Monthly Archives: June 2014


When I first met my friend Penny Thieme, she had begun to gain weight but still had a fairly small body, a generous spirit and a glorious smile.  Short, spunky, wildly creative and sparkling, Penny engaged my heart when we first met as few women can.  I don’t have a lot of female friends, but I’ve known Penny for 25 years or so, during which time we’ve each gone through some awful experiences.  And some glorious ones.  Penny has stood by my side through some serious drama; and like many of her friends, I unhesitatingly trusted about a fifth of my son’s childhood days to her.

Along the way, health challenges drove Penny’s eating choices and I watched her climb the charts to the point at which her size posed a serious threat to her life, in the form of diabetes.  Penny lives beyond the limit of personal strength as I understand it. She surpasses most folks in perseverance and determination.  So when she told me that she intended to lose weight and get down to the size she had been thirty years ago, I believed her.  I understood something of what faced her:  I had eaten my way from 100 to 172 in a couple of years; stayed that way for half a decade; and then, over twenty-four months,  managed to lose 68 pounds.  But Penny’s hurdle loomed much larger, in the triple digits.

The true challenge, though, lurked in the need to disband mantras which took her over the edge and into the abyss.  The self-loathing, the external pressures, the physical limitations, the stark detractors.   I’ve never quite figured out why food soothes the cackling of these demons, but it does.  Being loved by another helps; but loving one’s self — that’s the real ticket.

Penny is a gifted photographer and an acclaimed painter.  She hammers me to let her snap candid shots of me, which I unfailingly despise.  But last evening, with my little Droid phone and its funky camera, I retailiated.  I realize that Penny has not yet attained her weight loss goal.  And I won’t post a before-and-after picture.

But this truth must be spoken:  Penny is unstoppable.  She built the VALA Gallery from a dream and an abandoned store front despite loud scoffing from even within her inner circle.  She’s shown her works and those of other VALA artists in venues across the metropolitan area, including quarterly in my professional suite.  Dozens of young folks call her “Aunt Penny” and would turn to her when they feared talking with their parents.  She has no enemies; she has hundreds of friends; and she has found her center.   She inspires me.  She inspires us all.  Her radiance lights the world.


Beauty and Gratitude

I will let a few pictures illustrate that for which I am thankful today — or should I say, that for whom I am thankful.  For today, I am especially grateful for Dennis Lisenby, who designed and financed my beautiful porch; Chester White, who magnificently crafted it; Jim MacLaughlin, who conceived of and financed the adjacent deck and furnished it; and Ivan Komoroski, who built the deck with such care and skill.  These men, over a period of 10 years, combined to create a sanctuary for everyone who occupies or visits the Holmes House, especially me.  I thank them.







A place of peace

Last year I broke my hand in a perfect storm of annoying impediments.  The first and worst involved the improper location of a handicapped parking space in front of the CVS in Brookside.  Compounding the difficulty of navigation, the wobble in my legs had increased.  Who knows why; perhaps I hadn’t worn sufficiently sturdy shoes that day, maybe I was tired; I don’t know.  But I fell, the hand broke, and ultimately, I had to have surgery.  The ring finger of my left hand will never be right, the result of external hardware worn for seven weeks forcing my finger to a ninety-degree angle from my palm.

I notified the city of Kansas City, Missouri about the accident, and they chose to remove the handicapped spot altogether.  I did advise them of my claim, but their negative attitude and overwhelming lack of concern for access in Brookside demonstrates that the sole reason for my pursuing the claim — to get them to accommodate people trying to use Brookside stores — would be futile.  Besides, how can I seek to force them to make the place accessible without complaining?

This afternoon, I went to the same CVS.  I still get my prescriptions there; I feel an enormous loyalty to that store.  In addition to the fact that I’ve shopped there for 21 years, through all of its owners, there’s the unforgettable picture of the store manager running out with a first aid kit to help the doctor who leapt out of his car to triage me when I fell.  How can I take my business from that place?

