Monthly Archives: November 2016


I used to know a man whose smile began in his eyes.  It spread like flowing nectar down his face and claimed his mouth.  To turn his radiant glance upon me, I’d slay dragons though all he wanted was my time.  He’d suck me into volunteering: walking, knocking on doors, collecting clothes, tutoring, donating.  I claimed a lot of virtue to bask in that glowing look.

Since then, I have collected smiles, a kind of modern hobby that takes no room in the cupboards and requires no monetary commitment.  I turn away anything that looks fabricated.  The corners of the mouth can widen and those perfect white teeth flash, an advertisement for your wealthy father’s orthodontic investment.  But that’s no smile; it’s something else, a half-hearted concession intended to beguile or a snake’s baring of its fangs.  Spare me that; I run from such bewitchment.

No, give me the toothless grin, the helpless curving of a weary mouth tired of pursing whose wearer hears something unexpected and soothing.  The smile on the face of a child who doesn’t know you’re watching as he turns the page of a book he’s just learned to read.  That dagger to my heart:  the upturned blistered lips of the weary soul holding coins I’ve placed into her chapped hands with their frayed fingerless gloves.  I’ll keep that smile. That’s a priceless addition to my collection.

My cousin Kati has one of those mouths which always smiles, a sweet violin bow made for enchantment.  I’ve always envied her.  When we attended SLU together, I’d stand in front of the bathroom mirror trying to make my mouth match hers.  We looked alike in some ways, except for her blond hair and perfect smile.  I felt like her evil twin, dark and frowning.  But I loved her nonetheless.

One of the virtues of not complaining lies in the beams that people flash when I bestow compliments or kind remarks.  It’s a secret plot of mine to grow my hobby, my hobby of collecting smiles.  I’m clever, aren’t I?

It’s the  very last day of the thirty-fifth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.



Nearly Three Years and Not Much Progress

In two days, I will enter the thirty-sixth month of My Year Without Complaining.

I began this exercise after my Mother-in-Law died in October of 2013. About that time, my son also introduced me to non-violent communication.  I put dear JoAnna’s sweet nature with Marshall Rosenberg’s call to peaceful living and launched my own quest to live for one year without engaging in complaint.  When life threw me such tremendous curve balls that I barely made it through each day without serious lament, I kept going.

Tonight a Google Fiber guy convinced me that some people just NEED complaint to thrive — to wit, him.  His obtuse response to my confession of ignorance as to a feature on my (very expensive and not much better than anything else) cable service challenged me but i held strong right up to the end when he asked me the same DANG question for the fifth time. I patiently repeated myself AGAIN prompting him to say, “I guess I just misunderstood.”  Whereupon I started into an exasperated “Are you kidding me?” following which, the call mysteriously dropped.

A few minutes later, I figured out the problem myself.  I walked around the house muttering, You’re not supposed to be complaining, under my breath while the dog dodged my feet and the noise box in the front room babbled.

It’s the twenty-ninth day of the thirty-fifth month of My Year Without Complaining.  I haven’t made much progress but I’m still trying.  Life continues.



Because sometimes a picture of lovely flowers makes all the difference in the universe.

And if that doesn’t make you smile, here’s an invitation to the Suite 100 Holiday Open House:


Looks can be deceiving

When I left home, I made some food promises to myself.

I would never again eat fast.

I would never again eat liver.

I would never again eat margarine.

I would never again eat oatmeal.

I despised tough liver, greasy butter substitute, and the gawd-awful gluey bowls of cooked cereal which my sisters ladled from a heavy pot on the stove for us on winter mornings.  As for the speed of consumption, in a middle-class family with a working mother and eight children, one learned to gobble down the goods or a hungry boy would dive for your plate.

My mother knew that I didn’t like oatmeal.  Her mischievous side prompted her to pack my Christmas presents in the friendly-faced Quaker oats boxes, round and inviting with green-and-red paper.  She carefully adhered bright ribbon to the open seam to secure the lid and disguise its contents.  My heart sank each time I tore the paper open, though just for a second as the joke became obvious.  She’d giggle and snicker while I groaned, Mooooooooo-THER!  A tired matriarch’s idea of practical jokes — harmless and brief but oh so delightful!

