Monthly Archives: April 2016

For Ellen, With Love

Dear Ellen — I just left you, and you are driving home to Plattsburg.  Your parting words to me were more or less that I am a better person than you are, because I try not to judge people harshly.  I called to you across the parking lot that you should let go of anger — or something like that, something close to that.  I think I told you to pray for the person who had irked you, and for yourself, too.

Dear Ellen.  A mama bear who bares her claws when someone she loves is hurting.  Thank you for being protective of me.

The last thing I need to learn in this long quest of mine is how to let go of my judgment of myself.  I wish I had the capacity for anger and hatred; I might be able to burn the rotten pieces of me left over from the blows that sixty years of living has dealt me.  But the only disappointment I feel is towards myself.  I have no capacity for anger.  If I ever did, I’ve long since let it go.  But your eyes flashed tonight when you saw that I was hurting, and for that, I love you all the more, my friend.

Dear Ellen:  Don’t you know that you have shown us all about love and loyalty?  Do you understand the example that your kind soul has set?

For anyone here who does not know my friend Ellen Carnie, my bet is that you have an Ellen in your life.  Someone who will fiercely protect you, who will wrap her arms around you, and open her life to you.  Look around your world and see if you can figure out who that person is, and go right over to them — right now — without delay — and thank them.

One of the things I like most about Ellen Carnie is that she voices her opinion or her viewpoint without expecting people to take her word as gospel.  She recognizes that we all have our unique points of view, and sometimes what we think is the truth is just one angle of a prism that has many facets.  She does not lash out if you don’t respond by saying that of course she’s right.  And she also listens to your point of view, and takes what you see when you look at the prism as a valid viewpoint.  I admire that about her; I strive to be like that.

Today she listened to me blow off steam — dare i say, “complain” — all of which related to my negative view of myself.  And her words brought me to understand that in judging myself, in perpetuating condemnation of myself as being a failure, I am holding myself back from blossoming.  Now, it must be said, she also hazarded the opinion that maybe I should get a little mad, but she understands that it is not in my nature to be angry.  It’s in my nature to forgive, but also to automatically believe that anything which goes wrong must be my fault — to assume that if someone is angry with me, then I must have done something wrong.  And to further assume that if I have done something wrong, that I am inferior.  A vicious cycle, which dear Ellen encouraged me to forsake.

Dear Ellen:  Thank you for being my friend; for loving me; and for wanting me to love myself.

It’s night-time, and tomorrow I will go to Columbia for “the sisters lunch”.  So I might not write but know that I am striving forward, taking baby-steps perhaps though turned to face true north and stepping out.  Today I don’t think I’m good enough; but thanks to dear Ellen, I’ve seen another point of view.

Ellen Carnie and me.

Ellen Carnie and me.

Saturday Morning

I finished writing my musings today and posted them everywhere:  Twitter, Facebook, Mailchimp.  Then I sat, gazing out the window, rubbing the nerve which has taken to constantly twitching in my left leg, hoping it is not a clot.  I thought about my day’s to-do list and watched a male cardinal land on the wire spanning from the neighbor’s house to mine.  I spent a few minutes wondering what that wire might actually be, before shaking my head and opening a Facebook page to check on my family and friends.  There I learned that a law school classmate had a stroke; four people share today’s birthday with my sister; and a host of friends awaken much earlier than I do.

This not-complaining thing has started getting easier.  I spend my days working, finding meaningful efforts on which to spend my energy, and plotting “how to amuse them today”.  I know my sorrows lurk somewhere  in the shadows because once in a while they sneak out and I find tears streaming down my cheeks.

But not today.  Not this beautiful Saturday.  Today, I have no complaints.

It’s the sixteenth day of the twenty-eighth month of My Year Without Complaining.  My sister Joyce turns 66 today.  Tomorrow the three sisters who live in Missouri will have lunch in Columbia.  We will text a photo to the fourth sister, Ann in Minnesota.  We will laugh and talk about the mundane events of our lives.  After a few hours, we’ll stand in the parking lot and hug each other.  Joyce will head back to St. Peters. I will drop Adrienne  in Boonville, and then I will make the journey home, in my little blue Prius, by myself.  I will play the radio loud or maybe listen to Paul Orso’s CD.  If I cry, they will be tears of joy.  Life continues.


Me, Adrienne, Joyce, Ann

Me, Adrienne, Joyce, Ann


The story not yet written

Today I feel as though I stand on a long stretch of road, alone, no signs of life.

