Monthly Archives: July 2021

True confession

I drive around having imaginary conversations with absent people.  Sometimes I speak outloud into the stale air of the car.  Often the conversations take place inside my head, while Joni Mitchell Blue repeats itself on endless loop in the single-disk CD player.  

A few years ago, a woman whom I used to call “friend” announced that grief had a one-year limit.  Look at me, she snapped.  I used to be engaged.  He dumped me. I moved on.  A brittle light blazed in her eyes.  I shook my head, unimpressed, unpersuaded.

Most often, the dialogues chronicle wrongs flowing in either direction.  I recite the facts as I remember or romanticize them.  Then I engage in endless lament of my remissions.  Finally, I profess forgiveness of the  other person’s role in the drama.  The identity of the other character changes, depending on my mood and what small incident has triggered the flood.  I suppose it’s therapy for me.  I judge that these exchanges cost me less than a psychologist, but probably don’t work as well.

Or perhaps they work just fine.  True confession:  Most of the time, I fake my way through life, acting in a manner which I hope others perceive as normal despite my complete ignorance of that elusive condition.

Today I had a lengthy discussion with someone who might have offended me just the other day.  I consider this a vast improvement over the broken record of conversations from my past lives and loves.  This person maybe insulted me, perhaps rebuffed an offer of friendship, could have treated me with less than kindness.  I’m not sure.  But nonetheless I convened court over the matter on my way home from Lodi.  

I spoke with eloquence, if only for the benefit of the women folk singers on the day’s playlist.  I held forth in gracious form for several paragraphs before pronouncing absolution.  After all, I concluded, as the strains of Sand and Water faded, if I behave no better than those who have hurt me, what right have I to stand in moral outrage?   Moreover, we count our lives in days and hours, not centuries and millennia.  Why squander them on something less than joy?

I came upon a raised draw bridge and stopped for the lowered gait.  I strained to see the passing vessel.  I saluted the tribute to a life tragically lost.   Finally the barrier lifted.   As I turned onto Brannan Island Road, I softly laughed into the empty car.  The bright sunlight shimmered out on the river.  Through the lowered windows, I heard the crows call to each other as they flew across the island.    My spirit lifted.  I  stopped the car to admire an anchored sailboat, then continued around the loop and into the park.

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


This memorial sits on the north side of Highway 12 just east of the Mokelumne River Bridge.





In 2008 I conducted a week-long argument with an attorney about the nature of poetry.  The discussion took place in a series of emails which flowed between St. Louis and Kansas City.

From the east, the contention that poetry must rhyme came in strong waves of traditional insistence.  For my part, I argued the inclusion of free verse, with its rhythmic and sometimes tricky cadence.  In response, my correspondent started breaking the sentences of his emails in odd places, asserting that if free verse can be considered poetry, anything can.  I smiled into the computer monitor at midnight in the breakfast nook of my airplane bungalow.  

Indeed, I replied.  His scoff roared down I-70 into my kitchen.    I replied with a laugh and an impromptu Haiku.

When people tell me that they like my writing, I tend to shrug.  I don’t deserve much credit.  The words tumble unbidden.  I have to bribe myself not to write; to clean house, or read, or mingle somewhere in the outside world other than the place at which I work.  I’d rather be writing.  I stand on my deck watering the plants, distracted by sentences marching through my brain.  I drag myself from sleep to record a blog entry that has composed itself in my dreams.

As a child, I got lost in the copy on the backs of cereal boxes.  I read billboards bottom to top.  I corrected the grammar in magazine articles.  I once edited a piece from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and sent the red-lined cutting to its author.  He never thanked me but I felt sure my effort helped.  Years later, I had to discontinue the Kansas City Star when the lame writing infuriated me more than the absence of local news stories over breakfast.

Beautifully crafted paragraphs hold my attention more than most human conversation.  I argue with the radio.  We don’t dangle prepositions because the important word should come last!   I compose e-mails to NPR commentators to protest their substitution of “may” (permissive) for “might” (conditional).  I correct myself.  I edit text messages.  I delete confused passages in electronic communiques.  I have written hundreds of pages online.  I share what I write without hesitation.  Sometimes I hit the “publish” button with a visible flourish.  I know when I’ve hit the mark.   