I have cooked oatmeal since then but not eaten it.  Now I enter the downside of middle age.  I take two heart medications and strain to keep my weight down to ease the load on my weakened legs.  So this morning I bit the culinary bullet. I cooked oatmeal.  I barely cooked it, leaving it “al dente” or  less.  I  do. not. like. mush.  I toasted pepitas and added a generous handful of golden raisins, with a half-cup of almond milk (unsweetened). I resisted the brown sugar.

It still tastes gawd-awful but I felt so virtuous.

As I cleaned the bowl, I thought about the reputation of oatmeal as heart-healthy.  I suppose it would be too much to ask for it to also be delicious.  Isn’t it just the way?  You look at something and think, ewwwww.  How can that be good for me? But as we know, looks can be deceiving.  A bowl of awful stuff helps your heart; a tragedy builds resilience; a half-inch long pink pill stops the mutation of a virus and brightens my prospect of survival.  So I’ll eat the stuff and not complain.  Just keep the raisins coming.

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


Monday morning

I haven’t cooked sausage in a long time but I’ve done so twice now over this Thanksgiving break.  The feel of grease and meat under my hands intrigued me.  I had absolutely no desire to partake.  I cooked turkey on Thanksgiving without tasting it, a cardinal sin according to the Food Network.  Stir, taste, season, serve.  I skipped a step but no one seemed to mind.

Seven days has flown by and my son’s departure looms.  I enjoyed our visit.  We saw friends, rode the streetcar, looked at his latest projects, and talked about the future of America.  Now he’s returning to Chicago, to his world — his job, his apartment, his girlfriend, in a city where public transportation provides no novelty and the walls of the train station hold grime and graffiti.

When he leaves, the house will fall silent.  The old dog will wander through the rooms, sniffing and wondering where he’s gone.  Patrick and I speculated on her awareness of him.  The first time he returned from college after several months away, she threw herself down on the kitchen floor, whimpering, scooting over to him, breathing in his scent before going crazy with happiness.  I understood her reaction.  I barely contained my own ecstatic response to the return of the prodigal son.

But I’m used to it now.  I can’t complain about his situation.  I encouraged him to leave from day one.  I’ve been accused of being over-protective but I’m not guilty.  Charges have been levied that I’m “too close” to my son but again, I’ve committed no crime.  He’s grown into a man despite or because of me, take your pick.  He has values, and compassion, and empathy.  I can ask for nothing more.  I suppose I could have raised him to care about money and fancy houses.  Another mother might have.  This one didn’t.    But he’s better at budgeting and financial matters than I am, thank heavens.  He’ll get by.

As for me, I’ll return to my solitary existence.  I’ll see him at Christmas in Chicago, universe willing. None of us know where the future will take us.  Your children can live next door and never visit; or they can live in Zanzibar and call you every day.  Connection does not depend on geography.  I don’t know if blood is thicker than water but it’s as thick as your intentions make it; and ours runs sure and steady in the veins that bind us.

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



Things Which Make Me Smile

My favorite curmudgeon had a few instructions for me before he died.

Please put flowers on JoAnna’s grave, he asked.  Check.  Nearly every week, Jay.  Brought you an American flag, too.

Bring me a drink once in a while, would you, honey?  Hmmm.  Haven’t done this one, but it’s on my list.  I actually don’t think he’d mind that I leave the booze at home, but you never know. He liked a glass of Cab.  Every time we went out to dinner, he’d order one for himself and one for me.  I’d demurely sip mine until he finished his and switched glasses.  The waitress would see my empty glass and ask if I’d like another.  Oh she can’t handle her wine,  Jay would interject.  Better not.

And then he’d laugh, that raspy sound which echoes in my heart two years later.  His face would scrunch; he’d roll his eyes, and order another glass for himself.

Jay also asked for a few special considerations, like the particular color of roses that JoAnna liked on her anniversary and birthday (done, each year so far).  He extracted a promise for me to write to Senator Roberts on his behalf (done) and, he underscored twice:  Don’t abandon little Anne.

Little Anne.  Anne Jones, his first cousin.  She and I began a friendship during visits to Jay.  I like her.  I respect her.  We differ in our opinions on many issues — politics chief among them — but we shared a common affection for my favorite curmudgeon.

