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Of Guardians and Hearts

I’ve been walking troubled paths of late, trying to understand humanity.  

I’ve written this entry three times, and deleted it three times.  On my fourth attempt, I’d like to distill it to the essence and avoid the specifics.  No good can come of recounting the incidents which give rise to this contemplation.

I’m thinking about carelessness, the state by which you swing your metaphorical arms and knock your mother’s vase to the floor.  I never meant. . . you stutter, but what you meant and didn’t mean has little relevance.  Your mother lifts the pieces from the tile.  She runs a finger over one jagged edge.  You gasp at the thin line of blood which appears on her skin.  She turns away.  Hours later, she mentions that she’s forgiven you.  In the meantime, you’ve died a thousand deaths.

The slipper settles on the other foot.  Your mother strives to be magnanimous.  She rushes to assure forgiveness, later sobbing in the quiet of her room.  Her own mother, long dead, gave her the vase.  She remembers her mother saying, This came so far with me.  Take care of it.  She intended that it would be yours one day.  She loves you; this piece of pottery means so much less to her than you do.  But still.

Once upon a terrible time, I sobbed into a telephone, desperate, anguished.  Came the weary voice at the other end:  I’ve been a poor guardian of your heart.  The admission stunned me.  It sounded like a feeble understatement and yet — achingly true.

The troubled path on which I walk bears the debris of many other broken hearts, discarded by other careless guardians.  I hastily skirt around the mess, afraid to look, terrified of what my lingering gaze would reveal.  But then, I fall back and study the scattered ruination.  I can learn from this.  I take my time.

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

 

 

To Every Mother’s Son

My son prefers not to be discussed in my blog.  Once or twice each year, I beg his forgiveness or, in the least, his indulgence.  Today, I pray for both.

I reached a point in my mid-30’s at which I did not expect the joy of motherhood.  Several miscarriages, some early, some heartbreakingly later in gestation, had dashed my hope.  What remained can only be described as a yearning which I recognized as desperation.

Of my son’s father, I rarely speak.  We met in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a year after my divorce from my first husband.  My life had settled into a routine which I expected would last for years.  I had purchased my first house.  The job for which I had moved to Fayetteville still provided a strong sense of purpose.  Then friends invited me for a jazz bar crawl, intentionally failing to tell me that they also conspired to introduce me to a certain bass player with strong shoulders and dreamy eyes.

Two months later, my own eyes beheld themselves in a mirror over the distinctive plus sign on an EPT.  Yet another sixty days from that critical juncture, the musician departed from  my life and I faced single motherhood at thirty-five.

I could not have been more happy.  Oh, I would have preferred the Cinderalla story.  Certainly, I wished my son could have grown to adulthood with his birthfather to provide insight at every critical second.  But for the sheer, isolated contemplation of finally becoming a mother, I felt a profound gratitude.

I could tarry for countless paragraphs describing every poignant moment of my son’s childhood.  The little gifts he made; the funny faces; the tender talks; I have a treasure chest filled with such cherished memories.  My walls hold his digital art.  My make-shift keeping shelf bears a little red heart in a tiny clay pot.  On the back of the heart, he wrote, I hope you like the gift that I could give you.  His name appears on the front in that achingly sweet glue-and-glitter penmanship that every mother knows.

I see him now:  Feet dangling over the edge of the loft as he plays the banjo which I gave him for Christmas, my first year in the tiny house.  His riotous grin flashes from a photo on the bookshelf.  Little pinch-pots nestle in a box beneath the wood of my underbed storage.  To my right, his seven-year-old smile gleams in a frame above a list of adjectives using the letters of his name:  Patient, Adventurous, Talented, Remarkable, Intelligent, Casual, Kind.

Patrick.

If his first name had an “H”, he most certainly could have identified himself as “humble”.  I feel quite sure that he resisted the exercise.  Even as a child, he eschewed anything resembling a boast.  But each of those words describe the son whose existence melds the very best of the village which raised him.

