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