Yesterday, I rode with Anne to her farm in Cass County.  We walked as her service dog Katy ran through the fields.  Afterwards, we stopped at the cemetery to visit Jay and JoAnna’s gravesite together.  Usually, I’m alone. I post pictures of the new flowers and then she drives by to see them for herself.  This time, she and Katy went to the edge of the lake to fetch a rock with which to stabilize the evergreens that I placed on the grave last weekend.  We stood gazing over the water, feeling the gentle air of late autumn.  We talked of Jay; and of his last months.  I recalled the little party that we had made for him, and the picture which I took of Anne, Jay, and Anne’s beloved Katy.  The memory of that day made both of us smile.

It’s the twenty-seventh day of the thirty-fifth month of My Year Without Complaining.   I can’t think of a thing about which to complain today.  I’m only thinking of people and times which make me smile.   Life continues.




Revised Outlook: Chance of sun

The note struck my heart strings and sent them strumming.  It came from an unexpected quarter.  The words of gratitude shot through the account of the sender’s Thanksgiving reunion with her child like gossamer threads in a drab tapestry .  I read it over several times, the chorus in my heart rising as the sender’s words rippled through me again and again.

Last night as my son and I finished cleaning the kitchen, I could not stop the happiness from washing over me.  I don’t know my future.  I tend to count my failures closer than my successes.  But yesterday stands as a keeping day for me; a nugget found on the ravaged shore which nestles in the bowl on my table among the rocks and crystals.

I’ve never cared for money.  I like my job enough to do it for free if I were rich or did not need to pay bills.   After all, I didn’t get paid for raising my child, which sorely taxed me at times;  but my satisfaction with the outcome cannot be understated.  Helping people exert their parenting rights gives me the same feeling.  I don’t always win.  But I can say I never fail if my client believes that I fought for them.  It’s all I’ve ever wanted:  to be someone’s champion.   Even better when as a result, a grieving mother can embrace her  child for the first time in months.

This morning, my hips and knees remind me that cooking for two days straight exhausts me.  Piles of clean dishes await careful extraction from the dishwasher and drain basket.  We had a few casualties in the kitchen yesterday but I don’t mind.   It’s all future landfill; and the memories that we made will endure.  It’s the twenty-fifth day of the thirty-fifth month of My Year Without Complaining.   The forecast evolves.  Today, I think there might be a chance of sunny weather.  Life continues.




A few months after the crushing diagnosis which confirmed my mother’s cancer, she and I walked in her backyard.  Summer had waned.  Autumn hung over the quiet suburban neighborhood.  Her garden had finished its bloom, and lay under a blanket of mulch.  Mother stepped sure-footed across the grass and lowered herself to the park bench. I sat beside her.

An angel came to me in a dream last night, she began.  She described its form.  It had no wings; just a white faceless body.   I remained silent.  The angel said, ‘You have less than a year to live.  All your children will gather before you die.  Afterwards you will come home.’  

I still hear my mother’s voice, thirty-two years later.  I hear her say, I’m okay with that.  Another year.  I can live with that.

She died on 21 August 1985.  Just one more Thanksgiving, just one more Christmas.  One more Easter.  She did not make it to her next birthday.  But all of her children had been there; her eldest sat beside her as the angels took her home.  Before the mortuary folks carried her body from the house, we all gathered.  We stood on the porch, on the concrete steps, in the street.  My youngest brother tried to climb into the back of the wagon to ride with her.  I had to hold him back.

On Thanksgiving Day, before the first fork rose to stab a bite of turkey, we went around the table saying “Thankful-Fors”.  I know I’ve spoken of this before now; surely you remember all the funny stories.  My mother would scold the boys for being “thankful-for” turkey legs or pumpkin pie. Something serious, she’d remind them.  Eventually they’d mumble, my mother, or my good grades.  And the round would continue, youngest to oldest, ending with my father.

Two weeks ago, my brother Frank, his wife Teresa, and two of their seven children, Mark and Devin, stayed at my house.  I would not have expected the tender feelings which rose in me when I sat with my brother, drinking wine and talking, until midnight.  My sister Joyce texted me last evening, Happy Thanksgiving, I love you.  She and I are close but still, the flush of joy on seeing her message surprised me.

