Monthly Archives: November 2016

Make a joyful noise

I can’t sing.

I once could, but the vagaries of being raised in a working-class family during the 1960s resulted in the roughening of my throat after a nasty, untreated round of strep at age 15.  Combined with the slow, certain decline of my hearing, that illness spelled the ruination of a once-lovely choir voice.  I still know the words of the funeral Mass and every hymn we sang through sophomore year.  After that it gets murky.

So I have no explanation for my fascination with the song Hallelujah.  I’ve long been a Leonard Cohen fan but that does not explain why I scroll through YouTube versions of it.  Perhaps I seek whatever joy the interjection symbolizes.

Here, then, on this — the nineteenth day of the thirty-fifth month of My Year Without Complaining — on this lovely Saturday filled with the promise that winter might be kind to us — I offer a few of my favorite versions of Leonard Cohen’s timeless ode to the human condition.

Life continues.





Winter sets in

The frigid air descends on Kansas City.  This morning my body fell into the empty space above the front steps.  I half-twisted en route to the leaves collected there, landing sideways as I’ve been taught.  I broke nothing but my stride, bruised little more than my ego.  I caught the eyes of a school bus driver as I fell but drove he on, down the road, hell-bent for my son’s alma mater no doubt, with kids flailing on the seats, clamoring to be heard above the roar of his engine.

My neighbors Chris and Susan lifted me from the ground.  Their eyes held only concern; no pity laced their glances, not even those which they exchanged over my prone body as they gauged the angle by which they would hoist my butt from the pavement.  I assumed that dainty mixture of chagrin and appreciation with which all single ladies in need of assistance must reward their saviors.  They dusted off the crunchy foliage and sent me down the driveway with assurances that they would rake the lot on Saturday.

I told my secretary Miranda this story after court.  She winced at the thought of my possible injury, but I dismissed her worry and switched the conversation to the vandalism of my Rainbow flag and purple mums.  I made no complaint.  I just reported what had occurred.  I’ll take some pills tonight and in the morning, I’ll have forgotten the incident almost entirely.

It’s night-time on the eighteenth day of the thirty-fifth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.


Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.

The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.

And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question ‘Whither?’

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?



I do believe

The round of should I tell? has started.  How old is “too old” for Santa Claus?  I say, don’t disillusion kids any sooner than they have to be.   Lightening streaks across the sky and thunder shakes the window.  They will hide behind the curtain soon enough.

This evening, I’m thankful for the ability to get through a tense afternoon without yielding to the temptation to throw paper clips at people passing my office doorway.  My feet have swelled three times their normal size and I tore my favorite purple shirt.  But I shan’t complain.  Tomorrow is another day, and I still have Tara.  As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again.

It’s eight-o-nine on the seventeenth of November in the year 2016.  I’m a little giddy.  But I’m still here.  Life continues.


When words are not enough

I don’t have much time to write yet my fingers slide across the keyboard like butter on toast.  A howling wind whips around the house outside my windows.  I can’t turn the radio on anymore.  My stomach lurches.  It’s not fair to the first person whom I will see later; too risky, I might heap complaints on them, burning coals of failure.

Today’s disappointment? The Oxford Dictionary people picking a hyphenated advertising slogan as word-of-the-year.  The writer in me cringes, but I steel myself, taking this blog by the throat and dragging it into the kitchen.  I throw it down on a chair and say, Behave yourself! and pour another cup of coffee.  The blog smirks and shifts, ducking when I swing at it.  Post-truth?  I’ll give you post-truth.  I smack the coffee pot down on the counter and wince.

Then I’m laughing.  I tell myself it’s just a word, not to be angry at the rotten roots of society which gave birth to it or those Brits who called it naked.  Just a word:  and when words fail, you stick a dash between two of them and make a new one.  Never mind that bile rises to my throat when I ask why we need this particular odious compound phrase.  We’re getting to the heart of the matter.  The circumstances about which I need to strain not to complain have gotten serious.  We’re no longer talking who done me wrong.  We’re talking little girls getting bullied in the school yard by kids who think that bigotry will become the new normal.

The wind rises; the lamps flickered out just then.  The gods must be appeased.  I’ll take my shower and turn into a barrister and go to court.  I’ll try not to smirk, or snarl.  I’ll be nice to the guardian ad litem with an ax to grind.  Then I’ll slink back to the office with my plastic smile and close the browser with its offending announcement.  Word are not enough these days.  We need a hyphen to hold us together.

It’s the seventeenth day of the thirty-fifth month of My [Trembling] Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.


Today’s Gratitude

I started wearing a safety pin on my lapel last week.

