The fifth anniversary of my arrival on the California Delta passed without fanfare. If memory serves, I pulled into Park Delta Bay in the week of December 19th, 2017. I spent the next twelve months with a foot in each world. Every three or four weeks, I spent a couple of weeks in Kansas City, squatting in a spare room at my friend Jeanne Foster’s house and at a spare desk in Patricia Scaglia’s Independence law firm. By the close of 2018, I became a full-time resident and in January of 2019, registered my vehicle in California.
I mark the changing of seasons with the arrival of migratory birds and seasonal fruit. Yesterday I spied the first flock of snow geese on Andrus Island. At the grocery store, stemmed mandarins sent wafts of their sweet fragrance into the air as I leaned on the handle of my cart and eased down the aisle. The rain has overtaken our world. My feet sink into mud on the short walk from my steps to the car.
When the new year dawns, many will list resolutions. Others will chastise themselves for those not attained in 2022. I have my own lists: Mistakes that I’ve made; goals to which I’ve inched closer, people whom I offended to whom I wish to make amends; others who have shown kindness on whom I want to bestow some unexpected bounty of gratitude. If past habits hold, I will open a fresh journal and write a daily entry for a few weeks, dwindling to monthly before the habit fades altogether. My to-do lists will begin as boldly penned in full sentences across a page, then morph into fragments before being relegated to that most tenuous of note-pads, the one we maintain in our heads. But nonetheless, I announce my intentions, if only to myself. I will resolve to smile more often, take myself more lightly, reach out to a wider range of relatives, and lose weight.
Without question, I also resolve that I will not cease this #journeytojoy. I have yet to accomplish its initial, solitary goal: to traverse an entire year without uttering one single word of protest. I have not yet made it; and so, with firm conviction and my customary rueful smile, I shall continue.
It’s the thirtieth day of the one-hundred and eighth month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.
Time plays dirty tricks on us. Faces in the mirror crack and crinkle. Curls assume a frosty sheen not imposed by the crafty hands of a sympathetic stylist. Eyes dull. Muscles weaken and wither.
Our minds bend with the weight of shifting weeks. We strain to discern the details of disappearing days. Words fall from the mouths of folks no longer able to correct us. We brag of feats that in our quiet moments, we cannot honestly claim. Bitterness fades and only the thrill of the tender glance remains.
I cannot describe with absolute certainty what I expected from life. If I guided the construct of my waning years by my mother’s predictions, I’ve nearly fulfilled them. She expected me to have a profession; I’ve had one, after a clumsy fashion. She wearily intoned that no man could abide my unruly nature; none has. She cautioned me not to pursue a life of dance or theatre (I did not); she typed my poems for me and encouraged me to scribble (I did). I do not know if the outcome would satisfy my mother, except in her own keen knowledge of her baby girl’s potential.
For many, Christmas marks a celebration of a savior’s birth. Five decades stand between me and my belief in that reason for this day. Twenty-five years have come and gone since my brother Stephen’s death, so we no longer mark his Christmas birth except in quiet contemplation. My son has grown and does not have children of his own, so no small children of my lineage gather around tree or table. Truth told, I sold the table around which I might collect them, along with the house in which that table sat for all of my son’s own childhood.
I’ve now become the visiting aunt; the solo sister who comes to town with an assortment of gifts collected here and there in hopes of hitting some imagined mark. I stay in hotels and rented rooms, with a suitcase spilling from the closet every time I try to dress. My brother’s cheerful kitchen draws me for Christmas Eve. His family provides the customary holiday gaiety. Thus far, weather has kept my son from driving down, and so a wistful note dances behind each pleasant exchange.
But mine’s a fine life. My health totters but it holds. My bank account bears the weight of this trip; never mind that I didn’t plan my life well enough to retire. Messages ping my phone from time to time, reminding me that folks do care for my well-being even as they gather with their own closed tribes. If my belly feels empty, food can be had. I drink coffee from a china cup delivered to the hotel by my sister and sleep under an afghan that she also provided for my comfort. Mine’s a fine, fine life; even though it pales in comparison with what it might have been or that of which others smugly boast.
So I will dine at a restaurant today, served by souls whom fortune compels to work rather than frolic. I will leave a tip on my pillow for the cleaning staff in similar situation. The lady whom I met in the lobby last evening will continue her drive toward Chicago where her son lives, while I silently pray that mine will leave his Chicago home to travel here, where his mother lingers. All the while, the minutes will fall into the abyss without chance of reclamation. I’ve squandered enough of them to disdain sleep in favor of better uses for the passing hours.
From a room larger than my entire tiny house, in a hotel with a greater current population than the community in which I live, I send greetings and hopes that your day holds joy. Merry Christmas from Mary Corinne, with love and all sincerity.
