Monthly Archives: September 2014

At the Taggart table

My son began his two-year stint as a Purple-Dragonner (which many in KC know is a child who attends Purple Dragon Preschool) in the summer of 1994, when he was barely three and Chris Taggart approached his fourth birthday.  The two became inseparable and remain friends twenty years later, despite never attending school together again after each left to start kindergarten in the fall of 1996.  Chris’ mother, Katrina, became my best friend — and one without whom I might never have successfully navigated Patrick’s childhood.

For twenty years, the Taggarts and the various members of my family, principally Patrick and me, have spent time together. For the first decade, the years before high school, Patrick and Chris spent weekends together.  It didn’t matter which home hosted them — each had specific appeals.  Our home had a beach backyard one year, a pool for a couple of years, a mountain of dirt one year.  Katrina made chipped beef on toast and gave the boys as much personal freedom as they could manage, teaching them to be fiercely independent by her example, voiced in her quiet way.  With the Taggarts, Patrick went blueberry picking; with me, Chris and he had Park Saturdays, when we tried to see as many parks in one day as possible.

Easter at the Taggarts’ house; Thanksgiving at mine.  Alternating trips to each other’s home for Christmas celebrations, usually the Sunday after December 25th.  Katrina took my son shopping for presents for his mother during the years when no other adult lived here and young Patrick wanted to surprise me.  I took her daughters for their first fancy lingerie purchase and Chris for his first ear-piercing.  I listed her on the emergency forms for Patrick during most of his elementary school years.  Chris went west on one of our car trips, exploring Yellowstone and Cody with Patrick, Dennis and me.  The boys rented bikes to tour a mountain while Dennis and I rode a ski-lift to the top.  Most of the photographs from Patrick’s childhood have one or more Taggarts in them.

Yesterday, Katrina stopped by the Holmes house after she finished her Meals on Wheels duties at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.  She came to fetch me for Sunday dinner, since my eyes won’t allow me to drive after dusk.  A few hours later, I sat at the Taggart table, with Katrina in her customary place at one end, opposite her husband Ross.  At the table, too, were Chris and his girlfriend Sam, visiting from Alabama, speaking in her soft lilting southern voice.  In my honor, they had made salmon, fresh sugar snap peas, and rice — gluten-free, no white sugar, fish instead of chicken, pork or beef, in accordance with my current diet.

At the close of the pleasant afternoon, on the way home, I felt a sense of peace that has eluded me for many months.  That feeling might well wax and wane, but I luxuriated in its warmth last evening.  The dinner table at which my son and I have spent so many wonderful meals still sits in the same spot where it has been for most of his life, since the Taggarts’ move to Johnson County from midtown where they had lived when we first met.  Ross made a joke about making no jokes at the table, gently teasing both me and himself in memory of an incident over 11 years ago before he attained sobriety (congratulations, Ross, on attaining 11 years!).  Though children have left that table, they often return with children of their own, with partners, with stories of towns where they now live and lives they could not be living without the roots that were cultivated around the Taggart table, and over in Missouri, here at the Corley table.

Much has changed.  But much remains the same.  And from both that which remains the same, and that which has changed, the future springs.

As the year wanes

I’m headed into the home stretch of my year without complaining.  The fourth quarter starts this week.  It has been an intriguing year.

I began nobly; but had a brief early relapse into what Jane Williams described as “talking about what you’re not going to complain about”.  Her comment hit my nail squarely on its pointed little head.  I pulled myself back from that particular edge.

My best posts, in my exceedingly humble and nonbiased opinion, don’t mention this journey at all.  Gary Bollinger said once that I describe better than I pontificate — or words to that effect.  I agree with him.  But I intended this journey to be both illustrative and contemplative, so a bit of commentary must be undertaken.

I’ve been grateful for everyone who reads my posts and for those who, in response, reach out to me.  I take everyone’s thoughts to heart.  I draw comfort from the kindnesses; ponder the gentle critiques; and feel humbled by the praise.  Dennis Lisenby paid me a singular compliment when he observed that I spoke publicly of struggles that many resist pursuing even internally.  My reasons for exposing the rawness of my personal journey  center on the goal of this undertaking.  I strive to learn to live without complaining.  I want my quest to help others; and I want to be accountable for my failures as well as encouraged by my successes.