But I don’t write poetry.  I tried my hand at verse during high school and college.   I showed my poems to a friend almost forty years ago.  He cast them aside with a little grimace.  I didn’t need further commentary.  His reaction confirmed my own suspicions.  I’m no poet.

But that St. Louis lawyer had one thing right.  Anything can be poetry.  If words flow like clear water over rocks coming down from a mountain, that’s poetry.   If they nourish your soul, that’s good poetry.  If they sear themselves into your heart, that’s magic.  

I don’t know why I’m telling you this.  As I said, what I put on these pages writes itself, demanding that I record with sufficient rapidity to retain the whole.   Something about poetry begs to be unveiled.  I suppose my brain yearns to prod yours awake to the wonder of deftly crafted gems of structured narrative.  So here I will introduce you to some of my favorite poems, each different, each a perfect nugget.  Please enjoy.

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

Fire and Ice
   By Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Jenny Kissed Me
   By Leigh Hunt

Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kissed me.

There Will Come Soft Rains
   By Sara Teasdale

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

Once More, With Feeling

I always wanted to be an actress.

My sister Ann slayed audiences in high school with her performance in Carnival as the incomparable Rosalie.  My mother let the drama club use our house for costume construction, prop assembly, and impromptu rehearsals.  I hovered on the periphery, eight years younger and shy.  When someone needed something fetched from the kitchen, I scurried forward, eager to be useful and involved.

When my turn came, I only won a single part, the role of Helen Keller in a one-act version of The Miracle Worker.  I threw myself into realism. I took off my glasses, let my waist-length hair snarl into knots, and stumbled around the stage on my lily-white spastic legs.  My father rigged a hose from backstage so real water would flow during the final scene when Helen learns to say her first word.  I ratcheted the drama to a fevered pitch by impaling my knee on a nail.  When Miss Annie pulled me to my feet during her speech exhorting me to reach as far as I could, blood poured from the wound.  In the front row with my parents, my little brother Frank gasped into the stunned silence of the theatre.

What appealed to me about acting?  I can’t say.  Perhaps I craved attention.  Perhaps I just wanted to lose myself in a character starkly different from my own troubled nature.  

For the next forty years,  I numbed my feelings with various chemicals, all prescribed except the copious quantities of single malt with which I washed down the painkillers.  While America waged its losing war on drugs and slumped into the opioid crisis, I dulled any sense of connection with a variety of white pills designed to distract me from the burning pain in my legs and the rigidity of my recalcitrant muscles.

At the end of 2013, concomitant with the start of this quest to quell expressions of negativity, I threw away the last bottle of Vicodin and faced my demons.  

It took three or four years to clean my system.  My brain slowly learned to distinguish “normal” pain (the chronic condition of my existence) from injuries.  Sometimes I stub a toe or smash a finger and stare at the throbbing appendage, wondering if the resultant sensations mimic those felt by regular folks with properly functioning central nervous systems.  At night, I lull myself to sleep with the rhythm of the neurological sensations that I suppose comprise “pain” in my legs, but which — along with the chronic tinnitus that I hear as power saws — define customary life for me.  

Yesterday as I eased myself out of the driver’s seat in a handicapped parking space in front of the Family Dollar General, a woman wheeled her cart down the ramp by my door.  She paused and asked if I needed help.  I swallowed my initial annoyance and thanked her, stating that I did not but I appreciated her offer. 

“You look like you’re in pain,” she explained.  “That’s why I asked.”

As I struggled to the sidewalk, grasped the handle of an empty cart, and started towards the door, I wondered what expression on my face betrayed the inner turmoil.  Perhaps the lady saw my struggles to get out of the car.  Maybe she overheard my muttering, the undercurrent of profanity that I think I’m voicing only in my head but which might be escaping unbidden, uncontrolled.

Last night I binged on feel-good YouTube videos about people suffering far worse atrocities than those which plague my spine and back.  I read stories online of valiant efforts to overcome injury, disease, and disfigurement.  I sought inspiration in tales of people facing such adversities with sunny responses.  When today dawned, I resolved to start over, regardless of how overwhelming my unmedicated condition might seem.  I don’t know how much of this human existence I have left — few of us do at any given moment.  But I’m living mine to the fullest.  Starting today.  Cue the music.  Once more.  With feeling.

