Monthly Archives: April 2014

Monday Morning

Most days, I awaken early.  With spring filtering through our home, the window also carries sounds of nesting birds greeting the approaching sunrise.  I listen to their twittering, wondering what they say to each other.  Sleep well?  Yes, thanks, you?  Or is it only we humans who have such difficulty resting that our success or failure engrosses us?

I struggle to wake my hands, my legs, my brain.  The joys of abnormal neurology!  On the dresser, three or four bottles of medication beckon. One gets those nerves to fire; one inhibits a premature heart beat. Another quiets the rage of the shingles virus; a fourth combats bronchial spasms.  I shake them into my hand and thank God for pharmacology.

One or the other of us gets the coffee brewing and fetches the newspaper.  Yogurt, oatmeal, flat little crumpets with sunflower-seed butter — all make their way to the table and two newspapers get opened.  My husband reads the Wall Street Journal and works the soduko.  I browse the local rag.  We share  “Pearls Before Swine” and “Dilbert” in the comics section.  More coffee, dear?  The mundane conversation without which my morning would be incomplete.

I wrap a  light scarf around my neck and sling the heavy black bag over my shoulder.  In it, I have placed my tablet and docking station, a yogurt, and the cluster of accoutrements which would provide distraction or support in the event of long stretches of inactivity. A notebook, a pen, my inhaler.  A clean handkerchief.

I slide behind the steering wheel, pull the seat forward and adjust the mirror. My son has driven my car and I realize, again, that he has reached the height of manhood.  I switch the radio to NPR, and signal for the move away from the curb.  Morning, Brookside, Year of the Christian Lord, 2014.  I roll my neck a little, stretching the muscles, and begin the trip to work.  I am smiling.  It’s going to be a fabulous day.

Whereby I choose love

At least three times this week, someone has said to me that I have a lot of stressful things to handle.  In each instance, I’ve replied to the effect of, “Doesn’t everybody”, and been told, “Not like you!”  I come away from these three experiences thinking to myself, Is it true that I have more stressors than many people; and if so, do I draw that to myself?  Is it genetic?  Is it “just the luck of the draw”, or have I made choices that bring this stress on myself?

One of the people who made the comment to me specifically referenced medical issues.  Even so, I believe humans can definitely induce health problems by emotional choices.  We scream and yell, our blood pressure rises.  We cry all night; we’re a basket case in the morning.  Some somatic response could be seen as outside of our control.  A spouse has chronic illness; we cope well, but our hair thins.  We get bad news; bleeding ulcer attack follows.

I breathe deeply when tachycardia starts.  I understand that this SVT is not stress; it’s genetics. I have a “premature heart beat” that causes supra-ventricular tachycardia.  I have “the Corley heart”. For now, it’s in a state that is not life-threatening or life-shortening. That could change.  VT, ventricular tachycardia, could later develop.  I’m taking it one day at a time and assuming that it won’t. But it could.  I know that.

I’ve made a list of the things that ail me, the issues that bother me, the circumstances which wrinkle my brow and deepen my scowl.  In my own defense, some of these things lurk beyond my control.  I’m making a list of those and lighting fire to that list, giving it to my ancestors.  I’ll work on the remaining items, the ones I can control.  I’ll meditate.  I’ll smile.  I will put aside wrath, and anger, and a natural inclination to disgust.

In the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:  I will choose love; hate is too great a burden.


Lily hugs

The youngest member of the Wednesday Writers' Workshop.

The youngest member of the Wednesday Writers’ Workshop.

This is Lily Bardi.

Lily Bardi is the daughter of Melissa Thomas and Cavin Bardi, two members of my Wednesday Writers’ Workshop.  Their daughter Jasmine also participates, being the first Youth member and the first recipient of the newly crowd-source funded Wednesday Writers’ Workshop Youth Scholarships.