 In a sweet scene in one of my favorite movies, a father goes to visit his two daughters just before leaving town after his divorce.  To the oldest, his stepdaughter, he says, “I’m sorry for all the kinds of daddy that I was or wasn’t ever since I met you.”  I find myself longing to convey a similar message to my son.  I can identify each mistake that I made along the way.  I can trace the scars which my failure left beneath the surface of my son’s psyche.  I’ve hated myself for the harm which I caused him through inexperience, ignorance, and ignobility.

But the strength with which he continues onward encourages me.  I learn from his victories.  I greedily drink at the fountain of his wisdom.  The humility with which he approaches life inspires me.

I have served in many capacities in my life, some by design, many by happenstance.  The role of “Patrick Corley’s mother” has rewarded me as no other.  Once again, even as the bittersweet vision of my own mother’s dear face rises in a swathe of sentiment, I find myself acknowledging that whatever life took from me, it returned a thousand fold in the person of my son.

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

To Mother, who has gone home.

My mother would like the California Delta.  She didn’t learn to drive until her early 40’s.  Once she did, she dragged whatever kids she could to every junk store, country cafe, and cemetery she could reach with a half tank of gas.  At the time, I didn’t understand what compelled her.  I later realized that she must have yearned for escape from my father’s unrelenting violence and the terror of raising eight kids on less than nothing.

I see her in the sunset over the San Joaquin and the arc of the hawk’s flight over the fields behind our park.  I hear her voice in the rush of the evening wind and the call of the owl as dusk settles.  In the last few months of her cancer, my mother insisted that she just wanted to go home.   I have to believe that she made it.  She deserved the peace.  But for her, paradise would not be a stale and sterile berth among the clouds.  She found  peace in her garden and on the long walks which she took with the dog instead of going to church on warm Sunday mornings.

I miss my mother.  A few weeks ago, I found myself trying to dial her phone number.  I got the sequence entered before I shook my head, tears beginning to spill down my cheeks.  She died too young.  So many sunsets, so many springs, so many grandchildren whom she never saw.  It did not seem fair then, and now, in the gloom of the moonless night, I rage against the rank injustice.

I have my mother’s hair, and her slender shoulders, and her stubbornness.  That tenacity brought me to late middle age, something she never attained.  I miss my mother.  I had the glory of her for less than thirty years.  She died two weeks before my thirtieth birthday, and less than three weeks before she would have turned fifty-nine.  The other day, a health care provider taking my medical history asked me of what my mother had died, so young. 

“Metastatic uterine cancer and medical malpractice,” I replied.  She stopped writing and raised her head to meet my eyes.  She said softly, “I’m sorry,” and we sat in silence for a few minutes.

I am sorry too, I whispered, and I’ve never meant anything so much.

If you — you, reading this — if you still have your mother, please hold her extra-close this Mother’s Day.  Tell her that you are grateful for everything she’s done.  Find out what she wants from you for this one precious day of an otherwise selfless year.  Then do as she asks.  Some of us will never again have the luxury of taking our mothers for granted.

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

 

FROM A DAUGHTER

What do I say to this woman
sitting across from me
over a society lunch?

What do I saw to she
who changed my diapers
who coaxed me through
a preadolescent limp
and post-pubescent cramps?

How do I treat someone
who learned to drive at forty
fought the maybe-giants
and organized picnics
when she wasn’t at work
or scrubbing floors
or despairing?

There are no words for one
who is too familiar
with emergency rooms
airports
jails.

So I sit choking on idle conversation
about the silver market and over-sprouted beans
neither of which I understand.
If I appear tense
it is because I also choke
on unexpressed devotion
and overwhelming sorrow.

c. Corinne Corley, 05 April 1980 – 2019

 

TO MOTHER, WHO HAS GONE HOME

It is morning. Around me a dim room.
My cousin’s house. Last night
and the night before, we talked too late.
Last night we picked scriptures.
We laughed over my story
of my sisters and I choosing your
casket, which, you’ll be happy to know,
comes with a warranty. But no vault, so
to dust ye shall return. I sleep
on a sofa. It is 7:00 a.m. and I
am afraid. In Kansas City, my
soon-to-be-ex lover is just
finishing his workday. I dreamed of
your death, and now lay panting,
thinking of your stretched skin, your
cold hand. Beads of sweat rise
across my forehead. We have
all known it will be today
because Sunday you said: I am
waiting for them to come, and the last
of your children arrived only hours ago.
And then it is 7:30 and the phone rings
and my sister says, Mary, it’s time to
come home, and I know, and the
sun rises but you are gone and
do not see.

c. Corinne Corley 21 August 1985 – 2019.

