Monthly Archives: December 2021

Auld Lang Syne

Midnight has not yet come and I’ve already kept two of my New Year’s resolutions.

I rose at six despite having no greater obligations than chores and shopping for groceries.  But at seven I pulled alongside the fields of Andrus Island with a charged camera battery and a hunger to record the geese coming into the field.  I had promised myself that one day this weekend, I would do just that; so here I was, already ahead of schedule keeping my promises.

The geese chose another field today.  I saw them on the eastern horizon, blurry against the gold of the sunrise.  I strained to get a shot, some shot, any shot; and then turned to the flooded fields and the hawk high above me.  With the light fully risen in the sky, I went home and made coffee.

Later, I messaged someone whom I have been wanting to visit.  Resolution two.  I’m going to her house on Sunday morning.  I will take my camera.  She lives on the River Road and one never knows when one will see something beautiful out that way.

I spent the rest of the day in the mundane tasks of a solitary dweller.  Some still await me.  NPR plays in the background, with its news of Betty White’s death and the fire out in Colorado.  I texted my stepdaughter to check on her welfare and got happy news.  I smiled at the phone.  We understand fire in California.  We know its dreadful speed and careless disregard for the humans in its path.

I will not be awake when this year yields to its successor.  My eyes will droop not far south of ten.  I will scroll through social media.   Texts will come from my siblings.  I don’t expect my son to call, but he might, I suppose.  If he does, I will be well pleased.  Morning will dawn, if my luck holds, if the universe continues to favor me.  I will tread upon the floor in my soft wool clogs.  In the open doorway, I will listen to the morning sounds of the park — the rousing chorus of crows; a passing ship; songbirds.  In my 8 x 24 house, on Andrus Island, near the southern bank of the San Joaquin in the California Delta, I will draw a long clean breath and  start a fresh chapter of my story.  I have plenty of spring water, a full canister of coffee beans, and a fridge full of food.  I should be fine.

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

“Same Old Lang Syne”, by Dan Fogelberg


Most days I ignore the email from Google Photos telling me that no human eyes have seen my photos but here they are from this day, last year.  Today I clicked the link and saw some lovely shots of birds in fog, landing on the culverts and ditches filled with water by the farmers of Andrus Island.  I studied the slightly blurry images.  Maybe, some day, one day, I will get a real camera, have my cataracts removed, find glasses that work and frames that fit, and take good photos.  But for now, these memories must suffice.

I lost my camera battery charger on a recent weekend out of town.  It might be at the bottom of some bag.  I haven’t had time to look so I’m saving the little bit of power left for something spectacular.  When I slow down, perhaps this weekend, I’ll rummage around and find the thing or order another one.  The snow geese have returned.  The owls swoop from tree to tree in pairs.  The egrets gather near the tractors furrowing out the fields.  Hawks soar through the steely sky.  I stand on the ground yearning to freeze time so I can memorize the high arc of the cranes overhead.

I do not know how I got enrolled in the Google memory notification program.  Most of the time, I ignore random computer generated calls or emails.  But this haunting reminder of another winter lures me into reverie.  My fourth anniversary in the Delta just passed.  Four years of driving the levee roads in a silent car staring at the migrating waterfowl.  Four years of watching the hyacinth float downriver.  Four years of yearning to be closer to the sea, or maybe two thousand miles inland, on the banks of the Missouri again.  

I close the memory page and reach for the computer switch.  I have dishes to wash, emails to return, exercises to force myself to do, and a long dark night to navigate before the sun rises over the quiet of the sleeping park.  I have no time for sentiment this evening, and even less for self-pity.

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

Photos taken Dec. 2020, Andrus Island, in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Winter evening, December 2021

The snow geese have come early this year; or at least, from across our island the swathe of white appears to be snow geese.  A friend says it’s the season for them. It takes me a minute to realize that she means, people will be shooting them, and then I feel a little sick.  I tell myself that I have to awaken early tomorrow, to see them rise into the morning sky while I can.

Last night I got a blurry snapshot of an owl in the tree over my neighbor’s house.  It glared at me before lifting its great body from the spindly branches.  Across the meadow, crows swayed in the wind.  Through the wispy leaves of the winter trees, I think I spied a hawk.  My feeble lens did its best but I cannot really be sure.

After a few hours and a delicious brunch at that friend’s house, I came home and emptied out the silverware drawer.  My sister sent a set of silverplate in the pattern of our childhood.  My excess jumble of stainless gave way to an orderly arrangement of the new pieces.  Their weight pleases me but like everything these days, they trigger nostalgia which in turn, makes me question my path.