Lily attends every session of the W3, sitting in her stroller, her baby brother’s playpen, or on her father’s lap.  She tells us about Lady Gaga, Halloween, her mother’s name which she attempts to write with one of my pens, and the lighted balls she sometimes throws under the table.  She asks for water, says “please” and “thank you”, and holds up two little fingers to tell you her age.

Lily reaches to bestow hugs upon anyone whose face or voice she recognizes, and gives out “Lily kisses”.  When Penny Thieme, director and founder of the Gallery, enters the room, she says, “Hi Penny!” at the top of her two-year-old voice.  Last night, at the last session of this season’s W3, as we adjourned until September, Lily spread her arms wide, held onto my neck, and kissed the end of my nose.

Lily’s hugs sustained my mood, into this rainy day.  My wish for you today?  Something as sweet as the smile of a child to chase away the hailstorm in your life.

Don’t cry for me, Argentina

In  my view, the worst motivation that anyone can have for doing something for another person is pity.

Love, loyalty and honor — these motivations stand clean and strong.  But when someone does something out of pity, because they feel sorry for the other person, no one wins.  The one who is pitied becomes the fulfillment of the other’s determination that they have sunk so low that only pity can save them from drowning.  The one who pities stands tall only by comparison.  These relative positions denigrate both.

Pity and sympathy are linguistic cousins.  Pity is defined as “sympathy or sorrow felt for the sufferings of another person”.  Sympathy, on the other hand, is a “harmony or agreement in feeling”.  Both definitions make the words seem pleasing.

The connotation of the word “pity”, however,  involves judging the person to whom one directs the emotion.  You find them somewhat defective, incapable, or miserable.  To pity someone suggests that they fall short and you sprint past the finish line with colors flying.

We use “sympathy” to allow consideration of our own feelings as we acknowledge the feelings of another.  “Been there, done that,” we tell them.  That leaves the two of us standing equal, neither more important, but neither the clear focus of the conversation.  The one currently suffering has no more importance than we do.  We accept no responsibility for helping them.  We merely acknowledge the understanding while also asking them to note that we, too, have suffered.

Empathy allows us to intellectually understand the other person’s feelings and use that understanding to imagine what the other person must be feeling.  Empathy takes our own feelings out of the equation.  We don’t compare ourselves to the other person in any way; we simply reach an understanding of how they feel, and then we respond to how they feel, not how we feel in comparison with what the other experiences.  We do not hold ourselves as better; we do not hold ourselves as the same. We do not distract from the situation at hand.  We consider only the other.

I strive to empathize with others.  Society conditions us to pity or sympathize.  We judge — pity — which connotes that the other falls short of our expectations.  Or we deflect — sympathize  — which focuses not exclusively on them but also on ourselves.

Experiencing pity myself drives home the desolation of being pitied and opens my eyes to the judgment implicit in the act of pitying someone.  We don’t pity someone whom we don’t expect to do “better” than they are doing.  A child; a person with some severe mental impairment; someone who through no fault of their own has received no education or training; none of these persons receive “pity”.  Rather, we give them understanding, and offer aid because we assume that if they could do for themselves, they would.  Since they cannot, our charitable selves act on their behalf.

Feeling that another sympathizes offers not much more.  I am in need now, but your sympathetic reaction implies that I should muster the gumption to get through this without any effort on your part.  That implicit messages tinges your statement to me — “That happened to me, too”.  And?  You got through it, is that what you’re saying?

The person you no longer respect receives your pity.  We can be smug towards the person whom we pity; we would not stumble as they have stumbled; we would not whine as they whine; we would not lay our head upon an alter and invite the sword, as they do.  We take care of ourselves, and we pity them, because they do not.  Pity between two people subjugates the one to the other.  The person who is pitied becomes a complainer by definition if he or she allows the other to act out of pity.  “My life has gone to hell, I am so pathetic.”  That’s what complaining is:  It is a long, drawn out whine about the perception that whatever besieges you has hammered you down so far that you should not be expected to arise.  I would keep trying, but you see all these insurmountable barriers!  It is not my fault!  Pity me!

