn't enough. This is the problem I have with prayer, as most people talk about it. James, the brother of Jesus, is famous for ridiculing the christians of his time for their "faith without works". If I were ever to become a preacher I think I'd sound a lot like him.  Please don't talk about how much you pray if your outer life is crap. If you're a jerk to the drive-thru lady, gossip about your co-workers, and act like an ass on facebook, keep your prayers in your prayer closet. I beg you.

But if you really want to change...


When that selfish thought begins, stop it. Say no. Say it out loud if you have to! Tell yourself NO. Discipline yourself as you would a toddler; that's what it's going to take at first, trust me, because that's exactly what you are. Your mind is wildly out of control and it needs discipline.

Obviously, the bad thought patterns can't just be removed, they have to be replaced ... but this is long enough, for now.

More to come. In the meantime, Bob Newhart.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Not long ago someone looked me in the eye and said, "How do you not just hide in the closet with your head between your knees all day?"

I'm quite sure I stood there with my jaw hanging open for a full minute before I dared utter a response.  The audacity of the question still astounds me.
Did this person really express that facing the reality of my day to day existence would send them into a catatonic state?  

I will attempt to answer this, though, because - audacious as it was - it's a good question.  What this person really wants to know is, "How do you make your life work?" which has, underlying it, "How can I make my life work?"

Several core attitudes/practices come to mind, but the first is acceptance.  Seeing clearly, seeing what is and calling it exactly what it is.  Accepting it. This is a component of healthy living.

This may seem elementary, but I daily encounter people who do not have acceptance in their lives. In fact, the most dysfunctional, mess-making people I've come across have been people who exist in a state of denial.  They aren't pretending life is hunky-dory for the sake of appearances, no.  That's dysfunctional, for sure, but I'm talking about something far more damaging.  I'm talking about believing that it actually IS; that your life, your family, your world is hunky-dory-wonderful-and-perfect.  Believing it to the point that any bit of evidence to the contrary is a painful, personal attack. Blame for others and shame for self become reflex reactions, leaving you either lashing out violently or (yes) hiding with your head between your knees in a closet of pain, guilt, and defeat.

Acceptance. Not expecting life to be more this or less that, but living with a mindful awareness of what it actually is.

Replacing expectation with acceptance is, I've come to learn, one practice of healthy living. (more to come)

To pray means to open your hands before God. It means slowly relaxing the tension which squeezes your hands together and accepting your existence with an increasing readiness, 
not as a possession to defend, but as a gift to receive. ~Henri Nouwen

Monday, September 30, 2013


I'm in bed, eating Not-Cheetos (the Earthfare variety - supposedly healthier but still junk), drinking pineapple juice with a splash of vodka (if that has an official, cool bar-mixed-drink name I don't know what it is), and listening to The Wood Brothers' new album, The Muse (check it out on Spotify. in fact, stop reading this blog post. it's not going to be very good anyway. just go listen. now.)

Still here?  Wow. You were warned.

I'm in kind of a everyone-is-stupid-except-me funk.  I want to stay up all night being irresponsible and lazy.  Then I want to sleep till I wake up, no alarm.  Tomorrow morning (or afternoon) I want to drink coffee in silence, then wander to a hammock, far away from people.  ANY people.  And I want to lay there.  Alone.  All day.

I want to gaze at the sky and the leaves on the trees, dozing in and out of consciousness as I simply forget.  Forget all the stuff I want to not know, or at least not care about.
Because caring is exhausting.

The Wood Brothers are still singing.  My glass is empty. I pushed the not-Cheetos bag far away because the aftertaste caught up to me.  Ew.

In the morning, I'll wake with the alarm.  I won't want to, but I will.  I'll walk outside.  It'll still be dark.  I'll look up at the stars. I'll feel the cool air on my skin. I'll listen to the birds and the frogs and the crickets.  And I'll breathe.  I'll breathe deep and slow, and just be out there for a while. A good long while, I hope.
And it'll be enough.

I don't talk much about prayer anymore. That doesn't mean I don't pray, it just means that I don't know how to talk about it. The names for things, the containers they come in - these have gotten awful blurry, lately. But the center is clearer than ever.  When I'm quiet, when I'm open - it's so very clear. Even now, it's becoming clearer.
And it's enough.

