Monthly Archives: July 2022

The ticking of the clock, the steady whir of the fan overhead

Another month draws to a close tomorrow.  I glance at the digital calendar in the corner of my laptop and silently reckon.  I started this quest to live complaint-free on 01 January 2014.  In just 30 hours, I will start the one-hundred and fourth month of my journey.  I have yet to traverse twelve months without uttering some complaint, however trivial.

The past week seemed to bring an endless sequence of blows against my shoulders, sharp clips on the back meant to startle me into reality.  I close my eyes and list the swift jabs:  A few negative test results, a flutter of mail accumulated in the wrong box with a hefty overdue bill, a growing weakness in my lower extremities that i can’t control.  I shake my head and remind myself of all the good which surrounds me.  No Russians bomb my village.  None of my family members died of Covid.  I live in a state with amazing health care.  My neighbors leave tomatoes from the community garden on my porch rail.

A few minutes ago, I scrolled through the penultimate proof of my essay collection which sees publication soon.  We have a book release scheduled for 10 September 2022, which would have been my mother’s ninety-sixth birthday had she lived.  Just five days earlier, I will turn sixty-seven, and two days before that, I will attend the fifty-third reunion of my grade school class.  Time continues to march forward, firmly gripping a heavy piece of chalk with which it marks the milestones over which I want to linger.  Time takes my hand and pulls me forward, scowling, chastising me, telling me to hurry.

Over the next several months, I will have the questionable pleasure of meeting several new types of medical specialists.  My questions already formulate themselves on the pages of my mental notebook.  What does it mean, what will happen, what can we do?  I will not ask, Why me? because I know the answer.  Why not?  If not you, who?  In my little community alone, two people face the end-stages of cancer and more than a few stare at the inevitable consequences of a hopelessly bad ticker.  I have no corner on the tragedy market.  I am but a statistic; a rare one, possibly, but a statistic nonetheless.  Rare though my particular set of diagnoses might be, they are what I have. I could have other things, but I got these.  Everybody has something.

And so, I acquiesce in the video visits.  I hydrate, I fast, and I submit to the lab draws.  I read the articles which kind people send me.  I make a list of the recommendations. I draw a line in blue-black fountain pen to separate the precautions and efforts that I feel capable of undertaking from those which I know that I will never embrace.  My instinct for self-survival has limits.

Today I cleaned my porch, my funny little 8 x 8 deck, and most of my house.   I sit and listen to the ticking of the clock and the whir of the electric fan overhead.  I feel tired.   I worked four full days at a traditional job this week, and spent Friday in town, running errands and tending to the business of life. 

Tomorrow, I might visit Courtland for the Pear Festival.  Perhaps I will drive along the levee road and look for herons in the slough.  Certainly, my sister Joyce and I will speak.  I might even read one of the articles that my friend Kimberley sent me.   But more likely, I will set a load of clothes to go through the wash and dry cycle while I sit outside and read another eighty-year-old British crime novel.  When the sun sets, I will take myself inside and drink a cup of green tea, which Kimberley promises will keep me healthier than not.  It certainly can’t hurt.  Drink green tea made the cut.

It’s the thirtieth day of the one-hundred and third month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Bounty from our community garden.


That moment

My favorite curmudgeon once looked across the room from me and gave me a pearl of wisdom that I still cherish.  From a comfortable chair in a cottage near the wide expanse of Lake Michigan, he smiled and remarked that there came a time in every vacation when it was time to go home.  We left the next day, loading our bags into the several cars in which we had come and cautioning everyone to drive with care.  At the very last moment, I looked back to see my favorite curmudgeon standing with his daughter and his bride of more than five decades.  I lifted my hand.  He nodded and raised his in response.  Then he turned to go into the house.

