Monthly Archives: February 2019

One True Thing

Yesterday I exchanged e-mails with a moderator from a website for survivors of clerical abuse.  I had submitted a piece which I wrote in response to the recent  summit in Rome about the abuse of children (and adults, including nuns) by Catholic priests. The moderator thanked me for my transmission and noted that my entry would be included on the list of stories of survival.  She said, among other things, “What you experienced was not your fault.”

That is a truth to which survivors cling.  It’s the one true thing which we carry with us, though we don’t always believe  it.  Integrating that certainty into my life has required me to turn the thought into a mantra.  The crazy reality for victims of pervasive and early abuse centers on our inability to distinguish illusion from reality. I don’t mean in the sense of common occurrences.  I’m talking about relying on our analysis and judgment.

Of course, the severity differs among us, depending on many factors including how much effort we put into healing. But at the baseline, often survivors can’t distinguish the trustworthy from the treacherous; the pothole from the level surface; the knowledgeable from the vain.  This results from neurobiological changes caused by trauma which cannot be reversed.  All we can do is modify our behavioral reaction.

Someone asked me what I thought about when I fell and couldn’t rise from my yard last weekend.  Her interest stemmed from horror, not voyeurism.  Oh my Gosh, she exclaimed. What went through your mind?

The question prompted reflection. In truth, whenever I fall, my brain immediately starts scheming ways to pull myself vertical.  But then a sort of stupor overwhelms me. A wave of rumination follows.The voices of my detractors rise from the depths to which I have shoved them.  I hear the gossipers, the naysayers, the sharp cackle of those who have castigated me for not being enough or the right stuff.

Then I hear the voice of Scott Lerner, the pulmonologist who gave me six months to live on Valentine’s Day in 1998. Sadly, Dr. Lerner himself died eighteen months later.  I had changed doctors to the great Joseph Brewer, who saved my life.

I ran into Dr. Lerner at a bagel place about a week before I read of his sudden death at 47 from a heart attack. I stopped at his table to greet him.  He gestured to two teenage boys. His sons, he said.  Then he admitted that he couldn’t recall my name.  When I gave it, a startled look crossed his face.  “But weren’t you— “, he started.  I smiled.  “No, evidently I actually wasn’t,” I replied.  I told his children that I was glad to have met them, and continued out of the store.

Eventually, last weekend, I pulled myself off the ground using the handle of my car door.  I brushed the dirt and leaves from my leggings.  Life has thrown a lot of curve balls in my direction.  I’ve suffered plenty of complaints about my deficiencies. I’ve learned a lot about the medical field that I would rather not know.  I’ve healed from broken bones; a broken heart; and the slashing of my pride, my innocence, and my ambition.  Ugly lies told about me  have tainted precious relationships.  Measuring sticks constructed from the standards of small minds have found me wanting.

Through it all, I’ve held onto my one true thing. That truth prompted me to start down my #journeytojoy, in aid of which I commenced this blog and the goal to learn to live without complaining.  I still fall.  And still, I rise.

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

The year that was.

This afternoon, my friend Sally and I shared stories of each other’s lives. We sat on the porch with her dog Buddy resting near us.  Later, her husband finished the chores which he had volunteered to do, and walked home with the dog while Sally and I made tea and continued talking until dusk.

I told her, among other tales, of the year between my mother’s falling ill and her death.  I had not spoken out loud of that awful time for a decade.  From the first misdiagnosis to the last breath, my mother’s illness threw our lives into a tailspin.  My brother Stephen nursed her in the last few months, leaving a stamp of bitter desperation that haunted him for the rest of his own life.  I drove back and forth across Missouri, sometimes forgetting in which direction I had been headed after stopping for gas.  I’d buy a newspaper to see if it was Friday (east) or Sunday (west).  My sister Joyce never missed a day by Mom’s side.

I remember standing in the kitchen door two days before Mom died.  Joyce sat on the little bench beside me.  “This was supposed to be our year,” she sighed.  “What happened?”