I don't write here very often, either.  This season of life has me so busy walking the walk; the path seems never-ending, and sometimes it's exhausting, but it is rich.  My husband, our four children, and my full time job working with special needs students all grow me, daily. I often think of brilliant insights I want to pass on once it all slows down.  I have so very much to say.

But by the time I have a chance to sit and write, I'm spent to the point that all you get is Not-Cheetos, a nameless mixed drink, and The Wood Brothers.

For now, that'll have to be enough. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

we don't know

We've been making a point lately to try out local "mom and pop" restaurants when we're traveling.  Some are better than others, but at least we get a bit of local flavor and support whatever community we're enjoying being in.

Today we found ourselves in the most recognizable hometown in the United States:  Andy Griffith's Mayberry.  If you didn't know, Mayberry is a real place, but it's actually called Pilot Mountain, NC.  I know, I know - folks say Griffith's hometown of Mt. Airy is the original Mayberry, but  he actually pointed out nearby Pilot Mountain as his inspiration.

Either way, we were in or near Mayberry, so when I hit "nearby restaurants" on my GPS and saw "Aunt Bea's" listed, I knew we had to give it a shot.  It didn't disappoint; the food was fair, ambiance was perfect, service was slow but friendly, and the scoops of ice cream were HUGE.

I never expected a placed named Aunt Bea's to have wifi, but I was disappointed to dicover that I didn't even have the slightest hint of a Verizon signal.  I looked around the place; not one person had a device of any kind in their hands.  Quaint.  Well, except 3 of my 4 children, who now quite stood out to me with their ears plugged with buds, noses pointed down, and fingers tapping away on the screens of their ipad minis (the 4th would have been right there with them if she hadn't lost privileges earlier in the weekend).

I scanned the room again.  One couple in particular had taken notice of our little crew.  Eyes darting back and forth led to disapproving sighs, pursed lips, whispers, and shaking heads.  My refined skills of interpretation gathered the following:
"Families should have conversations over meals. Children should not play video games at the table. That  mother should engage with her children, not let technology babysit them." 
Et cetera, et cetera ...

I had to smile, sigh, and shake my own head.

They didn't know.

They didn't know that these children and I just spent 3 hours in the woods, on top of a mountain, having the time of our lives. Engaged. Together.
They didn't know that we'd driven over 90 miles just to have that experience.
They didn't know that even though they'd have preferred Subway, these three middle schoolers had ordered their meals complete with "excuse me", "please", "thank you", and "yes ma'am" (okay - the 13 year old said "yeah" until I elbowed him & gave a sideways you-know-better grin).
They didn't know that 2 of them were working on their Garage Band projects, while the third was playing Stack the States (part of me wanted to see him challenge them to a round, but I thought better of it).
Most of all, they didn't know that 2 of my 4 children have significant-yet-invisible special needs.

There was so much they just. didn't. know.

Don't misunderstand - I wasn't angry. I'm not, now.
I get it.
I do it!

It was my very first visit to Cabo Fish Taco - only the coolest restaurant in the coolest district in town. I'd arranged to meet friends for a pre-concert dinner and was basking in how-cool-am-I?-ness as I joined the table they were sharing with a couple I didn't yet know. I'd arrived late and was feeling a bit like a fifth-wheel, when my friend made a sideways jab at a woman in her yoga class whose "plastic boobs" don't move the way they should when she's in certain poses.  Ah, fake boob jokes - an easy conversational win!  I jumped in, embarrassingly eager to score a laugh from the table, and repeated a well-rehearsed comment I'd stolen from Joy Behar: "When a woman lays flat on her back her boobs should point east and west, not straight up north.  If they point up perky to the sky then you know they're fake, cause God just didn't make them that way!"  That one's always good for a laugh, right? Especially here in plastic-ville, where folks have more money & vanity than sense ... right?


The woman to my right, the one I didn't yet know, said quite matter of fact-ly, "My boobs are plastic."

Painful silence.  A nacho and a wad of guacamole stuck in my throat like glue. I tried to swallow.  No luck. I couldn't breathe. Meanwhile,

"Don't look at her boobs. Do NOT look at her boobs! Do N-  dammit!"

