Monthly Archives: August 2021

Bright lights, big city, and my Thomas Wolfe moment

From 1998 to 2009, I was married to a man who principally ambulated by means of a series of wheelchairs which, quite frankly, both of us resented.  We might have forestalled a lot of drama if we had articulated our frustration with the limitations but we gamely soldiered forward.  I pushed the manual chairs when the terrain challenged him.   On our honeymoon, we stayed at an old hotel in Taos which professed to have made part of the grounds accessible.  The main accommodation consisted of a house phone situated on the terraced stairs at the precise juncture where, on at least two occasions, I tipped him out of the chair and onto his face.

I thought about Dennis as I squirmed in the Denver airport for three hours today.  I had planted my bony butt in the unpadded seat of an over-sanitized, double-wide Southwest Airlines ancient wheelchair.  Dennis taught me that clerks, cashiers, and waitstaff develop an uncanny ability to look right through disabled people.  One ticketing agent at KCI asked me if Dennis would be taking his wheelchair on the flight with him.  I turned my head toward my husband and drawled, “Dear, will you be taking your wheelchair on the flight with you?”  His exaggerated reply, to me, I then communicated to the agent in a loud voice.  Her face flushed crimson.  I gently said, “He’s disabled, but he’s not deaf; and he’s smarter than both of us together.”  She had the grace to apologize.

Southwest Airlines changed my original nonstop flight from Sacramento to Kansas City three times before today and once during the Denver layover.  As a result, my stress level climbed to astronomical heights.  I do not like to drive at night, especially an unfamiliar vehicle and on the highway.  Change flusters me.  As I strained to hear the new gate number over the crackling PA system, anxiety overtook me.  I could not find an attendant willing to wheel me from Gate c-47 to the farthest end of the concourse, Gate C-25.  It took twenty minutes and three tries, by which time I had gotten positively frantic since boarding would already have commenced.

I needn’t have worried.  The new plane developed mysterious mechanical issues resulting in another hour’s delay.  As I sat nibbling trail mix, I thought about the time a boyfriend and I had flown from St. Louis to Boston at the exact moment that the air traffic controller strike started.  We got re-routed to Atlanta where we spent twenty hours riding the tram and drinking free booze.  We rolled into Martha’s Vineyard two days late, hungover, hungry, and ready for the beach.

When I finally landed in Kansas City this evening, a rush of warm muggy air welled around me.   A friendly attendant chatted about his recent relocation from Milwaukee and planned decampment to yet another city, maybe Philly, maybe Houston.  The bus driver lowered the kneeler for me to glide with ease into a seat for the ride off-site to the rental car building.  When I told the car guy that I have to bring a cedar chest to St. Louis, he gave me a free upgrade to a spanking-new Mitsubishi that smells like a million bucks, though truth be told, I’ve never sniffed so much as a grand.  But you know what I mean.

My fears of disorientation faded as I glided down I-29.  Nighttime in Kansas City looks nothing like the dark of the California Delta.  On the Delta Loop, a coyote might easily step in front of your car.  The river winds its wide way through nights lit only by the moon, several feet below the steep, narrow levee roads.   Here  I eased southward past broad stretches of commercial buildings and shopping centers.  Then the road swept downward in a wide arc.    I crossed a river that is not my river anymore, over a suspension bridge that never raises, or lowers, or swings wide to let a freighter pass.  I did not see a little house on that bridge; I did not honk to let my friend Demi the bridge tender know that I had come by.   The car moved forward unimpeded.  I glanced to my right and saw the city.

I followed the ramp to Highway 71, exited at 22nd street, and turned left at Hospital Hill.   I turned off my motor in the driveway of my AirBnB, an apartment over a garage in a house just a few blocks from the Juvenile Court where I no longer practice; a half-dozen miles from the Jackson County Circuit Courthouse, the hallways of which I have not traversed for three years.  Into the stillness of the car came the steady throb of passing traffic, a sound that has grown so  unfamiliar as to be momentarily unrecognizable.  I glanced down at my phone just as my GPS lady realized that I had come to a halt and boldly announced, “You have arrived.”  I smiled.  I sat for a few more seconds, then eased myself out of the car, and dragged my suitcase up the stairs and into my home away from home.