The pavement disappears in either direction.  I cannot see houses, buildings, cars, or trees overhanging the smooth surface of the path on which my feet lift to tread. In reality I am sitting at a five-dollar home-made table pushed against two north-facing windows in a room overlooking my neighbor’s roofline.

Last evening a friend from Rotary came to the house with her fiance and looked at my old oak dining set.  Their large family needs just what I have:  Ten chairs, two leaves, sturdy legs.  I watched them measure its length and murmur together about the size of their dining room.  The memory of this table purchase lingers but it lies far back in another volume of my life’s story.  I can hear the pounding of a fist on its surface, a good smack to test the strength of its construction.  I showed my friend the scratches where we attached a device for pressing shortbread, not realizing that we would damage the finish.  She did not seem to care.  We settled on a price and made arrangements for them to transport everything home on another day.  As they left, we talked about her upcoming mission trip to Nicaragua, and I marveled for the hundredth time at how special she is.

On their way out, I asked the fiance if he would carry my recycle box to the curb.  I watched their easy saunter down my walk, he with the box lightly balanced; she with one hand barely touching his arm.  I called to her, Take lots of pictures! and the radiance of her returning smile rewarded me.

As I moved around the house after their departure, I ran my finger over the surface of shelves and the contours of the objects placed upon them.  They all seemed to be sentences in the chapters of my life.  I can tell you the origin of each. I can see the faces of the people who gave them to me; the places where I bought them; or the other homes from which I carried them when they had outlived their usefulness to other people.  Like my table:  I no longer need it, and now another family will gather around it to break their daily bread.

I stood in the dining room and gazed at the new table, the one I bought last year.  Smaller, a different style, it nonetheless has already seen its share of gatherings in my home.  More will come.  Many chapters of my story are not yet written.

It’s the fifteenth day of the twenty-eighth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Everything in my house has meaning.  My son gave me these two roses; one from the Ren fest and one from Disney World.  The red vase belonged to my grandmother Corley.  I bought the stein for my beloved curmudgeon and received it back when he passed away.

Everything in my house has meaning. My son gave me these two roses; one from the Ren Fest and one from Disney World. The red vase belonged to my grandmother Corley. I bought the stein for my beloved curmudgeon and received it back when he passed away.

Just what the doctor ordered

Over dinner last night, I barely stifled a complaint because the flatbread that I ordered came out looking very much like an ordinary pizza.  It looked lovely but I had expected something more like a delicate sheet of cracker with daintily applied morsels of delectable goodness.  I sighed and glanced at the waitress’s departing back.

My companion seemed amused, possibly because of his familiarity with this quest to live complaint-free.   I kept my mouth shut and focused on the deliciousness of the salad which had preceded the entree.  I tapped my foot.  I made a mild remark.  My companion asked if I wished to seek amends.  I demurred.  Do Not Complain.  The door knocker dangles from the knob of the closed door, swaying in the invisible current caused by the passing housekeeper.  I heed its admonishment.  Don’t sweat the small stuff, I tell myself.  Dinner proceeds.

At home I hobble up to the house and tell myself, You will not fall on these stairs.  I cast my purse down, let the dog in, grab a glass of water and bolt upstairs before I let myself collapse.  I ask myself if I expected dinner to be perfect because I skipped lunch to justify the calories.  I try to stretch, to make my body function, but a week or two of straining my capacity settles in my bones and punishes me for trying to live a normal life.

I scold myself:  Do not complain.  Do. Not. Complain.

I hammer out a half hour of work after dinner, feeling the knot in my left shoulder blade and the tension in the middle of my back where the damaged discs strain against the inflamed cysts.  When I finally sleep, my tortured dreams remind  me, no dairy at dinner, though I must concede that the “Four Cheese Flatbread” made a delectable pizza.  I had eaten three tiny slices and brought the rest home. But even the frail slivers of goat cheese and mild swathes of Fontina haunted me.  My come-uppance, I suppose.  Order flatbread; get pizza; suffer.  Should have stuck with the salad, maybe ordered the dinner size.  Grumble grumble grumble.

I awaken no less rested than yesterday; no less weary; no less sore.  I lie in the dark room and wonder if I’ve run my course.  I focus on the merest shimmer of light on the horizon and will myself to follow the sun’s example and pull myself into the morning.

