Monthly Archives: December 2015


I’ve been calibrating my situation.  For most of my life, I felt unworthy to receive anything of value.  I came by this belief as a cradle Catholic (“Oh Lord I am not worthy to receive thee / speak but the word and my soul shall be healed”).  My feelings of worthless got substantial reinforcement from the taunts of children, the chaos of childhood with a violent alcoholic father, and the treachery of men.

Two years ago, I began to question the wisdom of measuring my value by other people’s opinions.  My house didn’t satisfy this one’s standard; my clothes fell short in another’s view.  I’m too small, too loud, not rich enough, not clever enough, not soft enough, not simple enough.  Each time someone judged me I sprang to action.  I furiously attacked the characteristic of which the critic complained.  I’d diet, I’d journal, I’d push  my features into the form the beholder preferred.  I changed the length and color of my hair, the type of clothes I wore, my habits, my hobbies, and my associates.

Regardless of my efforts, I heard condemnation.  “You’re not doing enough; you’re doing too much; you’re not doing the right things.”  You aren’t easy enough.  You don’t bend enough.  You don’t let people do things; you don’t do enough.  I lived in a funhouse and the goblins around each corner shrieked as I huddled against the wall, shivering.

I’ve spent the last twenty-three months trying to live complaint-free, motivated by the desire to push myself towards joy.  I started this journey mostly to please those who found me wanting.  Along the way, I began to question the virtue of those people’s opinions.  I discovered the relationship between my conduct and my happiness depended not on external judgment but on my ability to quell the chorus and hear my own voice.

I might not measure up to other people’s standards.  I no longer care.  I sank low enough to stumble on the spot where my values got buried in the avalanche.  As I dig through the rubble to unearth my own standards and let them scramble back to the surface, I realize that people who truly love each other don’t pile dirt on top of each other’s fragile gardens.

I recalibrate my scale before stepping on it each morning.  I’m doing the same for everything and everyone in my life.  I once told someone that I did not form my social and political opinions capriciously, that they resulted from consideration and deliberation.  The person closed his face to me and replied that if I would just listen to him, I would see that I was wrong and he was right.  I listened; and tried to believe him.  But the beating of my heart inside my chest grew wilder and louder until I finally stopped and turned my attention inward.  Now that heart has become my guide.  It has continued to beat through all the shocks that I’ve levied upon it. I realize that I should be able to march to its rhythm and still be loved.  I step forward.  Life continues.



Testing mettle

Though it’s only Wednesday, my body tells me that it’s really next week.  The last ten days have definitely given me pause to wonder.  Hearing after hearing hammered at me.  A pile of files hauled in from the car by my long-suffering secretary testifies to the professional beating.  My limp left hand and swollen right foot give a little glimpse of the personal.

But I’m not complaining.  The mystery of how a shard of glass got on my dining room floor whilst I worked one brutal day pales beside the hilarity of my limping around the first floor determined not to drag my bleeding self up to the newly tiled bathroom to get the wound sealant package.  I will not bleed on that new grout!  Like the Corley woman that I am, I got the giggles.  I finally found a styptic pencil in the first floor bathroom.

It looked like a mafia war had happened down here but Brian’s hard work remains unchristened by calamity.

The quest to live complaint-free requires a bright-side attitude and a fair amount of teeth-gritting.  When your mettle gets tested by blow after blow, you just hobble threw it.  Some days shine like a shooting star; others cloud over with smog and cinder.

Fifteen days remain in the twenty-fourth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Still standing.  Bent over; swollen; tired; but willing to grin.

Life continues.


There, but for the grace

I’m sitting in a hard chair in a large noisy waiting room, holding my tablet, pretending to read.  With my eyes on electronics, no one will bother me.

A stodgy man wanders into the area and speaks to the woman behind the bullet-proof glass.  He’s one of the people for whom I wait, and I rise as he turns away from the receptionist.  We exchange information in low voices.  I ask a question; he nods thoughtfully.  I gesture vaguely with my hand; he shrugs.  We reach an impasse and smile at one another just as a slim woman walks into the area wearing a harried look and a coat two sizes too large.