I read about the trend, which started in England after the nation voted to leave the European Union.  The safety pin shows people whom you meet that they can consider themselves safe with you.  I found the symbol a bit ironic, as the mother of a child born in 1991 who covered his clothing in safety pins for the best part of 7th and 8th grade.  But nonetheless, I wear it as a symbol of unity.

When I took my coat off in court yesterday, my client saw the safety pin on my lapel and thanked me.  By the end of the day, he, his husband, and his mother-in-law all wore one, taken from a little pouch in my carry bag which I bought for the very act of sharing.

But my friend Jeanne Serra went one better.  She found the perfect way to broadcast her feelings.  As I sit here, thankful for Facebook through which she and I reconnected, my worries fall away.  I suppress complaint.  In a world where Jeanne’s message seems painfully necessary, I cannot grumble about anything, not even the sharp tingling in my back which signals an impending shingles outbreak.

It’s the sixteenth day of the thirty-fifth month of My Year Without Complaining.  I’m grateful to be one of Jeanne’s people.  Life continues.





I spend my life waiting. Right now I am waiting for Miranda, who will be my trial assistant today.  I wear a black jacket with an angel and a safety pin on the lapel, my personal symbols of hope and unity.  It’s not a suit; I don’t own one.  It’s close enough for family law work though.

Last night,  I paced while waiting for today’s client to send an answer to just one more question.  Earlier in the day, I watched my e-mail for a Children’s Division worker who holds one small corner of another client’s life in his over-worked (or possibly vindictive) hands.  A watched kettle took its precious time boiling at 5:30 a.m. yesterday.

All this waiting gives me time to think about the state of my life, my home, my country.  If I refrain from complaint, right at this moment, my motivation might not be as clear as I’d like.

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


In which I have no cause for complaining

When my father died, my brother Steve tried to convince the funeral home to give us an orphan’s discount.

Here in Kansas City, I feel like an orphan, adrift in a sea with no one who shares my blood or a common surname.  The texts and bi-annual visits from my son don’t give me the fix I need.  My sister’s frequent calls nearly take me there.  But still:  The house has emptied, and in this whole damn town, nobody intersects with my biography.

Yesterday my brother Frank and his wife Teresa came to town.  They used my guest room, my couch, and my living room floor. Their son Devin used my child’s rocker to take care of his “learning doll”.  Mark surfed Google Fiber’s 3000 channels.  The adults drank wine until midnight.

Today they returned to load a small old desk into their truck.  Before they pulled back into traffic and the abyss of their soccer schedule, I sat on my porch steps beside my nephew Mark, giddy with joy.  I had to work all day but you’ll get no grumbling from me.

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


Devin and Frank; Teresa and Mark


Devin and Frank; me and Mark

Deja vu’ to you, too

In 2014, I spent nearly every meal in a restaurant crying.

The staff at the Brookside Panera’s wore name tags announcing their passions.  One girl’s tag said that her name was TANEISHA and her passion was MY DOG.  She brought me extra apples and refills of coffee.  She pretended not to notice the tears falling on my keyboard.  She’d ask if she could do anything for me.  I’d shake my head.

A blond waitress at Aixois told me that I looked like I could use some hot tea.  A sob escaped my lips.  I wrote an entry about how badly I had misjudged the place in an online review just a few months prior to the girl’s kindness.  I sent her a link and she commented on it, thanking me for not complaining.  As if.

For the entire year, I analyzed every encounter that I’d ever had with a server and worked my way around to blaming myself for every ineptitude.  I didn’t just excuse remembered unpleasantness, I convinced myself that I deserved them.  Cowed and repentant, I tipped 25% and refilled my own water.  I borrowed bar towels and wiped down chairs.  I shook my hands in the direction of bus-boys and carried my plate to the counter.

I became the very model of the perfect customer.

By 2015, I had begun to get used to the new parameters of my life.  Correspondingly my tipping fell to 15% and I started letting the waitress clear the table again.  I’d ask for clean silverware if I saw a smudge, and eventually, before the dawn of 2016, managed to send back cold food a time or two, giddy with daring.

It’s nearly 2017.  I’m back to calculating the tip based upon the virtues of the person earning it.  I still hover around 15% but I’ve dropped to 10% once or twice, and I tip 20% for excellent performance.  I’m nearly sure, almost, maybe, not quite, that I’m entitled to be treated with kindness.  Not deference, mind you; that’s reserved for royalty; those who’ve been beatified and thus would never demand it; and people with terminal illnesses.

Today I found myself driving down Oak street suddenly ravenous. I  thought about the Farm Table breakfast at Aixois and decided to take myself out to lunch.  But I had missed the brunch menu by a half an hour or so, and the kid at the counter gestured mysteriously toward an area of the restaurant where I didn’t want to sit.  He stared over the cash register to my right and muttered something about my tardiness.  He rested back on his heels, grabbed his cell phone to check a text, and started talking to a co-worker.  I tried to order but he kept looking away.  Finally I poured myself a coffee from the self-serve bar, sat down, and fumed.

