Author Archives: ccorleyjd365

Duckfeet, Big Ships, and Missing Robin Williams

The half-moon shone her pale mask through the fading blue of the early evening as I drove home yesterday.  I slowed my car, groping for the camera that I had not thought to bring in the rush of morning.  I let my eyes record the fade from the grey edge to a ribbon of gone midway.  Then I continued home.

After the Tuesday Community Dinner — the second since we resumed, the last until we can return — I stashed my folding chairs in the car and headed to the end of G-Row for movie night.  I had never attended before yesterday.  My neighbor Louis had scheduled a special showing of The Birdcage in honor of Pride Month.

I’ve previously seen the movie, but never in the company of a half-dozen or so gay friends from a lawn chair in a meadow at a tiny house community in Northern California projected onto a sheet via YouTube.  As darkness gathered and the mosquitoes followed, we laughed, we held our collective breath, and we whispered to one another.  Oh, I had forgotten this part. . . What’s “palimony”?. . . Such a good actor!  We applauded the wicked little gesture with which Albert launched his most clever scheme to save the day yet again.  We sighed as the wedding scene unfolded.  We loudly applauded through the credits.

Afterward, I struggled to my feet, and reached for the arm of the young man next to me, asking for help back to my car.  His partner moved my other side.  Thusly championed — Alex to my right and Travis to my left — I made my ginger way.  

What year was that movie, Alex asked.  I thought a minute, during which Travis supplied, Early nineties, I should think, which I affirmed.  

God, I miss Robin Williams, Alex softly admitted.  Same, I replied.

Same.

A brutal work day followed my late night.  I’m clearly too old to hang with the twenty-somethings, even for such a golden opportunity to observe a clutch of cultural icons.  I struggled through the tedious hours as well as I could.  Back home, I fetched a parcel from the lockbox and slung my camera over one shoulder for the trudge from parking spot to porch.  

The package turned out to be my latest attempt at shoes in which I can actually walk, this time a pricey pair handmade in Denmark.  I drew my pale blue Duckfeet from their swanky box with its leather handle, inserted the separately purchased orthotic, and buckled them over my lily white spastic feet.  Back and forth I paced in the slim corridor of my home.  Maybe.

As night fell again, I remembered seeing a ship making its way from Stockton to the sea as I dashed to Rio Vista this morning.  My camera had been on the seat beside me.  I grabbed it from its case and tarried at the bend in Brannan Island Road, straining to capture something of the wonderment.  Come evening, I scrolled through the SD card, studying the slightly blurred images.   One or two might do, I told myself, sliding into my desk chair.

Simple gifts offset the burdens of my life:  The occasional thrill of beholding masters at work; the comfort of a sturdy pair of shoes; and the sight of a freighter making its ponderous way down the San Joaquin.   There could be other rewards ahead.  If I hold steady, I might see them still.

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

Cobwebs

The sweet, serene air of a Delta Saturday greeted me as I rose this morning.    I pulled my hair into a top knot and put on a soft white dress.  I tightly laced my new shoes and padded around the house, making lists.  But my friend Kimberley called from Kansas City.  Then the mail arrived, with a couple of tempting packages.   Before I realized what had happened, lunchtime had come.   I found myself standing at the stove waiting for quinoa to cook.  Tiny tomatoes, halved and soaked in vinegar, nestled in parsley, green onion, and fennel dressing.

After my lunch, I came upstairs to do a little work.  But the shadows played across the meadow.  I gazed through the transom at the dancing sunlight.  I should be out walking, I told myself.  I should find my stick and a sweater and stroll down to the garden.

I meant to get outside early.  I wanted to spray the side of the house and the succulents around my tree before the heat rose in the park.  Laziness stole into my veins.  I did nothing more challenging than wash the breakfast dishes and send a few emails.

I see the spiders have overtaken the crystal on the transom sill.  I definitely must take my whisk to their work.  A spray of vinegar will cut through the dusty glass.  Tomorrow, I promise myself.  I listen to the sounds of the park.  A mourning dove coos overhead.  Some small brown bird scampers across the grass next to my deck, chattering to its companion. 