It’s the seventeenth day of the ninety-first month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

“Only that day dawns to which you are awake.”
– H.D. Thoreau


All Things Great and Small

I sit on the porch, tablet fallen to the side, a cold glass of water at hand.  I’ve spied a critter on the plastic rug down on my narrow deck.  I ease from the rocker and pull the screen door open, reaching around to slide my camera case from a crowded peg on the back of the door.  Unless that lizard has died where he lies, a sudden noise will send him scurrying into the sun-browned thatch of grass between my house and the neighbor’s blackwater line.

I snap seven frames.  I can’t say what type of lizard this is, but he’s definitely alive, his eye keen and peering.  I go inside to freshen my water.  When I return, he has slipped away.  

Later I drive to Lodi.  I almost never take my camera out these days.  My vision challenges frustrate me, as does my lack of knowledge and the limits of my rudimentary Canon.  But I hesitate.  Every time I leave the Canon at home, I see a big ship and have to scramble for my cell phone.  I grab the thing and head for the car.

Sure enough, a freighter comes through the deep water channel just as I approach the curve.  I gauge its direction to be oceanbound. I pull over to the side of Brannan Island Road on a narrow strip just this side of the drop-off to the river.  Nothing I take will be print-worthy; but I still marvel at the wonder of these ponderous beasts which slip through the waters and the casual attitude of the natives to their passing.  I gawk like a tourist after only three years here; nearly four, but who’s counting.

Later I sit on the porch again, pressing the button to scroll through the two groups of photos.  I’m not a religious person.  I draw the line right below some type of universal spirit and benign angelic minions.  I reject the artificial construct of church, though I concede that individual parishes offer a ready-made community which gives comfort, solace, and a sense of purpose to many.  But not for me, not after everything that I have seen and all of the evil done in the name of the Lord God hanging on the wooden cross over the table clothed in linen.

However I cannot help pondering the forces which can engineer both minds sufficiently clever to fabricate the ponderous vessel and  a tiny body which flits across the boards of my plywood 8 x 8.  The same forces produced the fragile, fragrant gardenia which opens to the touch of sunshine.  Is it a divine entity, chance genetics, or a complex system of interconnected and eternal presences?  I use my foot to start a slow, gentle rock.  I close my eyes.  A long, hard weekend loomed before me, on that Friday evening.  It would be Monday before I thought about those pictures again, at the end of this long work day, still wondering, no closer to understanding from whence come all creatures, great and small.

It’s the twelfth day of the ninety-first month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

A Mother Remembers

Paula said, “What are you feeling?” and I looked at her with more unease than I expected.

“Like I want to throw something through a window,” I replied.  My standard answer in times of anxiety.  “Like I’m late for something.  Like my belly wants out of my dress.”

Paula smiled and eased down into the rocker from which I kept leaping to pace around the room.  “That’s labor, my dear,” she told me, smiling, from her vantage point of a half-dozen homebirths of her own.

Labor.  Two full days before my scheduled C-section at 34 weeks gestation in what had, for the past three months, been a fairly smooth center after a horrible start.  

I had known of my pregnancy since Thanksgiving.  But in late February, I bled for hours and the doctor told me that I had miscarried.  On examination, she confirmed the loss of a fetus but amazed me by saying one remained.  “You clearly were pregnant with twins,” she advised me.  “Hold onto your hats, we’re still in business.”

The medical profession uses insulting names for female body functions, and this case proved no different.  Cervical incompetence forced me to stop traveling by mid-April after a scare on a Cessna 206 coming back from a foreclosure hearing in Natchitoches, Louisiana.  I felt the weirdness halfway through the six-hour hearing.  I twisted the fake wedding ring which I wore and put my hand in the small of my back to balance myself and ease the pain.

“Mrs. Corley, do you need anything?”   The judge looked concerned when I admitted that I might need a bit of help.  He called in an extra bailiff to carry my exhibits.  On the way out the door, the Federal Land Bank officer turned to his lawyer and snapped, “I can’t believe you got beaten by a pregnant crippled girl from Arkansas.”  

I didn’t stop to tell him that I only lived and worked in Arkansas.  I’m from the Show-Me State!  I hurried out of the courthouse and told our pilot, “I’m not excited about having this baby in Arkansas; I’m damn sure not having it in Louisiana!”

We flew back to Springdale with a storm on our heels.  He radioed his full-time boss, Sam Walton’s daughter, and said, “I’ve got one of the Arens & Alexander lawyers in my plane and she’s in labor.”  They sent a private ambulance for me.