It’s the twenty-fifth day of the one-hundred and eighth month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.
Patrick Charles Corley and Stephen Patrick Corley, In Memory of Stevie Pat; 12/25/1959 – 06/14/1997
Houses on Kingshighway in St. Louis; the sight of their decline saddened me.
The expected snow failed to materialize here in St. Louis, but the shockingly cold wind chill kept me in my hotel room for a solid five hours. I slipped out this morning to make sure the rental car would start and run to the grocery store for something fresh, grapes, juice, you know the kind of thing. I had decided not to go visit an old friend, because stuck on the side of the road in minus five degree weather did not appeal to me. If the car works, you’re fine; but it’s not my car and I have no idea whether or not it would. I texted my son the same advice, hauled two or three lightly packed bags to my room, and made a cup of tea.
From noon to five, then, I took a kind of snow day. I watched the morning talk shows on YouTube replay, reheated leftover lobby breakfast, and dumped everything out of my computer bag, purse, and suitcase. With all of my possessions reorganized and neatly stowed, I took to wrapping the last few presents, which I had actually forgotten beneath the pile of wool sweaters that I packed so tightly that I had to check my carry-on due to excess weight.
Now I’m waiting for my sister to arrive. We’ll figure something out for dinner and settle into a long homey chat, with the facial expressions and hand-gestures that we can’t see or share over the telephone. An absence of static always improves communication. Eventually, she’ll make her way home and I’ll curl under the afghan that she brought to the hotel. A good novel, cold water, and some place to rest my legs. In a hotel room with more space than my tiny house, 2300 miles from the levee road on which it sits, I will make myself comfortable and hope that Christmas Eve morning brings more sun, a higher ambient temperature, and clear highways to south Saint Louis where my little brother’s family has invited me to dine.
It’s the twenty-third day of the one-hundred and eighth month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.
A recent sunrise on Brannan Island Road, beside the San Joaquin River in the California Delta where I live.
Nine years ago this week, I attended an office Christmas party with my then-husband. The party host welcomed us in gorgeous downtown Kansas City loft space belonging to his business. We mingled with other attendees, me feeling slightly uncomfortable in my unstylish Bohemian attire and him blending with the other Oxford shirts and crisp trousers.
I wandered into a little alcove or mezzanine, I can’t quite recall which but away from the clink of cocktail glasses and the murmurs of year-end comparisons. My head swam. I rested my wine glass on a window sill and gazed through a large pane of glass onto the urban darkness, with the occasional flash of a passing car lighting the landing below where I stood.
The host’s significant other found me leaning against a pillar. We talked for a while, in low voices and more honest tones than I felt I could use with most of the party guests. I told her that I had decided to do a blog about not complaining, in honor of my recently passed mother-in-law. I expressed trepidation about going a full year without uttering one petulant word. She smiled and made encouraging noises. She asked if I had told my husband. I shook my head.
What’s more, I confessed, I’ve just spent four months weaning myself off of prescription painkillers which I’ve taken since high school. He doesn’t know that either.
She grimaced. She asked if perhaps I should tell him. I shook my head again, with even greater force this time. Then we heard our names being called and rejoined the merriment upstairs. As we moved away from each other, she wished me luck.
As it happens, luck did not materialize. A month later, my husband left me. I found myself lost and lonely. Every day, I hammered out entries about striving to live in the way that honored my mother-in-law’s sweet nature. I cried myself to sleep. I stared unseeing at clients as they earnestly shared the stories of their own failed marriages. When my duties to the foster children whom various courts appointed me to represent demanded my attention, I knelt low enough to engage their eyes. I knew that every small bit of humanity could bolster their self-esteem. I understood feeling worthless. I lived it every day.
Over the next year, I watched my entire life disintegrate. My friends stood by my side. My son visited and turned my attention to pursuits intended to distract me. Thus did that first year slip away without the attainment of my goal but with some semblance of sanity re-asserting itself. I began to build a new life; a life without an intimate partnership, my law practice, or a traditional dwelling. A life in 198 square feet on the banks of the San Joaquin River in the California Delta. Neighbors, a job, volunteer pursuits, a community of people. A book comprised of essays written, most of them, in what I once believed were happier times.
This morning I shopped for Christmas gifts in old St. Charles, Missouri. As I paid for purchases in one store, the owner asked for my email address. I handed her one of the new business cards that I recently had made. “The Missouri Mugwump,” she read. “What’s that?” I gestured towards myself. I told her about the book. She looked back at the little white square.