I could not say.  My parents came to visit me in Kansas City just weeks before my mother’s cancer got its name.  She had been having some issues for which she’d gone to see her old physician. But the symptoms did not abate. We would learn just a month or two later that the doctor had grossly failed to understand those symptoms, and had given her treatment that caused the cancer to spread.  I had not yet turned 30 when my mother left us, taking with her whatever semblance of innocence remained.

Today I found myself able to speak of all of this without anger. I feel a kind of lingering sorrow, but also a sense of peace.  I am my mother’s daughter.  Death did not strip that from me. It has taken nearly thirty-four years for me to reach this state, which bears an uncanny resemblance to grace.

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

Lucille Johanna Lyons Corley and yours truly, at the Bissell House, c. 1971.


Sometimes walking down my three steps challenges me.  Last night I remembered that I had come home with my paycheck.  I pictured it sitting on the front seat of my car.  I imagined the Delta wind whisking the envelope onto the blacktop of the gas station in Flag City on Saturday morning.  I would not notice as it fluttered away.

Despite the searing pain in my right hip and the frightening wobble in my legs, I eased myself down those steps and skittered the twenty feet to my car.  I glanced to my right, and caught a glimpse of the night sky.  After retrieving my check, I made my cautious way back inside to get my camera.  Then I gingerly traversed those same steps to capture a photo of the setting sun.

As I stood taking pictures, a figure appeared on our road.  Sally, from the far side of the park, approached with  her little dog Buddy.  We exchanged a few words about the beautiful sunset. She asked how I had been.  For some reason, I found myself able to be honest.  I admitted that I had not been doing well, acknowledging the hows and the whys of my see-saw neurology in a few short sentences.  Then Sally spoke of her weekend plans, her daughter’s travels, and visits to the church on the hill just outside Rio Vista.

After a few minutes, I realized that I had grown cold.  I said goodbye.  Sally hesitated, then offered her services and that of her husband, should I need anything done.  I found myself accepting her gracious suggestion.  Then she continued on her walk, and I went back inside, to the warmth of my small space. I managed the steps a little easier this time.

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

James Taylor, “You’ve Got a Friend”

Talk is cheap.

I saw a meme about chronic pain the other day. It told my story.  I didn’t save it so I will ad lib.

Chronic pain works like this:

“Hey, how are you?” [Assesses current state before responding. Thinks, “How am I?  In pain, that’s how I am.”  Hesitates. Then, responds:]

“Okay, how are you?”

The next day, runs into the same person, who says, again,

“Hey, how are you?”  [Stops, turns inward, thinks about how am I? Realizes:  Still in pain. Says:]

“Oh, I’m okay, and you?”

When my mother lay dying, I slogged my way through court in Kansas City all week, Monday through Friday morning.  Then I barreled across Missouri to relieve my St. Louis siblings so they could tend to their own lives for forty-eight hours.  People would ask, “How’s your Mom?”  Most of the time, I would respond with some vaguely polite and grateful platitude.  Towards the end of a brutal year, in the weeks before she passed, I would snap, “She’s dying, but so nice of you to ask.”

Talk is cheap.

Today my co-worker stopped at the door to my office and said in gentle tones, “You took a little tired, did you have a bad morning too?” We briefly commiserated with one another.  She had an allergy-induced sinus headache. I had fallen and struggled to get off the floor.  After a short exchange about these burdens, we got to work.  But for the rest of the day, we treated each other with kindness. No other words had to be spoken.

I’m not sure what any of this has to do with my core mission here in this venue, but sometimes experiences wave their hands begging me to articulate them. Take what you will from my musings.  If you find nothing of benefit to take, then leave something.  Your own words, maybe, or scattered rose petals.  I won’t mind.

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

Two Sides of a Wobbly Coin

One of the immutable facts about my neurological condition centers on its changeability.  In the immortal words of ortho-surgeon Ted Sandow, “abnormal bodies behave abnormally”. For the last few days, walking has proven challenging.