Pity sends me down.  Sympathy stalls me.  Empathy embraces me and allows me to acknowledge my pain, rest, and then rise and move forward.  I draw strength from those who empathize; I collapse inward under an onslought of pity.  I cannot move in the face of sympathy.  With empathy, I can continue, and I can ask for help as I need it without feeling judged and found wanting.  Pity weakens; sympathy freezes; empathy enables.

So don’t’ cry for me, Argentina.  I won’t complain.


Why angels fly

Years ago, a friend posted a sign in her work area which said, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”  I’m convinced this is true.

I saw a friend at the grocery store this evening, my friend John Martin.  I’ve known John for many years; he used to live on my street.  He divorced from the wife with whom he lived and she kept  the house.  I still saw him, though.  He’s one of the managers at my grocery store, and in any event, we stayed friends.  We don’t see each other much, but the connection remains solid.

We both chanced to shop at the same time this weekend. I teased him about shopping in his own store.  “Isn’t that sort of like a busman’s holiday,” I said, and he laughed.  He told me that a friend had broken her hip and needed a place to stay.  His shopping involved food to fix Easter dinner for them.  As our conversation progressed, I learned that the woman had several medical problems and that John had assumed a quasi-case-manager role for her, accompanying her to doctors’ appointments and helping her follow their instructions.  A good Samaritan.  An angel.

Tonight I saw him again, at the same store.  Standing outside, a cart full of  groceries, wearing sunglasses to shield his eyes from the afternoon sun, he mentioned that he had also scheduled himself to take another friend for her catarac surgery the next day.  “You’re always helping damsels in distress, John,” I told him.  “You’re a good man.”  He replied, “I don’t know about that; not really.”  I put my hand on his arm.  He shrugged.  I said, “Let’s go for a cup of coffee some time soon, and I won’t ask you to do anything for me, how’s that?”  He laughed.

He took his sunglasses off, and we spoke, briefly, of other things.  My son.  His ex-wife.  This, that, and chicken fat.  I watched his eyes, the crinkles around them, the smile that reached his entire face.  The vague fatigue, probably from helping too many people who have no one else to do for them.  “You’re a good man,” I repeated, and reached to put my arms around his shoulders.  We stood, for a few minutes, then broke apart.

“Let’s get together and I’ll make a bet with you about something, and you’ll owe me a dollar,” he said, and laughed.  I told him we’d do that.  He turned, and made his way across the street to a little pale green Mini into which he loaded the food he had bought to feed the stray sad woman with the broken hip.

I could almost see the outline of his wings, and the glint of his halo in the setting sun.

Nothing to complain about

The senseless slaughter of three people in Johnson County, Kansas this week drives home one of my primary guiding principles:  On the scale of Nirvana to Bosnia, I’m so much closer to heaven.

We all realize that the grass seems greener on the other side of the fence, the woman in front of us looks thinner than we do, the lawyer who rises to give his summation sounds more eloquent than we anticipate we will be.  These suppositions don’t come anywhere near the truth:  Quite literallly, no matter how bad my day might be, someone, somewhere, has it worse.

That mother and daughter who stood before a congregation this week and urged us to celebrate life despite having just lost her father, her son; across town, the quiet, strong grief of another family, who told of their sister, mother, wife always helping others; these people have it worse than me today.  And yet, in many ways, they have it better.  They hold deep within them some kernel of hope and faith that eludes me.

I examine every day to see if I’ve done my best to live complaint-free.  I don’t think so.  In reality, my grumbling has just gone underground, taken over the running commentary in my head.  I suppress it more readily, it’s true.  But I conduct entire conversations in my head in which I analyze the actions of those around me and, truth be told, find them wanting.  Or perhaps, the analysis might be of my own conduct, which I judge even more scathingly.  I hold myself to a higher standard, and always fall short, always disappoint myself.