IN MEMORY OF:

LUCILLE LYONS CORLEY

09/10/26 – 08/21/1985

SHE HAS GONE HOME.

From left:
Lucille Johanna Lyons Corley; Johanna Ulz Lyons; myself; my brother Frank; my brother Stephen Patrick.

Evening: Andrus Island

I saw a bird fly sideways as I turned northward into the park.  I don’t know what kind of bird.  It did not so much fight the wind as borrow its energy, rising, lifting, banking just before the roof of the Marina.  

Nancy who lives in the Popeye houseboat trudged up the hill. I hit the automatic window and called to her.  We exchanged a few words before she turned to cross the road.  As I drove past the kiosk, I waved to the girls playing a make-shift game of tennis under the big tent.  I heard one of them call my name.

The wind carried me as far as it had carried that bird, halfway around the meadow.  I parked and let the engine settle.  Overhead, soft clouds borne on that same glorious air crossed the tenderness of the afternoon sky.

Later, I sat eating leftovers augmented with the last of the Portabella mushroom sauteed in rich butter.  I spare myself the anguish of eating one-hundred percent plant-based.  Butter and eggs; all that stands between me and the more noble vegans.  If foregoing either of those would assure my place in heaven, I’d take my chances.

Now the wind which propelled the bird, the clouds, and the rug on my front porch buffets the house as I sit and write.  The Delta wind calls itself a character in this lively play, the third act of my adventure .  I wait for the lilt of its steady voice, reciting the next line, my cue to enter, stage left.

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

 

 

Evening: New York — By Sara Teasdale

Blue dust of evening over my city,
Over the ocean of roofs and the tall towers
Where the window-lights, myriads and myriads,
Bloom from the walls like climbing flowers.

Still

A dear friend, a sister, recently wrote that she intended to emulate me by striving to go “a year without complaining”.  She also recently traveled for the first time to Ghana, the nation of her origins, where she got engaged to the man of her dreams and became a vegetarian.  Power to her.  Rock on, Lyne’t.  

As for her alleged role model, myself, I still strive to actually live without uttering a word of complaint or mincing my face into a little moue as I turn from a transgressor.  My center gradually shifted from a constant state of discontent to a sort of calm in which the truly offensive sharply contrasts with the merely intolerable.  I constrain  myself.  Only those sins which threaten to cause permanent damage receive the Corley stare and the unrelenting onslaught of terse phone calls.  Of course, I also continue to stand for those who cannot stand for themselves, a subcategory of complaint which I will never forswear..  

I walk through most of my days in a kind of happy stupor.  I see what happens around me, but the door opens only for the  joyful or for shocking horrors.  One must bludgeon  me with grief before I rouse myself to anger.  Deny my health benefits, hurt a child, start a war?  I’m on it.  Cut in front of me at the run-off to the Rio Vista bridge?  Go right ahead, son, I yield the extra minute which you’ll gain by your clever rudeness.

Early in this journey, the one and only Puma, Joyce Kramer, ventured to chastise me for trying to forego all complaint.  She cautioned, along with several others, that I would find myself torn between the mission of this blog and the natural tendency of the advocate to combat injustice.  She demonstrated prescience.  I tip my sunhat in her south-easterly direction.  The distinction often proves elusive but worth the effort.  Some wrongs must be righted, or in the least, exposed.

Another wise friend, Jane Williams, mildly and early observed that my offerings became themselves mere chronicles of grievance disguised as self-righteous forbearance.  Ah, Jane, you did not leave teaching so much as shifted to a more global manifestation of that noble calling!

At this stage, then, what have I left?  Merely, I admit, the same quest to which my mother’s mother set me:  Putting my best foot forward, and never stopping.