Cervical incompetence.  The damnedest part of the constant premature labor involved its impact on my spastic legs and my right hip with its car-accident damage.  Every time a contraction rippled through me, my legs would seize and my hip would pop from its joint.

They stopped the labor in April and sent me to bed.  The firm for which I worked moved my office to the little apartment which I rented when my house in Windsor got too much for me to handle and the doctor worried about me being so far from Fayetteville.  My secretary Laura and her husband Ron, my law clerk, set up shop in my living room.  A round-robin of phone-tree friends checked on me after hours.

Paula’s turn came that weekend, the last weekend before my son was scheduled to be brought to the world by the Irish midwife and the local OB-Gyn.  So there we were, in my apartment, me walking back and forth and Paula on the phone with the doctor, holding a watch with a second hand.  A grin broke across her face and she said, calmly, sweetly, “I think we better go.”

I labored until midnight.  Unproductive, they pronounced — yet another word that made me feel inadequate, as though I had failed in the one task that nature intended me to perform at my best.  So I went home after breakfast on Sunday, and on Monday the crew packed me in Ron’s car and we caravanned back to the Washington Regional Medical Center for the real show.  A bad dress rehearsal portends well, we supposed.

With Laura at my side, and Ron just beyond the swinging doors along with eight or ten folks from the law firm, I let them strap me to the table, cover my hair, and wheel me under the lights.  Then we waited, for the doctor’s basement drain had failed and she got delayed by the Roto-Rooter guy.  When she finally arrived, we all listened to the entire story as she scrubbed.

At 1:50 p.m. on 08 July 1991, an absolutely breathtakingly beautiful baby boy emerged from an open wound in my body.  The midwife Moira held him above the drape.  As she encouraged him to breathe, he smiled and then I heard his first sound:  Laughter.

In the thirty years since that astonishing, amazing experience, Patrick Charles Corley has never failed to bring joy to his mother.  For my part, I have made some shockingly poor choices in trying to execute my parental obligations.  Time and time again I ruefully echoed the famous line from A Thousand Clowns, uttered by the main character about the nephew of whom he seeks custody:  “My only hope is that he speaks well of me in therapy one day.”

A village raised my son.  His substitute mothers, Katrina Taggart and Mona Chebaro, gave him glimpses of a type of family life that I could never hope to create.  They loved him as well or better than any blood relative, as did his beloved aunt Penny Thieme, she of the all-night movie sessions and art lessons.  My sister Joyce made sure that he had all the fun stuff, like Barney and Batman sheets and pajamas, bug boxes, and birthday cards in the mail.  Every adult in my life became a linchpin in the castle that I tried to build for my son, including “Uncle Alan” White who brought humor, compassion, and empathy which I somehow could not quite convey.

Patrick has his own life, in Chicago.  He works as a union organizer.  A gifted writer, he also taught himself to create computer graphics and hosted a YouTube channel until his community work crowded out that particular endeavor.  On it, he explored “architecture & urban spaces from an anti-capitalist perspective”.  You cannot imagine how proud his extraordinarily thoughtful efforts made me.  And not even proud:  In awe.  I have no standing to feel pride, because what my son has become resulted from his own determination to apply his talent to the betterment of a world which he finds lacking but still worth saving.

On that day in July 1991 when I knew that my first — and only — child would be making his entrance into that world within a couple of days, I did not foresee the years of wonder and growth which awaited me.  I did not have the sense to fear that I would not be an adequate mother, though that fear would often grip me throughout his childhood.  I just wanted him to be there, to come out right now.  I longed to feast my eyes on the face which I had been imagining as I watched the alarming growth of my body over the weeks during which I served as the vessel for his incubation.

Most people raised their eyebrows when I disclosed that at 35, I intended to give birth to a child on my own.  One person suggested that I give my baby “to a real family”.  Another said, “Your life will be very difficult,” to which I replied, “Well the first three decades were sheer hell, so that will be an improvement!”  She shook her head.  “You’ll see,” she warned.

I did see.  It was difficult.  Very difficult, even.  I missed my mother.  I regretted not moving to St. Louis to be closer to my family of birth.  I tried marriage, hoping that a stepfather would give my son what I could not.  I despaired so many times: when that marriage failed; when I had no answers for the angst of my teenage son; when my medical issues took me to the hospital time and time again during his elementary school years.  