After a few minutes, a young woman with blond hair came to my table, bent down, and asked in a soft voice if she could help me.  I squinted.  The same woman?  From two years ago?  I wasn’t sure.  I told her I wanted something without meat.  She lifted the menu and we talked about a possible alteration of an existing sandwich.  She described it in a way that made me think I might enjoy it.  I thanked her.

An hour later, she set the check in front of me and leaned down again.  I didn’t charge you for your coffee, she told me.  You shouldn’t have had any trouble ordering.

I felt like crying.  But not in the old way, with the tight-throated panic of loneliness.  These tears would have cleansed me, washing away the last vestiges of that terrible time.  I held them back.  I paid and packed away my little laptop.  I drove home, noticing the haze of sunshine on the heavy branches of the trees in their autumn attire.  I stopped at 59th and Oak, watching a woman push a baby carriage.  She crossed in front of me and smiled her thanks.  When she had safely navigated to the far curb, I continued home.

It’s evening, it’s the 12th day of the thirty-fifth month of My Year Without Complaining, and I’m all right.  Life continues.



Was it a dream?

When I heard the news of Leonard Cohen’s death last night, my stomach knotted.  I immediately got on YouTube to see if I could find clips of my favorite Cohen masterpieces.  With closed eyes, I let the long-familiar cadences of his Suzanne wash over me.

Was it a dream, or did I see him play at SIU-Edwardsville, long ago in my misspent youth?  I let my body rest against the pillows, eyes still closed, tablet falling from my hands.  My feet in dreams crush the blades of grass beneath my boots as I maneuver around the blankets and the bottles of wine stuck in upturned buckets, contraband that the security guard did not really strive to find.

On our blanket, a few yards down the hill, my boyfriend gathers the pile of picnic remains. The opening act strikes its instruments in the golden light of the setting sun.  As the dark gathers, the murmurs of the crowd subside, and Leonard Cohen moves slowly across the stage to take his place on the stool that a roadie hurries to set in front of a microphone.

Was it a dream? Or did his music sustain me for a decade, a decade during which my weight plunged below 80 and my mother fretted?  A decade when I finished college early and decamped to Boston in a desperate act to escape my abysmal failures?

I will not complain about this loss, the passing of this fabulous writer and musician.  His death belongs to others, to the family which mourns him and the friends who did more than idolize him.  In fact I celebrate his life, because his music wrapped itself around my cells as I aged.  I took my comfort from his art.  We all have something which gets us through our loneliest hours.  Though I have his music only on worn vinyl and in my mind, Leonard Cohen’s voice guided me through a dark decade.  With my brother Kevin’s gruff encouragement, my mother’s constant mutterings of advice, and the musky fragrance of single malt Scotch, Leonard Cohen wove a net beneath me while I crossed the high wire between the bitter muck of my Catholic high school days and the rest of my life.

There would be other crises, and other saviors, but without the music of Leonard Cohen, I never would have seen them.  So this morning, I bid him fare thee well, with eternal gratitude.

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




Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she’s half crazy
But that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer
That you’ve always been her lover
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.
And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said “All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them”
But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
And you want to travel with him
And you want to travel blind
And you think maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind.

Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind.

Advance forgiveness

This post goes out to my cousin Adell Ulz Morton.


I forgive you.  I forgive you for expressing your chagrin when events challenge you and your world.

I forgive you for your cries of anguish at the burdens of your dearest daughter, whom you adore.

I forgive you for the times when you stand in the doorway with your eyes turned heavenward and your heart in turmoil.

I forgive you for collapsing into a chair and uttering profanity into the air around you, when fatigue overwhelms you.

Yes, my dear cousin:  I know these acts technically can be described as complaint.  I know you take inspiration from this blog and strive to eliminate complaint from your own life.  I know, too, of your deep love for your daughter and granddaughter, for this country, for your friends.  I don’t know you, because our childhoods and our lives as adult took us away from a common path.  But I know you because we share common blood — the blood of a man who shot off his trigger finger to avoid fighting in the Austrio-Hungary war; of a woman who crossed the ocean with small children, then raised a house-full of strong men and women; the blood of coal miners, and farmers, and wood-carvers.

Your momentary lapses do not outweigh your strength and perseverance, Adell.  Nor do they outweigh the positive attitude with which you have lived your life.  Soldier on, my cousin.  Soldier on.

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

My second-cousin Pat Talman, my sister Adrienne Corley Johnson, and my second-cousin Adell Ulz Morton.

My second-cousin Pat Talman, my sister Adrienne Corley Johnson, and my second-cousin Adell Ulz Morton.