The families of those killed in Overland Park this week provide more than just a shining example of reverence.  Their public faces remain composed, and they speak words of true compassion.  I listened to that mother, that daughter; I gazed on her face; and I found a muse.  I have nothing about which to complain; and I won’t.  My child and my stepchildren breathe; I can look upon my husband’s face; no one has slaughtered them.  What’s more, I had many moments with those who have already died, and their memories sustain me.  My health might not be as good as I want, but I am still walking, decades after the best doctors predicted that I would be bed-ridden.

I’m one of the lucky ones.  I have so much; and nothing to complain about.  What a gift.  How joyful life seems, from this vantage point.  I reluctantly acknowledge that from the grief of those left behind after this week’s savage killings, I take a lesson.  I despise what that shooter did; but I am grateful for the example of the ones to whom he did this despicable act.  I take the lesson; and I go forward.

Clean living

I’d like to say a few words about pain.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I have (note: I’m not copping to suffering from) chronic pain.  This little gift derives in large part from what doctors in my 30s identified as a viral encephalitis suffered in my baby-hood.  Other issues — numerous broken bones, an artificial knee that doesn’t quite work, asthma, chronic shingles, what else?– contribute their own special twinges until I am, as one physician recently noted with no small amount of irony, “a complex girl”.

Since age 13 or 14, I have had access to damn near any pharmaceutical I wanted.  In early years, the drug of choice was Darvon or Darvocet.  I popped those suckers for menstrual cramps or leg pain with equal ease before I finished grade school.  All according to doctor’s directions, of course; I’ve never exceeded any allowed number of pills per day in my life.

In high school, an apparently well-meaning neurologist prescribed Valium for my neurological pain.  By the time I started college, I took 10 mgs of Valium four times a day, and moved through life in a veritable fog.  A really phenomenal friend, David Frain, sat by my bedside for about 36 hours, listening to me beg for Valium, to help me kick that particular habit.

In college and graduate school, I substituted alcohol for Valium or Darvon.  I won’t say “I was an alcoholic”, or “I am an alcoholic”.  When I wanted to stop drinking altogether, I did, cold-turkey, at will, and sometimes for months at a time even back then.  I just self-medicated.  Was that “a drinking problem”?  You bet.  I never lost hours; unfortunately, I remember every single stupid thing I ever did while drunk, from near-car-accidents to dangerous encounters with men that I barely knew.  I count myself very blessed to have survived the 1970s.

In the last five years, I’ve had almost unfettered access to Percoset and Vicodin.  Because I take blood thinners, I have had to alternate those two pain drugs. They influence the efficacy of Warfarin differently, so taking one or the other all the time can threaten the thinning power of Warfarin in ways that alternating them ameliorates.  I also take an anti-spasmodic, which only mildly controls pain; mostly, it enables me to walk more easily.

By last October, i found myself again living inside a thick veil of cotton candy.  I had never exceeded the maximum daily allowance of either narcotic.  In fact, I could take as much as 4 per day of either (not both) along with my muscle relaxant, and rarely did so.  But 2 or 3 per day over all that time, sufficed to numb me.

When my mother-in-law died, I knew I grieved; and felt strangely cheated because I couldn’t quite connect with the loss.  I realized that my inability to completely own my sorrow at losing this wonderful woman stemmed in part from the accumulated effect of all those drugs on my system.  With my doctor’s help, I weaned myself from all narcotics over a two or three month period.  I found it surprisingly easy, affirming for me that I don’t have an addictive bent.  Thankfully.

A week ago, I decided to take myself off white sugar.  Right before Easter, even!  I won’t be neurotic about it — I just want to be  healthier.  Feeling good has taken the place of feeling numb.  Of not feeling.  Connection replaces attenuation.

The downside of being off pain medication lies in feeling pain.  I’m a little shocked that I forced myself to give up drugs and complaining at the same time!  Losing the cushion of pain pills has certainly made trying to be nicer to people that much more challenging.

But I do feel good: really vibrant, really hopeful.  Whodda thunk that clean living would be the right choice for me after all?