 I’m not much of a napper but I could carry a book out onto the porch and pretend to read, while the hummingbirds flit overhead, and the woodpecker hammers away at the old oak across the road.  The cobwebs can wait.

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

White rice, ginger chews, and trespassing in the California Delta

For years my body has grown increasingly rebellious.  It rejected red meat from early on, forcing me into vegetarianism through college and young adulthood.  I fought the limitations of a plant-based diet.  I added chicken and fish, the occasional strip of bacon, and Thanksgiving turkey just to show this bag of bones who was boss.

Six years ago, I surrendered back to some semblance of clean living.  I had gotten down to 105 pounds of neurotic nervousness.  A scalding divorce might have been to blame but truth acknowledged, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with anything stronger than white rice.

This week’s news tortured my Midwestern soul.  I longed to be on the streets of the Windy City with my son or outside Union Station with the folks whom I came to Kansas City to serve.  My first job on Missouri’s western edge allowed me to work east of the urban divide for a nonprofit group founded by Freedom, Inc.  As their acknowledged token white employee, I helped match services to citizens.  I have never felt so useful.  

But here I sit, in the California sunshine, the only protest within miles happening in the Rio Vista park with no fanfare.  I missed it.  So I get online from my laptop and divvy up some disposable income from my tax incentive among the Equal Justice Initiative, the Legal Defense Fund, and the Chicago Community Bond Fund.  As my friends create fundraisers for other such programs, I click on Facebook-donate buttons and kick a few more dollars into the fray.  I put down my bowl of rice and enter my debit card number, knowing that my money won’t go far, but it will carry my intentions farther than my spastic feet could go.  

My little troubles shrink into insignificance in the face of the persistent problems of our society.  So I keep them to myself.  I spend sleepless nights reading about homeopathic cures for my increasing digestive foibles.  The recommended teas ravage me; the herbs clearly have power, but not the gentleness which I crave.  I resign myself to little candies with minuscule amounts of ginger.  I sit on the porch with cup after cup of spring water.  I recall once telling someone that I could endure a lot because I knew others suffered far more.  He had snapped in return that he didn’t think my problems should be diminished just because somebody else’s were worse.  I disagreed then, and my resolve has not abated.  How can I complain about a rumbling tummy, when people are dying for a twenty-dollar bill?

Still I get sad sometimes, overwrought, lonely, falling within the tangled undergrowth of my untamed heart.  Last night was such a night.  I had spent the day in solitude.  I ended the evening with a call to my sister Joyce.  We talked of her challenges and mine; of our fears and our failings; of our futures and our longings.  Our words would have sounded simple to the untrained ear.  But our hearts connected and we carried one another through the hour to the other side, to a small space of temporary and admittedly fragile peace.

Afterwards, I cast aside the novel which I had been reading and snatched my camera from the hook on which it hangs.  I pulled my car out onto Brannan Island Road.  When I got to the crossroads, I could have turned right to Jackson Slough or left to Twitchell Island Road.  Instead, I went straight.  I took a path that I had dutifully avoided for the last thirty months.  I drove my car past the sign proclaiming that the impending stretch of the levee could not be traversed due to being privately owned.  I figured no one would challenge me, and my reckoning proved correct.  I parked in the middle of the road.  Standing in the chilly evening air, I cast my lens across the fields and snapped a few photographs to prove that I had once been brave.

Never mind that afterwards, I crept along the narrow levee, unable to get the car turned around.  Instead I journeyed forward, beyond the point at which I could have claimed ignorance and accident.  Eventually, I came through the overgrown trees to a road on which I had a right to travel.  I made it home.  My triumph took a momentary beating when I dropped my keys in the treacherous crack between my porch and my house.  I called for rescue; thanked Candice and Noah for fishing the offending keyring from the muck and grime; and went inside, still smiling from the after-glow of trespassing to see the sunset over the California Delta.

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

Uniforms

I remember my mother bent over her sewing machine, hair in curlers tightly wound to her scalp.  In earlier years, she made dresses for her daughters and curtains for the various rooms in our little house.  Closer to the end of her life, she had two basic patterns which she used over and over with varying weights of fabric.  One produced a plethora of all-season wrap-around skirts.  The other yielded a shoulder bag with a single flap and no closure.