She sits next to me and spares the man such a chilling glance that he moves beyond her to talk to someone else.

I put my tablet away and start questioning the woman, my client.  A half-dozen people involved in the case cluster on the far side of the room.  The other group consists of well-dressed folks who occasionally send daggers across the empty chairs between us.  I pay no attention but my client begins to mutter about them in louder and louder tones.  I shush her.

I explain that I’ve filed a motion to withdraw.  I’m doing you no good and you can’t afford to pay me, I tell her.  You seem to have completely surrendered; you act as though you don’t care what happens to your children.  I feel her agitation rise.  She tells me about the summer; about why she stopped going to AA; about her surgery, her depression, her job.  Her new friends.

Same story, third act.  I don’t comment but I do smile at her.

An hour late, the clerk calls us into the courtroom.  I make my pitch to be released.  The judge denies my motion and appoints me to serve pro bono.  This possibility had occurred to me; I had even predicted it to my client.  I am neither surprised nor disappointed.  My heart told me that my client would fare no better for my remaining on the case but would fare much worse without me.  I have no control over the outcome.  I can only protect her due process rights.  The rest falls in her lap.

The judge lectures my client and her children’s father for thirty minutes.  She questions the caseworker, the man with whom I had conversed.  He tells her the same things he shared with me.  Neither parent has complied.  Neither parent has contacted him. Neither parent has had alcohol screening for months.

She’s heard enough. She suspends visitation and orders the case to move towards termination of parental rights and adoption. She puts more services in place for the parents, just in case.  She tells them these are not suggestions, but their lawyers have already explained that, as has the judge before this one.  They know.  Their choices dictate the outcome. They know this but make the same choices, month after month.  Their children move from size to size, grade to grade, in the home of their grandmother.

At one point, that grandmother speaks out from the courtroom.  None of the lawyers turn.  The judge silences her.  You are not a party to this case and this is not a community forum.  Later she says, What you — motioning — tell these children about their parents might well be hurting them; stop it.  Put aside your anger.  Then she tells the parents: And what you are choosing is hurting them; you have to start making choices that help these children.  Her arm takes in both groups, everyone except the professionals. None of you are helping the emotional state of these children. Get it together people.

She looks disgusted.  She’s only had the case for a month, since the other judge retired, but she’s already fed up, though with both factions.  That’s a refreshing change.  It’s true, what she says: everyone knows that the placement provider badmouths the children’s parents, openly, often, viciously.  We’ve resigned ourselves; at least she’s sober; at least she feeds them.

The hearing ends, and we leave.  My client huddles with the caseworker, something she does after every hearing.  It’s the one time that I know she will talk to him.  He knows that, too, and listens intently, taking notes.  He has no illusions.  None of us do.

I head out of the building and trudge to the car.  I feel every ounce of my five extra pounds as I climb the hill, but I do not complain.  My client’s face looms before me.  I have only one thought:  There, but for the grace, go I.

On the way home, I call my son.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

After the fabulous experience of my first Hanukkah party, I feel inspired to decorate for Christmas today.  I’ll be doing it by myself but I’m not complaining.  Nothing pleases me more than giving presents.  I don’t get too many these days; something from my son, from the Taggarts, one from Brett & Jennie and maybe this year, from Caitlin and Brian.  But I don’t mind.  For me Christmas provides an annual opportunity to demonstrate how much I care about the people who enrich my life.

I can unequivocally say that I am not a Christian.  A cradle Catholic with definite reasons for walking away from my childhood religion, I do not celebrate Christmas as “Baby Jesus’ birthday”.  I still chuckle when I think of three-year-old Patrick answering a neighbor lady’s question one wintry December day.  Do you know who was born on Christmas? she asked, leaning over Patrick in her heavy wool coat and felt hat.  Yes, I do!  he crowed.  She waited expectantly.  Uncle Steve! he hollered, right into her ear.

