The Kitchen at Stillwaters

This weekend, my husband and I celebrated our 2nd wedding anniversary. Thanks to a friends’ invitation, we were able to spend our days at Stillwaters, a rural recording studio and bed and breakfast.

The two days we spent at Stillwaters felt unhurried, rich and full. Though I usually spend weekends working online, I didn’t touch a computer. Instead, I disconnected. I went without a cell phone, wrote in my journal, took walks and slept in. Likewise, Jonathan and I embraced the freedom of unscheduled time. We went exploring without a plan– driving down country roads, stopping wherever we liked. As such, on Saturday night we arrived back at Stillwaters just as a musician was finishing her concert on the outdoor stage.

The moon was full, and we sat on the back porch to listen. The night air was cool, but I didn’t want to go inside. The music floating across the field was clear and pure, and all I wanted to do was drink it in.

After the concert, a group of musicians gathered around the kitchen table. If I don’t know everyone present, I’m usually a bit shy in situations like this, but I decided to stay and let myself feel welcomed.

As the conversation turned, the musicians asked me about my story, my writing and my work at L’Arche. They were fascinated, wondering what a L’Arche life looked like.

One question in particular stood out for me because of its transparency:

“I hope that I can ask this question in the right way. I’m curious as to how you do the work you do. Sometimes, when I meet folks with disabilities, I feel at a loss as to how to be, how to respond when they do strange things. Sometimes, I get impatient…like when someone asks me the same question over and over. Do you ever get frustrated? Do you ever just want to return to a ‘normal’ life?”

I appreciated the candor of the question, and thought hard before I answered.

“Well, first off, I’m biased,” I said. “Since my only sibling has autism, I don’t know that I’ve ever had a ‘normal’ life. I left ‘normal’ a long time ago.”

The touring musicians nodded; I had a feeling that they could relate.

“Next, I’ve realized that building a connection with any new person is a process. The process might take longer if you have trouble understanding the person’s speech or behaviors, but still, it’s always a process. It takes time and patience to truly connect with someone.

And because the kind of work we do at L’Arche– the intimacy of our daily life together– connections happen quickly. I came to L’Arche without Spanish; within a few months, I could understand my Cuban housemates. Immersion in their language and a desire to communicate empowered me to learn faster than I could have otherwise.”

“I see what you mean,” said the musician. “I sometimes feel that way when I’m teaching someone, when we can break through barriers in the course of our time together.”

“That said, I do know what you mean about struggling to relate to a particular person at L’Arche,” I said. “I had a lot of trouble relating to a man named Paul.* He’s someone who asks, ‘Am I doing okay?’ many times every day, and his anxiety can be difficult to respond to with grace.

In my first few months at L’Arche, I treated him with respect, but being around him was (and sometimes still is) hard for me.

One day, I walked away for some space after a challenging interaction with Paul. I spent some time sitting by myself, thinking:  why is it so difficult for me to love Paul? Why do I feel so angry?

Difficult Person? Perhaps!

It was then that I realized:  I was looking into a mirror. In Paul, I was seeing everything I disliked about my own neediness, everything I didn’t want to recognize within myself.

Constantly asking for reassurance…that’s me, in all my brokenness. Always checking in to see if I passed the test. Always wanting someone to sign my permission slip for the field trip of life.

Learning to love Paul has meant learning to love and accept that weaker part of myself.

Nowadays, when a particular trait in someone else starts to annoy the living daylights out of me, I check in to see if I’m struggling with the same trait within my own personality. Eighty percent of the time, that’s the case. Twenty percent of the time, it’s because I’m hungry or sleep-deprived. And so I move toward self-acceptance, food or sleep, as needed.”

We all laughed, and one by one, the musicians offered me the reassurance I’d just owned up to needing. They said, “Well done, Caroline,” “That was a beautiful story,” “You said it perfectly; thank you.”

Even though the conversation had turned toward levity– and even though we’d only just met– their words made me feel accepted. Rooted. Grounded deep in the soil of compassion.