I looked at her boobs.

They didn't look plastic. I mean, they were completely covered with a T-shirt, no cleavage or anything, but they weren't unusually large ...

"Stop looking at her boobs!"

She graciously broke the silence-from-hell:  "I had a mastectomy 2 years ago".

I picked up my glass of wine and gulped.  Down went the guacamole. And the nacho. And my dignity.

"You beat cancer?!" I asked. She nodded and smiled.  "BOOM!" I exclaimed with true joy, along with a complimentary expletive I won't share here.  Then I held my arm out for a fist bump.

Please-oh-dear-God-in-heaven-and-all-that-is-good-and-right, don't leave me hanging. I'm dying here.

She grinned ear to ear, shot out a victorious expletive of her own, and bumped back.  I may be an ass, but she isn't. She's one seriously classy lady.

Never assume a joke made at some unnamed, invisible person's expense is safe. Because you don't know if that unnamed, invisible person is sitting right next to you.

We. Don't. Know.

A month or so ago, I was at one of the closest things to heaven-on-earth I know of:  the annual Wild Goose Festival. I was listening to one of my favorite speakers, a man I know to be authentic and kind and generous. All guards were down.

Then, it happened.

He'd been talking about how beauty, whether in nature or art or music, should be experienced in real ways, not mediated ones. We can't let the symbol replace the original, even though technology offers us unlimited means of doing so.  He was specifically referring to children at this point, explaining the value of letting them turn over an old log and experience real live creepy-crawlies rather than watch an educational video about insects.  Mediated experiences will never match actual, authentic experiences - this is truth.

But then he drove his point home with a side commentary about how "If we did more of this, kids wouldn't need to be drugged up on medicine! Treated like guinea pigs, walking zombies..."

I looked at my feet.
That hurt.

I told myself he didn't mean it. At least, he didn't  mean my kids... He meant those other ones - nameless, faceless kids whose parents never send them outdoors to play, who stare at TV and video games all day long and are given a prescription drug the first time they wiggle in their seat at elementary school.  He probably doesn't actually know a kid like that, but that's who he means. Those kids.

Problem was, the arrow had been released and it had found its mark, intended or not.

I refused to spiral downward.  Instead, I rehearsed all-too-familiar self-talk, between deep cleansing breaths:
"Your kids have spent more time in the mud than most their age.  You continue to use diet and many other means to help your son's autism. You waited till he was 10 before you allowed the neurologist to medicate him (frankly, you should have done it sooner).  Your daughter is missing entire portions of her brain and was facing a future bedridden in a Ukrainian institution.  Both of them are happy and healthy because you provide them adequate and proper medication."

By the time this self-talk was completed, I felt better, but I'd completely missed the rest of his talk.  And I was sorry for that.  I think he would be, too - in fact, I know he would be.  He is a good man, and a good speaker.

He just didn't know.

We. Don't. Know.

So, what's the answer?  Political correctness?  Walking on eggshells, careful not to offend?

A hundred times, NO.

Watching what you say is exhausting and unhealthy and ... well, about as believable (not to mention palatable) as artificial sweetener.


I obviously don't have this one nailed down (just ask my new cancer-survivor friend with the plastic boobs). But I've caught glimpses of light here and there that point to a two-fold solution.

First, compassion.

That invisible person you are willing to sacrifice in order to drive your point home or to score points of acceptance from a group you're trying too hard to impress?  Compassion even for THAT person.

Second, humility.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe there's a detail I'm missing.  Or - sometimes - maybe I'm just being an ass.

Experience has taught me that when compassion and humility are practiced (not pondered - practiced!) then I don't have to watch what I say.  I can let what is within flow out, without care.

In fact, if I sincerely practice them - consistentlysomething truly amazing might happen.

I might find myself having compassion for that couple in Aunt Bea's. Wondering what it must feel like to see young people using devices you believe to be responsible for the ruin of your beloved way of life?
I might even find that I'm humbly checking my assumptions, reminding myself that for all I know these people are angry about the food or the wallpaper - that their disapproving glances might have nothing at all to do with me or my kids.