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

“Still”

Not avant garde
Not nouveau riche
Not high tech
Just me
Very much the same
And sometimes winning.

c. Corinne Corley, 1995 – 2019

There’s a Twelve-Step Program For That

My box addiction survived downsizing.  I have no shame.  I realize there might be a twelve-step program for this problem but I think I’ll pass.

My mother’s milk glass button box sits in front of me as I write, beside her square china coffee canister with the home-made wooden lid and glass knob.  I don’t know if she found it lidless in a junk store.  Perhaps one of us kids broke the original lid.  I can that tell my father crafted the substitute because it has no varnish.  He loathed executing that last step of any woodworking project.  

On the edge of my desk, a plastic box holds  a strange assortment of trinkets:  A heart on which some teacher penned my son’s name; a ribbon over which his Boy Scout metals dance; my mother’s gold thimble; a button announcing “It’s a Boy”.  I hesitate to rummage deeper; I don’t know what reminders might lurk beneath that first layer.  This box measures six inches square, two deep, and has a thick covering of dust on its surface.  A long-ago lover gave it to me, right after he read a poem he had written in which he likened me to a spider.

This evening I hauled a red wooden box full of random photos up the stairs to my writing loft.  It now sits beside my sewing box. I sorted through the photographs one lonely evening this winter.  My tears fell on the fading portraits  of people whom I long to see.

I could continue:

The porcelain box that Alan made when he worked for the potter who just wanted everyone to say, “Thank you.” 

The two Japanese puzzle boxes (one large, one small) from my client Hidemi.  She gave these to me before she traveled home, secure in her ability to return because of a provision which I had fought to include in her divorce judgment ensuring her continued permanent status.  I often think about Hidemi.  Is Japan on the banned list?  Can she still re-enter America?  I’d like to drink tea with her again.

A cardboard box bearing a slogan encouraging me to share my sparkle occupies a space under the printer stand.   I don’t have a use for that one,, but it’s a box, isn’t it? and my sister Joyce wrapped my garden stone in it.  

Let us not forget the music boxes, the box holding my makeshift first-aid kit, and the two jewelry boxes (one brass, one silver) inside the old sewing machine drawers.  I keep my most precious items in those, like the filigree butterfly from Brenda Dingley and the Virgin Mary medal that Tricia Scaglia gave me for Christmas, my last year in Kansas City.  I know you aren’t a practicing Catholic, she told me, as I held the delicate disk to the light.  But I wanted you to have this anyway.  Take it, will you, as a favor to me.

It’s still in its tiny cardboard box, with the card from the maker, and a whisper or two of memory.

I’ve given away a lot of boxes.  I gave a wooden box to a little girl who lives with her parents in the park.  It’ once held a necklace that somebody chose for me.    I kept that box for twenty-three years before deciding that five-year-old Ella might like it.  The other day, she said, “What is your name anyway, lady?”   I told her.  She studied my face for a few minutes before announcing that I was the lady who had given her the treasure box for Christmas. 

I admitted as much. She smiled.  “I keep treasures in it,” she explained, just in case I might not have understood.  But I did, all too well.  I have a few of those myself.

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

 

 

Driving

The sun glints from my windshield as I turn onto Highway 12 and start over the Rio Vista Bridge.  Halfway down Jackson Slough, I think, I should take photos of the mountain.  I have parked the car on someone else’s land before I realize that I took the card from my camera to upload.

But the drive gives the same pleasure as it would if I had recorded it. I pass the same gnarled tree and the same chickadee nesting on a roadside pillar.  Wildflowers toss their heads in the breeze.  The same hawk swoops overhead. 

I remember another drive, through Montana mountains to Glacier Park, Halloween 1982.  I gawk out the window at a snowstorm in Canada.  I gasp, I didn’t bring my camera.  My companion says, we’ll always have the memory.  He doesn’t add, and nothing else, though when I arrive back in Kansas City, a box of all the belongings which I’d left at his apartment and a terse goodbye on the answering machine deliver the message.