She made the skirt in denim, floral prints, and corduroy.  She made the pocketbook in light-weight or heavy, depending on the season.  With the skirt she wore a host of t-shirts.  She pulled the thick strap of the current bag over her shoulder and held it close to her body.  

As I did my laundry this weekend, I discovered that I have four dresses of the same type but in different colors.  In a basket under my little sofa, I keep twenty pairs of leggings, winter weight at one side, summer at the other.  On a hook in the storage cupboard, I hang four cardigans for summer.  The heavier ones live in another basket, pushed to the back for now.  Every day I wear one of the dresses, a pair of leggings, and Mary Janes with thin cotton socks.

Thusly attired, my shape and size disappear.  The effortless swing of fabric falls from the shoulders and skims the cloth of the leggings.  Short sleeves truncate my arms and hide that slight flab which comes with middle-age.  I sling a crossbody across my chest before I leave each morning.  On cooler days, I tie one of a dozen scarves around my neck.

A photo of my mother hangs on the stairway to the loft of my tiny house.  She wears one of her famous skirt-and-T combos.  She’s dancing, a light skip down the sidewalk of our home.  I took this photo in May  of 1977.  I had come home from Boston to walk with my graduating class at St. Louis University, and to see my brother Frank graduate from the U-High.  I study the picture as I drink my coffee in the morning.  She seems so happy.  I think that must be an illusion, a trick of the soft sepia tones in which the film was developed.  

Summer settles onto the island, the warm days buffered by the sweep of evening winds.  I think of my mother.  I wonder what she would make of the life into which I have stumbled.  She would enjoy the land here.  She would walk along the levee and study the ripple of the passing river.  She would call to the birds in the meadow. I  can almost hear her voice.  I close my eyes and strain to feel the comfort of the melody, a lullaby tendered in her low, deep croon.  Then it fades, and I am left with a picture on the wall and a tiny closet full of uniforms.

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

 

Nothing so rare as a day in June

A memory:  

My little brother Frank stands on his sidewalk, arms folded, gazing out into the city night.  Beside him, I shift to find stable purchase on the uneven sidewalk.  I had miles to go the next morning and should have been sleeping.  But we rarely stopped so quietly, he and I together  We rarely shared anything of substance.  We almost never spoke of events more serious than politics or the happy successes of our children.  But for this one moment in time, his face takes on a somber air.  He reaches for words to describe his quest for a rich, full life despite the challenges of our difficult family.  Finally, he speaks, simply and quietly.  

“Here’s how I see it,” he tells me.  “Our father was an asshole and our little brother killed himself.  Okay.  So what about the last twenty years?  What have I done?  What do I have?  A wife, a career, seven kids, my grandchildren.  These are what define me.”

My little brother Stephen Patrick Corley died by suicide twenty-three years ago.  No one knows the exact date.  I think he was found on June 14th and buried on the 21st.  Autopsy results put his death at seven to ten days before discovery.    Born on  a snowy Christmas in 1959; died on a warm June day in 1997.  In between, my brother lived, and loved, and laughed, and cried.  He suffered.  He visited pain upon others.  Those who rue his life and their connection with it have ample reason.  But those of us who cherished him — and trust me, the two groups coincide — still mourn the loss of him.

I drove home after shopping yesterday, thinking about my little brother.  In a box under my bed, I have a letter which he wrote to me from New Orleans.  He described his struggles and the way in which he chose to deal with them.  He spoke of the hope he felt.  He seemed determined to overcome his demons.  He signed that letter as he always did — Your friend and mine, Stephen Patrick Corley.

My father truly was an asshole, though perhaps because of the neuro-psychological damage inflicted on him by combat.  And my little brother did kill himself, letting go of his tenuous connection to the world one sweet summer day beneath a towering tree.  I did not understand either of them.  Of the two, I feel most the loss of my little brother.  His death did not surprise me though.   I do not know if he found peace on the other side of his terrible act.  For myself, I have struggled for two decades to find peace with his death. 