Because I don't really know, do I?

No ...
I don't.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

oy! another birthday

Our youngest turns 10 tomorrow.  It's such a bittersweet event, her birthday. We adopted Mary when she was 5 years old from an orphanage in Ukraine, so her birthday is a time for me, as her mother, to wonder and (yes) to mourn. 

Mourning may seem a strong word, but I think it's appropriate.  Adoption is the most beautiful thing I know of, but it's - by nature - rooted in pain, and we have to acknowledge that (I think) in order to have a healthy, whole perspective.  Or maybe I'm just a hopeless melancholy ...

I spend the others' birthdays telling each one the story of his or her birth - where we were when contractions started, what it was like getting to the hospital, every little delicious detail.  I don't know any of that with Mary.  I didn't feel  her kicking inside me, didn't deliver her, nurse her, or spend hours sniffing the sweet baby smell of her head while cuddling her to my chest.  In fact, when she asks for stories of when she was a baby, I make them up - I do!  I use what few details I do know (like that her Babushka took care of her the first 2 years of her life) and I make up stories that it's completely reasonable to assume occurred.  Happy stories of love and caring ... she eats them up!  And I feel no shame, whatsoever - she deserves a few good stories.

Tonight I found myself over-tired and feeling that same melancholy ache, so I started reading back through her adoption blog.  Over the past now-almost-5 years, I've read the posts from when we were actually in Ukraine multiple times, but I can't remember when I last I read the posts from once we'd returned home - when our life together actually started.  It has brought me joy tonight, to read them and remember that we have a plethora of memories, of stories to tell - and to remind myself that we went through growing pains not unlike a family bringing home a newborn.  

Here are a few snippets from her first month at home:

    koo pats-yeh, da? (bath, yes?)
  • The transition is good except bedtime is hard for her, hope tonight takes less than 2 hours, we've been spoiled by 3 who go to sleep easily. Other than that she's happy as can be.  Oh - well, except for the dog ... every time he comes near her it's "Oy!!!!  Sabaka!!!  Oy!!" and then lots of Russian that we can't understand but sounds like rebuke.  No crying or screaming, but definitely not pleased either.  Kind of cute, actually. :)

  • We took a walk down the street to get our neighbors' mail and halfway there she noticed I was barefoot.  After all you've read about Ukraine I'm sure you're not surprised that she GASPED out loud, pointed to my feet, and exclaimed, "Oy!!! Mama, ________ " (insert Russian rebukes here).  Too funny.

  • She's just a happy busy little thing, fairly easily redirected when need be.  As evening rolled around we prepared her for bed with, "Bath - then milk - then sleep".  She said "da" and understood well, then enjoyed her bath.  After drying and dressing her she said, "Nye spaht, moloko" (no sleep, milk) and I said yes, so we went downstairs for the warm milk.  Then back upstairs for teeth brushing, and we left her with her reading light on to look at some books (which she enjoys) while we did the routine with the other 3.  By then she was done with the books and starting to get up, "ya hachoo"-ing everything under the sun ("I want" this and that, whatever she could think of).  I said no, time to sleep, and she started with the yelling.  I turned off the reading light, took her in my arms just like an infant and rocked her as we listened to a Steve Green CD together, all the while whispering sweet things in her ear...

    wearing half the dress up box at once
  • She asks"eh-tah minyah?" (is it mine?) - every time we dress her.  It's adorable.  YES, it's YOURS! Makes me remember how they literally stripped her naked to send her with us from the orphanage- not one thing actually belonged to her, not even her underwear.

  • Poor thing says "nyeh groupa, dah?" (no groupa, right?) several times a day.  We respond with:  "Nee kagda, nee kagda, nee kagda edeetya groupa!" (You are never, never, never going back to groupa!) to which she just giggles and smiles and comes for a big hug. 
  • This afternoon the entire family enjoyed another warm, sunny NC afternoon outdoors. Mary is a true American kid now: she's got muddy sneakers and she's used the bathroom in the woods!
  • I'm trying to teach Mary to answer basic questions by having the others model.  So we go down the line, "What is your name?" and they each give their first and last name.  She answers correctly, now, too!  So cute.  Then she points to me and says, "Etah Mommy McConnell, da?"  
    the 4 siblings, Mary's first month home
  • I told her it's called flour.  Mary was SO funny, she kept asking, "Shto Etah?" over and over, then quizzically repeated "Flour" after me, several times.  Finally, she went and got one of her books, brought it TO me, pointed to a picture of a flower and said, "Mommy look - etah FLOWER"!
There's Light in memories.  
In story.  
In remembering and retelling.