I escaped to the coast for a few days, driving through Emeryville to stop for a blood draw.  I got to Point Reyes Station by lunch and my lodging just before dinner.  I dragged my bags around the house to the guest suite, regretting a somewhat careless study of the listing’s photographs.  Inside my heart sank.  One of the heavier loads had been groceries, and the place lacked a kitchen and even a decent microwave.  The savings I had expected by staying farther south than I wanted to be would vanish when I totaled my restaurant bill.  Careless reading, again; there it was, in the list of amenities, a bold strike through “kitchen”.  Ah, well.

Still, it had a comfortable bed, a cozy couch, and a fine shower.  It would do.  I tucked my belongings in one corner, put my lunch leftovers in the fridge, and prowled around, searching for a coffee pot.  I found what might have been the world’s first Keurig machine in the bathroom, with four or five pods and a couple of mugs in the undersink cabinet.  Curiouser and curiouser.  

I slept better than I do inland, I must admit.  By six the next morning, I had planned my day around a pitstop at the coffee shop in town and my insatiable need to feel and smell and hear the ocean.  I headed north, towards Jenner, stopping for a late breakfast at a Farm to Table place where they gave me ice to pack the half of their eggs Florentine that I could not eat.  Onward, northward, and I made Ft. Ross by noon.

I tendered the nine dollar day pass (one dollar discount for seniors) and took possession of my Accessible Parking permit.  My car knew the way and soon I found myself grasping my wooden walking stick and setting foot ahead of foot on the gravel road that took me to the very edge of the western coast.  I eased myself down on the bench and closed my eyes.  The Pacific murmured her welcome.  My soul settled. 

I snapped a few photos.  I watched the seabirds glide below the small bluff, cruising across the beach and rising again to head toward the horizon.  A real photographer stopped to chat, telling me that he always took his photos to “retirement communities, to share, and hear their stories about visiting the places that I’ve been”.  I watched a woman walk her dog back and forth while her human companions cavorted on the wide lawn.  For a few minutes, I lost myself in a pleasant daydream about pitching a yurt on the grounds and living out my days in solitude.  Mostly, though, I just breathed.

Later, I walked into the fort itself.  A group of visitors, accompanied by guides in period costumes, had just finished cooking their meal on the Fort’s mock-up of a long-ago outside stone oven.  They wore serious looks and quietly talked among themselves.  The children of the group walked rather than ran, and stopped to let me pass.  One man stood on the steps of a small building, raising his camera to capture the scene.  I could not for the life of me determine exactly what I beheld.  For a mad moment, time seemed to warp over itself.  I might have been watching an eighteenth-century church picnic.

Later, I stopped for what my mother might have called “a good dinner” at the Tides.  I ordered a Charles Krug chardonnay, the only way I will tolerate white wine, and told the waiter that I am a vegetarian who eats seafood on the coast once or twice a year.  A ray of light shone from his countenance as he assured me that he knew just what I should get:  wild salmon, locally caught, and he knew just how the kitchen should be instructed to prepare it for me.

I found no fault with his recommendation, nor with the fare when he reverently set it in front of me.  I dallied over the meal, watching the broad sweep of the seagulls outside the windows.  Eventually, I made my way back to Point Reyes Station and the guest room at the back of my hostess’s house.  My soul felt a little weary, but not because Jenner had failed to work its magic.  The impending arrival of the inevitable hovered on the periphery.  There comes a moment in every vacation, honey, when it’s time to go home.  Yes, Jay; I know.  And I feel the moment waiting.

But to my surprise, an unexpected and delightful delay presented itself.  A lovely new friend texted me that she knew from my Facebook posts that I would be passing through Petaluma where she and her husband live.  I must come to lunch!  I must have a tour!  I must visit!  And so, in the morning, I packed my bags and dragged them back to the car.  I made a little detour to see Tomales Bay one more time, and then turned east, where the good lady Francesca provided a personal, narrated exploration of Petaluma and then treated me to a fabulous lunch and yet another tolerable Chardonnay to ease the sting of no longer being able to tolerate my preferred Pinot Noir.