I miss my brother Steve, who indeed came into the world to his seven sibling’s consternation between the opening of presents and the serving of breakfast on 25 December 1959.  Our Dad shushed us in the room next door while Mother readied herself to make the trip to the hospital.  My older siblings grumbled at not being able to hammer on the wooden peg side of their new desks.  My grandmother kept us quiet by serving schmarren, slathered with butter and sprinkled with cinnamon.

As I sat in my living room this morning working on the Never-Ending Knitting Project, I watched a home rehab show and thought that my brother Stephen would like the modern house that the hosts created.  My mother would prefer my home, with its hardwood floors, old hearth, and antique china on shelves in the breakfast nook.  She’d enjoy my rockers and cashmere throws.   I have no flair for decorating but my home feels comfortable to me.  I picture my mother reaching for her own knitting, lifting her silver sewing scissors from the wooden sewing box, putting her feet on my grandmother’s little stool.

My holiday season this year holds nothing that I would have chosen two years ago.  But a large family welcomed me for the last night of Hanukkah and fed me latkes and vegetable bites made just for me.  I sat at a table with brothers, and mothers, and aunts, and grandchildren.  I listened to the prayer said over the lighting of the Menorah.  I could not have been happier.

Twelve days until Christmas.  Put out the partridge, decorate the pear tree.  Santa Claus is coming to town.

It's getting festive at the Holmes house.

It’s getting festive at the Holmes house.


Common sense

There are twenty days left in the twelfth month of my second “Year Without Complaining”.  My brain tells me that I’ve had a long ride from January 1st, 2014.  i can’t expect myself to keep blogging about this flagging quest to live complaint-free.  Common sense hints that my friends grow weary of supporting this effort.

But then I get a note from someone like A.J. Hoyt with a positive response to something that I’ve written, and my resolve strengthens.  I run into people whom I barely know and they ask, How are  you?  I reply, I can’t complain, and a few seconds later, they have their smart phones out to type into their list of saved webpages.

Where there is life, there is room for improvement.  Life continues.  I’ll write on.

One of the few reported sightings of the Missouri Mugwump giving directions.

One of the few reported sightings of the Missouri Mugwump giving directions.

Other people’s words

I appreciate words.  I even luxuriate in their flow.  I’m not a poet; but I find myself drawn to poetry.  Some days, I cannot craft the perfect sentences to describe a point that I want to make or a feeling that I yearn to express.  Other people’s words must help me.

Today needs poetry.  I want to give my thanks to a handful of friends who touched my life yesterday, some near, some far.  One  bought me lunch and listened to my struggle to make sense of the heaviness in my chest.  Another opened her home to me for a jagged hour.  Two others sent virtual messages of hope and concern.  Each knows what they did.  I suspect they also know my keen need for their tenderness.

For them — for you — for myself, these words, so perfect for me today.

“The Lesson” by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1913)

My cot was down by a cypress grove,
And I sat by my window the whole night long,
And heard well up from the deep dark wood
A mocking–bird’s passionate song.

And I thought of myself so sad and lone,
And my life’s cold winter that knew no spring;
Of my mind so weary and sick and wild,
Of my heart too sad to sing.

But e’en as I listened the mock–bird’s song,
A thought stole into my saddened heart,
And I said, “I can cheer some other soul
By a carol’s simple art.”

For oft from the darkness of hearts and lives
Come songs that brim with joy and light,
As out of the gloom of the cypress grove
The mocking–bird sings at night.

So I sang a lay for a brother’s ear
In a strain to soothe his bleeding heart,
And he smiled at the sound of my voice and lyre,
Though mine was a feeble art.

But at his smile I smiled in turn,
And into my soul there came a ray:
In trying to soothe another’s woes
Mine own had passed away.

En la biblioteca

I attended Catholic high school from 1969 to 1973.  We learned “Spanish ALM”, which the teacher presented on 45 RPM records played at the front of the classroom.  We learned a new lesson each day.

The first lesson had the dubious title, “Antes de la clase”, which if memory serves, means, “Before class”.  Students mingle around chatting with each other in Spanish ALM.  The first line is, “Hola, chica, como estas?” which apparently signaled the familiarity of the speaker with the female listener.

