Monthly Archives: February 2014

Out of the mouths of babes

In January of 2013, Penny Thieme — founder, director and member artist at the VALA Gallery — convinced me to start a Writers’ Workshop.  Since then, I’ve had three successful cycles, two at the Gallery and one in connection with some writers whom I met through Prospero’s Uptown Bookstore.  My fourth cycle started this January at the VALA, and now we also have two young people who participate and are the inaugural members of the Youth section.

A recent exercise started with the combined groups creating time lines of their lives and then selecting one event about which to write.  We “brainstormed”, a process which allowed them to make notes about the event preparatory to writing their stories.  Following this rough outlining, each member created a story or essay about the event.

This took place over two to three sessions, depending on the member.  Tonight, we shared their end product, talking about the impact of the narratives and suggested edits.  From these stories, we discovered that the two young people used a perfect narrative arc, building to the climax and then ordering loose ends in the denouement.  I had not described the narrative arc to them; their lively minds found it instinctively.

As I sat listening to each of these two young ladies read, and noticed how nicely they had constructed their stories, I realized how much we can learn from children.  They don’t mince words; they haven’t yet acquired the habit of the shaded nuance.  They speak honestly, plainly, and without artifice.

Jasmine, for example, on learning of the birth of her little sister, “jumped into [her] shoes really fast”, to get out to the car for the ride to the hospital.  Can’t you just see it?  This child, at age 7, throwing her body with abandon into the nearest sneakers.  Hanna closed her account of her first ballet solo with the observation that “[she would] not be as nervous the next time”, freely and without reservation owning the butterflies in her stomach during the dance.

I envy their openness, and I wonder how my own capacity for wonder and honesty drifted from my grasp.  I’m reaching for it; I’m hoping to reclaim it.

“Find What Speaks to You”

The Christmas time Pier One commercials caught my fancy.  A lone shopper, usually female, stands before an attractively arrayed display, mulling over a potential choice.  Finally, one of the items becomes animated, speaking in lilting tones, describing how the item might look on the shopper’s side board or wall.  Customer glances over her shoulder, then smiles and selects the item.  Voice over:  “Find what speaks to you.”

I started this quest for complaint-free living after my dear mother-in-law died.  My life has often been stressful, up and down, roller-coaster rocky, first plunging then lifting to the sky.  Shortly after her death, I received diagnosis of SVT which thankfuly is not life-shortening but will require a cardiac ablation which for me carries a somewhat higher risk than most people would face, due to a clotting disorder and a nuero-transmission deficit.  I had striven for calm in my life for a long time, and renewed that quest towards the end of last year when the cardiologist counseled stress-free clean living.

One of the more difficult components of creating calm is controlling  my own response to choices other people make in how they behave and speak.  I’ve been challenged by this for decades.  I seem to  personify the knee-jerk reaction.  Accuse me, I’ll accuse you back.  Tease me, I lash right out at you.  Push my button and the arm comes down on your head. Stimulus, response.  I rival Pavlov’s dog in proving the theory.

Foregoing complaint seems like an easy task but I’ve found it more difficult than I had anticipated.  I’ve learned that “complain” is synonymous for “defend your position”.  If you are wrong, I am right.  If I am wrong, you are right.  If you displease me, you are wrong, and therefore, I am right.  Viciious circle.  I do all right with avoiding this process until my emotions run high, and then the old pattern engages.  I dog-paddle faster then swim away, treading water, looking for the calm, away from choppy waters.

When emotions subside, when I am alone, in the quiet and still of a space of peace, I realize that the old way no longer speaks to me.  Its frantic dance does not excite me, does not capture me in its rhythm and sweep me along the boardwalk.  I’m standing, looking at my choices, waiting for something to present itself — a new way of being, a brighter outlook.  Both frightening and fascinating, the change looms.  I feel as though I’ve got an empty charge card and a plethora of merchandise, all peering at me, hopeful, waiting for me to hear what they have to say.

I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, the fish still hangs on the door, and I’m still putting my best foot forward.

Of fishes and angels

I put a Christmas ornament on my door last week.  It’s in the shape of a fish.

I got it into my head that a fish on the door either warded off bad luck, or meant I was Jewish.  I’m all for warding off bad luck. I’m not Jewish, though.  I put the ornament there mainly due to the fact that I like the little red fish and wanted to liven up the view when I come home, tired and stressed, from yet another long day of holding in my worries.