What with one thing and another, like his busy life, his independence, and the pandemic, I have not seen my son since September of 2019.  I will not see him until September of 2021.  I tried to curate a special set of gifts for his thirtieth birthday — gifts which recognized the importance of three generations — mine, his, and the one before me whose members he never got to meet.  As with everything that I have done as a parent, I cast those choices out onto the sea with no expectation of return.  I do not know if anything that I have ever given my son means even a tenth of everything that I have gotten from him  — the education he provides about politics and human interaction; his wisdom; his sense of justice and equity.   I learn so much from him.  I have grown so much listening to his ideas, his articulation of his own compassionate views, and his critique of what he sees through his extraordinarily perceptive eyes.

I can’t pretend to know whether the material goods which I sent to Patrick adequately convey  my love and admiration.  I can only pray that as he closes out his third decade, he takes with him some sense of how loved he is, how treasured he is, and how worthy he is.  I do not know if I was enough for him, but I can absolutely say, without hesitation, that he is more than enough for me.

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

Lucy’s flower

My mother spent a lot of time outdoors in the last years of her life, which ended in 1985.  She tilled the backyard into an organic vegetable garden.  She cultivated the south side of the house with tomatoes.  She coaxed roses to bloom even in the unbearable St. Louis heat and pruned the lilac bush into a lovely shape.  But as far as I know, she never owned a gardenia bush.

She loved gardenias.  When I was in sixth or seventh grade, my brother Mark and I pooled our allowances to buy Mom a gardenia for Mother’s Day from the florist by our church.  A single gardenia with three vibrant leaves and a florist’s pin cost $8.00.  We walked all the way home on Saturday with Mark gently cradling the florist’s box in his arms.  She cried when she opened the lid.  She wore the flower to Mass, pinned on the lapel of her jacket.

I tried to keep a gardenia alive on my porch in Kansas City.  It lasted just a few weeks, during a time when my life itself had begun to disintegrate.  In the intervening seven years, I’ve held that pathetic plant in my heart.  I yearned for the sight of blooms that never emerged from its withered stems, for the heady scent of those absent flowers.  I lamented the thought that my mother would  have been so pleased with the potential of its beauty.

This spring, I decided to risk acquiring a gardenia from a nursery in Lodi.  With a Japanese maple, I brought the tall gardenia bush to the tiny deck of my tiny house here in the Delta.  I repotted the thing  in a large clay pot sold to me by the manager of the nursery, using the soil which I’d be directed to buy enriched with the kind of additive that I had been directed to include with my purchase.  I spent a total of $225.00 that day, for the two plants, the dirt, the pots, and the plant food.  I closed my eyes and handed over my credit card, hoping that I would not regret my extravagance.  

Within a week, the Japanese maple unfurled its tender leaves.  The gardenia, on the other hand, went from lush to limp and eventually, all of its buds turned brown and dropped to the ground, unceremoniously followed by its yellowing leaves.

The nursery  staff advanced conflicting theories.  One person said too much light and not enough water.  Another guessed too much water and not enough light.  A third recommended neem oil.  I took to the internet and learned that gardenias can suffer from mineral deficiency.  The Google goddesses recommended Epsom salt.  A neighbor cautioned that our treated water might be too harsh for the gardenia.  I bought ten gallons of bottled water at a buck each and spiked the lot with two tablespoons of Epsom salt.  Thus began my quest to save Lucy’s flower.

My neighbor Barb came over and moved the plant to a sunnier spot, a place from which it would get morning light but dappled shade in the heat of the afternoon.  I forged ahead with the mineral drinks, and began watering with the park’s irrigation system as well, river water run-off with its natural organic material.

Slowly the bush came to life.  Buds emerged.  New growth pushed healthy leaves from its lengthening branches.  One day I came home from work to see five blooms opened on the lower third.  Eventually the entire plant bore the delicate, fragrant flowers.  Now I walk past it every morning and again each evening.  On weekends, I sit on my porch and smile at the sight of its burgeoning life.  I do not know how to keep this radiant flora healthy over the rainy months.  But I will learn.  My mother told me once that I should never despair of finding my way, because where there is life, there is room for improvement.  A wise woman, my mother; with excellent taste in flowers.

It’s the third day of the ninety-first month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.