In 1980, I started law school at UMKC, across the state from my childhood home where the high school had been located.  At an early-days party, someone asked me if I spoke a foreign language and I assured them that yes, I did — I spoke Spanish ALM.  The person looked confused.  With no more encouragement than their puzzled countenance, I spoke that first line:

Hola, chica, como estas.  .  .

From across the room came line two:

Bien, gracias, y tu?

A countryman!  We hollered lines across the room with gleeful abandon, little regard for those caught between us, and only a slight alcoholic slur.

The second lesson of Spanish ALM involved the speaker’s quest to find the library.

The first line:  Donde esta la biblioteca. . .

Apparently, the faculty and staff of the school which features in the Spanish ALM lessons does not give orientation to new students, so that they wander lost until another student appears to rescue them.

I got lost yesterday myself.  I stepped into a depression and found myself floundering, sinking lower and lower.  I retreated, shut down, buried myself.  Eventually I found myself alone at home, contemplating my reflection, with its broken glasses and the knot on my left eye.  Other faces drifted through the mirror.  I found myself thinking of my little brother, who would be 54 in 17 days had he not surrendered to his own depression; of my mother, who died of medical malpractice 20 days before her 59th birthday, half my lifetime ago; of my friend Elizabeth Unger Carlisle, a post-conviction remedies attorney who specializes in death penalty appeals and who has had an excruciatingly painful month of loss.

I had slated myself to stay home for the insulation company today, and had a trial case full of files and work.  In the way of things, my contractor’s wife re-scheduled the delivery of their child, and he arrived at 8 this morning with the insulation guys on his heels.  I retreated to the public library, which I had no trouble finding.  In the silence of its large lobby, with coffee at hand, I’ve gotten all my work done.

I’ve also soothed my soul.  Life continues.

08 December 2015,

from the Plaza Library, Kansas City, Missouri


When the chips are down

It’s easy to be cheerful when life is going your way.  I’ve been trying really hard to keep my chin held high in the face of adversity for a couple of years now and so far it’s a losing battle.

But I want to share this picture of a friend’s grandchildren.  Notice anything special about any of them?  The radiant smiles, the beautiful faces, the saucy attitudes?

Anything else?  No?

The one on the right, Ava, was born without a left hand.  I haven’t seen her much, but from what I have observed and heard, she gets around just fine. She never complains.

I’m trying to learn to live with one hand, my left, permanently impaired.  At the same time, my legs seem to be getting weaker despite my best efforts.  This afternoon, I fell and busted open  my eye and broke my new glasses.  I’m feeling really sorry for myself.  So I went online and downloaded this picture of my friend Elisabeth’s grandchildren, and I told myself:  Suck it up, Buttercup!  Because whatever you have to endure, you can endure.  This precious child doesn’t even think she’s enduring anything!  She dances, and studies, and swims, and draws, and hugs her parents, and rocks a Halloween costume.  Because life is too short to sit around feeling sorry for yourself.

So.  There you have it.  My role model:  A beautiful child who lives her life to the fullest while I sit around wallowing in self-pity.  I’m grateful to know her.


Beauty, and beholding

A video circulating on social media shows people reacting to being told that the filmmaker finds them beautiful.

I cried when I watched it.  it must be said, I cry at Hallmark commercials and at the sight of roadkill.  I don’t know what nature intended. but nurture has turned me soft.

But I find the thought of being considered beautiful particularly  heartrending.  An old friend, Timothy Pettet, tells me that I am beautiful whenever he sees me.  He’s married to another old friend, Mary (now known as) Pettet, who truly is beautiful.  But Tim is a poet and poets speak a truth flavored with something more than physical reality.  His assessment lacks credibility as anything but a gauge of his own pure heart.

I’ve never been told that I’m beautiful by someone not angling for something.  I have been told, “you are beautiful to me” which is not at all the same.  “Beauty” might be in the eye of the beholder but some physical qualities shine with an undeniable objective reality.  I know that I can make myself presentable, but I also know that most folks not looking at me with the eyes of love or lust do not consider me “beautiful”.