“My Year Without Complaining, that’s your blog?” she asked. I admitted as much. “How’s it going, then,” she queried, with an innocent raise of her eyebrows. I laughed and acknowledged that it had been a very, very long journey.
And now, here I am, in my hotel room, hoping the snow stops so that I can see my family. My son has texted from Chicago that a blizzard might keep him off the roads. My sister just called from fifteen miles away, wondering if we will be able to connect for dinner. I have a bit of work to do, presents to wrap, and a handy microwave in which to heat water for tea. I’m snug, warm, and safe here in my little holiday oasis. Nine years have passed since I set out on a path which has taken me more than two-thousand miles and a hundred lightyears from my Kansas City home. To paraphrase Edward Albee, I’ve gone a very long way to come back a short way properly. Now, in just nine short days, my tenth chance to go 365 days in complete cheerfulness will start. I can barely wait.
it’s the twenty-second day of the one-hundred and eighth month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.
Holiday festivities at Park Delta Bay, the RV Park & Tiny House Resort in which I live.
On foggy days, I turn left outside of the park to take the long way around the ten-mile loop on which I live. I turn right on Highway 12. As I slip into the depths of the grey, I spare a glance over my shoulder at my yesterday self, stopped at Jackson Slough Road hoping for a break in traffic. I spare a slight smile.
When I moved to Andrus Island, one of my neighbors said we lived at mile 5. He might have been right, but the roadway seems to circle around a lot more of the island. Across the acres, looking south over Tim Anderson’s pig farm, I see the same stilt houses past which I had just driven. It doesn’t matter, though; the ease of entering the morning flow without that harrowing two-lane dash more than compensates for the extra five minutes. In winter, when I’m apt to see a flock of geese or cranes lifting from the cold earth into the foggy sky, it’s almost a better deal.
This morning brought me to the place where I earn my income a bit earlier than usual. I put myself to work with an intensity I’m not always able to muster. Perhaps seeing the bridge through rising mist invigorated me. But the burst of energy waned by ten, as often happens. I glanced down at my phone around then, dismayed to see a black X over the icon which ought to have shown me a strong signal.
Intermittent forays into the customer service consumed the next two hours. Misinformation compounded by disinterest ratcheted my mood from pleasant, to anxious, to irritated, to a simmering level of possibly unjustified anger. I kept reminding myself of the comparative insignificance of cell phone service. Between bouts, I prepared a conservatorship petition for the mother of a twenty-two year old crushed in a rock quarry fall and a sheaf of papers for the adult children of a recent decedent striving to claim her small bank account. As I broke into hour three of my efforts to get my phone service restored, an “advanced technical agent” with the improbable name of Ender admitted that my last hope lay with a factory re-set. I hit “backup to Google” and hoped for the best.
Ender arranged for a replacement, not even the slightest bit embarrassed that my barely three-month old fancy dead phone would be replaced by a refurbished model. I stared at the device in my hand, now apparently a thousand-dollar paper weight. I gritted my teeth, thinking about my lot in life, worried about the loss of hours on my time sheet, calculating whether I had the stamina to stay late.
Around five o’clock, the family member of that twenty-two-year-old who lies in a medically induced coma stopped by to talk about our next steps. We chatted for a few minutes, being neighbors and friendlier than I usually get in a business setting. She happened to glance down at my phone, and mentioned that she had had no cell phone service for most of the day due to an outage. Sure enough, we used the same carrier. I could not believe that four customer service people, three levels deep, had not seen fit to properly investigate a system-wide ailment.
As I locked the office and moved towards my car, a tone chimed on my phone. I glanced down at the unfamiliar screen. The factory re-set stripped away the photograph of the tree that once rose from the meadow behind my tiny house, until it died some time during the early days of the pandemic and had to be removed. Now a generic wallpaper lurked behind the small assemblage of icons. I searched for the source of the sound, and realized that I had gotten a series of text messages, all from the various agents who had sent queries during our long, fruitless conversations. My phone had revived. No doubt, the entire network had come back online, bringing me with it.
My day draws to a close. I ate a sort of dinner, goat cheese on toast with sliced apples followed by two cordial cherries covered in dark chocolate. I’ve started the process of reloading my various identities onto this phone. I have not yet decided what to do about the one that has been mailed to me. I think very likely I will return it.
While I ate, I watched an entire video of a man building a cabin in a woods in the upper Midwest, as he called it. I listened to his voice-over narration, and smiled at the pauses in filming. He would look at the camera and described the satisfaction of a deftly cut angle, the heft of tin sheeting, or a makeshift bail-out system for getting water off a tarp on the roof without the whole thing collapsing onto the unfinished porch. He took no shortcuts. He measured, leveled, and measured again, before lifting his handsaw. By the time he lit the newly installed little wood stove and hung the door, my jaw had relaxed and my blood pressure had eased.