My son asked me why there was a fish on the door. He cast a puzzled look in my direction after hearing my feeble explanation.  Okay, “jewish”, Mom, really?” the look seemed to say. My son prefers not to mention “race”, religion, or culture. He thinks the mere mention of these things is itself “racist” or biased.  I tend to agree, but my explanation was not meant to be disparaging of Jewish people.

I went in search of  something to back up my thought about the meaning of my fish.  I’m not sure why.   But I found nothing. My closest hit on the old google-tron consisted of list after list of Feng Shui sites. Apparently, a tank of fish by the front door brings wealth or something.  I found some references to carp being a sign of something-or-other for traditional Jews, but the reference did not support my original belief.

So, I abandoned my ostensible reason for displaying the fish and went back to just enjoying it.  Then, sitting on my Health Rider yesterday, I realized that I have a perfectly lovely tin angel ornament which I could hang on the door instead of the fish.  I thought about that as I completed the 50 reps to get me back on track, after two weeks of being sick and not exercising.  Fish or angel? Fish or angel?  Fish…or…angel?

The fish hangs still; quirky, fun, flirty.  Happy-go-lucky.  Red, with purple coloring.  How many people see life from behind a burgundy front door with a red-and-purple smiling fish hanging on it?  Not too dang many, I’ll warrant.  It’s a unique perspective.  You might say…optimistic.  If I can come home every day to this cheery little guy, maybe life isn’t quite as bad as I might otherwise think it is.

And, if it turns out that life is that bad, I’ve still got the angel for fallback.

In Pursuit of Peace

There is a person who from time to time verbally, publicly, and unexpectedly attacks me.

As far as I have been able to determine, I haven’t actually ever done anything wrong to this person.  In fact, I barely know this person.  We are both involved in an organization that brings us into occasional contact.  We have a mutual, good friend.  But I don’t have any other occasion to interact with this person, and we have no direct dealings.  I see this person and am met with effusive affection wholly beyond our actual standing toward one another; I respond with a milder version but pleasantly.

When this person lashes out at me, it’s usually done in the context of an online forum which serves the group of which we are both members.  The attacks consist of castigations of a presumed interpretation of my efforts to help other members of the group. As an example, I suggested we adopt two members (who are married) for Christmas, and that anyone who was able, could donate small gifts or food items. The family had serious financial issues and needed someone’s help.

The response of the person who takes issue with me took the form of stating that I was implying that this person, my attacker, wasn’t helping or wouldn’t help.  I went back to review the email that I had sent, and no mention was made of anyone helping or not helping; just “Our friends need help; if you can help, I’ll pick up donations at X time at Y location”, followed by thanks for any who could, mentioning no one, saying nothing about if one could not.

On that occasion, I privately messaged the person (whose number I don’t have, since I barely know this person) and apologized for offending.  Came the swift reply, “Oh that’s all right love, I’m just in a bad mood!”

It’s happened again, and again.  Most recently, I publicized one of the group member’s upcoming event, and encouraged all to attend.  My tone carried no reproach.  Nonetheless, a vicious attack, publicly levied within the group correspondence, followed from the same person.

This time, I did not reply.  I did, however, contact the group coordinator and indicate that I had no further interest in being subjected to such treatment, and that if necessary, I would leave the group. I indicated that  I have no interest in being attacked by anyone, and have a very high need to be within groups of people who have a healthy relationship and refrain from such activity.

After I made the statement, I realized:  Oh, wow.  Did  I just complain????  I am very much afraid that could be interpreted as such!  I clearly stated that I felt the attack was vicious, unwarranted, and disturbing.  Those labels bring my statement clearly into the category of complaint.  I struggle to recall what I’ve learned in Nonviolent commnication:  I cannot begin to reach out to understand this person’s feelings, to undertake empathetic listening and response. But I can understand my own, and express my need, and make a request.

I have a need to feel safe and calm within any group (or relationship) of which I am a part.  To meet that need, I can ask of people that they express their own feelings to me in nonviolent ways, specifically explaining to them what behavior of theirs I would like them to change.  Alternatively, I could “scream nonviolently”, which  In this case might take the form of advising the coordinator of my desire to avoid these exchanges, and asking the coordinator to assist me in finding ways to communicate with the group that meets my need for safety and calm.

It’s a learning experience.  This undertaking is a journey, and from time to time, I will falter.  But I always stand again, and move forward.  That’s all I can do.  I believe it is enough.

On the banks of the river

For some reason, I always think of my brother Stephen at about this time, 5:00 a.m.