Danny leans out of the kiosk at the Park to drop a package in my backseat.  We talk for a few minutes about the upcoming swap meet, my fundraiser table, and his new rig.  Then I take the quarter-mile turn halfway around and stop in front of Angel’s Haven.

Breakfast seems like hours ago so I throw goat cheese on sourdough and raise the flame under the pan.  I pull a container announcing FRESH PICKLES out of the fridge.  Not since I broke open the last jar of my mother’s bread-and-butter pickles have I enjoyed the brine and bite as much.  The chalk drawing that I got on some Free Art Friday at Ruthie Becker’s Gallery 504 keeps me company as I eat.  I tell myself, for the tenth time, that I need to ask Ruthie if she knows the artist.

Then I sit at the desk and watch the shadows dance on my neighbor’s house.  I study the art which surrounds me.  Ruthie’s work; and my son’s; and Mary Pettet’s; Genevieve Casey, Scott Anderson, Mary Ann Coonrod, Samantha Bessent, Nicole Thibodeau.  My friends, my artists, members of my tribe.  I did not always bring a camera, all those times; or on that last day; or when I sat across the table from Genevieve as a visitor; or earlier, saying goodbye to Tim and Mary on the stairway at Suite 100.  Pictures exist, I’m sure; but mostly in my mind.

Down by the creek, a willow sways in the Delta wind.  I raise my hands to the keyboard, pausing only for a brief glance at the shelf full of angels and the little music box which Grandma Corley gave me for Christmas nearly six decades ago.   I close my eyes, lower my fingertips, and start the rhythmic dance across the keys which tells me that I have come home.

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

 

Never Ever Did I Think

My first house had 2000 square feet on one level.  It sat on seven unmowed acres with the south fork of the White River running along the back edge.  In the summer you could walk the length of the flagstone in the river bed.  Come spring, the flood edged right up to the back porch.

My second house had fewer square feet but one-and-a-half stories, with a screened porch and a fenced backyard.  A Japanese maple rose gracefully in front of the west-facing windows of the living room.  I raised my son in that home and expected to die there.

Never ever did I think that I would have a third house, one on wheels.  My fascination arose from sleepless nights spent sobbing in my pillow after my last break-up.  I groped for the remote control and turned on the television, listlessly switching from channel to channel.  I began watching shows about alternative life styles.  A glimmer of an idea flickered in the fog of my sorrow.  

Some say that I fled a town too small for me and my ex.  Others speculate that I had a mid-life crisis which I would, eventually, regret.  I keep my own counsel.  I plotted and planned and schemed and calculated.   From those machinations, my present situation emerged.

I have what I need here.  Enough possessions and the right kind of accommodation.  I stay warm in the mild winters and cool enough in the brief summers.  I write at my wooden desk in a loft from which I can see the first glimmer of morning light.

Eventually, I will add solar and a fresh-water holding tank.  I’ll find a more remote parking situation.  There I will pursue my uninterrupted scribbling for another decade or two, until the arthritis cripples my hands or my mind wanders too far to reclaim.  But for now, I perch on a chair with my laptop propped on an open drawer, steadied by a piece of wood reclaimed from my beloved Kansas City bungalow.  I take the stairs downward to the main living space, and nourish myself with a cool glass of filtered water.  In the morning, I put out peanuts for the scrub jays before driving in to town for the day’s work.   Each evening, I stroll through the meadow and talk to the neighbors or enjoy the solitude of the soft night air.

I can ask for little else.

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

My house, Angel’s Haven, can be seen on the right in this photo.

Miles We Cannot Walk / In Shoes Which Do Not Fit

I originally thought that I would write an entry in my social-political blog but the emotion surrounding these issues spills onto this page and seems to belong here.

The bend around which I stumbled in shoes that do not fit started with my post of a Stephen Pastis cartoon.  Pig crosses off locations in which we as Americans no longer can feel safe with certainty.  Someone commented that regardless of the violence besieging America, he himself would continue to feel safe in all of those places.  Another person replied that he tended to agree and cautioned that people should calm themselves and take a break from social media.  I read those statements, here paraphrased, as springing from an odd misunderstanding of the cartoon’s intent.  In my next breath, I muttered, None of us can know what survivors of these massacres experienced because we have not walked a mile in their shoes.