I studied the cabin that this complete stranger had built, with its straight walls and sturdy floors. I looked around my tiny house, wondering if I could install a wood-burning stove. I’d pull a chair close, just as this man had done; and I’d raise my hands to the fire at the end of a foggy day. I’d pull a flannel shirt around my shoulders, and settle for the night, while the cold wind whistled round my windows, and the rain fell across the island where I live.
It’s the fourteenth day of the one-hundred and eighth month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.
As I stared at the flashing numbers on a computer screen at Stanford’s Oncology Clinic F, I stupidly thought, Yossarian‘s got nothing on me. Numbers in the high normal range mean that I’m not sick enough to treat, but not well enough to dodge the diagnosis. The doctor’s eyes twinkled and I’m sure that behind her mask, she smiled. We take a watch-and-wait attitude, she intoned in a broad accent that might have been from anywhere east of Paris. I shook my head. I didn’t mumble “wait-and-see”, because that would have been rude. I just drew a deep breath and thought, That’s some catch, that Catch-22.
The week had already promised to be challenging. Mechanical failures in my tiny home had strained my patience through the weekend. Parts had been shipped, and I had spent a reasonable night of comfort in a Palo Alto hotel. I had hoped for better news. The pronouncement “not bad enough for treatment, but definitely there” had to suffice. I drove home by way of Lodi, deposited my flat tire, and headed to the park.
The next day saw round two of the maybe-giants. Over video, from another Stanford clinic, the doctor taking calls for my neuro-muscular specialist opined that an inconclusive biopsy meant that his colleague’s opinion could be disregarded. I questioned him as closely as the faulty audio allowed. At the end of the call, I sat staring at my reflection in the mirror at the back of the cabinet of my mother-in-law’s secretary. My penultimate remark reverberated: It seems that every time I get a different doctor, I get a different diagnosis. He had quite literally shrugged.
A hectic weekend looms. I’m helping host the last Sunday Market of the 2022 season, a huge affair with twenty vendors, food, music, a bar, the local volunteer fire department, and a visit from St. Nick. Unless the rain drowns our visitors, it should be an amazing day. By late Sunday, I will be exhausted. I’m tired already from a hard-driving work week.
This evening, I made myself a simple supper. I divided the fare between two of my prettiest plates. With a drink at hand, I sat at my little live-edge cherry-wood table and thought about my friend Sheldon, who made the lovely thing from part of a fallen tree. I closed my eyes and breathed. My legs ache, my feet tingle, my back creaks, and my neck can barely move. But before me sits delicious food served on beautiful china, with cool spring water in a chilled tin cup. Just what the doctor ordered.
It’s the eighth day of the one-hundred and eighth month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.
Baked Japanese sweet potato.
Romaine lettuce hearts, tomato, and avocado with lemon and vegan green goddess dressing.
From the vantage point of a decent hotel room in Palo Alto, typing on a tiny keyboard, the last four days do not seem quite as awful.
True enough, mechanical systems at my tiny house failed. A perfect storm of rare cold weather and an area-wide power outage sent ice along lines not fully prepared for the sudden wicked grip of winter. The charm of a talented neighbor soothed the chaos but did not carry the day. Solution awaits the ordered parts.
A day or two later, the first truly sympathetic spirit whom I have met here upped stakes and headed to SoCal for the winter months. Bruised by this sudden loss, I fled to Lodi for a fridge full of healthy food. I cruised Sprouts mumbling words of encouragement to myself. My spirit began to rise. Can I be blamed for a muttered curse or two, upon discovering one of four brand-new tires flat upon my return to the car? The arrival of the same AAA rescuer who helped when someone slashed my tire a month or so ago barely took the edge off my foul mood. I relented a little when he professed to well remember the day he escorted me to the place at which I purchased the tire now staring limply in my direction.
With spare in place, I journeyed home, dragged my purchases inside, and took a seat at my desk to answer the accumulated message notifications. My gaze fixed on one or two troubling emails. I let my head sink to my hands. Oh dear.
Then I remembered the story that I often told my son and his friends, of Isaac Bashevis Singer consoling his publicist when she moaned that his decision to give away a story for whom she had a willing buyer was a downright catastrophe. “No, ma’am,” he hastened to correct. “It is not a catastrophe. No little children will die of it.” Donning a rueful smile, I closed my laptop, and rose to light the kettle for a cup of tea. Because i live in such a small space, I only had to take one step to get to the stove.
It’s the fifth day of the one-hudred and eighth month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.
Please enjoy this photo of a solitary hawk which I took near my house one recent afternoon.