Monthly Archives: June 2020


The sweet, serene air of a Delta Saturday greeted me as I rose this morning.    I pulled my hair into a top knot and put on a soft white dress.  I tightly laced my new shoes and padded around the house, making lists.  But my friend Kimberley called from Kansas City.  Then the mail arrived, with a couple of tempting packages.   Before I realized what had happened, lunchtime had come.   I found myself standing at the stove waiting for quinoa to cook.  Tiny tomatoes, halved and soaked in vinegar, nestled in parsley, green onion, and fennel dressing.

After my lunch, I came upstairs to do a little work.  But the shadows played across the meadow.  I gazed through the transom at the dancing sunlight.  I should be out walking, I told myself.  I should find my stick and a sweater and stroll down to the garden.

I meant to get outside early.  I wanted to spray the side of the house and the succulents around my tree before the heat rose in the park.  Laziness stole into my veins.  I did nothing more challenging than wash the breakfast dishes and send a few emails.

I see the spiders have overtaken the crystal on the transom sill.  I definitely must take my whisk to their work.  A spray of vinegar will cut through the dusty glass.  Tomorrow, I promise myself.  I listen to the sounds of the park.  A mourning dove coos overhead.  Some small brown bird scampers across the grass next to my deck, chattering to its companion. 

 I’m not much of a napper but I could carry a book out onto the porch and pretend to read, while the hummingbirds flit overhead, and the woodpecker hammers away at the old oak across the road.  The cobwebs can wait.

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

White rice, ginger chews, and trespassing in the California Delta

For years my body has grown increasingly rebellious.  It rejected red meat from early on, forcing me into vegetarianism through college and young adulthood.  I fought the limitations of a plant-based diet.  I added chicken and fish, the occasional strip of bacon, and Thanksgiving turkey just to show this bag of bones who was boss.

Six years ago, I surrendered back to some semblance of clean living.  I had gotten down to 105 pounds of neurotic nervousness.  A scalding divorce might have been to blame but truth acknowledged, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with anything stronger than white rice.

This week’s news tortured my Midwestern soul.  I longed to be on the streets of the Windy City with my son or outside Union Station with the folks whom I came to Kansas City to serve.  My first job on Missouri’s western edge allowed me to work east of the urban divide for a nonprofit group founded by Freedom, Inc.  As their acknowledged token white employee, I helped match services to citizens.  I have never felt so useful.  

But here I sit, in the California sunshine, the only protest within miles happening in the Rio Vista park with no fanfare.  I missed it.  So I get online from my laptop and divvy up some disposable income from my tax incentive among the Equal Justice Initiative, the Legal Defense Fund, and the Chicago Community Bond Fund.  As my friends create fundraisers for other such programs, I click on Facebook-donate buttons and kick a few more dollars into the fray.  I put down my bowl of rice and enter my debit card number, knowing that my money won’t go far, but it will carry my intentions farther than my spastic feet could go.  

My little troubles shrink into insignificance in the face of the persistent problems of our society.  So I keep them to myself.  I spend sleepless nights reading about homeopathic cures for my increasing digestive foibles.  The recommended teas ravage me; the herbs clearly have power, but not the gentleness which I crave.  I resign myself to little candies with minuscule amounts of ginger.  I sit on the porch with cup after cup of spring water.  I recall once telling someone that I could endure a lot because I knew others suffered far more.  He had snapped in return that he didn’t think my problems should be diminished just because somebody else’s were worse.  I disagreed then, and my resolve has not abated.  How can I complain about a rumbling tummy, when people are dying for a twenty-dollar bill?

Still I get sad sometimes, overwrought, lonely, falling within the tangled undergrowth of my untamed heart.  Last night was such a night.  I had spent the day in solitude.  I ended the evening with a call to my sister Joyce.  We talked of her challenges and mine; of our fears and our failings; of our futures and our longings.  Our words would have sounded simple to the untrained ear.  But our hearts connected and we carried one another through the hour to the other side, to a small space of temporary and admittedly fragile peace.

Afterwards, I cast aside the novel which I had been reading and snatched my camera from the hook on which it hangs.  I pulled my car out onto Brannan Island Road.  When I got to the crossroads, I could have turned right to Jackson Slough or left to Twitchell Island Road.  Instead, I went straight.  I took a path that I had dutifully avoided for the last thirty months.  I drove my car past the sign proclaiming that the impending stretch of the levee could not be traversed due to being privately owned.  I figured no one would challenge me, and my reckoning proved correct.  I parked in the middle of the road.  Standing in the chilly evening air, I cast my lens across the fields and snapped a few photographs to prove that I had once been brave.