When I finally got on the road for home, I seemed to have eased past the fateful instant when one’s welcome faded and one found oneself hustled away.  Instead the wonder of Northern California lingered as I drove.  Its vineyards, its towering cedars, and its comfortable, easy people seemed to be raising their collective hands to bid me return when I could stay longer.  I will, I whispered.  I surely willBut for now, I whispered, I’m Delta-bound:  back to my tiny house in a lush park on the banks of the San Joaquin, where the wind rises as night falls, and the flicker you see crossing the road might be  a coyote or just a sheep that has lost its way.

It’s the nineteenth day of the one-hundred and third month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

The perfect pair of shoes

Cinderella’s glass slippers failed their owner.  Footwear has one paramount duty:  To provide a stable base, whether on a romantic evening stroll or a mad dash to avoid midnight’s toll.  The slip from a dainty foot belies the slipper’s obligation.

I parked at Tomales Bay wearing wool Mary Jane’s augmented by an $18 pair of semi-rigid inserts.  Still, I suffered under no illusions.  As lovely and cozy as those clogs might be, they would not serve my intended afternoon pursuit.  Taking walking stick in hand, I ventured to the rear of my car, where I seemed to recall having stashed an old pair of hiking shoes in the carefree weeks before the world came to an abrupt halt to serve the whim of a nasty virus. 

I pulled the back gate of the vehicle outward and stuck one hand into the flotsam and jetsam of my unusual life.  Under an empty box and two or three other assorted articles of debris, I found what I sought.  They still had a pair of my son’s thick socks rolled and nestled in one toe.  I spent a clumsy five minutes changing shoes, then took the stick in hand and sallied forth.

I met a few people on the trail.  A tall woman nodded to me before detouring on a side path.  A white-haired man whose age I set at north of seventy held his dog on the lead and gestured in the direction from which they had come.  There’s one more of us, he observed.  A woman slow-walked toward us, stout pole in either hand.  We waited, together, the man, the dog, and I.  When she reached our point, she twinkled and laughed, and informed me that she had walked the entire circuit.  I congratulated her, then stood to let them pass.

I had no illusions that I would match her feat.  A park service sign announced the accessible portion of the trail to be 1.2 miles of packed soil on a 2% grade.  I have not walked a mile since I last donned my old boots, and the tremor in my calves suggested that I could not do so now.  I heard my mother’s cautionary voice:  Only go half as far as you reckon you can travel.  Good advice never stales.

Judging merely by my casual study of the trail map, I think I went a quarter mile out and another back to the parking lot.  I felt every step of it in my lungs and legs, but my feet kept true and sure.  That walking stick did not fail me, nor did the shoes.  Back at the car, I regretted only my lack of foresight in failing to bring water.  I sat behind the wheel for a few minutes, wiggling my toes within the old leather. 

I cannot be certain that these Doc Martens are the same ones in which I made the walk through Devil’s Den, in the early days of my pregnancy, before I knew that the first spurt of life grew within me.  I think they might be.  Certainly, they have served me well for many years.  Now, this new chapter in my life opens and I face the potential that those pesky doctors might finally be proven right about the impending failure of my strength.  Sitting in my Toyota, beside the clear blue water of the bay, beneath its pale twin, I smile.  With laces tight and high-top padded collar snug, I have a feeling that these old Docs might finally be revealed as the perfect pair of shoes.

It’s the sixteenth day of the one-hundred and third month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Me, the egret, and a newly-mown field

Life scares me at times.  I feel the fullness of time bending my back and curving me to its will.  My body won’t respond the way I want.  I can’t exercise as much as I need.  I’ve gained weight and the willpower barometer hovers on zero.  Yet I tell myself that my problems pale in comparison with those of 10,000,000 Ukrainians and my three neighbors with cancer.  These comparisons rein my self-pity short.  I shake my head and pour a glass of water.  I raise it to my shaky lips and tell myself, Tomorrow is another day.  And I still have Tara.  And as God is my witness. . .