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

Looking northwest into downtown Kansas City, December 2017.

Stone-fruit Season

In February as winter loosens its feeble grip on the California Delta, I begin to obsess about citrus fruit.

I have a troubled past relationship with oranges.  I once concussed myself deploying the front handbrake on my brother’s bike, flipping tail over head as I pedaled through a dirtbike trail near my childhood home.  The friend with me dragged my shuddering body and our bikes as far as she could.  She left me on the ground and ran for a nearby house.  The housewife at home came with her and helped get me to somewhere safe until my older sister could come for me.  As I waited, the orange juice which I had drunk for breakfast rose in my throat.  I’ve never been able to stand the taste since.

I like ruby red grapefruit well enough.  In my home state of Missouri, we only got the real deal for a few weeks each year.  I greedily peeled the orbs as most might a Sunkist naval, pulling the fragrant sections apart to nibble and suck the sweet tart juices.  Once I could no longer buy what passed for fresh, I resorted to segments packed with light syrup in jars.

But once I moved to California, I discovered an entirely new species of citrus.  Mandarin oranges, tangelos, and lemons grow in yards throughout the Delta.  At the local Farmers Market From March to May, a bagful costs just a few dollars.  I devour three or four each day.  My lunchtime salads overflow with fruit.  My house fills with the wonderful fragrance.  You have not lived until you eat citrus in a California springtime, still bearing bright green leaves warm with the caress of daybreak picked just miles from where you shop.

As summer wanes, the succulent citrus gives way to peaches and pears.  The full heat of the place clings to our skin.  We wrap our hands around the plump goodness of local stone-fruit.  I slice a peach into my great-aunt Bib’s metal dish and eat it before bedtime, savoring the creamy flesh.  

When I drive to work each day, a murder of crows sweeps overhead, settling in the old tree on Jackson Slough Road.  In the fields, vines glisten with new leaves.  Clumps of grapes begin to emerge.  I see figures move between the rows of corn.  The spring onions have disappeared from the farm stand, yielding to sweet Italian peppers and the neighbor’s ripened pears.  I do not quite feel a nip in the air, but the promise of fall lurks in the cooling breeze.  I no longer need to run the fan at bedtime.

Soon I will travel to the Midwest.  I’m turning sixty-six on Labor Day Weekend.  My son will come from Chicago to have lunch with my sister Joyce, my brother Frank, and me.  I will study each of them in turn, noticing the leanness of my son’s face; my brother’s grey hair; the crinkles around my sister’s eyes.  It is only a matter of time before the cranes arrive for their winter in the California Delta, followed by the snow geese.  My fourth year in this magical place draws to a close.  I think my journey home will restore my hope for the future.  I’ll bring my family’s love back with me, to Andrus Island, where the peaches taste like heaven and winter sits mild upon our shoulders.

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

Another Year

Every year on August 21st I awaken before daybreak.  I listen to the sounds of the settling room and remember another room, thirty-six years ago.  My cousin Theresa Orso Smythe gave me safe harbor for a few hours so that others could take my place beside my dying mother.  As I lay on Theresa’s couch in the grey light of dawn, the phone rang.  My sister Adrienne’s voice said, “It’s time to come home.”

At my mother’s funeral, my cousin Theresa sang “Goin’ Home” a capella and so beautifully that I swear my heart stopped.  No other sound invaded the church as the strains of the poignant spiritual faded.  My mother loved that song and the symphony on which  its melody was based.  In her last weeks, she begged us to let her go home.  Speaking for myself, I resisted her pleas.  At twenty-nine, I could not imagine the rest of my life without her.  