Except — that I can.  I have.  I did.  What I mean to say is:  Those are my damn shoes.

On 20 March 1981, Bradley Boan entered the KU Medical Center Emergency Room with a shotgun and a wickedly troubled mind.  He turned to his right and slaughtered a patient’s mother as she idled in a wheelchair waiting for her child to be summoned.  He then strolled down a hallway, raised the gun again, and murdered a physician.(fn1)

I froze mid-step, a dozen feet behind the prone body of the doctor.  Then I dashed to the side and cowered against a wall.  I shivered, waiting for more of the terrible sounds which still reverberated in my ears.  Slowly, I raised my eyes, gasping at the sight of someone staring straight at me before realizing that I beheld myself, reflected in the window.  My stomach lurched as a dawning terror spread through my groin:  If I can see my reflection, maybe someone else can too.  

I took myself as quickly as possible into an examination room, where I dragged a table across the door with a strength that I had never known myself to possess.

Hours went by.  Tactical squads rushed the hospital, called by security guards and police officers who had by chance been at the ER.  Eventually the first responders gathered us into one room; another eternity passed before we could leave, escorted to a parking garage from which all of the lights had been shot, supposedly to plunge the killer into darkness.  

Nobody realized he had fled.

So:  Those shoes stand at my door, a constant presence all these years later.  Social media did not exist.  Calming down cannot erase the absolute redirection of my neuro-pathways which that trauma likely caused, an unfortunate result probably worsened by other, worse traumas which I had already experienced.  I have never forgotten the killer’s name.  I have never lost the recollection of each moment of that night.  The SWAT team banged on the locked door behind which I quivered.  I would not emerge, a stubborn refusal which prompted them to conclude that the perpetrator held me hostage.  They brought my friend to coax me out, hands held high.  With her, I scurried into a larger room, where children cried and doctors furiously scribbled in paper charts to keep themselves from remembering the anguished moments when they tried to save their colleague’s life. 

A life which they knew had been stolen from him even before they rushed to his side.

I worked a full day today.  I had no time for posting on Facebook, or challenging anyone’s misperception.  In the few idle seconds allowed given the demands of my job, I contemplated what I might say in an essay on this subject.  It’s all very well for you to feel safe.  You haven’t been there.  You haven’t seen the sweat on the brow of a mother fearful that her child might be the next to fall in a spattered pool of crimson blood.

It’s all very well for you to tell us to calm down and stay off the social media sites which you apparently suspect of exaggerating the danger, since you clearly are not aware of the actual extent of the threat

So what does all of this have to do with a blog about trying to live joyfully?

On the way home tonight, somewhere between Highway 12 and Brannan Island Road, I stopped to watch a hawk in flight across an inner field on Andrus Island.  At about that moment, my phone made an odd little blipping sound.  I glanced down just in time to see a post by my friend Adrienne Wyker about losing her husband, and each truly bittersweet milestone or memory which opens the wound anew.  I thought, Now those are shoes in which I cannot walk; those are miles over which I have never traversed.

I lifted my eyes as the bird spread its wings and rose, higher and higher, into the pale blue of a California sky.  When I could no longer see even a shimmering feather, I put the car in drive and continued on my way.

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

Untitled; 01 January 1982

On Warwick, a car backfires.
I, scraping ice from my windshield
on 43rd, react –- a tribute
to the eternal impact
of rifle fire on human minds.
Across the country
a handful of once-upon-a-time friends
raise Wassail glasses in New Year’s toast
and I, in the Midwest forever,
can almost hear their merry-making
over the sound of passing traffic.

c. Corinne Corley, 1982; 2019

 

 

 

 

 

(1) The article to which I link consists of the appellate decision in the criminal case.  The narrative in that decision reverses the order of the deaths.  My memory stands; I’ve always understood that the patient’s mother, described in the decision as “a visitor”, died first.  I underwent numerous interviews about that night, including one with the Kansas Bureau of Investigations.  That interviewer confirmed my recollection.  But, perhaps I misunderstood.