I drive home after work, crossing the bridge at about the same time I remember that I said I would get a prescription for one of those sick neighbors.  I ease through the intersection, signal left, and pull a wide turn back to the westbound lanes.  The traffic yields and in just a few minutes, I find myself on the far side of the tall lift bridge, headed to the pharmacy.  The detour adds eight minutes to my commute.  I barely notice the lag.

With the small, white bag on the cluttered seat, I make my way east again.  In just a few minutes, I turn onto the Loop, via Jackson Slough Road with its alternating stretches of new asphalt and vicious pot holes.  Right before the decrepit tree, I realize that an egret has taken the lead, gliding low enough for me to discern the outlines of her feet.  I slow my vehicle to keep pace with her.  She flicks her wings, stabilizes, and rises to the blue.  For a brief moment, I consider braking and fumbling for my phone.  I stop, but not to photograph her.  Instead I simply watch her ascent.  Then she angles over to the newly-mown field and skims its prickly surface.  I think, she’s looking for water, and then ease my foot to the gas pedal.  I study the stacks of hay, or maybe it’s straw, standing along the edge of the road.  I lose sight of the egret as she finds her way to a furrowed row where the day’s ration of irrigation spray has settled.  In a few minutes, I turn against the rays of the setting sun, and make my way home.

It’s the thirteenth day of the one-hundred and third month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

The Fruits of My Not-Labor Day

I entered this world on Labor Day, to the amusement of my father and the slight disgust of my mother who did most of the hard work.  By contrast, my son made his appearance on Not-Labor Day.

A mild feeling of anxiety suffused my body early in the morning of 06 July 1991.  I called a friend who came to sit with me in my small apartment in Fayetteville.  She curled in a rocker as I fidgeted.  Sit, she encouraged.  You’re making me nervous.

With a primary C-section scheduled for Monday morning, I intended to spend my weekend getting the nursery ready for the bundle of joy we’d taken to calling Buddy.  I had no name for him, since I had been expecting a girl whom I intended to call Elizabeth Lucille Johanna.  A technician spied the telltale anatomy in a sonogram at twenty weeks.  For the next three months, I fretted about details like the color scheme of the crib bedding and how you potty-train a male child with no man in the house.  I did not think about a name.

Paula said, Sit down, and let me rub your hands, they look swollen.  I obliged her, easing my middle-heavy frame onto the couch.  She got me a cup of herbal tea and smoothed my long sheath of tangled hair.  Maybe it’s contractions, she suggested, from the vantage point of having been through this several times.  I felt my heartbeat accelerate as she called my doctor and described the situation.  Then she got my small bag and murmured, She thinks we should come ahead.  Before I quite knew what had happened, I was in a gown on a gurney and the Irish lilt of the midwife had taken the place of Paula’s deep voice.

Twelve or thirteen hours later, I learned the meaning of unproductive labor.  Someone administered a shot and I drifted off to the sound of rubber-soled shoes passing in the corridor.

By Sunday morning, the milder twinges had subsided.  My belly had gone back to the round hardness of thirty-four weeks gestation.  Paula sweetly smiled and walked beside me as the attendant pushed the wheelchair down to the hospital entrance.  We called it a dress rehearsal.

I returned in earnest on Monday, with my law clerk Ron Barclay and his wife Laura Barclay in tow.  Laura scrubbed and gowned, to take her place beside me in the operating room.  I got prepped and prodded and poked and pricked.  The epidural relaxed me.  Chilly air surrounded us while we waited for the doctor.  Then she rushed into the room, apologetic, pulling her mask back, reaching for the first instrument.  The counting and the cutting began.  Every layer brought a round of checking for instruments, into me and out of me and as they stitched me.  Between the manic assurances that no foreign objections had fallen into the fleshy abyss, a sudden rush and a huge pop forced air and blood and muck out of me with an astonishing rapidity. 