Symbols often resonate with me, and few more than the butterfly.  It spends two weeks in its chrysalis and lives less than a month after its lovely transformed self emerges.  But oh, what brave beauty!  And what contrast between its early self and the gossamer wings which unfold, soft and fragile, from inside the darkness!

As this year of not complaining wanes, I feel that I still huddle inside the protective silk that I’ve spun around myself.  When I finally come into the light, perhaps I, too, will spread my wings, shaking off the debris that clings to me.  Perhaps I will lift myself into the shimmering air around me, soaring, pausing now and then to balance on a delicate flower so that those who both shared and inspired my journey can see what I have become.




The best laid plans

My day started off with its usual promise; warm air on my skin as I stood on the porch to feed the cat; the newspaper delivered on time; a successful hour on the computer, writing my weekly blog.

By ten, I had agreed to meet Penny for coffee in Fairway and hastened to change from the morning’s flannels to something that would not shock Johnson Drive.  For an hour, more — maybe two, we talked about her upcoming participation in the Nerman’s benefit auction, the demise of the current location of VALA due to the construction, and the plans for the VALA community which will take her vision to the next level.  By 1:30, I had gotten home, nibbled a bit of lunch, and started on the refrigerator.

Cleaning it out, that is.

Two hours later, I retreated to the porch with a glass of ice water and a tattered Ruth Rendell that I found on the dollar table at Mysteryscape last week.  The fridge had been successfully cleaned but no further progress on the grime had been made.  I found myself spiraling into a blue funk and only words — mine, a friend’s, a deft author’s — can draw me back to center.

When the sun’s descent stole the natural light, I drifted back inside.  The house had not finished cleaning itself and the dust fairies seemed oddly absent.  I made dinner, wondering whether I could get two loads of laundry done but deciding that I might not get them folded and I’ve always hated that basket of clothes sitting on the cedar chest, staring at me, daring me to iron.

Now evening falls and my mood hovers on empty.  I had high hopes for Saturday:  Errands to run, the dog to bathe, a writing project that I had planned to begin.  What I did, when the day is said and done, was have coffee with Penny, clean out the refrigerator, and read four chapters of an old mystery about a hapless writer and his married lover, and some star-crossed events that plague them.

And so, then, I find myself turning — as I often do — to the words of a real writer, who wrote real poems, and gave voice to precisely what I presently feel.

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

(The best laid schemes of Mice and Men
oft go awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!)

Robert Burns, To a Mouse (Poem, November, 1785)

As the flowers begin to wilt

I think I might have forgotten to water the plants yesterday and tonight they look at me quite balefully as I ascend the porch steps.  I shake my head, mentally promise them that I’ll come back, and fall through the door.  Bag on the floor; shoes next to the rocker; sweater on the chair.  An exhausting day’s end.

I know that I’m hungry and stick my head in the fridge, wondering what’s left that’s edible.  Thankfully, it’s trash night; and the leftovers go into the bag and onto the curb.  This leaves an omelet, my standby.  I crack a couple of eggs and try to ignore the symbolism.

Now the house grows silent and I feel the reproach of the flowers which have begun to wilt on the front porch.  I draw a long sigh.  I remember, then, the wild and unexpected kindness of my friend Jessica who threw herself together to come sit and comfort me early this morning over coffee.  Her inspiration sends me out to the porch with a full water bucket.  My step resists a light-hearted bounce, but even so, I feel better.

To leap or not to leap

About  hundred years ago, before the invention of electricity, I lived in Jennings, Missouri, a sleepy town in north St. Louis County.

I lived a lonely sort of childhood, with only a few friends.  I found myself ridiculed often, imitated, derided, by the cruelest of judges, other children.  Adults shook their heads and patted my shoulder. My brothers suffered scrape after scrape defending me.  I often lay in bed at night, engaging in a running dialogue with myself, a mantra designed  to encourage myself to get through each day bravely, like a soldier, like a tough girl, like a good sport.

Life terrified me.