Never mind that afterwards, I crept along the narrow levee, unable to get the car turned around.  Instead I journeyed forward, beyond the point at which I could have claimed ignorance and accident.  Eventually, I came through the overgrown trees to a road on which I had a right to travel.  I made it home.  My triumph took a momentary beating when I dropped my keys in the treacherous crack between my porch and my house.  I called for rescue; thanked Candice and Noah for fishing the offending keyring from the muck and grime; and went inside, still smiling from the after-glow of trespassing to see the sunset over the California Delta.

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


I remember my mother bent over her sewing machine, hair in curlers tightly wound to her scalp.  In earlier years, she made dresses for her daughters and curtains for the various rooms in our little house.  Closer to the end of her life, she had two basic patterns which she used over and over with varying weights of fabric.  One produced a plethora of all-season wrap-around skirts.  The other yielded a shoulder bag with a single flap and no closure.

She made the skirt in denim, floral prints, and corduroy.  She made the pocketbook in light-weight or heavy, depending on the season.  With the skirt she wore a host of t-shirts.  She pulled the thick strap of the current bag over her shoulder and held it close to her body.  

As I did my laundry this weekend, I discovered that I have four dresses of the same type but in different colors.  In a basket under my little sofa, I keep twenty pairs of leggings, winter weight at one side, summer at the other.  On a hook in the storage cupboard, I hang four cardigans for summer.  The heavier ones live in another basket, pushed to the back for now.  Every day I wear one of the dresses, a pair of leggings, and Mary Janes with thin cotton socks.

Thusly attired, my shape and size disappear.  The effortless swing of fabric falls from the shoulders and skims the cloth of the leggings.  Short sleeves truncate my arms and hide that slight flab which comes with middle-age.  I sling a crossbody across my chest before I leave each morning.  On cooler days, I tie one of a dozen scarves around my neck.

A photo of my mother hangs on the stairway to the loft of my tiny house.  She wears one of her famous skirt-and-T combos.  She’s dancing, a light skip down the sidewalk of our home.  I took this photo in May  of 1977.  I had come home from Boston to walk with my graduating class at St. Louis University, and to see my brother Frank graduate from the U-High.  I study the picture as I drink my coffee in the morning.  She seems so happy.  I think that must be an illusion, a trick of the soft sepia tones in which the film was developed.  

Summer settles onto the island, the warm days buffered by the sweep of evening winds.  I think of my mother.  I wonder what she would make of the life into which I have stumbled.  She would enjoy the land here.  She would walk along the levee and study the ripple of the passing river.  She would call to the birds in the meadow. I  can almost hear her voice.  I close my eyes and strain to feel the comfort of the melody, a lullaby tendered in her low, deep croon.  Then it fades, and I am left with a picture on the wall and a tiny closet full of uniforms.

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


Nothing so rare as a day in June

A memory:  

My little brother Frank stands on his sidewalk, arms folded, gazing out into the city night.  Beside him, I shift to find stable purchase on the uneven sidewalk.  I had miles to go the next morning and should have been sleeping.  But we rarely stopped so quietly, he and I together  We rarely shared anything of substance.  We almost never spoke of events more serious than politics or the happy successes of our children.  But for this one moment in time, his face takes on a somber air.  He reaches for words to describe his quest for a rich, full life despite the challenges of our difficult family.  Finally, he speaks, simply and quietly.  

“Here’s how I see it,” he tells me.  “Our father was an asshole and our little brother killed himself.  Okay.  So what about the last twenty years?  What have I done?  What do I have?  A wife, a career, seven kids, my grandchildren.  These are what define me.”

My little brother Stephen Patrick Corley died by suicide twenty-three years ago.  No one knows the exact date.  I think he was found on June 14th and buried on the 21st.  Autopsy results put his death at seven to ten days before discovery.    Born on  a snowy Christmas in 1959; died on a warm June day in 1997.  In between, my brother lived, and loved, and laughed, and cried.  He suffered.  He visited pain upon others.  Those who rue his life and their connection with it have ample reason.  But those of us who cherished him — and trust me, the two groups coincide — still mourn the loss of him.