Yet she left us; and everything that I have experienced since then has been in the context of being a motherless daughter.  I remember walking with her in the backyard so many times in the early days of her illness.   I brought her stool out to the garden so she could sit and dig weeds.  I stood by, helpless, not knowing whether to bend to assist or let her have the joy of it without my interference.  She tied a scarf over a head made bald from chemotherapy and wrapped her frail body in heavy sweaters.  We sat on the park bench by her grape vine.  She asked me about my life across the state in Kansas City.  Mostly I told pretty lies.  I don’t think I fooled her.  But I could not bring myself to taint her days with the truth of her youngest girl’s ineptness at living when she herself had worked so hard to make a life which now would end far too soon.

Looking back on the sweltering August of 1985, I mostly recall drinking too much Scotch and driving to St. Louis every weekend to take a turn sitting with my mother while she slowly left us.  On the Friday before her Wednesday death, someone in the hospice group suggested that we might consider gathering the siblings and anyone else who wanted to see my mother before she passed.  I called opposing counsel to get a continuance in the trial scheduled for Monday but he would not agree.  Desperate, I reached out to someone whom I knew had the judge’s home phone number.  Arrangements made, I fled.

Losing a mother at not-quite-thirty pales in comparison with the same experience at three or thirteen.  I realize that I’ve been incredibly lucky in many respects.  Nonetheless, I often wonder if I would have made different choices along the way with my mother’s voice in my ear other than as a memory.  I could not truly predict her counsel.  I could only imagine that she spoke to me.  Her words did not necessarily reflect anything except my own yearning.

Some of my siblings feel this loss as keenly now as we did three decades ago.  Some of them seem to have risen above the pain.  Some seem to have a balanced life, despite what we have experienced or perhaps because of it.  I move through most days without reflecting on the past; but on these anniversaries, what was and what might have been seem to come together in a loud crescendo of longing.

I had  my breakfast early.  I made strong coffee and sat at my table, contemplating the gift of yet another day.  I posted my mother’s picture on social media.   My sister called and we talked of everything else — my week and hers; the debacle in Afghan; the relative kindness and cruelty of children.  After  the call, she sent me a text making note of the day and telling me that she loved me.  I replied that I loved her too. 

I’m struggling to understand a general sense of immobility which has haunted me for many years.  In my favorite book from childhood, Emmy Lou (fn)  the aunts and uncle who are together raising the main character have a long conversation about Emmy Lou’s progress in school.  She does not seem to be catching up, one aunt mournfully observes.  Nor on, the uncle sadly replies.  My mother gave this book to me.  I think she saw me in that little girl, who struggles to matriculate through an often confusing life.  I quite understand her befuddlement.

The morning has waned.  I have chores to complete which, truth be told, I have been avoiding all week.   My lethargy jeopardizes my planned productivity.  Despite being out of bed for five hours, I’ve not yet showered or dressed.  Any moment, I shall spring into action.  I shall channel my mother.  Eventually, when the day bleeds into evening, I will sit on my porch with a cup of tea.  In that hour, she will come to me; and my heart will feel so much less forlorn that I might even mistake the sensation for happiness.

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

In Memory: Lucille Johanna Lyons Corley – 10 Sept 1926 – 21 August 1985

Fn:  I take my handle, “Missouri Mugwump”, from an anecdote in this book.

Thank-You Cards

My sister Ann calls “thank-you cards” the last bastion of a civilized society.  The other day, scrolling through social media, I read many posts of the “count your blessings” variety.  I got to thinking about the ways in which I’ve been fortunate.  Then I chanced to see one of Jimmy Fallon’s sketches from the early days of the pandemic during which he broadcast from his home.  His humorous and often sarcastic expressions of gratitude triggered one of my more bizarre late-night solitary ruminations. Hence, my “thank-you” cards for today.