If I am awake, the image of his face  rises to my mind, a perpetually beautiful young man with demons clutching his shoulders.  Mixed drinks, expensive men’s socks, and weeping willows remind me of Stephen.  Tall, broad-shouldered, with our father’s strong chin and faraway gaze, Stephen rounded out our family, making it four boys and four girls.  Our mother named him for the expression, “Even stephen”.

Stephen tried to kill himself several times before he succeeded.  In the January before his death, I chided him about calling 911 after awakening from a deliberate overdose with a failed kidney and dangerously high toxemia which caused his legs to swell. “Gosh, Steve,” I joked.  “Kinda inconsistent, eh? Try to off yourself but call for help?”  His answering look pierced my soul.  “I wanted to end the  pain, not increase it,” he told me, in a tired voice.  I still feel the lurch of my stomach and the burn of my regret.

Steve talked to few people about his madness.  He had nursed my mother during her final illness, serving as the night nurse when we struggled to find someone to take that shift.  His wife at the time demanded that he come home to her, forcing his choice between his dying mother and living wife.  They divorced not too long after my mother’s funeral.  Stephen moved back into our parents’ home and began arguing with my father about the old man’s failings.

I learned about my brother’s drug addiction during the week after my father died.  I stayed at Steve’s apartment and saw his drug use first-hand, right in front of where I sat nursing my newborn son.  I fled to another sibling’s house, wracked by the sight of the needle, the box of vials, the rubber turniquet.  I could not comprehend what sorrow must drive someone to such extremes.  I did not intervene.

Stephen never talked about the pain he longed to escape.  He never complained.  He rattled through two failed marriages, one lost beloved daughter, and the long, slow death of our mother, cracking jokes and dancing.  When the eight Corley children sat in the funeral director’s office writing our father’s obituary, the funeral director got confused trying to keep track of all of us and our spouses.  Two of my sisters had husbands named Bill, and this seemed to really throw the guy.  He kept saying, “Two Bills?  There are two Bills?”  Finally, he got past that, and checked with Steve one last time.  “Now, what is your spouse’s name,” he said to my baby brother.  Came the swift reply:  “Two exes, no bills.”  I still laugh, I still hear that voice, that love-me-and-leave me voice with its shimmering, fragile edge.

When I think of Steve, I understand the critical difference between “complaining” and talking to release one’s accumulated emotions.  Steve carried himself like a too-tight pressure cooker, letting his charm surround him like a shroud, its smothering blanket holding the grief and suffering firmly against my brother’s heart.  He never spoke of it, at least, not to me, not in my hearing, and not that anyone shared with me.  It consumed him.

We buried my brother’s cremated remains in a brass box on 21 June 1997.  Someone put a Grateful Dead sticker on it.  My brother Frank’s parish priest let us have a private memorial service for him, and we played the songs he loved, including many Dead tunes, among them, the haunting Brokedown Palace, with its sad goodbye:

Going to leave this Broke-down Palace
On my hands and my knees I will roll roll roll
Make myself a bed by the waterside
In my time – in my time – I will roll roll roll

In a bed, in a bed
by the waterside I will lay my head
Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul.


Going to plant a weeping willow
On the banks green edge it will grow grow grow
Sing a lullaby beside the water
Lovers come and go – the river roll roll roll

Fare you well, fare you well
I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
to rock my soul

Behind Steve’s composed demeanor, he bore festering scars.  Speaking his grief might have saved him.  When his face comes to my mind, at 5:00 a.m., when I cannot sleep, I tell myself that he found a way to escape his pain.  But I also tell myself that his way cannot ever be my way; and that while I am busy trying not to complain, I should not let my worries ride my back. From time to time,  I open the pressure valve, and the steam eases, into the air, where it is borne away.

Things Change, People Fall Apart

The cussed thing about life is that it doesn’t stay the same.  It is definitely a moving target.  Just when you feel your ducks are in a row, a hunter ventures on your land and fires.  The ducks scatter; and you are left on the side of the pond, watching the feathers settle.

Chinua Achebe describes events in Nigeria that put our own existence in proper perspective in his novel, “Things Fall Apart”.  The chaos of other people’s worlds puts my own in solid perspective.  My son stands in the dining room doorway and gently says, “Things change; people fall apart.”  I smile and sip my herbal tea and think Things change…people fall apart….And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put Humpty together again.

But even though one’s world might seem to be spinning, the plates whirling off of the dining room table as the planet goes round and round, still, one can find one’s calm in the center of chaos.  I’ve been reaching for calm for months on end; and I can see it, hovering, elusive, just in the distance.  I lean towards it, reaching out my finger tips, and I feel its coolness still beyond my reach.  I know that I can step another foot and find it; I know how much courage that step will take.