As I traversed the levee road in the shimmering sun yesterday, I glanced to my right at the San Joaquin; to my left at the fields of Andrus Island.  I drew a breath.  I said a prayer.  I continued forward.

It’s the fourteenth day of the seventy-eighth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

What Is So Rare As A Day In June
  
And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries earth if it be in tune,
And over it softly her warm ear lays;
Whether we look, or whether we listen,
We hear life murmur, or see it glisten;
Every clod feels a stir of might,
An instinct within it that reaches and towers,
And, groping blindly above it for light,
Climbs to a soul in grass and flowers;
The flush of life may well be seen
Thrilling back over hills and valleys;
The cowslip startles in meadows green,
The buttercup catches the sun in its chalice,
And there’s never a leaf nor a blade too mean
To be some happy creature’s palace;
The little bird sits at his door in the sun,
Atilt like a blossom among the leaves,
And lets his illumined being o’errun
With the deluge of summer it receives;
His mate feels the eggs beneath her wings,
And the heart in her dumb breast flutters and sings;
He sings to the wide world, and she to her nest,
In the nice ear of Nature which song is the best?

Now is the high-tide of the year,
And whatever of life hath ebbed away
Comes flooding back with a ripply cheer,
Into every bare inlet and creek and bay;
Now the heart is so full that a drop overfills it,
We are happy now because God wills it;
No matter how barren the past may have been,
‘Tis enough for us now that the leaves are green;
We sit in the warm shade and feel right well
How the sap creeps up and the blossoms swell;
We may shut our eyes but we cannot help knowing
That skies are clear and grass is growing;
The breeze comes whispering in our ear,
That dandelions are blossoming near,
That maize has sprouted, that streams are flowing,
That the river is bluer than the sky,
That the robin is plastering his house hard by;
And if the breeze kept the good news back,
For our couriers we should not lack;
We could guess it all by yon heifer’s lowing,
And hark! How clear bold chanticleer,
Warmed with the new wine of the year,
Tells all in his lusty crowing!

Joy comes, grief goes, we know not how;
Everything is happy now,
Everything is upward striving;
‘Tis as easy now for the heart to be true
As for grass to be green or skies to be blue,
‘Tis for the natural way of living:
Who knows whither the clouds have fled?
In the unscarred heaven they leave not wake,
And the eyes forget the tears they have shed,
The heart forgets its sorrow and ache;
The soul partakes the season’s youth,
And the sulphurous rifts of passion and woe
Lie deep ‘neath a silence pure and smooth,
Like burnt-out craters healed with snow.

James Russell Lowell

 

Seeking solace

I spend a lot of time alone in my tiny house or sitting on my porch.  Whenever I leave, I take my little Canon with its broken lens cap.  I try to keep my eyes wide open.  I strive to see the Delta in its shimmering liveliness, to understand its contours and the rhythm of the natural life here.

The birds fascinate me.  The other day, a large white creature flew across the road.  Shaped like a hawk, with a massive wingspan, it seemed frantic.  It swooped across Jackson Slough Road from a newly-plowed field to the low-lying shallow water of the slough.  It rose back to the air and landed high in the bare branches of a dying tree.  I saw its feathers fluttering in the wind.  I didn’t have my camera with me, but I carry the mental image.  Now I move down that roadway at a snail’s pace, Canon in hand, hoping for another sighting.

Even the crows somehow assume an air of grandeur in the Delta.  In Kansas City, we honk our horns to scatter them.  Here, they gracefully land on the high wires.  They stroll down the narrow levee road.  I skirt around them.  I stop to photograph their effortless flight.

With all the turmoil in today’s world, I’ve taken to assuring myself of the pettiness of any complaint that I might otherwise articulate.  But my soul still feels restless.  My body still aches.  These long Delta drives soothe me.  When the sun sets on the far side of Mt. Diablo, I find myself at peace.  I close my eyes and sleep.

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

.