Thank you to the Iranian gentleman who rammed his VW into my left leg, sending me hurling into the air and thus crashing down onto his hood in a spinning ball, into his windshield, and forward 82 feet onto the pavement, for teaching me to appreciate that not one drop of my blood shed upon the street and I only suffered a crushed right tibia.  Because of you, I will forever remember the celestial being who greeted me at the peak of my launch, gently pushed me back into my huddled body, and told me that my time had not yet come.  In the intervening 39 years, I’ve learned to appreciate gradations of injury and misfortune in ways that I could not have envisioned.  So, thank you.

Thank you to the lady with whom I worked at Incarnate World Hospital in 1973, who volunteered to give me a ride home after shift for a few months, and then stopped doing so because I remained silent for most of the  drive.  “You don’t seem appreciative,” her disembodied voice intoned over the phone.  As I replaced the receiver, I thought about my inability to find a common topic of conversation as a freshman in college carpooling with a lady in her forties.  Because of that lady, I have spent most of the last four decades probing the art of drawing someone out in conversation.  I have not perfected the practice yet, but I would never have started if I had not had to scramble for another ride home.

Thank you to three boys from my Catholic grade school in Jennings, Missouri who decided that imitating my spastic gait from ten or twelve feet behind me on West Florissant Avenue would be a perfect way to waste their precious hour between the end of the school day and dinner-time.  While it’s true that you contributed to the overall demise of my youthful self-esteem, you also taught me the opposite of what you displayed.  From your daily ridicule of me, I learned that the greatest gift we can give each other lies in our ability to accept that none of us will ever be perfect.  As you mocked me, I started challenging societal norms and expectations of women.  Some would say that I ultimately made myself less attractive to the male species, but I counter their criticism by the gentle acknowledgment that the average American male does not want someone like me, anyway.  Although it took me another fifty years to admit this, I like myself just the way I am, lily white spastic legs and all.

Thank you to the lady in Berbiglia’s Liquor Store in Brookside, Kansas City, Missouri, who chastised me for holding my squirming toddler against the check-out stand to prevent him from knocking over a second display stand.   You thought I was a terrible mother.  You accused me of child abuse.  I turned my weary eyes toward you and offered to let you babysit my child while I went to a Christmas Eve gathering for the hostess of which I had stopped to buy a bottle of wine.  The cashier took my check and told me not to worry about the merchandise which my child had damaged.  “Merry Christmas,” she said.  The people behind you applauded that clerk and told you to leave me alone, I was clearly doing the best that I could.  In the twenty-eight years since that evening, I’ve questioned many of my choices as a parent but I have never forgotten your accusations juxtaposed with the cashier’s kindness and the heartfelt defense tendered by the other customers in the face of your indignation.

I study the virtual stack of cream-colored thank-you cards with their matching envelopes, and the invisible fountain pen with its blue-black ink as Miss Manners dictates.  I do not have the energy to express appreciation for all of the adversity which I have experienced; the lessons which those tribulations taught; and the comparative virtue of times following those arduous happenings.  But all of that devilment brought out the qualities on which I now most heavily rely:  Endurance, persistence, empathy, compassion, humility.

I still have miles to go before I can sleep easy knowing that I’ve made myself into the best version of Mary Corinne Teresa Corley.  Certainly, much of my growth owes itself to the goodness of gentle people who have embraced me over the years.  But much of my evolution arises from the people who spat on me, of which I can promise you there were many.  Marshall Rosenberg would say that such behavior tragically expresses unmet needs.  I tend to agree, having devolved into such behavior myself with sufficient frequency to recognize the correlation.  So to those people who tragically expressed their unmet needs to my detriment, forcing me to grow as a human being in ways that I might not otherwise have accomplished, I send my thanks.  But I also send the fervent hope that somewhere, somehow, since then, you’ve find a way to meet those needs and made your own stumbling way to peace.

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

Taken in the California Delta.

Until My Ship Comes In

Not a day passes that I don’t drive the levee road to and from the nearest town or over a bridge to distant cities.  As I move along the banks of one of the Delta rivers, I strain for the sight of a ship making its majestic, pondering journey.  They seem to glide but their great engines churn and the men and women in their bellies tend to the mechanical mess which keeps them moving toward the sea.