Then I lift my phone to check the calendar, to measure how much time I have to convince myself to get out of bed, shower, dress, and catapult into the day.  An e-mail catches my eye, a note from Facebook telling me that someone has commented on one of my blog entries.  I read what my friend Genevieve has written:

You are an inspiration – I wish I knew someone like you when I was a teen or 20 something, sometimes not reaching high enough because I did not believe I could.

Of all the people who could have found my blog entry about survival to be inspiring, Genevieve ranks highest in my hidden hopes.  She’s beautiful, sweet, talented, and serene.  I watch her with her husband and admire the smoothness of their exchanges.  I tell myself:  If Genevieve looks to you for inspiration, you’d better not fail her.  I remind myself that worse days than yesterday have been conquered.   I hoist my crippled body out of bed and take the challenge.

Thank you, Genevieve.  You’re just what the doctor ordered.

It’s the thirteenth day of the twenty-eighth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.


Genevieve McBrayer Casey



This is a test.

Yesterday morning unfolded like a cloud rolling through the sky in slow motion.  I scooted around the house in my soft slippers, sipping coffee and trying to suppress annoyance at the stumbling voices of the volunteers in the KCUR pledge drive.  Berries and yogurt, a long stretching session, write and send the WBRC Board meeting minutes, ten minutes in a hot shower, another ten to get dressed.  I walked down the driveway at 8:55 thinking, Where am I supposed to be this morning?

And realized that I had court at 9:30.

I drove the Prius faster than I should have to make the frantic drive to Juvenile Court, muttering to myself, Good God woman how can you forget a court appearance? At the red light near Operation Breakthrough I watched parents unload their babies without noticing the sweetness of the chubby kids, the strain of tired parents, the raggedy cars and wobbly strollers.  I jumped the light and my purse spilled onto the floor but I made it to the handicapped parking space on Cherry Street by 9:15.

The JO’s attorney called our case two hours and fifteen minutes later.  We finished putting the stipulation on the record at 11:40 and I headed for the restaurant to take my favorite brat, Miranda Erichsen, to a belated birthday lunch. Twenty-four years old!  I’m almost three times my secretary’s age.  Well, two and a half times, any way.  She sat next to Jenna Munoz, the estate lawyer in our office, and I took the bench across from them.  Together they did not total my age.  I realized that halfway through my kale salad and my disposition did not improve.  In fact, I think it sank.

I did more work in the four hours after lunch than I had done all last week; necessity being the mother of moving faster than the speed of aging bones can tolerate.  By 6:00 p.m., I sat in my driveway finishing a call to a faraway friend.  As we wound down our catch-up conversation, I admitted that I had grown so weary that I was not sure I could climb the driveway.  Call me when you get in the house, he admonished me.

A half-hour later, another friend called; I sank into a rocker to listen to the cheery cadence of his voice, thinking, I am one with this chair; I am one with this chair.  I nearly fell asleep twice during the conversation.  But luckily I stayed awake long enough for one last call, from my son in Chicago.

I tried to read before sleeping but my eyes would not cooperate.  The soft dark closed around  me and I thought, Am I old before my time? My time.  My time.

I have an eternal litany which keeps me going like the energizer bunny which I’ve been called.  It consists of all the medical predictions that I’ve gathered over my lifetime.  Some my mother repeated to me years after my body exceeded them; some I have heard first-hand.  Never walk again.  Bedridden by eighteen.  Dead by twenty-five.  Crutches all her life.  Wheelchair.  Six months to live.  

I made a list of all the things that I cannot do.  On the other side of the paper, I made a list of all the things that I have done which I had been told would be impossible.  At the top of the second list, Carry a child to term.  True enough, my one surviving pregnancy had to be taken six weeks early, but he turns twenty-five in three months.  I don’t use crutches or a wheelchair, though several doctors nearly make me sign a statement every year acknowledging that they cautioned me to do so.  My mother made  a prediction about me that has in fact come true:  If you walk every day of your life, you will walk every day of your life.

So keep walking.

It’s the twelfth day of the twenty-eighth month of My Year Without Complaining.  I almost fell off the complaint wagon yesterday, but I passed the test.  I only cried a little.  Life continues.



Spring comes at last

The wild weather swings have driven my neighborhood to schizophrenia.  But yesterday we threw off our covers and called it quits with gloom.  People walked their dogs in sandals and shorts.  I heard the distant clang of an ice-cream truck.  Children rode down the sidewalk on their bikes and scooters; parents pulled babies in wagons over the broken concrete, skirting the vines sprouting on the parkways.