People respond variously to the sight of my profound wobble.  Some avert their eyes, assuming that I am drunk or demented.  Others fall over themselves to offer what they intend and perceive as helpfulness, sometimes making matters worse.  They grab my arm, throwing me sideways.  They push forward the door on which I have stabilized myself.  They grab my pocketbook, which I have learned to use as a countervailing weight.

When I strive for gentle words to fend off their actions, most people express some level of outrage that I dare to rebuff their earnest assistance.  Countless times, folks have actually insisted that if I accepted help, people would like me more.  Apparently, conditional affection compensates for physical threat to my precarious hold on verticality.   Few believe that I demur not from pride, stubbornness, or perversion but to protect myself from injury.

Last night, I dreamed that I had planned a new YouTube video.   I wanted to “go live”, unrehearsed, to pontificate on a subject about which my dream-self felt considerable passion.  Someone helping me kept correcting my grammar, scolding me for awkward mannerisms, and standing between me and the computer with which I had gone online.  Eventually this person admitted that she had stopped the live feed because she didn’t consider my effort to be adequate.  I raged at her interference. She responded with indignation.

I woke ahead of the alarm.  As I moved around the house, I reflected on my dream.  I wondered which participant in the video drama bothered me more, and which character represented my inner self.  One disdained help; one forced help on an unwilling recipient.  Two sides of a sad story.  As I poured coffee, I found myself smiling, rueful, amused.   Arguing with yourself again, I said, out loud,  into the warm coziness of my tiny house.

It’s the twentieth day of the sixty-second month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Still life, with fog and traffic jam

I’ve flirted with vegetarianism since my teens.  My mother discovered the turmoil which hamburger caused my belly and scaled back on my meat consumption.  In college, I considered myself what we then called “lacto-ovo vagetarian”, meaning that I ate dairy and eggs but no meat, fish,or fowl.  Later I phased white meat and bacon back into my diet, and for decades, that’s how I ate. In 2014, I went back to my original version of being a veg-head, which purists now call “vegetarian” as distinguished from “vegan”.   It’s not a matter of principle for me.  It’s just what my body prefers.

But once a year since then, I’ve nodded to pescatarianism at a table overlooking the stunning view where the Russian River meets the endless glory of my Pacific.  Yesterday I made the annual voyage, starting early in the morning from Geyersville, where I had spent the night in a quirky retreat dedicated to the Goddess.  After a luscious carb-load at Flaky’s in Healdsburg, I headed west, encountering flooded roads, misty hills, and surreal moments, including one stuck behind a crew shoveling a mudslide from the roadway.  I spent the day on Highway 1, cleansing my spirit, replenishing my resolve, and breathing the song of the sea in deep, greedy gulps.

It’s the eighteenth day of the sixty-second month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.


Reimagining myself

At ten or twelve, my brothers coaxed me into wading in the Meramec River with them.  One walked ahead, one behind, both earnestly promising to catch me if I stumbled.  I shivered in the swiftness of the current.  My mother never took us camping at the height of summer.  She didn’t like the crowds.  We headed to the woods, the mountains, to Elephant Rock State Park, anywhere, but only off-season.  Too cold for swimming, really, though we often had the campgrounds to ourselves.

On that day, I did stumble, and my brothers did leap forward and haul me to my feet again.  I sank my eight-dollar Converse tennis shoes into the mud as I scrambled to the bank.   My hair tangled down my back, a mess of damp curls, soaked by my dip.  One brother held my shoulders while the other warmed my hands.  “All right?” they asked.  I nodded.  We slipped back into the water and started forward while my mother watched from in front of the tent and my father stoked the fire.

I’ve never been an outdoors sort of person.  But these days, I hang out of my car window and let the rain spatter my face as I strain to frame an egret before some random noise startles him.  I pull to the side of the road and and straddle embankments to shoot a rainbow over the roadway.  I stretch the limits of my rudimentary Canon as I huddle in my car.  The highway traffic barrels past while the nearest sheep chews a stalk of grass, idly gazing in my direction. 

And more:  I scroll through hundreds of images, wishing that my hands did not tremble, that I could control my startle reflex, that I had kept the lens pointed upward just that second longer.  All the while, the wind blows, the snow geese call to each other across the fields, and whatever understanding of myself I might have had disintegrates. 