At about four, the lights went out.  It happens.  In this windy place, an extra gust or two rises and takes out the lines.  The power company says a crew has been dispatched to assess the situation.  I should have heat any minute now.  I walk around my tiny dwelling activating the battery-powered tap lights.  Every fall, I plan to get an alternate heat source.  But December comes and I remember, too late.  I watch the pasta boil on my propane burner and dream about the little wood-burning stove that I saw in someone’s van.  Just the thing for nights like this, alone on the quiet island where I live, where the cold does not so much overtake the land as sneak across its contours and seep into its crevices.

Christmas draws to a close.  When the sun breaks over the eastern edge of the park on Sunday, the long stretch of the year’s last week will loom.  If I get the Canon’s battery charged before morning, I will go out onto the levee road and photograph the geese.  I will listen for hunters and mourn the frantic interruption of each graceful arc of flight.  I will stare across the fields, watching for herons, waiting for the breathtaking sweep of a gleaming jeweled wing across the grey winter sky.

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

So This Is Christmas

In one of my favorite movies, When A Man Loves A Womanthe Andy Garcia character says goodbye to his stepdaughter as the parents separate.  He leans down and whispers, I’m sorry for all the kinds of daddy that I was or wasn’t since I met you.  Of course, he’s been a great father; and I’ve seen the movie enough times to understand the poignancy of his apology.  I still cry though.  I still think, without relent, of my many failures as a mother, a wife, a friend, a daughter, a sister, and an advocate.  

The morning sun raised an azure dome after a night of rain pattering on my metal roof.  I slipped my crippled feet into the new wool clogs with which I gifted myself for Christmas.  I crossed the small space of my galley kitchen to boil water in the coffee kettle and scrambled soft eggs in my favorite pan.  The toast glistened with a light smear of Katrina Taggart’s jam.  Crows crossed the span of the park overhead, calling their Friday message to each other.  Then my tiny house fell still and a space opened for memories of Christmas past.

My son has his own life and I will not see him this weekend.  He came down to St. Louis on Labor Day for my birthday though; and I bid myself to be content with what time he gives me.  My sister Joyce came out to California twice this year, for Easter and Thanksgiving.  I take the grace of her effort to my heart; I wrap it in left-over tissue and place it beneath my tiny tree next to the heavy box which she sent.  We will open our packages from each other via Zoom tomorrow.  Tears will be shed.  Laughter will be shared.  The ghosts will be quelled, at least for a pleasant hour.

I’ve wrangled an invitation to breakfast on Christmas Day, at the home of Greta Jenkins, the woman in whose office I work.  She promises aebleskivera traditional Danish breakfast treat which I’ve seen on television but never eaten.  Though different from our Austrian schmarrennonetheless I expect it to be both delicious and deliciously sentimental.  We will drink dark coffee and juice.  Her husband has gotten himself stranded (though safe) in the Sierras but hopefully her daughter can make the journey from Grass Valley in time for dinner.  

The rest of Christmas day will see me back at home, snug in my rocker under a handmade afghan.  Both came to me from my friend Tracy and occasioned one last rearrangement of my cozy sitting room.  Under the low ceiling of the loft bedroom, I will listen to NPR and think of my mother, of candy cane cookies and chocolate-covered cherries and the sound of reindeer on the roof which I have never quite figured how she managed to create.

Although my parents raised us in the Roman Catholic Church, I do not claim to be Christian.  I comfortably concede the existence of angels and suspect that some universal spirit, a deity or an intertwining presence, guides humanity.  Christmas has not been about the coming of a savior for me in many years.  I might be proven wrong when I die, but I have done my best to embrace what I can of the religion of my childhood without being hypocritical.  

I didn’t raise my son with religious underpinnings either.  As a small child, he once gleefully answered Yes! to a lady asking him if he knew whose birthday it was, at my friend Katrina’s church one Christmas morning.  It’s Uncle Steve’s birthday!, Patrick chortled.  The woman gasped, but my child could not have made me more proud in that moment.  Christmas Day is, indeed, Uncle Steve’s birthday.  

But we do not celebrate that occasion any more.  Stephen Patrick Corley laid himself down beneath a tree and left this world 24 years ago.  He would be 62 tomorrow.  He loved his nephews and nieces; his lost daughters; his siblings; and his mother.  I still miss him; but somewhere inside of me, a little nugget of him survives.

That nugget emerges when I buy myself fancy socks which he also favored; or play Brokedown Palace, easily high on the list of his favorite songs.  Alex Loesch created an amazing mural on the back of my tiny house to honor my little brother, an angel resting beneath a willow tree next to a river.  I strive to think of “your friend and mine, Stevie Pat” as eternally peaceful, free of the pain which tortured his soul.