While I chased the dust bunnies from under the dining room table, the man next door hauled cedar chips and azalea bushes from the local lawn store in a frenzy of planting and clearing.  I did not make it outside, but attacked the staleness of my dwelling.  I threw the doors open and  dragged furniture from the stuffy corners where it had huddled through the cold months.  I worked for hours without relent, all in aid of lifting the weight of winter from my soul.

Early in the afternoon, I discovered that I could not relocate the television without a huge commotion.  I took to the internet and within an hour, someone whom I previously knew only by our shared Social Media connections pulled into my driveway with a bucket full of tools and a dogged determination.  He arrived a virtual stranger and left a friend.  Last evening, in my newly created sitting room, I drank hot tea and idly watched the flickering television screen.  So tired my hair hurt, nonetheless, I felt hugely satisfied.  Spring seems to have come at last and I am keeping pace with its freshness.

I  contemplated the many golden threads shot through the tapestry of my life, interwoven to create the beauty of the whole.  The phrase twice-blessed unexpectedly echoed in my mind.  How many new beginnings am I allowed?  Have I exhausted my allotment?   Our little dog in her brand-new bed eyed me when she heard my jagged sigh.  It’s okay, Little Girl,  I murmured.  Satisfied that nothing needed her attention, she fell back asleep.  I finished my tea, set the alarm, and climbed the stairs to my serene retreat.  Silence fell around me.  I chose to take it as a silence born of peace.

It’s the tenth day of the twenty-eighth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Here in Brookside, in Kansas City, Missouri, a mourning dove coos outside my window and the sun has emerged from beneath the night’s thick storm clouds.  Life continues.



What a difference thirty-six years makes. . .

Sitting in the hospital yesterday with Ellen, waiting for news of Jerry’s surgery, I reflected on the motorcycle accident that put him in the need of surgery.  One day walking around; the next day, lying in a hospital bed with a cracked back, three broken ribs, and a punctured lung.  What a difference a day makes.

Jerry’s sister calls, and one of his nieces.  Ellen explains what’s happening, and I think, too bad he’s never had children.  I wonder what my son would do, if I needed surgery and long-term care.  I shake my head.  I’ve told him many times, Don’t give up your life for me.  That’s not your job.  I pushed him to go to Mexico, to college in another state, away, away.  To live his own life.  But truth told:  If I had to have surgery of the magnitude that Jerry faced yesterday, knowing that my offspring paced in the waiting room might comfort me.  I glanced over at the little gaggle of fifty-something sisters waiting for news of their mother’s surgery, sitting with their grandmother, and a dutiful son-in-law.  I shamelessly eavesdropped on their calls to distant, worried family members.  Mama’s in surgery, we’ll call you when we know something.

I sat down at my desk to write, this morning, still ruminating on how fast one’s life can turn around or slide downward into an abyss of hopelessness; still thinking about those grown daughters sitting vigil yesterday across from where Ellen and I did the same.  My eyes fell on my old poetry journal, and I lifted it from the stack of legal pads on which it rested.  Its pages slid from the broken binding and opened on a poem dated 05 April 1980, almost precisely thirty-six years ago.  As I read it, I found  myself wondering what I might have written had I known that the poem’s subject would leave me five years later.

Then I read the last line, and I gasped.  I cannot  understand its emotion; I wonder what I saw in my mother’s eyes that day, in that Central End vegetarian restaurant, over a dish of tofu and a bean sprout salad.    What a difference a day makes.  Or five years.  Or thirty-six.


From A Daughter

What do I say to this woman
sitting across from me
over a society lunch?

What do I say to she
who changed my diapers;
and coaxed me through
a preadolescent limp
and post-pubescent cramps?

How do I treat someone
who learned to drive at forty
fought the maybe-giants
organized picnics
when she wasn’t at work
or scrubbing floors
or despairing?

There are no words for one
who is too familiar
with emergency rooms

So I sit, choking on idle conversation,
about the silver market and over-sprouted beans
neither of which I understand.
If I appear tense
it is because I also choke
on unexpected devotion
and overwhelming sorrow.

©C. Corley, 05 April 1980

It’s the eighth day of the twenty-eighth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.






The nurse in the OR got our humor but the surgeon — not so much.  He cranked his head around and drew his brow together and I shushed Ellen, who had launched into a monologue about not paralyzing Jerry during surgery.

I could almost feel the doctor’s shudders from three feet away.