I’ve written before about the dares I endured at my own bidding.  I dared myself to walk down the aisle at school to make a presentation.  I challenged myself to learn to jump rope.  I phoned boys when even the prettiest girl of the 1960s Catholic Elementary School days would never do that — though of course, they didn’t need to phone boys because the boys went gaga over them.  Once, I even forced myself to ask the most popular girl in our 8th grade class to help me play volleyball — and she did, forcing our team, of which she was captain, to let me play in the intramurals.  They invented a new rule that let me serve and then rotate out, all because  I steeled myself to ask Pat Puzniak to help me, and she had the guts to do it.

But I could not talk myself into jumping across the concrete stairwell that led to our basement.  I feared falling; I did not believe my legs would carry me across the three or four foot width, and at age eight or nine, I knew that a fall would bring serious injury.  I could not make the leap.

In fifty-nine years, I’ve completely trusted about a dozen people.  Many have never let me down.  Some have exceeded even my faith in them.  A few sucker-punched me.  Through all of that, I’ve talked myself into “soldiering on”.  And I have.  Punch, after punch, after punch.  Usually without complaint.  And now, tired, hunkering down to gather strength for the home stretch in my year without complaining, I’m digging deep within  myself to find the last well of faith, the last spurt of hope, the last germinated seed of something lovely that can bloom if tended with enough care.  I’m thinking to myself, To Leap, or Not to Leap, that is the question.

I’m back in the bedroom of my childhood, lying in the dark, listening to the voice in my head encouraging me, urging me to just get through one more day and surely, surely, the effort will pay off.  I stand again on the far side of that concrete drop, wondering if my legs will hold or if, maybe, I might fall — and if I fall, will someone catch me?

Deliberately obtuse

I ran into someone whom I only casually know today.  This person (name, gender and location of encounter withheld) said to me, “Oh, I’ve been wanting to see you!”

I looked at the speaker quizzically.  “Really?” I asked.  “Well, gosh, I live in the same place that I have lived for 21 years, I’m not that hard to find.”

The person looked away.  “Oh, I never go to people’s houses!”  I pinched my eyebrows together, trying to suppress my reaction, which principally consisted of skepticism.  “Well,” I chirped helpfully.  “I also have the same phone number that I have had for 21 years!  You could call!”  I gave the person a broad smile which I hoped look cheerful and not maniacal.

In response, the person started a wild fluttering of hands and a muttering about work, busy, home, tired.  I maintained my smile and said, “Well, what was it you wanted to see me about?”  The conversation lagged.  Finally, the individual said, “I was just mentioning the other day that I wanted to see you!”

“And here I am!” I said, brightly.  “How are you?”  More muttering about work, tired, home.  Then a hasty retreat was beaten.

I realize I was being a bit coy.  I am aware, too, that the person’s original comment lacked sincerity.  But I’m not very good with insincerity.  You want to see me? Call me.  You don’t want to see me?  Don’t say you do.  I do not believe for one minute that this person actually expressed a desire to see me.  It is more likely that if this person was just talking about me, the subject  was rank gossip, speculation or some comment about me that the person would be embarrassed to have me know.  Anyone that wants to see me, sees me.  And the people who care about me, call me. The people about whom I care, I call and see.

I’m not very good at small talk, but if you’re going to talk small, expect me to respond in kind.  And that, my dear little ones, is a Mama Corinna fiat:  Small talk deserves small answers.  Or maybe even, smart-ass retorts.

And now I am smiling.  Somehow, knowing that I flustered this person should not make me feel good, but it’s been a long and difficult month.  However, I can feel my mother spinning in her grave. I can hear her saying Mary, Mary!  Is that how I taught you to treat people??

So I promise, on my mother’s grave, that the next time I see this person, I will be really, really nice.

But it won’t be as deliciously fun as being deliberately obtuse.


An autumn evening

A downhill slide to the end of the first day of fall finds me on the front porch as dusk gathers.  I hear a voice from the street and see my friend Brenda walking by.   I answer her call and she comes to the porch.  We spend a few pleasant minutes drinking water and talking about some of life’s twists and turns.  She listens to me telling her a few things that have burdened me; but we laugh at how surreal some of my life’s events seem even to me.  She stands, we say goodbye, and she walks on down Holmes Street, towards her house and the waiting cat.  I go inside to reheat my leftover Pad Thai and feed the dog.  The quietness of my home surrounds me.  As the sun sets, I say a prayer for my favorite curmudgeon, then draw the shades, switch on the porch light, and contemplate the rest of my week.  I have no complaints tonight.  I’m assessing those twists and turns.  I’m rummaging around in the basket that I lug from week to week and year to year, extracting some of the debris and tossing it on the compost pile. In the quiet of the autumn evening, I’m continuing my year without complaining by doing a little personal house-keeping.  I see no reason to wait for spring.