My car bears the dusty streaks of an island-dweller, with our silty soil and the birds which will carelessly mark even the most scrupulously maintained vehicles.  I drive my Toyota like a truck, throwing boxes and bags of whatever I might need to tote into the back with abandon born of carelessness or surrender.  I keep bottles of water in the pockets affixed to the back of the seats.  At any given time, a bag of Goodwill donations spills its contents when I stash groceries.  The clerks who sometimes help me to the car pretend not to notice.  

But behind the wheel of the RAV4, I can make the drive through the Delta as easily as I might in a sleek new convertible or an oversize pick-up.  So drive I do, around the ten-miles of the loop and across the highway to Isleton.  I take the back road to the Georgiana Slough to visit my favorite farm stand and back again.  Along the old River Road, I watch for ships.  They fascinate me.   What do they carry?  Where will they berth?  From where do their enduring crews hale; and do they ever long for a home on the banks of the rivers through which they navigate?  Do they see my car and wonder what my life might be like?

I will never be a lot of things for which I used to yearn.  I will never be wealthy.  I will never have a three-story house with a broad wide porch.  I will never trod the same soil as my Syrian great-grandfather.  I will never sit on the banks of the river Lee in Ireland.  But I still dream.

Often I pull my car to the side of the levee road to photograph the big ships as they cut through the deep channels of the San Joaquin or the Sacramento.  I study the pictures later.  A time or two, I have chanced to see the same vessel in the Bay as I gaze down from the Marin Headlands.  Once I scanned the far horizon off Montara with my camera’s telephoto lens extended and saw the ghostly contours of a distant ship.  Immobilized, mesmerized, I watch the ships glide away, through the blue, into the grey, away from me.  I stand on the shore.  I cannot say for what I wait.  I only know that it has not yet come.

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

Just a few photos of hundreds taken over the last 3-1/2 years.  Scroll over for captions. Please enjoy.

Lucky 13

I started blogging in May of 2008.  With the waning of the summer of 2021, I realize that I’ve been at this for thirteen years.

My early entries went via email on a list serve for solo and small firm lawyers in my home state of Missouri.  After a year or so, I took that effort to a blogspot and the Saturday Musings came to life.  Each Saturday morning found me in front of my laptop, telling stories from childhood, ruminating on my week, or talking about people I had met and places that I found particularly memorable.  Eventually, I moved from Blogspot to a page on my own website, continuing the Musings through the first month of my move to California.

I started this blog in January of 2014.  For over seven years (7 x 12 + 8 = 92 months), I have been pursuing a state of being in which I can matriculate without voicing complaint.  At first, I wrote something every day.  In the last two years, my entries have waned as I struggled to recreate myself on the western seaboard — or at least, seventy miles inland from it.

My son once entered me in a contest run by the Kansas City Star to find the luckiest person in Kansas City.  I didn’t win but the newspaper did write a story about me.  They interviewed me in the office I had made in our breakfast nook, a sort of Les Nesmann office, a pass-through with my desk, bookshelf, and memorabilia in which others did not intrude.  Later they set up their equipment and photographed a family meal, complete with my son and his best friend, Chris Taggart.  I have a faded tear-sheet of that article somewhere, assuming it survived the purge.  I felt very lucky in those days.  I had recovered from a critical illness.  I had a husband, a son, a home, and a close group of friends.  

I wrote from the heady glow of love in those days.  As my life took many turns, I started writing from an urgent need for understanding.  I could barely get the sentences out fast enough.  Five decades of observation honed my voice.   But now my focus seems to have slipped from my grasp.  The golden flow of writing slows as the starkness of living overwhelms me. 

This blog has accomplished its purpose to an extent.  My urge to voice any sort of dissatisfaction with others rises to the surface less and less. Behavior must violate a fairly egregious level before I open my mouth.  Even then my heart pounds.  A new mantra beats in my spirit:  Wait wait wait wait wait.  I give everyone a thousand chances.    I whisper to my inner self:  just wait.  Just wait.  The potential for resolution hovers.  It flutters on the edge of every confrontation.  Its fragile wings stir the air.  I close my eyes and lift my face to the softness of its gentle motion.