As evening falls tomorrow, melancholy might rise within me.  A tear or two might trickle down my face.  I will cross again into my little kitchen, this time for a cup of tea.  With the steaming mug and a little plate of sandies at my elbow (made by a neighbor with walnuts rather than pecans, to which I am allergic), I will let the memories flow.  From my childhood, with the eight Corley children walking to midnight mass, to my son’s boyhood in our Brookside home, sixty-five Christmases will march before me like little tin soldiers or sturdy nutcrackers.  The lights which I’ve strewn throughout my house will twinkle, like so many lights before them over the years.  I will surrender myself to the warmth of the tea, and the buttery goodness of the cookies, and the sweetness of the lingering thoughts of other Decembers, in other places, far away from here.

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


Happy Holidays to All. 

Please enjoy this version of one of my favorite Christmas songs

Be well.  Stay safe.  Gather your loved ones close to you.


More gifts

The last few weeks have quite frankly whipped my butt.

Two weeks ago, the eight-month old kitten whom I had just adopted managed to wrench an upper-floor screen out of its window in the middle of the night and jump ten feet into the park where I live.  My eyes popped open.  I lay in the deathly silence, contemplating what I had heard.  The stream of cold air drew me to the loft, where the sight of a one-foot square opening to darkness plunged my stomach into nausea.  I scrambled outside, barefoot, calling.  My flashlight relieved the fear of finding her small broken body but she has not returned.  Neighbors have searched.  I put out tuna, kindly provided by a friend from her personal stash.  Nothing.  I heard mewing a few times but it might have been a small bird in an overhead tree.

In the meantime, I pushed to get ready for the Holiday Market here, the last Sunday Market for the 2021 season.  I serve as the manager.  I’m not convinced that I do the job well; I struggle with time management.  I forget to purchase supplies.  I make too many promises and add too many vendors with similar product.  But with the immeasurably valuable help of a few volunteers, especially the tuna lady, we got it done.  The rain held until evening.  Only one vendor failed to appear and we needed that extra few feet anyway.  Crowds came; and everyone asked to return to the roster next year.

I’ll be alone this Christmas.  It’s hard to admit.  My sister just came; and my son, a grown man at 30, has other plans.  I spent a few weeks collecting small gifts for each of them.  I don’t exchange presents with anyone else in the family.  But for my son Patrick and my sister Joyce, I plan and ponder and collect until I  hit upon the right balance of symbolism, usefulness, and beauty.  I got everything packaged and off to the post office with more assistance from another kind soul.

On the evening that I shipped their boxes, I came home tired, hungry, and a little bit sad.  I distracted myself with pasta.  As I tried to force open a jar of sauce, I reached into the silverware drawer for my little gizmo and then stood, staring, at the device in my hand.

I remembered when my son gave it to me.

We spent a lot of time at garage sales in his childhood.  I’d get him from his preschool early on a Friday, in spring or summer.  On the way home, I’d watch for signs and pull to the side of the road.  I’d swing him out of his car seat, and tell him, hold my hand.  Then we’d walk up the driveway and start to rummage in the boxes and on the tables.  We’d smile at the homeowner.  Patrick would start looking for toys, or books, or bikes.

On one such occasion, my son, then four or five, came over and tugged at my sleeve.  He raised his hand to show me something he’d found.  The lady says it opens jars, he announced.  Your hands don’t work very well. I’m going to buy it for you.  The lady says it’s fifty cents.  I gave him two quarters and watched him walk back to the paying station.  He clutched the gadget against his chest all the way home.

We spent about a half an hour opening every jar in the kitchen.  He never noticed the tears gathering in my eyes.  I kept wiping them away.  If he had asked, I would have explained that sometimes joy spills out and trickles down our faces when we least expect it.

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

In Which I have Eggs for Dinner

Today, I was stopped for twenty minutes behind an accident. I started out worrying that someone was hurt. I sent strong and positive energy into the universe, hoping and maybe even praying that the people involved in the accident suffered as little as possible. I found myself starting to be very sad that they might have been seriously injured or financially devastated especially right before the holidays (whatever holiday any of them celebrate).

Before I understood the magnitude of my emotional reaction, I found myself crying.  In the middle of that crying jag, I realized that I am just so incredibly homesick for my son and for Midwestern accents and for Kansas City and for art shows and live music and Genevieve and Penny and Katrina and the whole damn bunch of my friends; for my house in Brookside and the Plaza lights and did I mention my son?

Traffic slowly resumed. I took several deep breaths. As I neared the involved vehicles, I looked to the side of the road for people. I didn’t see any. I don’t know what happened except that the damage seemed bad but not awful. I kept driving. Eventually, I came to a stop in front of my tiny house, on G-row, in the middle of 20 other tiny houses, in a 12-acre RV park. The night grew still as the engine cooled. I sat for ten minutes until  the cold seeped into my bones.  When I could not sit any longer, I went inside and made eggs for dinner.  Very few days cannot be improved by a plate of scrambled eggs, a cold glass of water, and warm buttered sourdough toast.