Why do women need to be considered “beautiful” to value themselves?  Men do not seem to judge their worth by the appeal of their faces or physiques, except to the extent that a particular man thinks he should be “strong” or “tall” or capable of lifting heavy weights.   But  “handsome” does not demonstrate the measure of a man’s worth in quite the same way.

I’ve searched the internet in vain for a copy of the Rhoda  episode in which Rhoda’s sister Brenda cries at the kitchen table because she’s never felt pretty.  I understand her anguish.  I keenly feel that way, no matter how much I talk to myself, no matter how many platitudes I sputter.  Skin deep, not lasting, fleeting, superficial.  Inner beauty.

Inner beauty — you’ve all heard this.  She’s beautiful inside.  Really! I suppose there are lots of men who court women on the basis of that inner beauty, but open the bathroom cupboard and you’ll find that even those women stockpile potions, creams, mascara, blush, foundation, and lipstick because that is what they think makes them beautiful.  Even if they eventually believe that their partners truly value their “inner beauty”, they’ll still paint their faces, pad their bosoms, and shave their  legs.  To feel beautiful.

I don’t know if this obsession haunts only American women.  I’ve never had a passport much less traveled outside of the continental United States so I have not seen the cultural manifestation of this phenomenon anywhere but here.  Studies address this, summarized HERE in 1997.  Speaking strictly for myself:  I have understood my whole life that society values a “beautiful” woman more than society values a woman who is not “beautiful”.  Dispute that if you want to do so.  Gasp in shock. Shake your head.  Assure me it is not true.  You lie.  You deceive yourself and strive to deceive me.  But I don’t buy your lame, well-intended reassurances.

So, why do I bore you with this?  Why do I take a half-hour of my Sunday to add a blog entry in My Year Without Complaining about my physical state?  For this reason:  Because in this two-year quest to live complaint-free, I have learned that almost every — if not every — expression of complaint masks the speaker’s judgment of themselves as unappreciated.  Unloved.  Unvalued.

And our society values what it finds beautiful.  So:  when someone whines, grumbles, complains — understand this:  They do not feel beautiful.  Not inside not outside not inside-out.  They feel unbeautiful and they feel unloved.

Trust me on this.  If we all felt beautiful, none of us would complain.  Take that and do with it what you will.

Me, Mary, and Timothy.

Me, Mary, and Timothy.


A good kind of tired

I could complain about being exhausted but I won’t.  Our 6th Annual Holiday Open House exceeded my hopes for the event.  Each artist sold three works.  I did not keep a guest book for once, contenting myself to greet each person and give the welcoming spiel.  I estimate about 175 folks attend.  Not our largest group, but a wonderful group, including ten or so Rotarians.  We filled the Harvester’s barrel, and collected $250 for the charitable efforts of the Waldo Brookside Rotary with tips the bar.

I’m a good kind of tired today.  I went Christmas-shopping, and even found a boiled-wool hat to replace my beautiful green one which I believe I left in a courtroom this week and have yet to locate.  The new hat came from the same store, and was even marked down!  A sweet clerk, remembering when I purchased the lovely and lost one, went down to the basement to check her stock.  Voila!  Such nice folks, at World’s Window!

Two Snicker’s bars sit on my buffet, gifts from Aneal Vohra.  He brought them to our party last evening and snuck them out of his pocket to surprise me.  My heart skipped a beat.  He knows me well, does Aneal.  He surely knew that his gift would coax out my sentimental side.  One of the bars triggered laughter — it shows what Aneal thinks of me.  The other, ah, the other!  Memories of my favorite curmudgeon. . . Thank you, Aneal.

On the buffet, too, I’ve placed the first few presents for my family-by-choice, the friends who have gone the distance with me.  Tomorrow, I will haul the old fake tree from the basement, along with the  boxes of ornaments.  I’ll cry, and hang angels, and think about the many years that we’ve had that tree here at the Holmes House.  This will be the first year that I’ve decorated it alone.  Slightly bittersweet.  But it’s fine.  It’s just fine.  Life continues.