When I got there today, by chance I parked in the same spot that my car had occupied on the day I fell.   There are differences, though.  A broken curb is fixed.  I don’t take narcotics anymore so I’m able to take more anti-spasmodics, so my legs work a little better.  I’ve quit white sugar and lost eight pounds, which makes it easier for me to walk from the git-go.

But something else has changed, something more fundamental.

My attitude.

Since I’ve been on this journey, which I resolved to start last winter, and began on January 1st, I’ve found myself letting go of annoyance.  OH, don’t get me wrong:  I still have a crusading spirit.  And I will still fight for the rights of disabled persons, and fathers, and children, and anyone else whose cause catches my heart.  But I’m not spoiling for a fight every minute; I am calm.  I’ve reached a place of peace that I previously did not know existed.

The young girl who waited on me in Panera’s this evening told me I had a free bagel on my MyPanera’s card.  “Oh, thank you so much, ” I responded.  “But I’ve gone gluten-free.”  A radiant smile broke across her face.  “Could I have your free bagel?” She asked, shyly.  Of course I agreed!  What a great solution!  And she, in turn, gave me a free hot tea.  She got a cup of hot water and carried it over to the drink station, and showed me where I could find the tea bags.  Earl Greyer, their version of Earl Grey.  It’s delicious.  I couldn’t be more pleased.


When I am sufficiently immersed in sound, or color, or light, or darkness, I lose the sense of where I am.

Individual voices blend and become one note.  A glacier rises above me grey and unbroken, and I think it is merely the twilight air.  I lose the contours of my room in the flat blackness of midnight.

I step back, and the dresser emerges; the bookshelf; the rocking chair; and I realize where I am.

“It’s St. Mary’s Lake,” I am told; and suddenly I see the stark, bleak contours of the glacier’s majesty, hard and solid but also in constant motion.

I close my eyes, reach out my hand to touch another hand, and one voice emerges from the din.  I move away and the voice follows me:  Clear now, distinct, separate.

I sit at a distance, then; watching sum separate itself from the whole; seeing the trees and the forest; letting the sureness of my understanding wash over me.

Tree Therapy

I started high school in 1969.  I attended an all-girl Catholic High School in Jennings, Missouri, called Corpus Christi High School.  My three sisters had all attended Corpus Christi when it was still co-ed.  My brother Kevin started there as a freshman in 1965, but by the end of his first year, it had become exclusively a girls’ school.

Since we had no  students on whom to levy our crushes, the two male lay teachers became the objects of our reveries, our cafeteria chattering, and our soulful, lingering looks.  One of them, Jerry Curran, taught Religion and volunteered at the Draft Center, where conscientious objectors such as my brother went to get advice on how to plead C.O.  Needless to say, we all adored Mr. Curran and eagerly embraced any pearl of wisdom that he cast at our feet.

Perhaps that is why I so vividly recall one day when we went on a field trip to a park with Mr. Curran and he taught us about tree therapy.

Mr. Curran, it must be noted, never returned the longing glance of any of us.  His interest in us remained what it so obviously was:  that of a young teacher wanting to do a good job with his first raft of open minds.  On this day, he had us lie under a tree, looking upward into the vast green expanse of its leaves.  He told us to focus on whatever caught our attention:  the color with its variants caused by the interplay of light and shadow; the shimmering noise, when the wind passed through the foliage;  the sweep of the branches toward the sun.  “And breathe,” he reminded.  “Don’t forget to breathe.”

It was not until we had boarded the bus, and returned to school and his classroom, that Mr. Curran made a tie-in between what we had felt while gazing into the tree’s branches and the grace of God.  I don’t recall his words, nor do I remember if those words resonated with me.  But I do remember the tree therapy.

This morning as I sit in my rocker, my tablet in its docking station resting on the wooden lap desk that I got at a yard sale in Fayetteville, I can turn my head and see the rising crown of our umbrella maple, full and lush.  The richness of its spring growth holds the shadows and light which I remember from that afternoon in the park with our teacher.  I watch the gentle sway of its branches.  I close my eyes. I remember to breathe.  The therapy begins to work.

