My name is Michelle Quigley-Chapman. I’m the “Quigley” and my husband is the “Chapman.” People often find it strange that Lonnie, my husband, also has “Quigley-Chapman” as his surname. It is just one of several facets of life that has turned out very different than I might have planned. I never imagined having a hyphenated name (or husband who also had a hyphenated name. Come to think of it, at a time in my life, I had started to think that even having a husband, any husband, was an impossibility. I never say “never” or “impossible” anymore because I can see a clear pattern of actually living out many of my “nevers” or “impossibles” or “unthinkables”
I grew up in Rockford, Minnesota, U.S.A, with my parents and three siblings. A small-town of 1,200 people at the time of my graduation, Rockford didn’t inspire. Maybe for some but not for me. I did not plan to go to college and really had no plan of what to do next except to BE FREE! So that’s what I did. I moved out, got a job, and started living life as I pleased. It felt good. From this vantage point, I can see how reckless and self-destructive my life was at that time. But that all came to an end as one of those “unthinkables” came to me at the age of 24. At that time, as I like to say it, I met Jesus in a personal way…while I was eating lunch in a park all by myself. Well, of course, there is more to the story than that, but I’ll only say that He changed the trajectory of my life, and I became acquainted with freedom I had never imagined, but that was just the beginning.
About a year later, I found myself enrolled in college (“unthinkable!”), and it was quite a shock after being in the “work world” for so long! It was a shock, but it was also inspiring, challenging, and eye-opening! I earned my B.A. in English/Writing. I think I wanted to be a freelance writer (I’m sure my skills have waned after all these years of emails and texts, so please be gentle.). Not only did I get my degree in college, but there are also at least three other avenues through which my college days proved formational in my life.
Well, I already introduced you to my husband, Lonnie. Although we didn’t get together until several years after college, that’s the place we first met. So, if there had been no other result from those four years except Lonnie – I would still gladly have incurred all of that student loan debt! He has enriched my life beyond description. Another relationship from my college days that utterly changed me was with my friend, Jeremy. He has autism, and, through the encouragement of a professor who knew Jeremy’s family, I started a job working as a Personal Care Attendant (PCA) for Jeremy. He was 16 at the time, non-verbal, and not toilet trained. Maybe that seems like too much information, but it’s just to say how incredibly stretching this experience was for me in my late 20s. I had never met anyone with a disability before, so I was in a whole new world! I only took the job because I had come to dislike working as a desk clerk at a Super 8 Motel! But, Jeremy, this one human being, really left a mark on my life – in my character, my emotions, and my spiritual life. Working with him fleshed out in me qualities that I had not spent much time cultivating before: care, compassion, protectiveness, nurturing, love, grace, a broader acceptance and understanding of human frailty, and a high regard for all human beings. I don’t know how much I may have affected Jeremy, but I know for certain that he changed me for the better.
Now, the final way in which the direction of my life was significantly altered through my college experience was that it was after my sophomore year that I first visited Ireland.
It was the 90s and everyone loved Ireland – U2, the Cranberries, Van Morrison, Enya! The Lord of the Dance was storming through the U.S. (I never saw it, but I sure knew about it). Well, anyway, I came to visit Ireland through a trip with my college. It seemed “impossible” because no one in my family had ever even been on a plane before, never mind flown to Europe. But I was a “Quigley” and the opportunity to join a team of students who would spend a couple of weeks working with two different churches, another “unthinkable”) in Dundalk, Co. Louth and Newry, Co. Down was just too alluring for me to pass up. That trip led me to return the following summer, 1994, simply because “out of the blue” a kind woman in Dundalk had invited me to return and stay with her family, so I did! And THAT trip led me to return again, the autumn after I graduated, to work in a pottery (certainly “unthinkable!”) in New Ross, Co. Wexford. I lived there for most of the next year, working for a young couple who were just getting their small pottery business off the ground.
I always loved being in Ireland, and when I wasn’t here, I craved to be here. It felt like my home. Nevertheless, I did have to return to Minnesota, and when I did, through the prodding and encouragement of Jeremy’s parents, I tried to be brave and forged ahead to earn my Master’s (“unthinkable!”) in Special Education, so that I could work as a teacher for students with autism. I completed my degree at the University of Minnesota and began teaching in the Minneapolis Citywide Autism Program. (I guess I did have the opportunity to write many IEPs and assessments, so I DID get to use my English degree!). I loved working with kids with autism! Those kids were without guile, just like Jeremy, and they always did their very best -- even when their “best” was discrepant, violent, disconnected, overwhelming, and hard to understand. But I loved them, loved to watch them succeed and make progress. My job was to help them grow and be capable of living in the world as best they could. I felt intensely that we needed to create” bridges” for them, to enable each individual student to stay connected with the world. We all need connections to other people. It was a ridiculously hard but rewarding job. I could never have worked hard enough to make a dent in the gaping need.
There are more “unthinkables!” in my story, but this will have to do. It’s a starting point, and we’ll just have to discuss the rest over coffee. I’m thankful Soo Ling invited me last summer. I do so enjoy hearing all your stories from other places in the world. For me, whenever I had a chance to leave the U.S., I only wanted to return to Ireland. Although some things are more difficult for us right now, mostly having to do with the transition of my oldest son, I am content to have offered my sons an opportunity to see the world through something other than an American lens. That lens is far too small for all the beauty, wonder, and diversity of the world we live in. I sure hope that my sons will live out many of their own “impossibles” and “unthinkables.”