Not One Damn Thing About Which To Complain

Friends:  

I am alive.  My son is alive.  I have comparatively good health, as does he.  My sister Joyce broke her leg but apparently it’s a small break, painful but not insurmountable.  A kind family has come to her assistance.  My  other siblings all seem to be surviving.  My nephew who lives in the Twin Cities has gone to stay with a friend.  His mother sends regular updates.  She and her husband and their other son live far enough out in the suburbs to be protected from the chaos.    I have lost no one and nothing this week.

I hope and pray that each of you can say the same.  May you remain well and strong.  May the strength of love and compassion cradle you.  May your village surround you; your courage never fail you; and may every face that you encounter radiate kindness.

I have been unable to write all week.  I found myself horrified, mesmerized, and frozen in the wake of the events in Minneapolis.  I finally found words, feeble and faint perhaps but the best that I can manage so far.  Read them HERE.  I continue to reflect.  I continue to strive to live without complaining.  My reflection this week has strengthened my resolve.

I send love and light to each of you.  Be well. Stay safe.  Spread empathy where you can.  Lean on others if you find yourself falling.  Hold fast.  Resist despair.  Choose joy.

Mugwumpishly tendered.

Corinne Corley

Every year a single egret lingers in Jackson Slough  on the California Delta Loop near where I live. Here you see him cautiously stepping through the hyacinth.

Memorial Sunday

I drove three hours to eat an egg salad sandwich by the side of the road overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

I could have gotten there sooner if I had taken a direct route.  But I wanted to see the small towns of wine country, north of home and heading west.  I slowed for every cluster of Sunday strollers.  I studied the families standing six feet apart, wearing face masks and patiently waiting for their organic espresso.  Shuttered businesses flanked diners serving take-out.  Wineries boasted drive-through sales.  Everywhere, people eagerly called to one another as though they had not seen another human face for weeks.

I hit the Great Coastal Highway just after eleven, turning north to drive through Jenner.  In a lay-by, I opened my lawn chair and spread a napkin on the hood of my car to sort my lunch.  To my left and right, other folks did the same.  A father lifted his little girl so she could stare at the vastness of the Pacific through the embankment of wild flowers.  Enjoy your lunch! he called to me.  We’re going to do the same!  His daughter waved as he buckled her in the back seat of their van, while his slender wife watched in silence, her eyes tense over a lace kerchief tied around her mouth and nose.

I did not linger long.  I rolled my windows down and headed south with the breeze ruffling my hair and my own anxiety melting away.  When I had been driving east for a while, I saw a road to a county park.  I turned from the highway.  I had a second sandwich and a tangerine sitting on a rough picnic bench.  By the time I left, four people had grouped around the second table, between me and the parking lot.  I had left my face covering in the car.  As I passed, they each raised their bandannas.  I’m so sorry, I mumbled.  You’re fine, the older gentleman said.  We’re all fine, it’s okay.  I stood a few feet from them, and asked from where they had come.  Petaluma,  he told me.  Beautiful day, isn’t it?  

I agreed.  They all nodded, smiling with their eyes as I moved around them.  

I turned the car down HIghway 12 and made good time back to the Delta.  My lunch at the ocean had done just what I needed.  The sea’s presence spoke to me; and the kindness of strangers eased my way.

It’s the 24th day of the seventy-seventh month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

The photos in this gallery appear in the order in which I took them.  The series begins with three bird pictures followed by a glimpse of the flag at half-mast outside our volunteer fire department.  Following these, you’ll see the coastal shots.  As I made my way home, I took some inland views, trees and vineyards.  Back in the Delta, I finished with another shot of a bird taken in the same tree as the morning photos.  “Welcome home.”

Time on my hands

I spent an hour and a half on the phone with a lady at Blue Shield who possessed a wealth of minutia about Medicare supplements, except the tiny detail of whether the vision coverage would pay for the prisms in my glasses.  She covered everything else, though, including the potential price spread if I called other companies.  As my current provider, she could create the application and send it to me for DocuSigning.  My next call netted the welcome information that my Medicare enrollment had been authorized and my card mailed two or three weeks ago.  I should call back, Heather told me, if I did not see it within the next ten days. I promised I would and told her to stay safe, the startling and new way in which we all close our conversations these days.