Sweet fresh air


The little red box at the top of my tablet reads “67 degrees” when I leave the dining room and head to the porch.  In one hand, my mug of coffee; in the other, a plate with sunflower seed buttered toast and a sliced banana.  The door lock sticks; I set the mug on the piano and apply pressure to force it open, then deftly step around the newspaper on the mat.  The cat still nibbles his food and casts a short glance over his shoulder as I settle in my rocker and set my breakfast down.  I scoop the newspaper from the concrete while I take my first sip of coffee.  The air stirs the windchimes above me.  I close my eyes and breathe.  Peace rises in me and I feel myself smiling.  I open my eyes and gaze at the morning, its sweet sheen of light radiating on my deck, the flutter of leaves in the trees as squirrels scamper down to the dewy ground.  Morning in Brookside.  I close my eyes again and surrender to its beauty.



Trust broken

I  exerted myself to help someone in desperate need of more assistance than I had a legal requirement to give, and it seems that this person took my trust and threw it down a sewer.

My thoughts have staggered from shock to chagrin to fury, settling, at last, on sorrow.  I rarely trust anyone although I often help people, but this individual did have my trust even though I probably had adequate information from which to know that my trust would be abused.

I involved others in my leap of faith, and along with me, those others now lick their wounds, shake their heads, and, being good-hearted, think mainly of what this person will do without the help that we, individually and collectively, will no longer give them.

In the hours following discovery of the turn of events that sent my charitable efforts crashing into the dust, I found myself almost regretting the evolution of my soul from complainer to empathizer.  I found myself thinking about the person whom I had endeavored to help, and feeling sorry for this person, for the circumstances that might have led them to act as they apparently did:  the desperation, the ignorance, some past event that might have marred the potential that existed before the fall.

I won’t trust this person again.  I’ll do damage control; and when another lost soul needs me, I’ll probably do a reality check or at least undertake due diligence before I involve anyone else in my crusade on the next person’s behalf.  Sad, the world; but I am resolved to still venture forth through its winding roads, climb its mountains, linger in its valleys. Though the world can wound, it can also delight.  Though the hand of kindness can be bitten, it can also be taken, and held, and caressed.  And so I’ll persevere, though in this case trust has been broken.  My ability to trust has, perhaps, been hampered, but it has not been beaten.


The flip side of complaint is thankfulness.

My friend Cindy Cieplik started a gratitude circle.  It’s an e-mail device and a person is supposed to identify five things for which one is thankful that day, and send an e-mail to the group.  It’s a good idea; but somehow I botched the creation of the e-mail group.  I’m not a particularly patient person, so I haven’t yet spent the time to find the last email sent by someone in the group, make a  iist of the participants, create the group, and send out another email.

But I’m grateful to Cindy for inviting me:  She’s prompted me to examine how I want to spend the second six months of My Year Without Complaining.

I’d like to learn to show gratitude to everyone for meeting my needs.

The stranger at Coffee Girls, who smiled at me the other day when I had a particular need for comfort of which they could not possibly have known, unless the pain showed on my face.

The prospective juror last` Monday at the courthouse who opened the door when the “press here for accessible access” button failed.

The newspaper carrier who walks my paper to the stoop every day and carefully sets it where I can reach it.

My family members and friends who have consistently humored me when I insisted on doing everything myself even though they could see that I struggled.  The same folks for  gently, cheerfully, and silently taking over, after I exhausted myself trying to be independent.

Someone recently asked me about my experiences as a child “with a walking problem”.  The inquirer has a disabled daughter who has been bullied, harassed for being different.  I told the troubled parent that other children ridiculed me, and that people still do.  I cautioned that she needed to help her daughter understand that she will always encounter such ugliness.