Of course I am thankful for my son, who drove eight hours to spend this day with me.  I’m thankful for the Kenyon-Vogts, who will sit at our table to share the meal today, along with their daughter, her fiance, and Abbey’s two sons.  I’m thankful for a young lawyer, who would likely prefer to be unnamed, whose company and perspective has been an indispensable boon these last few difficult years.    My friend Brenda Dingley brings relentless cheer to dreary days.   My neighbors — Scott, George, Chris, Debbie — rescue me again and again; they often check on me “just because”.    And Pat Reynolds — well, when it comes to Pat, I’m thankful for everything.

I could continue. I could name all of them, and when the naming finished, I could mention a myriad of other gifts, including the very talent which allows me to write this.

But if I must pick just one thing, as tradition had it, then today, I am thankful for being sixth of eight.  So, as a group:  I am thankful for my siblings, who carried me during the first two decades of this long strange trip.  I will name them here:  Ann Lucille Corley Fox; Adrienne Marie Corley Johnson; Joyce Elizabeth Corley, Kevin Richard Corley, Mark Louis Corley, Francis Joseph Corley, and Stephen Patrick Corley.   And me:  Mary Corinne Corley.

During difficult nights when my mother gathered us into her arms for safety, she would tell us:  When you walk down the street, I want people to say, ‘See those Corleys.  How they love when another.’  And we do.  We do not always show it.  Sometimes one feels angry with another.  I don’t speak much to one or two of them; we seem to have little in common.  But I love them all fiercely — my brothers, my sisters, here on earth and one in Heaven.  Without them I would be a party of one, instead of a gang of eight.  I’m thankful for each and every one of them.

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


Back row, left to right: Adrienne, Ann,  Joyce, Kevin

Front row:  myself, Steve, Frank, Mark

There would be much controversy over the years as to the order in which we sat in this original picture.  But here it is.  See how innocent we look.  See those Corleys:  How they love one another.

Second chances

It’s a lot easier not to complain when you win.

But yesterday’s court victory meant far more than just one in the “W” column for yours truly.  With the help of a fierce guardian ad litem and a judge who surprised me with her acumen, I managed to get equal parenting rights for a father.   And yes, I almost wrote “gay father” there — but for a father should suffice.

Truth told: my client is gay, and legally married to a man.  His coming out had caused the divorce from his children’s mother nearly three years ago. He had settled for a parenting plan that gave him five hours of visitation each week in the mother’s home.  He got lousy advice from a lawyer with an agenda — his website styled him a “Christian lawyer”.  He told my client that “no judge in Missouri would give a gay man overnights”.  The wife’s lawyer did her bidding, and my client spent half of 2015 as a shadow in his children’s lives.

Seven months later, the man found me. I launched a motion to modify which took more than a year to come to trial.  We tried to settle — at every turn, including after the first day of testimony last week.  But the ex-wife persisted.    She attacked his most vulnerable spot, the guilt he felt for disappointing her by finally admitting his true nature.  She actually testified that he should not have more time with the children because of his sexual orientation, though she tried to hedge her position with the excuse that the kids might be bullied.

Through the entire trial, the ex-wife’s own gay sister sat smiling in the first row of the courtroom, down the aisle from my client’s husband.  I swear her face must have frozen in position.

At the end, the judge started her unusual announcement of the results from the bench with a sentence that spoke to my cause.  I don’t often tell the parties in open court what my ruling will be, she began.  But this case demands that I do.  I have read everything put in front of me, and heard all the witnesses.  And I have to say, Mom, that you dwell on complaining about small things.  I hate to use this word, but you are petty.

She went on to cite a host of examples of the ex-wife’s trivial complaints.  They ranged from improperly installed car seats which my client had asked his ex-wife to help him rectify, to my client buying toys for the children to have at his new home which she had testified meant he was buying their affection.  The judge chided the ex-wife for introducing into evidence an e-mail that my client had written to his father when he came out.  That e-mail was meant to humiliate and embarrass Dad.  But it had the opposite effect.  It showed his emotional struggle during a very difficult time.  It did not humiliate him. It humanized him.

I have had my difficulties with this judge over the two years that she has sat on the domestic bench, an assignment which she leaves at the end of this year.  Complaints have escaped my lips over dinner and wine with other lawyers.  My inability to connect with her stands as one subject on which I have not stopped complaining, though sometimes silently, often disguised as brainstorming about ways to minimize any impact on future hearings when she’s barked at me.