They connect us. 

I'm glad.

Because tomorrow, we celebrate!

Friday, August 16, 2013

the power of like

Yesterday I enjoyed a special treat. One of my former students had been telling his Mom how much he missed me and wanted to see me.  I've been on the Mom end of that conversation a few times, so being the sought-after one was lovely and fun for me.  We met at the pool, where he smiled from the water and waved off and on as his Mom and I talked.  He has autism, and while I enjoyed hearing him share the best parts of his summer, I knew he wasn't looking for much conversation - just my presence.  At one point he walked near us and said to his Mom (one of the very best I know), "I like you."  Then he pointed to me and said, "I like her, too. I like both of you." Then he went back to the pool.  If you've ever spent quality time with someone who has autism you know that one of the most refreshing things about them is the complete absence of bullshit.  Having this boy say he liked me is worth infinitely more than the flattery of others.  You can believe the value of his words wasn't lost on me (I happen to like him, too!)

Mary's friend, and my personal savior for an hour
Today's weather was so lovely and unseasonably cool that the kids and I did a walking tour of Uptown Charlotte.  In the midst of that, we spent some time at Imaginon, the children's library.   The older three scattered in different directions, but the youngest - Mary, 9 - continually asked to me play with her, and frankly, I just wasn't in the mood.  I put her off multiple times, encouraging her to read or use one of the computers or find a friend.  As this back-and-forth continued I couldn't help but notice a girl about her age, having a very similar discourse with her father.  She was chat-chat-chatting away right in his face, and he had the look of a man who was a million miles away and desperate for school to start.  He occasionally nodded and mumbled, "Uh huh" until she eventually gave up and began to explore the Arthur exhibit.  Mary headed in her direction.  "Do you want to play?" she asked.  That's all it took - the two of them were off and happy ... (almost as happy as that father and I were!)  Later, Mary said bye to her friend, and as we walked away she said, "Mommy, she liked me!" 

I discovered a new-to-me band called Bombadil at a house concert this past year.  One of their more delightful songs is Question - a simple song about the power of like.

There's power in being liked.

Here's something I share with awkward feelings not unlike those expressed in Stuart's song, because I recognize how corny it sounds.  I look up at the  moon at night, and as I do, I get this feeling inside, this profound sense that the moon shining on me is like God looking right at me, smiling and saying, "I see you. And I like you."  Several times in my life this experience, this spiritual encounter, has been more real - more ... solid - than if an actual person in a physical body had walked up and spoken to me.  I don't have any theological support for such a notion. I can't systematize it for you or point to a chapter and verse in any sacred text.  I just ... know.  I guess you could say ... I believe in it?

This past weekend I got to listen to James Allison talk for a bit about faith, and what he had to say really struck me.  I'll likely do a poor job paraphrasing him, but the gist of it was this:  faith has been made into something that is brought about through emotional manipulation and held over us as a requirement for acceptance - this thing you must have, and have enough of, and in the correct words or ideas (whether they make any sense to you or not) and without it ... well, without it ... you're out.

But, he says, "religious talk" aside, that's not what anyone actually means when they speak of faith.  Having faith in someone means, at its core, to trust that he or she has your absolute best interest at stake.  To trust another person's heart toward you.  To know that you know that you know that he or she ... likes you. Isn't pretending , but is genuinely and truly fond of you. And that knowing puts you at complete ease. You, in turn, remove all pretense, lower any masks.  You relax in their presence ... you rest.

As a person who has both privately and, often, publicly wrestled with "my faith", I found this immensely helpful.  Because the reality is that as I've "lost" more of that first kind of faith, I've gained more of the second.  And it's that second kind of faith that, as Barbara Brown Taylor likes to put it, "Is saving my life today".