I’d risked telling my story, and in doing so, I remembered the song that had stilled me earlier:

“There’s a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah…”

And so today, I wish for you: the courage to look into the mirror another person may be holding up for you. The freedom to forgive yourself for being human.

The holy and the broken, both ablaze with light.


How do you deal with difficult people, yourself included?

Tell me in the comments!

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  1. Garry Stafford September 12, 2011 at 4:31 PM - Reply

    “Always wanting someone to sign my permission slip for the field trip of life.”

    Totally can relate. I’ve found, and still find ( a little less often these days, thankfully) myself concerned with the WPTs (what people think), needing their approval, and concerned about conflict.

    You said that so well with that sentence. Love it.

    And you bring up a point that I’d learned about a while ago, yet has slipped from my memory: to explore and learn from those with whom we’re angry/frustrated. More often than not they hold a key to understanding our own weaknesses/inadequacies that we tend to bury or deny.

    • Caroline McGraw September 12, 2011 at 4:39 PM - Reply

      WPTs…love that acronym, Garry!
      Indeed, I meant to include a quote from Etty Hillesum that aligns well with your comment: “Each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others.”

  2. Garry Stafford September 12, 2011 at 4:32 PM - Reply

    Oh, and happy anniversary.

  3. Greg Lease September 12, 2011 at 4:57 PM - Reply

    Great post! How easy it is for me to make the mistake in “difficult” encounters or relationships of thinking that the behavior of the other is all about me, and what I’m experiencing is all about the other person when what the other person is doing is not about me at all–it’s about them, but what I am experiencing in the encounter is ALL about me: my presuppositions, my filtered perceptions, my mistaken belief that I am objective in the situation. It’s only when we allow ourselves to be the imperfect human beings that we all are do we find the freedom to embrace all of who we are (the good, the bad and the ugly) and others just as they are, and love each other despite the challenges.

    • Caroline McGraw September 12, 2011 at 5:07 PM - Reply

      Thank you, Greg! Your comments are always so spot-on. Our “mistaken belief that [we are] objective in the situation” is so often our downfall! Thank goodness for the freedom that comes when we admit to- and then embrace- all that we are; the good, the bad and the ugly, as you say.

  4. Harriet Cabelly September 13, 2011 at 1:34 AM - Reply

    Beautiful piece! It’s hard for me to deal with difficult people, as it’s hard for me to deal with myself sometimes. And I’m quite hard on myself as I am with others. Those closest to me I’m the most critical with. I’m very cognizant of this flaw in myself and I try to work on it. A work in progress…..
    Thank you for your beautiful writing. It’s very soothing and comforting.

    • Caroline McGraw September 13, 2011 at 1:45 AM - Reply

      Harriet, I’m honored! Thank you for your lovely comment. Here’s to us, ‘works-in-progress’ as we are! 🙂

  5. Tara September 13, 2011 at 12:02 PM - Reply

    Happy Anniversary!
    I love the candor of the musician’s question, too. Having the courage to be straight-forward can yield some amazing results… like this post. That mirror inside leads me back to the thought that when you get right down to it, people of all walks have more in common than they might think.
    I deal with difficult people, including myself, by remembering that there is more happening than what I see. Maybe that client had a bad morning or is feeling insecure. Maybe I had a severe nightmare or have been feeling triggered and need to cut myself a break. That, and I say the word “Grace” a lot. 🙂

    • Caroline McGraw September 13, 2011 at 2:14 PM - Reply

      Grace, indeed 🙂 Thank you, Tara. There’s a lot of wisdom in “remembering that there is more happening than what [I] see.”

  6. Sarah Bayot September 16, 2011 at 12:44 AM - Reply

    Happy belated anniversary Cari and Jonathan!

    I absolutely love this post. I get every word. And I am currently listening to my 4 dl versions of Hallelujah as I read 🙂

    • Caroline McGraw September 16, 2011 at 1:26 AM - Reply

      Thank you my dear Sarah! 🙂 So thankful that the post spoke out to you.

  7. donna September 21, 2011 at 7:21 PM - Reply

    Love the insight! One gets to know oneself better and accept the blemishes too.

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