I drove home after shopping yesterday, thinking about my little brother.  In a box under my bed, I have a letter which he wrote to me from New Orleans.  He described his struggles and the way in which he chose to deal with them.  He spoke of the hope he felt.  He seemed determined to overcome his demons.  He signed that letter as he always did — Your friend and mine, Stephen Patrick Corley.

My father truly was an asshole, though perhaps because of the neuro-psychological damage inflicted on him by combat.  And my little brother did kill himself, letting go of his tenuous connection to the world one sweet summer day beneath a towering tree.  I did not understand either of them.  Of the two, I feel most the loss of my little brother.  His death did not surprise me though.   I do not know if he found peace on the other side of his terrible act.  For myself, I have struggled for two decades to find peace with his death. 

As I traversed the levee road in the shimmering sun yesterday, I glanced to my right at the San Joaquin; to my left at the fields of Andrus Island.  I drew a breath.  I said a prayer.  I continued forward.

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

What Is So Rare As A Day In June
And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries earth if it be in tune,
And over it softly her warm ear lays;
Whether we look, or whether we listen,
We hear life murmur, or see it glisten;
Every clod feels a stir of might,
An instinct within it that reaches and towers,
And, groping blindly above it for light,
Climbs to a soul in grass and flowers;
The flush of life may well be seen
Thrilling back over hills and valleys;
The cowslip startles in meadows green,
The buttercup catches the sun in its chalice,
And there’s never a leaf nor a blade too mean
To be some happy creature’s palace;
The little bird sits at his door in the sun,
Atilt like a blossom among the leaves,
And lets his illumined being o’errun
With the deluge of summer it receives;
His mate feels the eggs beneath her wings,
And the heart in her dumb breast flutters and sings;
He sings to the wide world, and she to her nest,
In the nice ear of Nature which song is the best?

Now is the high-tide of the year,
And whatever of life hath ebbed away
Comes flooding back with a ripply cheer,
Into every bare inlet and creek and bay;
Now the heart is so full that a drop overfills it,
We are happy now because God wills it;
No matter how barren the past may have been,
‘Tis enough for us now that the leaves are green;
We sit in the warm shade and feel right well
How the sap creeps up and the blossoms swell;
We may shut our eyes but we cannot help knowing
That skies are clear and grass is growing;
The breeze comes whispering in our ear,
That dandelions are blossoming near,
That maize has sprouted, that streams are flowing,
That the river is bluer than the sky,
That the robin is plastering his house hard by;
And if the breeze kept the good news back,
For our couriers we should not lack;
We could guess it all by yon heifer’s lowing,
And hark! How clear bold chanticleer,
Warmed with the new wine of the year,
Tells all in his lusty crowing!

Joy comes, grief goes, we know not how;
Everything is happy now,
Everything is upward striving;
‘Tis as easy now for the heart to be true
As for grass to be green or skies to be blue,
‘Tis for the natural way of living:
Who knows whither the clouds have fled?
In the unscarred heaven they leave not wake,
And the eyes forget the tears they have shed,
The heart forgets its sorrow and ache;
The soul partakes the season’s youth,
And the sulphurous rifts of passion and woe
Lie deep ‘neath a silence pure and smooth,
Like burnt-out craters healed with snow.

James Russell Lowell


Seeking solace

I spend a lot of time alone in my tiny house or sitting on my porch.  Whenever I leave, I take my little Canon with its broken lens cap.  I try to keep my eyes wide open.  I strive to see the Delta in its shimmering liveliness, to understand its contours and the rhythm of the natural life here.

The birds fascinate me.  The other day, a large white creature flew across the road.  Shaped like a hawk, with a massive wingspan, it seemed frantic.  It swooped across Jackson Slough Road from a newly-plowed field to the low-lying shallow water of the slough.  It rose back to the air and landed high in the bare branches of a dying tree.  I saw its feathers fluttering in the wind.  I didn’t have my camera with me, but I carry the mental image.  Now I move down that roadway at a snail’s pace, Canon in hand, hoping for another sighting.

Even the crows somehow assume an air of grandeur in the Delta.  In Kansas City, we honk our horns to scatter them.  Here, they gracefully land on the high wires.  They stroll down the narrow levee road.  I skirt around them.  I stop to photograph their effortless flight.

With all the turmoil in today’s world, I’ve taken to assuring myself of the pettiness of any complaint that I might otherwise articulate.  But my soul still feels restless.  My body still aches.  These long Delta drives soothe me.  When the sun sets on the far side of Mt. Diablo, I find myself at peace.  I close my eyes and sleep.

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