I’d like to send you all into this weekend with the sentiments that my mother used for an Easter card one year, on the front of which she had me glue a reprint of my two little brothers, Frank and Steve, pulling the innards from the previous year’s jack-o-lantern:

Happy Easter, Happy Spring!  Happy, happy EVERYTHING!

Sara's  flowers

Forgiveness and gratitude

In fifty-eight years of hard living, I’ve done my share of things for which I would like to be forgiven.

In a recent conversation with my son, I ruminated about the concept of “forgiveness”.  He does not like the act of apology or the response to apologies, that is, “forgiveness”.  I won’t try to articulate his reasoning.  For myself, I think of my tendering forgiveness as a short-hand for acknowledging that the person whose conduct I am “forgiving” intended me no ill-will; felt their behavior was necessary, desirable or justified; and is entitled to their own behavior choices.  I am telling them, “I accept you, even though I might have preferred you behaved differently.”

Gratitude, on the other hand, is an acknowledgment that someone has done something intended to meet my needs.  I appreciate that they have done so.  If they met my needs — or tried to do so — without a request, I feel even more thankful for them; but even the person who responds to my request for behavior that will meet a need has done something for me which nets my gratitude.

“Forgiving” and “forgetting” are not synonyms.  But even if we remember a transgression, we can preserve our relationship with that person.   We can tell them:  “I would have preferred that you had behaved differently, but I will not sever our relationship because you did not do so.”  We can honor them, and our connection to them, even if they have done something we do not like.

Someone who objects to another’s behavior as not meeting their needs is certainly free to do so.  But they are also free to forgive.  I think the reason we say, “to err is human, to forgive is divine”, lies in the nature of forgiveness as something that we voluntarily tender to the other, give without expectation, offer despite the other’s fear that our displeasure will cause us to disown them.

The unforgiving soul rejects another because their behavior has failed to meet their needs.  But the unforgiving soul causes harm mostly to themselves.  The person who has not met the unforgiver’s needs can still bestow mercy on themselves, while the unforgiving soul loses a friend and  runs the risk of permanently destroying their own inner peace.

I ask forgiveness when my behavior fails to meet another’s needs.  If I can, I change my behavior.  If I cannot, I offer an explanation of why I feel compelled to persist.  If the other cannot forgive me, I examine my motives.  If I feel I have intended no offense, I offer myself forgiveness for the unintended pain that I cause the other.

Where someone has met my needs, or endeavored to do so, I express my appreciation.  But if I act in a manner that is intended to meet another’s needs, I strive to do so without expectation that I receive their expression of gratitude.

Ultimately, my actions meet my need to perform in a certain way with respect to those around me. I strive to be a certain type of person, and I find pleasure in attaining that goal.  When I fail, if that failure rises not from intent but human frailty, I accept myself, and continue.

I find that those who cannot forgive often also cannot acknowledge gifts tendered to them, especially the gift of love.  These poor souls do not offend me.  Instead, I find myself feeling almost pity for them, especially because they carry themselves with self-righteous indignation.  “You did not act as I expected,” they scoff.  They banish you.  In doing so, they might rid themselves of your failures, but they lose your love, as well.  I shake my head, and let them go.  I hope they will find that perfect person who will never fail them.  I am not she.

I’d rather be forgiving than be right; I’d rather be thankful than feel entitled.  I have not always felt this way, but now, in this moment, I’ve never felt so sure of the rightness of my inclinations.


True north

I’ve just finished a whirlwind trip to St. Louis.  I’m sitting in my living room listening to the rain and idly watching the Food Network, my idea of mindless television.

Patrick, my son, went with me.  We started traveling together when he was two months old, with a flight on a twenty-seater from Springfield to St. Louis for my father’s funeral.  We’ve been many places since then and usually travel well together.  This time, we groused a bit at each other.  He thinks my driving is too uncontrolled; I think he cuts braking a little close.  But by and large, we made the rounds of family in pleasant harmony, finishing any moment of discord with laughter.