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



I stared for a few minutes at the email from my son asking me if I needed anything.  He meant for Christmas, of course; but my heart leapt.  What doesn’t a mother need?  A time machine, to undo the mistakes and reclaim the hours?  Another day, to see the toddler creep across the yard trying to put salt on a bird’s tail because his mother said that her father told her that’s how you catch a bird?

His note continued to assure me that he himself needed nothing.  I smiled.  Two presents already have been ordered and soon will arrive in Chicago.  I’m building a box here at home and will soon strap it closed and tender it to the postal service.  We have just seen each other for my birthday, a glorious fall post-pandemic weekend in St. Louis with one sister and one brother.  I will be alone on Christmas with my memories of Decembers which have slipped into the past.  

But I cannot be sad.  My tiny house holds so many gifts that my son has given me.   His artwork adorns my walls.  A little clay pot sits on one shelf with a red paper heart inside, bearing his kindergarten script:  I hope you like the gift that I have for you.  Anemone shells hang from my window next to stained glass pieces which he made in elementary school.  The shells came with air plants in a box two years ago.  The air plants did not survive but the shells dangle and clink against the glass, reminding me of the sea.

Everywhere I turn, my son’s touch gleams from a surface or the contents of a neatly arranged drawer.  My morning coffee sits on a Chicago coaster that he sent.  Beneath my favorite plein air piece from a Kansas artist, I’ve hung a goofy photograph which Penny Thieme took of my son and me one Christmas.  Don’t be so serious, she scolded.  Look like Corleys.  He obligingly plopped down on my lap and we both laughed with unrestrained hilarity.

Today I am in Grass Valley at an AirBnB nestled among the cedars.  In a little while, I will drive three miles to the home of the woman for whom I work.  I’ll join her friends at brunch and then go with them to a Victorian Christmas in Nevada City.  I’ll browse the pottery, hoping to find a mug to replace my favorite hand-thrown thrifted find which I shattered in the sink.  There will not be snow but I will imagine that I’m strolling the streets of Kansas City, the Plaza lights surrounding me, my young son walking a bit ahead.  I’ll stop, close my eyes, and picture the intense look on his face as he thought about what he would sneak away to buy me for Christmas when we got to Barnes and Noble.  I’ll imagine us taking the escalator to the second floor.  I’ll walk again to the counter with him, to order hot chocolate and an Americano.  In my mind we will sit again at a table by the wall, and talk about Christmas, and the gifts that we will give to our friends.  

And my heart will be full, as it has been for thirty years, since the hot July day when he came into my life and gave me the one thing only a son can give:  the right to call myself a boy mom.

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


Christmas 2017, my first in Angel’s Haven, my tiny house.

Send in the crows

The fog bears heavy on the island these days.  When I come outside, I ruefully glance at the low-lying mist.  I have not retrieved my camera from its cubby.  The battery must be dead by now.  Still I follow the line of the crow’s broad sweep as it cuts through the clouds.  Winter takes hold in the Delta.

I scroll through last year’s photos.  As I drive down Jackson Slough, I think of a large bird which I saw there a couple of years ago.  It rose from its low perch and turned, startling me. I dropped my cell phone and laughed as I pulled to the shoulder.  I had no idea that I would ever live anywhere with such unrelenting majesty.  His wingspan could have been six feet.  Later I stared at the one shot  which I managed to get, of the bird before he raised himself into the air.  I remember getting out of my car and standing behind the short pole on which he had been sitting.  He might have been as tall as that, as tall as the post which barely cleared my waist. 

Today I paused beneath the splintered old tree.  A third of the tree’s trunk lies in the unmown weeds, split by the high winds of last month’s storm.  Against the grey sky, a hawk clung to the top of the bare branches.  I couldn’t tarry long; the fog would hide my taillights from approaching vehicles.   The bird turned his head downwards, a certain dare evident in his piercing gaze.  I nodded and pressed the accelerator, moving forward, leaving him be.

Soon the snow geese will come back.  Their instinct draws them to the flooded fields.  Already the real photographers have captured a few cranes out on Sherman Island.  The egrets huddle in the divots behind the large equipment clearing the rubble of autumn’s harvest.  They forage for the tender insects stirred by the heavy treads.  As I pass, one rises into the sky, a white streak against the dim morning air.  The call of a small songbird drifts across the island.  I draw a deep breathe and continue onward, to Highway 12 and what passes for a city.  I leave the fields behind as I span the bridge and circle down to Front street along the river, where a boat sounds its horn and loons glide past.

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

This is a gallery from last year.  Please enjoy.

Here is the shot that I got in 2019 of the large bird — hawk? juvenile eagle? — in the field alongside Jackson Slough Road.

After our Dec. 12th Holiday Market, I hope to have time to finish editing my manuscript but also to get out in the Delta and take a few pictures.  Until then, I hope you enjoy these re-runs.