Before this trial started, I opined that perhaps she had been judging me by my clients.  The last two cases which I had in front of her did not involve such virtuous fathers.    I had been worried that she would view this case negatively because she disliked me.  But I saw another potential. Maybe she had been responding to my attempts to advance non-righteous causes.  Perhaps in my zeal to get what my clients wanted, I had stepped over boundaries which she seeks to defend.

I went into this trial determined to give this judge a second chance — a chance to rule despite her dislike of me if that’s what motivated her occasional castigation of me in other matters.  I opened my mind to the possibility that I  had lost sight of my own quest to use  nonviolent communication in my dealings with her.

At the start of the trial, I stood to enter my appearance and spoke in a clear voice.  I crossed the courtroom to take the podium with a firm stride.  I had prepared.  I knew my facts.  I understood the law.  I believed in the virtue of my cause.  I put aside my complaints about the judge, and did my job.  When the last party rested, and silence fell over the courtroom, I had a moment of blinding clarity.  I understood that win or lose, I had tried a clean case and this judge had seen me do it.  For a half-second, the outcome did not matter as much as my redemption, and hers.

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


Then, this happened

I thought I had beat the Thanksgiving rush by one day but the Hy-Vee parking lot overflow onto State Line Road disillusioned me.  Still, I found a cart and began to roll the route through Produce.  A man in Poultry talking to his wife on his cell phone laughed when I made a joke about sending a vegetarian to buy meat.  He helped me select some sausage for my son’s breakfast.  It’s only been a few years since regular meat eaters graced my table but I’ve forgotten everything I knew back then.

The rounds ended in the gluten-free aisle.  I don’t have celiac disease but my jangled nerves do better without gluten and white sugar so I try to limit my intake of both.  The HealthMarket section of Hy-Vee draws me across the state line for any major shopping expedition.  They have no-sugar this and no-palm-oil that.  And they have Carol, a grey-haired chunky lady in her fifties who seems to work triple shifts and will climb on top of high shelves or crawl under low ones.

She was there again and we exchanged pleasantries.  She bade me a happy holiday and I did likewise.  Then I spied something rare:  A gluten-free sample table staffed by the store’s nutritionist.  I helped myself to a one-inch square piece of home-made gluten-free pumpkin pie.  The tender gluten-free crust can be purchased in the frozen food section of the HealthMarket but the lady proudly announced that she’d made the filling at home, from scratch, by herself.  I’m not gluten-free but a lot of my customers are, she confided.  I’m trying to learn more to help them eat well.

We chatted for a few minutes.  I complimented Carol and the nutritionist told me that she would tell Carol’s manager.  She gave me a 10%-off coupon which would defray some of the high cost of eating clean.  As I moved beyond her to the check-out station, she told me to have a good Thanksgiving, in a tone which suggested that she’d be calling me to make sure I had.

I drove home feeling as though I might have misjudged the people of Kansas.

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


Day’s end

I nearly burned the house down today.

Oh, perhaps I slightly exaggerate.  I lost a table cloth and a glass dish but I made some headway towards enlightenment.  I now know that Reynold’s Foil Pop-ups do not contain metal; that the kitchen smoke alarm needs a new battery; that the dog won’t bark at fire; and that the ghost in my house will frantically flit around the living room to warn me of danger.

This staggeringly stupid episode followed four hours of binge-watching Season 15 of Project Runway while doing laundry.  I think my brain must have gone soft in the process.

But I’m awake now.  I’ve had a good laugh.  After clearing the mess, I crab-walked downstairs to the laundry room with two week’s worth of towels and sheets.  Then I emptied the first-floor washer unit and hung wet tights in the main bathroom.

I supped on leftovers and kombucha while scrolling through social media.   The dog has been out and now sits on the floor of the kitchen, staying a safe distance from anywhere I go.   She eyes me now and then just to be sure she knows what I’m doing.  Behind me, in the old cabinet that I salvaged from the neighbor’s trash pile, the Google Fiber box sends out reassuring rhythmic thumps to remind me that the rest of the world lies just a few optic blips away.

It’s the end of the twentieth day of the thirty-fifth month of this daring voyage through uncharted waters spanning the distance between what has been and what could be.  Flotsam surrounds me.  I dodge falling embers as I lift the oar and plunge it deep into the water, pushing myself forward.   Life continues.