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


What I Did For Love

The winds started again last night. I woke at one a.m. to the sound of their sweep across the meadow.  We lost an old willow tree in the last storm and now I fear that others will bend to the breaking point.

My intimate friends know that I do not like Valentine’s Day.  I suffered a personal trauma in 2014 which began on the morning of February 13th, reaching its crescendo late in the next day, and reverberating for the last five years.  Like a keen cymbal, its vibration lingers.  I do not begrudge anyone their  own romantic celebrations.  But I associate the day with devastation.  In the wildly unlikely event that I ever find another partner, I will ask that we pick some other day to celebrate our passion.  April 1st maybe; or December 7th.  Why not redeem one of them instead?  Let February 14th fend for itself.

I do not regret anything which I did for love.  In fact, I take comfort in my own efforts to honor those for whom I hold a strong regard.  For love, I have endured anger, cleaned vomit, climbed mountains, and sat beside sweaty beds holding bony hands.  For love, I hauled garden soil and plant cuttings in a plastic tub on a luggage dolly into the locked ward of an Alzheimer’s unit so my mother-in-law could sink her hands into rich earth one last time.  For love, I maneuvered my way past long lines of voters to get deputized as a voter’s assistant so my father-in-law could cast a Republican ballot and lend his voice to a landslide the day before he died.  For love of my favorite curmudgeon, I wrote a long letter to Senator Pat Roberts mandating that he honor the slim reed of faith which a dying man placed in him and his colleagues.

I don’t regret a single moment.  Nor do I regret getting clean, forswearing complaint, or pushing my son to any pursuit which took him away so he would not be stuck in his mother’s house.  I find that any time I acted from a place of love, I chose another step in the direction of my own salvation.  Love stands as both the most selfless and selfish of motivations.  I embrace each end. I release the butterfly so that I may have a glimpse of its glory, however brief, however fleeting.  The sight of its rise into the endless sky rewards me enough to convince my soul to endure the loss.

Under the beat of the winter rains on my metal roof, I gaze around the little home which I have created for myself here.  The sun strains to glimmer through the wide bank of heavy clouds. Some might see this day as gloomy, but the earth needs the nourishment of this blessed rain.  The spring crops will drink more deeply; the fall harvest will be more bountiful.  I can endure a little mud for the sake of a farmer’s gain.

It’s the fourteenth day of the sixty-second month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

What I Did For Love, from “A Chorus Line”

Experiential Reference

My friend Laurie and I agree that we accept people’s foibles but do not necessarily wish to allow the impact of those foibles on our psyches.  She pours a glass of chardonnay.  We sit in the comfortable warmth of her electric fireplace, our bellies full of good food and the pleasant feeling of kinship.

Around eight, I pick my way across the rough surface of the lot between us, watching above for the soar of a hunter owl.  Back in my house, I scan the photographs which I took on my way to work today.   I need to do something about the tilt.  But I wouldn’t know the shot had a crooked aspect if I hadn’t been there, standing on the side of the road.  I couldn’t find the proper framing if I had no experiential reference.

I reflect back on the conversation at dinner.  Both Laurie and I had reached points in our respective lives at which we could no longer tolerate screaming.  We talked of the peace which eventually followed after each of us took that stand.  I see again the twinkle in her eyes, the small smile as she leaned back and raised her wine glass.

Then I download a couple of photographs and put my mind to the editing process.  I can’t help humming as I work.

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


Nature’s Glory Speaks For Itself

My friends: 

This evening, I give you the words of a poet to accompany these photos of a splendid creature to which my friend Laurie Crosson Erceg alerted me as it hovered on a pole high above the community building at Park Delta Bay. 

Though the picture speaks for itself, Tennyson’s short, powerful piece seems fitting.


It’s the tenth day of the sixty-second month of My [Endless] Year [Learning to Live] Without Complaining.  Life continues.

The Eagle

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.



P.S. Yes, I know this is not an eagle.  And I live not by the sea but in a river delta below sea level.