At 1:50 p.m. on 08 July 1991, Dr. Elizabeth Wagner and the midwife Moira eased my son’s body from the slit they had made in my mid-section.  One of them gently cleared his airways. I heard a sort of coo, and the medical people visibly relaxed.  My son entered laughing.  They laid him on my chest as Laura beamed and I thought, over and over, what a miracle had just happened.

In thirty-one years, I’ve been all kinds of mothers:  The nervous kind, the worried kind, the stumbling kind, the surest kind.  I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve stood on my porch in the deepest dark of a silent night and sobbed.  I’ve wondered, I’ve marveled, I’ve prayed, and I’ve despaired.

But I have never once regretted anything, except, perhaps, my own ineptitude.

In less than an hour, Central time clocks will chime midnight, and it will be 08 July 2022.  In the middle of the coming day, my son will turn thirty-one.  Although I will not be in Chicago to celebrate with him, my heart always holds a place in which such celebration occurs.  I will go about my day as I always do, busy and hurried for the daylight hours, quiet and tired come evening.  Through every minute, my spirit will soar.  For some reason that I cannot begin to fathom, the universe gifted me with the incredible, incomparable gift of being Patrick Corley’s mother.  If I do nothing else good in my entire life, I will happily lay myself down assured that I have given one gift to the world as precious as that which I received. 

Whatever I hoped my son would become, Patrick has surpassed those expectations.  His gentle  heart does not judge.  He puts his mind and his hands towards helping others.  He fights injustice.  He appreciates beauty.  He formulated strong ideals and honors them.  He has made of himself a better person than I could ever have hoped to produce.  He has done me proud.

It’s the evening before the eighth day of the one-hundred and third month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Patrick Charles Corley and his mother, taken in September 2021, in St. Louis, Missouri

The Best Medicine

During my childhood, my father’s mother sent over boxes of cast-off reading materials.  I grabbed each package and eagerly pillaged its depths.  Magazines included Reader’s Digest, Life, and Time.  Among the books, I often found collections called Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. I did not realize until years later that the truncated versions of novels such as Christy   left so much out.  What did I know?  As a voracious reader, I greedily carried stacks into my bedroom and stayed awake for hours tearing through the volumes.

In my late high school years, my mother went through a period of personal challenge that she later called her “breakdown”.  I must have been sixteen or seventeen when she fell into that abyss.  Everything caused anxiety.  She would clutch her cheeks and tell us that we made her face hurt.  Desperate to help, I bought  product after product to give her facials, which she claimed ease the pain.  I would read out loud to her, especially articles from the discarded magazines from my grandmother.  She liked the happy-ever-after heartwarming stories in Reader’s Digest; along with the little fillers at the end of each piece, such as “Life In These United States” and “Laughter:  The Best Medicine”.

My mother and I would sit in the living room poring over these offerings.  I’d rub various types of goop onto her face and massage her hands with Pond’s cold cream.  I traced the brown spots on her olive skin and ask her if I would get them when I grew older.  We’d wrap our hair in curlers and look at patterns for dresses that I might want her to make for me.  Mostly we just talked, about nothing, really; I can’t remember debating any serious subjects, not during that time.  Anything important would make her cheeks hurt.  

I think of my mother when I perform little personal acts, like tweezing random hairs from my brows.  When I apply colorant to my grey roots and moisturizer to the wrinkles around my eyes, I recall the color of her lipstick and the fragrance that she wore.  My mother didn’t do much to enhance her natural appearance, but she used those basics, and a little bit of powder from a compact.  She always looked fresh, even when I knew she had barely slept, plagued as she was with worry.

I do not take after my mother, except in the texture of my hair and the shape of certain isolated features.  But her soul sits on my heart.  Like my mother, I reach for a joke when my burdens seem unbearable.  Laugher is, after all, still the best medicine, despite the advances of science in the thirty-seven years since my mother left us.

It’s the third day of the one-hundred and third month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Me and Mom, c. 1973.