Now I’m in the Family Waiting room.  A female Catholic chaplain prayed over Jerry before they wheeled him into the surgery suite.  She didn’t disclose her religious affiliation until after the fact.  Ellen hastily told her that they were Presbyterian and, moreover, that Jerry had been a Jehovah’s Witness.

The woman took it all in stride.

An older lady had been sleeping but now she huddles over a cell phone, texting or something.  Ellen has gone out to the car for Ibuprofen and I’ve answered all my e-mail.  There’s a calm about this place.  Earlier we said, No, it’s okay he didn’t transfer to KU, and Ellen told someone on the phone that she felt God put Jerry here for the surgery.  It’s a Christian place, she said, by way of explanation.

It’s the seventh day of the twenty-eighth month of My Year Without Complaining.  I cannot truthfully say that a divine being is or is not more likely to be in this hospital because of its Christian affiliation.  But I have no sense of dread, despite the fact that a few minutes ago, a nurse came out and told me that they’ve started putting hardware in Jerry’s spine.  The television plays in the background, above a little group of family members talking about what to order for those waiting at home.  Once in a while, someone in scrubs comes in with a bit of news.  We wait.  Life continues.

Facing the camera, Jerry Stewart; and beside him, Ellen Carnie.

Facing the camera, Jerry Stewart; and beside him, Ellen Carnie.

My driveway moments

Our local public radio station asks us to share our “driveway moments”, times when we sit in the car listening to the end of an NPR story, reluctant to turn off the radio and go into the house before the piece ends.

I have my own driveway moments but they don’t always involve the car’s radio.

I go about my business all day, mostly solitary, engaging in casual conversation of little depth.  Then I drive home, and use the Prius’s Bluetooth to call a friend or my son.  If I’m lucky, someone answers.   I cruise down Broadway, cut over to Brookside Blvd., head south towards my home, with a voice flooding the confines of my vehicle.   For the rest of the evening, only the sound of the television will interrupt the silence, but in the fifteen minutes between work and home, the air vibrates with laughter and stories of someone else’s day.

Yesterday I spent three hours as a volunteer notary in a petition drive.  Darkness fell around the storefront while we worked.  I left at 8:30, tired, still aching from yesterday’s fall, but feeling useful and needed, something that I crave in the very fiber of my being.

On the way home, I called my son and we talked about the Wisconsin primary returns.  He’s studied the candidates over the last few months and made his selection on the strength of everything he read.  I know how he attacks an interest:  He saturates himself, reading hours and hours of internet articles, watching videos, reading the opinions of thoughtful commentators.  I have not seen him this intensely engaged  for many years, perhaps not since he first decided to learn the guitar at age nine.

I finished the conversation in the silence of the car, at the end of the driveway, with my little dog hovering by the gate wondering why I didn’t come and let her into the house.  I finally suggested that we speak later, or the next day, and we said goodnight.  I dragged my computer bag out of the front seat, and steadied myself before beginning the hike to the front door.  I could not help but smile.  Whatever else might be said of me, I seem to have succeeded in raising a son with every chance of fulfilling his early promise.

It’s the sixth day of the twenty-eighth month of My Year Without Complaining.  To my friends, to my readers, I can say this:  Call me.  I’ll sit in my driveway, in the warmth of this early spring, and talk to you.  And our connected life will continue.



My State Today

Today, my life sucks.  S, U, X, sucks.

And lest you interpret this as a complaint, I must declare that I have objective corroboration from a third party to whom I related the events leading to my current state.  I do not complain:  I merely report.

The cause of this barometric reading lies not in something incurable, insurmountable, or wildly evil.  I’m not talking cancer, dementia, or being one of the 5,000,000 senior citizens over the age of sixty facing hunger. (statistic source).  In time, I will recover from the black eye, the bruised ribs, and the embarrassment of the whispered suggestion between two well-meaning good Samaritans as to the cause of my circumstances.  (“I saw her walk before she fell. . . don’t you think she is drunk?”)

Eventually, the security guard at my grocery store will stop feeling the need to follow me around the aisles, and my name will fall forgotten within the pages of his little pocket notebook.

I even have spare glasses, of sorts; three years old, not quite adequate prisming, but good enough to get me through until the frames of my eight-hundred dollar, five-month old specs can be repaired.

So while my life sucks, right now, at nearly six o’clock on a warm spring evening, on the fourth day of the twenty-eighth month of My Year Without Complaining, the condition will abate.  My life will continue, and tomorrow might see me smiling once again.