But I said more:  I told her that her daughter would also encounter goodness, people who wanted to help even if they didn’t know how much help to offer or when to offer assistance.  I told the mother that her daughter should  earn that the taunts of others say nothing about her and everything about those who jeer.  I encouraged her to help the child build a sense of self.  She should accept herself, with all of her strengths but also with her limitations.  She should learn to forgive those who bully her, but also to be grateful for those who wish to help her.

Articulating this advice crystallized a new feeling for me.  For the first time, I found myself capable of being grateful for people who offer to help me, rather than resenting them for implying that I am incapable.  The realization that I’ve been unable to feel gratitude for those who try to anticipate and meet needs arising from my physical limitations stunned me.  I think I understand the evolution of my reaction.  I think that I wanted so much to be “normal”, to evade the bullying and stares of others, to have what my disability prevents me from enjoying, that I wrapped myself in a stubborn cloak of pretended normalcy and in so doing, missed many opportunities to understand the place of love from which others offered help.

So:   To Cindy and the Gratitude Circle:

I am grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow.  I’m thinking about the times when I must have snapped at people for offering to assist me.  I am wondering if there’s a 12-step program for addiction to ungratefulness, one step of which is making amends.  I’ve got a long list of people to whom those amends will be directed.  I hope they can forgive me.

Of replacements; and lessons learned

Yesterday, I went to every thrift store that I have known to carry decent used furniture, looking to fill a few gaps in my line-up.  Along the way, I met several quite pleasant clerks and a couple of amusing fellow customers, including one  man who unintentionally provided me with the opportunity to feel good about my quest to live complaint-free.  He backed his truck into a lady’s cart in the parking lot of Saver’s, and got out to yell at her for being in his way.  Her. The lady.  A shopping cart.  In the way of his F-250.  No damage done, as far as I can tell; and I walked past the scene thinking that he might benefit by reading this blog.

At TurnStyles, the Catholic Charities thrift shop out west in Johnson County, I found a rocking chair reminescent of one that I used to have.  I paid thirty dollars for it and brought it home.  I hadn’t mean to spend thirty dollars on a chair, rocking or otherwise, but it sang to me so what could I do?

I told my friends on Facebook that it’s caned but that was a slip of the keyboard. It has a woven back and seat.  But it otherwise reminds me of a chair that my mother and I found at a junkstore in south St. Louis forty years ago.  That chair had a ladder back and a caned seat.  The seat had a gaping hole, and one of the rockers had been split, apparently by blunt force because the split ran vertically along its length.

The chair rested at the very top of a huge pile of rubbish.  The lady running the place thought I had lost my mind, asking for permission to scale the mound to gingerly tug the chair from its perch and hand it down to my mother.  But Lucille Corley’s keen eyes had spied its potential, and she sent me scampering to the top of the trash heap.

She judged it worth the fifty-cents that the lady said she’d take for it, and we brought it back to my parents’ house in Jennings.  Mom said she would re-cane the seat, and Dad offered to make new rockers.  A few weeks later, the chair, revived under the touch of their tender hands, sat in my small apartment, elevating its shabby companions with its gentle style.

A lifetime later, I had the chair on the porch of my Brookside home.  It had come with me to Kansas City, then south to Arkansas, then back home to Missouri.  Few of my possessions made all of those journeys.  Most went back to thrift stores similar to the ones from which they came, or found their way to the trash.  But that chair, the chair that my mother and I had rescued, that chair I kept.

During my son’s boyhood, we had a yard sale every summer.  We didn’t advertise except signs he made from poster board which he and his best friend Chris Taggart would tape to poles at either end of our block.  We started hauling things out to the yard right after sunrise.  He got to keep the proceeds of anything he sold of his own.  I used the extra cash for groceries.

One year, maybe 1998 or 1999, a couple of men asked me if I would sell  my lovely rocking chair.  “It’s not for sale,” I told them.  They offered me twenty bucks; I declined.  They upped their bid; I shook my head.  I kept politely insisting that the chair was not for sale, and finally, they left, casting dark looks over their shoulders.  I got a piece of rope and tied it across the chair, arm to arm, and hung a sign with the words, “NOT FOR SALE”.