The vacuum left by the absence of bickering reveals true blessings.  However, as the air clears, the shapes of heavier burdens emerge.  I had avoided confronting their contours for an eternity but I still recognize them.  They never left.  They hid within the fog of smaller troubles.

I call myself walking on a long but deliberate journey to joy.  That might be so.  My motivation for commencing this voyage fell away almost before I started.  Nevertheless, I kept walking.  Along the road, I have taken on new causes:  The cause of healing, the cause of growth, the cause of discovery.  These days I walk more slowly and stumble more often.  But I continue.   I’ve seen the underbelly of the darker choice.  I have suffered the pain which that choice inflicts on those left behind.  So I shall continue; and one of these days, I will come to a place where I can rest.

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


Resting Egrets.  Tomales Bay, 01 Aug 2021.

From Here To There and Back Again

I cannot pretend to always live within the warm wash of enthusiasm or even the humble glow of gratitude.  Sometimes I rage against even the smallest injustice:  the eyeglasses made wrong for a third time; the computer glitch at the state that no one can fix; the dropped calls, the burned dinner, the broken dish with its shattered memories of childhood.  At times the smallest slight draws the most bitterness.  Occasionally the onslaught feels worse because of my solitary situation.  No one brings me a hot cup of tea or walks through the door with a dozen roses.  No one runs a hot shower and lays out a fluffy towel. 

The care and concern of my sister’s disembodied voice comes through the phone, in good times and bad; with exciting and troubling news alike; on ordinary days, or days which raise the hair on the back of my neck and turn my stomach.  But it’s not the same as a roommate, a partner, or a dear friend, here, now, at just the right moment.  I can usually handle what life deals to the table.   Sometimes, though, the contemplation overwhelms me.  

So I get into my car, turn on Neko Case, Joni Mitchell, or Bonnie Raitt, and drive.  North and then west, until the endless expanse of my Pacific fills the horizon.

On Sunday, I stopped in the lush woods of the Russian River valley to post a sticker for my friend Beth Lewandowski’s son Xander.  I stood beneath the towering redwood, wrapped in the silence and the fragrance of the forest.  I hit Jenner in the rolling fog of the northern California morning.  I leaned on the railing at the mouth of the Russian River and studied the driftwood on the sand barge beyond the shore.  I drove south, stopping at the little state beaches with their broad picnic tables.  I peered over the edge of the lay-bys, watching the waves beneath the highway.   I ordered fish tacos at a little restaurant in Bodega Bay.  A customer at the adjacent table offered to get water for me.  She and her husband beamed despite my declination. I thanked her for the offer and she skipped back to her table.  

At Tomales Bay, I loaned my father-in-law’s opera glasses to a family with four or five little children, so they could better see the herd of seals warming themselves in the afternoon sunlight.   Each small one took a turn.  One of the parents returned the glasses to me as their group climbed back into two cars.  They pulled onto Route 1 to a chorus of thanks and wishes for my continued enjoyment of the day.  I stood by my own vehicle, waving madly and grinning.

I drove home through the city.  At every light, I raised my little Canon and snapped a photograph of the surrounding buildings.  As I crossed the Bay Bridge, I raised my fingers to my temple and saluted the sea.  I’ll be back, I whispered.  I got home before dark to find that some kind soul had left a plaster-of-Paris angel plaque on my doorstep.  I studied it for a few minutes before going inside, closing the door, and letting go of the longest breath I have ever held.

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

Below the picture of the anonymously given angel you should find a slideshow of photos from my day at the ocean.  There are about 44 photos.  They sometimes don’t load as fast as I would like.  If the show gets stuck, click on the frozen photo to open it; then close it.  The slideshow should start again.  Please enjoy.