My grandmother, Johanna Ulz Lyons, used to tell me to put my best foot forward.  “Which one is that, Nana?” I’d ask, every time.  “The one going forward first,” she would say, every time.  And I’d step forward, in my penny loafers that she bought me at the shoe store next to her business.  I’ve been putting my best foot forward ever since.  Even if things change, even if I fall apart, I’ll be moving forward still, towards the calm, towards the peace.


Passion Fruit

I love my doctor; I truly do.  But I question his sanity:  He recently counseled me to give up stress and coffee at the same time.  How could this be?  He might as well have suggested that I foreswear chocolate.  The paradigm of three, revisited:  If I’m to stay calm, I need caffeine.  It’s as simple  as that.  He smiles and shakes his head.

I’ve never been the fruity tea type.  Give me a cup of Picard’s brew — Earl Grey, hot, plain.  But along with the acid in coffee, the caffeine bugs what ails me; and so I’ve started trolling the tea aisle for something tasty.

I actually had to look no further than my pantry, where I glommed onto a tin of Passion Fruit tea, which I might have mentioned in a previous post.  It came from a friend of my son. Dark, rich, and deep, this tea warms my soul.  Its tones range from tangy to floral.  I pull its fragrance into me as I drink.  I find myself wondering if passion fruit is habit-forming.  I don’t really care; it’s soothing and satisfying.

It’s been a challenging week for me.  I’ve faced some burdens that have boiled beneath the surface of my psyche rather over-long.  I’ve not yet laid open the windows nor allowed the wind to billow through the curtains.  But I’ve cracked the door, and I stand against it with my Irish button nose pressed to the slim opening, breathing the air, closing my eyes, trying to find the scent of spring.  Behind the door, against which I remain pressed, lingering, poised to fling open the portal, I hold a steaming cup of Passion Fruit tea.

Brought to you by the letter “M”

A few years ago, a craze hit Kansas City.  This fad consisted of “free garage sales”.  No, for the smart-alecks among you, this did not entail getting a place to park your car at no charge.  Instead, people would advertise on various at-the-time-fledgling social media sites, that they were having a yard, garage or house sale at which items could just be taken, not purchased.

I went to one such event.  I’m an inveterate collector of objects owned by people before me. I like to reflect on the people who’ve held these items, cherished them, enjoyed them, and then, for reasons I can only imagine, let them go.  The idea of getting to indulge myself in this proclivity for only the cost of gas to the location appealed to me no end.

At the house, I learned that the occupant had recently died.  The “sale” was being held by her daughter.  I wandered through the old bungalow, in south Kansas  City, touching china, wood, fabric, and trying to picture the woman who no longer had need of them.  I learned that her name had been “Margaret”.  A good, old-fashioned name, that seemed to fit the flowered pillows, the scent of lilacs, and the satin pillow cases.

In a back room, on a shelf in a closet, I found a wooden box.  I did not open it; I just claimed it.  I took it downstairs, showed it to Margaret’s daughter, and received permission to take it.  I left without selecting anything else, and took it home.

Sitting at my dining room table that evening, I finally opened the box.  I discovered inside a rhinestone pin in the shape of the letter “M”.  For Margaret, no doubt; but as my first name — which I don’t use — is “Mary”, it seemed only fitting that I should have this pin, and more so, that I should wear it.

I pinned it on a sweater without delay.  Whenever I wore it, people who know me as “Corinne” would look at it with some puzzlement, and ask for what name it stood. My answer changed depending on my mood, but most often, I simply said, “Mother”.

This morning, I went downstairs, dressed, early, on my way for yet another session with my own personal, smiling, Dracula.  I lifted the sweater from the back of the chair on which I had left it, and felt my stomach lurch. My pin was gone.  I frantically searched but could not find it, nor was it in the car, or my office.  My little pin had simple slipped back into the universe.

I found myself tempted, at first, to cluck, fret, and, well, complain that I had lost this pin.  But I let that go.  It’s out there, somewhere, sitting in a little crevice.  I’ll think of it there; and I’ll think of Margaret.  Perhaps someone will find my pin and then they, too, will contemplate an unknown woman who once  proudly wore it. Perhaps they, too, will give a silly answer when someone asks for what the letter “M” stands.  Or perhaps, like me, they’ll say, “Mother”, and smile.