One last thing.  That student, the one who said he likes me?  He doesn't like me because I look a certain way or because I have certain impressive skills.  He doesn't know a whole terrible lot about me. He doesn't believe certain things about me to be true (or not true).

He likes me because he knows I like him.

I guess, maybe, you could say ... he has faith in me?


I like that.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

porch Light

After dinner I wandered down to a neighbor's house to see if she was home and free to chat.  She was.

We sat on her front porch together to catch up on kids and husbands and jobs (well, mine - she's freshly retired).  As is often the case, our conversation quickly dove into the deeper issues of life.

The sun began to set.  Sunsets are often beautiful, but tonight's was especially breathtaking.

It never occurred to me to run home and grab my camera to capture the image.  I hoped, trusted, that someone else with a far keener eye - and far nicer lens - was doing just that.

As for me, I was content.

All I wanted was to keep listening.  Keep talking.

Till the sky went dark.

I saw the Light (at the port-a-potties)

©Copyright2013 Scott Griessel/Creatista
Less than a week ago I stood not 10 feet from Amy Ray as she shred the mandolin and belted, "Let It Ring!"  She and her musical partner Emily (also known as The Indigo Girls) had all of us at The Wild Goose giddy with excitement.  But as I watched them play, something else became clear.  They weren't just a gift to us - we were a gift to them. Their faces, especially Amy's ... she could hardly sing, for smiling!  It was like she was in ... HEAVEN. They'd barely start a song - just a chord, even - and we'd all join in, drowning them in sound as we sang along joyfully and passionately.  Maybe that happens at all their concerts, I don't know, but it sure felt like something special and it shown in their eyes.  Both of them thanked us between every song, complimenting us, pouring out gratitude for all the great work all of us do and how much they appreciate the causes we stand for.  Best of all, they said they can't wait to come back - back to the Goose! This, after waiting through an hour long rain/lightening delay and walking through ankle deep mud just to get on stage?

©Copyright2013 Scott Griessel/Creatista
Something got to them.  It's the same thing that's gotten to so many of us geese.  It's why we never stop talking about it and writing about it and why we drive everyone completely INSANE this time every year.

It's not this famous author or that famous activist or historian or musician... Sure, we geek out about those people (I got my picture taken with Krista Tippett!) but it's not that.  It never was. If you think it's that, and what I'm saying makes you roll your eyes, read this - he says it better than I can.  It's the people.  The warmth and light of the people draw you in like the best campfire.  It's the one-another.

©Copyright2013 Scott Griessel/Creatista
The Light of the Goose is the people.  The children who play in the mud and the gray haired folks who push walkers through the mud and everyone in between.  As I look back over the past 3 summers and reflect on how my experiences of the Goose have changed me - quite literally changed how I do life -  I can pinpoint one constant:  the Light I've encountered in others' eyes and in their stories.

I only attended the first Wild Goose for a day.  I said, at the time, it was because of other commitments and what not, but the truth of the matter is I was scared.  Voices warned me I'd be led astray, and I was still giving those voices power in my life.  Yet, as I drove out to Pittsboro with my son, the excitement and anticipation built until I practically bounced out of the car. I'd promised him friends, so we were looking for the one family I knew were there, when it happened.  We now refer to it as The Synod of the Port-a-Potties:  Bill came from one direction, Meredith came from another, I from a third.  We all converged on the port-a-potties at the same time, and the rest literally is history.  This is only a sampling of the people who camped together, ate and talked together, at this year's Goose - and it all started because two summers ago three of us had to use the bathroom at the same time.

But it's not just the people I know - it's the people I meet.  At that first festival I was converted by a man I'd never met and will likely never see again.  I came home and made real, tangible changes in my life because the Light in him solidified something in me I'd been waffling over for too long.  I made friends at last year's morning prayer that I stay in touch with to this day (thank you, facebook) and who I couldn't wait to see again this year - one couple has a farm in Virginia, another work at a college in Tennessee.  These people impact me.

Even the speakers have an impact far beyond what they do from the stage.  I walked down a gravel road with Frank Schaeffer last year, and that conversation meant something to me.  This year I caught his eye and said, "You don't remember me, but-"

"I do indeed remember you!" he interjected. "We had a great talk! How are your kids?"