At the end of those calls, I found I had time on my hands.  I used five minutes to check my mail (no card) and exchange pithy observations with a couple of my neighbors.  Another half an hour saw lunch made, a YouTube video watched, and dishes done.  Suddenly, four days loomed ahead of me and I had no idea how I would consume them.  Would I fritter them away, as I seem to have squandered most of 2019 and the first quarter of this pandemic year?  

I dragged myself, my laptop, and my Canon with its broken lens cap out to the deck.  I gazed behind me as a hummingbird flitted from my feeder to my neighbor’s flowers.  I caught a blurry photo of him at which I stared, fascinated by the line of his small feet.  I followed the quarter-inch to his beak, buried in a blossom while he fluttered his wings to stay level.

One click over, I discovered a photo of a hawk that I took on the way home yesterday, and another of a blackbird on a utility pole.  The casual usurpation of human accoutrements continues to fascinate me.  Today, sitting on  my deck, I wonder if I could fare as well as these wild unfettered creatures.  They tack around the barriers which we scatter before them.  They rise higher.  They skirt ungrounded wires.  They flick their wings and lift their bodies to impossible heights, above the fetid funk clinging to the low lying clouds of the Bay.  They leave us earth-bound, standing in the feeble light of our open car doors, straining to capture the grandeur of their flight.

A songbird twitters from the eaves of my neighbor’s house.  Leaves flutter to the ground as a woodpecker drills away at the rough trunk of an ancient oak.  My neighbors shrugged when I voiced envy of their weekend camping trip.  “There are plenty of tents to be had,” Noah observed.  I could drive to the ocean.  I would have to find an open Jiffy Lube, and some way to get gas with a faulty flap door which requires two people for deployment.  With hotels closed from here to Marin County, I would need to sleep in my car, or drive all evening to get back home.  The risk would have huge payoffs. I might just do it.  Tomorrow, maybe; or Sunday.  

But for now, I sit on my plywood 8 x 8, next to my shallow porch, outside my tiny house, and dream of ways to spend the hours of time on my hands.

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

Foul weather friends

I stood outside my house at dusk a few nights ago. An unmistakable glow flooded the horizon.  On clear nights, sunset flashes brilliant purple and gold against the trees.  But that evening, heavy clouds had begun to gather to the north, edges kissed with the gentlest of pink.  As the breeze rose, blackbirds settled for the night across the meadow, one last twitter as they tucked their heads beneath their wing.  

Driving home from work that evening in a brisk Delta wind, I stopped to photograph a hawk clinging to a naked branch.  I cannot fathom why he didn’t seek a sturdier perch.  He glanced over his shoulder, seeming to watch as I snapped his picture through my windshield.  The wind bashed against him.  I wanted to open my window and offer him safe harbor.  Instead I shifted gears and drove away, hoping that his survival skills would carry him through the night.

The rain began to beat against my metal roof as I closed the door, tapping its rhythm, a song the words of which I strain to recall.  I stood beneath the feeble overhead light, imagining the creatures in the park:  The feral cats; the coyotes; the baby owls just venturing out along the branches. Where can they hide from the storm?

I suddenly thought about the expression “fair weather friend”.  I understand its bittersweet connotation.  I think I’m more of a “foul weather friend”, the one to whom you turn when you need advice, a listening ear, or a mild suggestion.  You might not exactly trust or admire me.  You won’t fear my judgment though.  Perhaps you have a low enough opinion of me that you don’t worry about looking shabby in my eyes.  Maybe you remember that I’ve stumbled, badly, publicly, so many times that my reputation as a cripple rivals anyone.  That kind of person surely knows a thing or two of trouble.  Someone like me won’t criticize your fashion, your fears, your poor choice of lover, or the lousy hair color you got from a box.

We don’t have thunderstorms in the Delta, not often anyway.  The wind can ravage our meadow; the rain pummels these tiny dwellings.  But it’s a quiet sort of deluge which soaks the ground.  I lie awake and listen to the dance of rain my roof beneath the heavy night sky. I fall asleep to the clatter of my wind chime against the good Missouri cedar of my walls.

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