Two people in my life have told me that I have too many problems for them to continue.   I will not name them, nor describe the circumstances.  Outing them serves no purpose.  One was a friend; one was a romantic partner.  Both  cut off our relationship as a consequence, at least in part, of their assessment.  One used these very words:  You need too much, at a time when I had just come home from an extended hospital stay and did, admittedly, need a lot.  One used more forceful language:  I’m broken, but you are more broken than I am.   Both made valid points, and damned my empathetic soul, I had to concede that in their shoes I might also choose to leave.

For the last eight years, I have tried to strip away any pretense of complacency.  I’ve examined my choices and my chances.  I’ve taken hold of layers and peeled them down, looking for signs of rot.  Conversations rewound and replayed in my head, in my essays, over the telephone wire to my confidants, especially my sister Joyce.  I walked when I could; I drove when my legs would not hold me more than a handful of feet.  I stood on the bluffs above the sea in turn-outs with my car engine cooling and the wind ruffling the wild curls of my Syrian hair.   Over and over, I have examined the accusations levied at me by the two who so harshly condemned me and others, including my inner voices and the ghosts of people who shied away from deeper connections.  Sixty-six years provide a lot of chances for failure.  I’ve squandered many opportunities.  The crumpled roadmap of my life unfolds to an odyssey from which an astute traveler might avoid more than a few inopportune detours.

I look around me, now, here.  I see cobwebs and dust trails.  A long swathe of broken leaves lies across the doorstep.  Layers of grime on the sills testify to months of inactivity while the Delta winds blew through the open windows.  Wrinkles besiege the clothing crammed in my little closet.  A load of laundry has sat in the unit so long that I can’t remember on what day I set it to cycle.  A stack of folders hold paperwork that might have been ignored long enough to become irrelevant.  

I step through the summer from doctor visit to doctor visit.  Last night, I got a text from someone who had noticed a few optimistically phrased posts on social media.  You’re on a medical roller coaster, aren’t you, he observed.  I studied the words.  I raised my eyes to the window, to the  pale light of a day growing dim as the sun eased itself down.  It’s true that physicians keep throwing curve balls at me.  But I’ve overcome everything after a fashion.  I can only repeat what I recently told one of the newest gurus:  It doesn’t limit me because I don’t let it.   

Yet it does, I know this.   Pain and inability sour my moods. I snap.  I snarl.  Then I retrace my steps and apologize.  Coins fall to the floor and I cannot retrieve them.  I fabricated a tradition of leaving them for the angels.   I gave this explanation to my son in his childhood and cling to the excuse even now, even here, in a tiny dwelling where coins on the floor look rather shabby.  People ask me if I’m going somewhere or doing something and I shrug, pretending disinterest.  In reality, the places they mention and the events they reference challenge my capabilities farther than I can endure.

All of my life, I have wanted to be enough:  Pretty enough, loving enough, kind enough, valued enough.  My grades never rose to perfection.  My salary hovered below solid success.  I learned to be satisfied with secondhand clothing, leftovers, and the middle seat.  Once in a while, I rise and grab something better.  But remorse follows.  I do not actually consider myself worthy of the best.  I know this of myself.  After all, I did not protest those two people who abandoned me because of my weaknesses.  I understood.  I forgave them.  

Now, in this moment, I have a chance to reorient myself to acceptance of my worth.  I understand that I am not everyone’s cup of tea.  I will always have definite ideas about life which others protest.  My disability repels many casual observers.  My forthright nature offends some who draw a bit closer.  Pain, the great equalizer, rises to claim space even when I strive for civility.  I do not dress like others.  I do not talk like others.  I do not walk like others.  

But here, today, with the birds chirping outside my window, I finally think that I might be enough.  Not for you, perhaps; not for many, in fact.  Maybe for nobody. But for myself.  Possibly I am inadequate for every other person on the planet except myself.  For me, I am enough.

It’s the second day of the one-hundred and third month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.