In Praise of Sunflower Seed Butter

I jumped on the almonds-are-good-for-you bandwagon the minute it hit my block.

I’ve like the idea of choosing food that has healthier properties for many years.  When I got over the notion of avoiding all fats, and looked at the almond issue critically, I determined that as long as I use a handful and not a bucketful, I can get a pop of protein during that mad dash to court without disastrous impact on my diet.

At the same time, I switched from that schmear of “all natural” PB, crunchy, to a dollop of almond butter, on my morning toast.  Then began the next quest:  To find the best almond butter, with the fewest additives, or, if possible, none.  When a friend tossed a few packets of Justin’s Almond butter my way, I gobbled it up — hook, line and sinker.

Now for the hard part:  A jar of Justin’s Almond butter costs $10.50 at HyVee on sale.  Ouch.  When I realized this (after my husband brought it home, when I went back to get a second jar), I began to wonder if the World’s Best Almond Butter was worth what I paid for it.  I put it back on the shelf, and started studying the jars.  I discovered that All Natural PB ($5.00/jar) has 7 grams of protein per 2T as does the Justin’s ($10.50 a jar), but Sunflower Seed Butter has 9 grams of protein for each 2T serving and only costs $6.50 a jar.  And after a few days of spreading the lovely, no-additives stuff on my toast, I can say goodbye to my Justin’s addiction.

I recently shared some of my difficult life’s events with a friend. He sat and listened receptively, and I tried to relate the events without complaint; just talking.  Not whining.  And then we moved  on to other topics and had a pleasant visit.  And I realized that complaining, while satisfying, is expensive, and not necessarily as good for you as some other choices.  Kind of like my fancy Almond butter.  Costly, with not as much payback.


Glad Ya Got to See Me

My dad was a helluva guy.  Good-looking in that black-hair-blue-eyes Irish way, smarter than any other ten men put together, with a poker face and a very tight sense of humor, my father could make you feel like the only person on the planet or the most useless one.  He carved wooden toys, twisted hangers into puzzles, and baked mystery birthday cakes with increasingly weird additives.

His worst days fell behind us all in 1980 when his heart failed him.  I drove to St. Louis from Kansas City, to which I had just moved, to stand with my mother outside of his hospital room.  “Damn him,” she muttered, over and over.  “Damn him.”  Her eyes held mine.  I could not tell whether she cursed what he had been or the chance that he would die just as he had emerged from thirty years or more of hard living and vile behavior.  I stood at her elbow.  Neither of us breathed.

My father lived through that heart attack and the surgery which followed.  The surgeon came out of the operating area, shaking  his head and laughing.  My mother and I and whatever other siblings had gathered, approached him with confused expressions.  “Your husband’s quite a guy, Mrs. Corley,” he said.  “We told him he had seven cardiac bypasses.  He thought a minute, then asked us what the record for one surgery was.  When we told him, Nine, he said ‘Wheel me back in boys, I want three more.'”

Quite a guy, all right.  Old Stoneface.

For the next decade, my mother and father cobbled a life together that seemed tenuous at times.  She made the salary which paid their bills; he puttered around the house.  Together, they took day trips, endured her vegetarian phase, and began enjoying their grandchildren.  I visited frequently, coming into town on weekends or during the summer when I did not have class.  My life in Kansas City seemed surreal to me, so touching base with home balanced me.  I stayed in my old bedroom, drank my father’s strong coffee, and watched the news over forgotten classnotes and outlines.

Whenever I left on Sunday, my father slipped me a ten dollar bill and my mother sent a little something from home.  These gifts came from her shelves:  A flowered porcelain cup; a trio of wooden spindles; a china angel.  I’d take the tenspot and the trinket, tuck them into my bag, and hug my mother.  My father would stand on the porch, tapping a rolled newspaper against his hand, gazing at my car as though he could divine the last oil change date from a distance of 100 yards.  When I hoisted my bag on my shoulder, and turned away, my father would say, every time, “Glad you got to see me.  Try and give ’em a good day, for a change.”

I’d smile, and wave my hand, and cross the yard.  Every time.  Every time.  My mother would go back into the house but Richard Adrian Corley — “RAC”, which is “CAR” spelled backwards — stood quite still, watching, until I crested the hill on the way to the interstate.

But what’s this doing in a blog about not complaining, she asks herself, after re-reading.  I think a moment, and I suddenly realized that Old Stoneface — RAC — CAR spelled backwards — taught me everything I know about complaining.  And I left him behind, as I crested that hill, week after week, with his gaze following me.