Everywhere I went this weekend, I wore a scarf given to me by my sister-in-law.  I found myself holding its soft fabric out in front of me, reading the words written on each end. In delicate script, the piece urges the wearer to follow her true north.  That concept appeals to me.

My experiences this weekend have reinvigorated me.  My cousin Paul inspired me with his courage and sweet acceptance of his situation, not to mention how much fun the four of us had visiting in the cool, sunny air on his deck.  From that visit, we melded into the urban crowd in the Central West End with surprising ease.  That evening in the city culminated with coffee at Joyce Kramer’s house, at a table where my son and I have always been unhesitatingly welcome, even with last minute notice.

On Saturday, I found that my sister, Joyce, has turned adversity into an opportunity to expose her most loving and tender character.  How wonderful to see her coming through, still surviving, still standing.  That evening, we walked into a restaurant in South St. Louis, only to be swept into  a warm embrace and introduced to my niece Chelsea’s co-workers as her visiting family.  Seeing her shine, seeing the light in her eyes and the health in her smile; such a privilege!

After dinner, we wandered downtown, through Soulard and Lafayette Square, then to Beale on Broadway.   I sat at a table there with my son, listening to blues, one of the musics of my own youth, music both he and I love.  I watched him as he in turn watched the band, turning once in a while  to make sure I had caught the beginning chords of a particularly exciting number.  Then, Sunday morning, we slipped south and west of the city to share breakfast at Cowan’s in Washington, Missouri, with the incomparable Mrs. Harlan Broch, my niece Amy.  Finding Amy has got to stand as one of the top ten events of my life.  Both Chelsea and Amy surely know how dear they are to me; if not, someone — please — tell them, in case I never get the chance.

I take these experiences into my heart.  With these joys to warm me, I’m setting myself on a path to find my true north.  There is so much love in my life; how can I fail?  I’m taking that love and helping myself to heal.  I’m letting myself be forgiven, giving myself clemency, and moving forward.


“In our best moments, we understand that our vulnerabilities are what connect us.  That we can step into the power that is uniquely ours. Play hard, love bravely, offer comfort to our younger, broken selves, and soar, always soar, on the brightness of being alive.  Follow your TRUE NORTH.”  — Kelly Rae Roberts

Meet me in St. Louie

I’m in St. Louis, Shakey Graves in the car’s CD player and my son at the wheel.  Questions about my life remain unanswered but right now the air is cool, the signal is strong, and I just took a couple of Tylenol for my headache.

We’ve seen a cousin, a friend and my sister.  I’ve listened to the cars on the highway, and the stories at the dinner table.  I’ve broused the half-off sweaters at Value Village and talked about the orange freezes from Steak n Shake that our mother loved so well.  My sister found a Baby First Steps from 1964  for $2.10 and I found a pair of jeans for $7.00.  We feel pretty good about the value, the smiles, the hugs, and the caramel apples that I got as a side at breakfast.

At dinner last night, we talked of my quest to move away from the state of complaining.  My friend, the Puma, a strong and steady woman, thinks some things merit complaint.  She tells a story of a company whose customer service people sent her time and again to an extension that was out of order, “this number no longer in service”, followed by the sound of a dial tone.  She’s ready to call the CEO and scream.  I tell her about my own experiences with an insurance company, and how I tried to remain calm. My son observes that I’ve just traded complaint for passive-aggression, and maybe I have.  I can’t say which is worse.

I’m striving for kindness.  Even if something needs to be changed, the request can be made in considerate tones.  I haven’t quite gotten it all figured out, but I’ve still got more than eight months in this journey.  And a lifetime to live what I learn.

We just crossed the bridge.  Clouds gather in the sky.  The Tylenol is taking hold, and the music no longer jangles my nerves.  My breathing slows.  A hawk swoops across the highway; and in the distance, I see a low-flying plane, moving towards the south.  As it passes, I wonder where it’s bound, and if those aboard are finding their own way home.