Winter nears

Nothing about the morning goes right but the folks at my bank must be experiencing a worse day than I am, judging by the CLOSED sign on its door and the gaggle of employees in the lobby.  I feel strangely cheered by this knowledge and continue to my office, where I find further comfort in a handful of smiling faces and pleasant exchanges.  The box on my desk turns out to be the new pens which I’ve ordered for purposes of marketing to small shops in the area.  That’s a plus but I still struggle with a lingering feeling that the day will go badly.  Nothing about the weather so signifies; crisp air, pale blue sky, whispers of harmless lovely clouds.  I drive downtown.  I sit in court, waiting for my client, a half hour early as I promised.  The judge checks with me and acknowledges that my cases appear on his later docket and I settle into a chair at counsel table, shaking my bones, stretching my neck, wondering if what I feel is the approaching gloom of winter something more sinister.

Sledgehammer time

I sent my friend Penny Thieme a virtual list of the circumstances in my life which overwhelmed me this weekend, causing me to retreat into the Food Network, a murder mystery, and a rocking chair.  She messaged back, “Can you do something, anything, on your list of chores, to change your focus?”  I’ll summarize my typed reply as, “No.”  Poor Penny.  She tried.

But during the night, as I struggled with enough pain to deeply regret my decision to forego narcotics, I suddenly recalled that I had been feeling better.  Until a week or so ago, I actually thought that my lifelong battle with neurological pain might have at last been won.  So what happened?

Six months ago, I eliminated white sugar and gluten from my diet, a modified version of the MS diet which has had modest anecdotal support on blogs and websites run by MS patients.  While I don’t have MS — thank God — I have demyelinization (fraying or stripping of the myelin, the outer layer of the nerve), caused by the wicked little virus raging in my DNA, HHV-6.  White sugar, gluten, caffeine, dairy and saturated fat appear on lists of foods to avoid in most versions of the MS diet.  I don’t eat meat, so saturated fat doesn’t plague me. I will not surrender coffee.  So I chose gluten and white sugar as expendable.

I lost eight pounds.  I didn’t notice any change in my neurological condition, though; and slowly let both begin to find their way back into my daily diet.  But in the last few days, I’ve found myself mercilessly crushed by the nighttime raging of my frayed nerves.  At three this morning, finally surrendering, getting out of bed, unable to wrap sleep back around me, I thought to myself, Maybe gluten and white sugar DID hurt.  Maybe cutting them out DID help. 

And maybe there are some things which I can control, and maybe, in controlling them, the things which slip beyond my lily white spastic hands will not seem as daunting.

Ah.  . . sledgehammer time.  Hit me over the head!  Awaken me from my self-induced stupor!  Thanks, Penny.


Inside out

A few minutes of chatting over the counter at Mysteryscape, one of my favorite bookstores, sent my mind down a path which I’ve resisted taking.  The owner of the store, talking about this blog, asked me if I had stopped complaining about myself yet.  I felt a rush of awareness.  She arched one eyebrow and gave me a sweet smile.  “You and I have a lot in common,” she remarked.  “Especially the mantra running through our minds, judging ourselves.”

How can a woman whom I barely know, who talks with me twice a month at most, so deftly touch the very nerve which sends a surge of fire into my belly?  She asked me about this journey, questioning me gently but closely.  I gave her my standard lines, each of them: my theories about change that others have bought when I’ve peddled them in pretty packaging.  I told her about my affinity with Melanie’s song, “The Good Guys”, and especially these lyrics:  “By starting to build from the outside, we fill up the halls within”.

That fine eyebrow merely arched again and she replied, “What about from the inside out?”  I fell silent.

The door of her store opened then, and a rush of customers entered, laughing, chattering, fresh from the Farmer’s Market.  I finished my transaction and said goodbye.  She smiled, raised her hand, and watched me turn away, with the light of understanding in her eyes.  Its warm glow carried me home.