When I came out onto the porch the next morning to get the newspaper, there was a hole where the chair had been.  A gap in the air the size of a ladder-back, Mission, cane-seated chair with two rockers hand-shaped by my father, never varnished.  My mother had re-caned that chair by hand; she didn’t buy a pre-made piece of caning.  The hands of Lucille Corley had fashioned the seat of that chair and I have no doubt in my mind that those two disgruntled buyers came back and stole it.  I stood in front of the spot where the chair had been and cried.

I won’t put the new chair on the porch.  Other chairs, other rockers, sit out here:  The rocker which Kris Bowser abandoned when she moved to Maryland; a nursery rocker that I bought at a garage sale; a five-dollar straight-backed, heavy wooden chair on which our boycat likes to sleep.  I don’t think this chair would get stolen, but I see no reason to tempt fate.



A sense of entitlement

I don’t know if my feeling that I don’t belong in hair salons or nice stores has anything to do with my gender or if it arises from some unresolved childhood issue that could be addressed by ingesting dark chocolate, lighting candles and chanting.  It could be that I’m just a silly old  girl who never got over some insult levied at her a hundred years ago.  But the fact is, I find myself apologizing to stylists and impeccably dressed clerks.  They seem so busy, so otherwise-engaged, that my need of their assistance feels like an imposition.

But in the last couple of years, through the diligent haunting of better consignment stores, I’ve discovered that Ann Taylor clothing fits me well and appeals to me.  Last year, I ventured into the Plaza store and had a knock-out wonderful experience buying a dress for my son’s graduation.

I’ve been back quite a few times since that first success, and I’ve figured out which clerks have the most patience for my hour-long perusal of the sale racks.  I have two criteria for clothing:  It can’t be full price, and it has to be just exactly right for me.  The convergence of these requirements can be rare but rewarding.

This evening, I ventured into Ann Taylor again, looking for an outfit for an appointment at which I want to make a particularly personal statement.  A lovely, tall clerk named Tanya asked what exactly I wanted to convey with my attire.  I responded without hesitation:  That I’m my own person.  She helped me browse the sale dresses for my size — which she judged to be somewhere between a 2 and a zero — and then “started a room” for me, a phrase which means she claimed the commission for anything which I might decide to purchase.

I tried on two dresses that looked sort of busy and scrunched my nose at my reflection.  But the third dress — oh, jackpot!  Me to a T!  I padded out onto the sales floor in search of Tanya.  I found her talking with two other clerks.  As soon as the one facing me spied me, she broke into a wide and quite genuine smile. Tanya turned toward me and her face lighted. Oh my gosh, that dress is SO you, she exclaimed.

I asked her what she thought I should wear as a jacket.  She did not hesitate:  You should wear something that YOU would pick out.  I had to laugh. It made such sense.   To be me, I had to pick something that was me.  Soon, the three clerks and I had fanned out through the store, and I tried jacket after jacket, cardigans short and long-sleeved, and a plethora of color choice.

I found the perfect sweater hiding on the sale wall, and when I slipped into it, the three of them gasped.  Oh, wow, that is just what you needed.

Before I left the store, I also found a shirt, a pair of pants and a belt. Tanya totalled up the purchase and one of the other ladies, Stacey, bagged my items.  She walked me to the door, and I told her I thought she was the person who had helped me find the dress for my son’s graduation.  She beamed.  Did it work out? she asked.  I told her it had.  Did you get lots of compliments on it? she wondered.  I told her, Well, not really, but my son told me I looked like a real mother.

Stacey held the door open for me, and told me she was glad I had come into the store this evening.  I honestly believe she meant it.  I watched her turn away and go back inside:  Young, blonde, statuesque and beautiful.  The kind of woman that I’ve always felt was entitled to have doors opened for her and gifts showered upon her.  The kind of woman I’ve never felt myself to be.

Until tonight.