It's not that he's famous and that I grew up reading his dad - it's that he saw and heard me, and I him.  I heard a talk on Post-Cynicism from Ian Cron last year that plucked the very strings of my soul, but those vibrations lasted because I heard it with a friend. I know that if I start spiraling out, she'll look at me and say, "Remember what Ian said:  you're not enlightened, you're just being a jackass!"  Even the Rev. Dr. William Barber, who I never got a chance to speak with personally, healed something inside me. He spoke this year about dry  bones - well, last year I was dry bones.  I was.  As he preached the Spirit blew on me and I literally made my way from the sidelines to a seat front and center with my friends.  The last thing I wanted was to hear a man in a suit preach a sermon - I didn't think there was anything in that for me, ever again.

I was wrong.


What reflects back at me through the eyes of these people prevents me from even considering that They were right.  They warned me, back then - they did!  They said I was indeed on a wild goose chase, one that would lead me far from the path of truth.  They told me this was nothing new, just a bunch of liberal hippies dressing old ideas up in new packaging.  They told me the Spirit wasn't in it and that I was caught up in the emotion of something that felt fresh to me and, honestly, who doesn't like to have a mid-life crisis now and then, go off on some crazy tangent?  They literally told me that it was okay to walk to the edge of the cliff and peek over, but to be careful lest I fall off and take others with me.

When I look into the eyes of an 80 year old who marched for civil rights with Dr. King, I know.
When I look into the eyes of a man who explains to me that his liberal religious upbringing (polar opposite of mine) left him wandering and that he didn't know what he was looking for but he was finding it at the Goose (just as I am), I know.
When I look into the eyes of my friend by the campfire, as she tells me that the author she just heard talked with her afterward about their shared pain, and that this connection was literally healing her broken heart, I know.
When I put my arms around my kids and we talk together about what the day meant to them, I know.
When I pray with a stranger, and hear the same sentiments come out of her mouth that I've been feeling for days but couldn't put words to, I know.

They. Were. Wrong.

But they were right, too. Because I didn't stay on the edge of the cliff.  I didn't stay safe. But I didn't fall ... No.  

I took a flying leap. 

(I've read in a book somewhere, something about soaring like eagles  - maybe you've heard the phrase? ... Yeah, it's kinda like that)

I know Light when I see it.  So, for me, the annual Wild Goose is like a pilgrimage.  I literally plan my calendar around it.  Because I'm a Light junkie.  I just can't stay away.

See you at the port-a-potties.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


I was sitting in a field in Hot Springs, NC, trying to adjust my camp chair and looking around for my children, when I saw her. I excused myself from friends who'd been chatting and headed in her direction.  All I had to do was catch her eye and smile, and she was up out of her camp chair, too.  As we hugged and exchanged "How are you?" and "How's your family?"', she exclaimed, "But you stopped writing!"  Something in my eyes must have given away that my blog was a sensitive issue, because she immediately followed with, "You'll know when the time is right. And when it is, I look forward to it. Because (she paused now) you have a gift. You do."

Carol and I at the 2012 Wild Goose Festival
Carol and her husband were our tent-neighbors at the previous year's Wild Goose Festival (2012).  It was the first and last time I'd seen them, but when you spend 4 long hot days and nights together in a place of such spiritual safety and welcome - well, it's fertile soil for heart-bonding.  How relieved we both were to admit that neither of us could remember the other's name - we literally laughed out loud, considering all the details neither of us will soon forget.  They are of my parents' generation, and more delightful than I can adequately put into words.  And so, seeing her again more than a year later and having her speak those words to me ... something happened.  When others have pointed out my writing - or lack of it, the past year - I've felt ... Defensive. Embarrassed. Guilty. Pressured. Apologetic. Annoyed.

But when Carol looked me in the eye, I felt my spirit soften.  Maybe it was her. Maybe it was me. Maybe it was the wild spirit of The Goose.  I don't know.  But inside my soul answered simply, "Okay".

And so, here I am.  Welcome back, if you're an old "pondering" friend.  Nice to meet you, if you're new.  Let's see where this Sunburst Street leads.