Monthly Archives: July 2017

Object Permanence

I think I’ve figured out what I’m doing wrong.  I have failed to apply the concept of reverse object permanence to my life.

“Object permanence” describes a phenomenon whereby children learn that even if something cannot be sensed, it still exists.    Until age eight or nine months, they lose interest in something if they can’t see it.  Developmental psychologists believe that very young children forget something exists if it’s concealed.

Bloody brilliant.

This must be what happens in my life.  I don’t exist when people aren’t looking at me.  This explains so much.  I go about my life thinking everyone will be there when I go back for them.  But the people in my life lack an understanding of object permanence with respect to me.  When I’m absent, I simply cease to exist.

This explains a lot.  All the slights about which I yearn not to complain might simply arise from every one’s mistaken impression that if I’m not in their field of sight, I vanished.  From the earth.  Forever.

My clients don’t pay their bill?  Lack of object permanence.  Friends forget to include me in a gathering?  They don’t realize I still occupy a space in the universe.  The yard guy misses a scheduled cutting?  My insubstantiality extends to the entire property which I inhabit.

If you think you detect a bit of sarcasm, let me assure you that what I’m employing is not bitterness but humor.  The solution to this phenomenon lies on the two-way street between me and everybody else.  So be on notice:  I have a new phone, and you’re all going on speed-dial.

As of this writing, I intend to call one friend every day to be sure that each of you knows that I recognize your continued existence.  To be entirely honest, I’ll admit that I’m also motivated by the desire to alert you to my own continued presence.   I won’t announce the order in which I intend to call.  I will contact folks randomly and when they least expect it.

Don’t worry, though.  I’ve mastered the concept of object permanence.  You exist.  You matter.  I intend to be sure you never forget either point.

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

One More For Glory

You wouldn’t think looking around my house that I have much self-respect.

Piles of things that I’m sorting adorn my dining room table.  The counters sag under a long row of canisters.  Three pans (clean) sit on the stove despite the plethora of cabinets.  My closet doors tilt open.  Clean clothes have been hanging in the bathroom for two weeks.

But all of this just represents the end of energy each day.  I often tell people that I can work or clean house but not in the same day.  I can clean house and shop for groceries but only one per weekend.   My body drains of the ability to move after six hours.  I keep going because I see no other way to live.

I stood in a thrift store browsing blouses a few weeks ago listening to a Stanford doctor ask me if I had been overdoing it lately.  He strove to find an explanation for my sudden regression.  I flicked through a rack of clothing with one hand, holding my cell phone against my head with the other.

You know, I never slowed down, I never did less than I’ve always done.  So, no, I haven’t added anything new.  I’ve always done more than my body was capable of doing.

Silence from the other end suggested that the doctor strove to process the concepts that I relayed.  I recalled his boss, the virus guru, telling me to avoid increasing my workload as I began to feel better.  He explained that a lot of his professional patients overdid it as the drug worked its magic, causing backlash.  Or whiplash.

I’m not like that.  I’m worse.  I make a list of everything that I have to accomplish and I hack away at the list. I work 50 hours per week, slog through chores at least halfway, and organize events. I volunteer, I write letters, I blog, and I try to find the time to socialize.  I suffer eyestrain, headaches, worsening spasticity, and a few maladies too unpleasant to list or describe.

Yet I keep going.

So, no, Dr. Bonilla.  I’m not feeling worse because I had been lying around for two decades unable to function until your pill coursed through my veins and quelled the inner battle.  I did not rise like a Phoenix cured by the elixir and start slaying dragons.  I did not forge into the street knocking windmills and run out of steam.  I did not trigger a resurgence of the little bug that eats my DNA, sending an influx to override your potion.

I just kept chugging, day in, day out, ticking off boxes, ignoring the bend in my fingers and the wobble in my legs.  I felt better for about a year.  Then everything flowed back, water finding its lowest level.  The sleepless nights returned.  The fatigue-at-rest again consumed me.  I reached out to you for help in understanding why.  I’m wondering, Did I get better because of some profound placebo effect which abated when I was distracted by the affairs of the day?

It doesn’t matter, really.  Just as the words used by each new generation of doctors to describe my condition have no impact on how I manage it, whether or not the drug prescribed by the gods at Stanford actually works means nothing.  I’ll live my life just the same, day in and day out.  I’ll be enough for some tasks and some people.  I’ll fall short for other tasks and other people.  I’ll be the best I can at everything I can do, and anything far enough down on my list that I don’t reach it will get moved to the top for tomorrow’s quantum of energy.

So double the Valcyte and give me one for the road. One more for glory.  Duty calls.  I’m exhausted at eight o’clock in the morning, but I’m not complaining.  I woke this morning.  My feet hit the floor.  I stood.  I’m way ahead of a lot of folks.

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

Downsizing 101

One of the marvels of going from 1532 square feet to 313 square feet centers on the process of radically downsizing my beloved personal belongings without which I thought I could not survive an average day.

Certain aspects of this undertaking appeal to me.  The built-in breakfront groans under the weight of three shelves filled with antique mixing bowls.  I do not use any of them.  Out the door!  Give away, donate, send to nieces and nephews who might remember their Grandmother Corley and want her Pyrex bread bowl.  I have twenty-five angels but only a handful of them have sentimental value.  I’m sure the City Thriftstore would take a few.  Eliminate six feet of blouses?  Done and done.  Forty years of photographs?  Pick a few from each year of my son’s life and one of each person no longer walking the earth. Scan those. Shred the rest.

But when it comes to one particular category of possessions, a problem arises.

Rocking chairs.

Who doesn’t love a good rocker?  The comfort which I find probably has its origins in babyhood or earlier.  My body gradually relaxes into the soothing back-and-forth motion, unconsciously perpetuated by the little shove of one toe against the floor.  Did I mention that I own nine rocking chairs?  Two on the porch, two in the living room, one in my bedroom, one at the office, one in the sitting room, and one downstairs in the basement because — well, see above.  The tiny house to which I’m downsizing will accommodate precisely one, though once I’ve parked it and had a little porch built, I can probably use an outdoor rocker, of which, as noted, I have two.

But my problem is not parting with seven of the nine.  Rather, it’s figuring out which two of the nine to keep.   Which will “look best” in a 313 square feet dwelling made principally of rustic wood?

It’s a good problem to have — a first-world problem, even — a tribute to the bountiful life that has allowed me to acquire these lovelies whenever I saw one at a thrift store or flea market that I simply had to have.  So I’m not complaining.  But I have been feeling like Goldilocks in the Three Bears’ House.  Nothing felt quite right.

It turns out that I needed number ten to get that perfect chair for my new THOW [tiny house on wheels].  And when I saw an ad on the Nextdoor App from my friend Cherie Meyer for a rocker that she and her husband no longer needed in their guest bedroom, my senses tingled.  Sure enough: that turned out to be “the one”.  It became mine, delivered, for the price of a cup of coffee at Pirate’s Bone.  Bonus to the home team:  A pleasant morning’s conversation with Cherie!

Problem solved.  And another bonus emerged.  Somehow getting that question resolved inspired me to sort through two boxes of Patrick’s grade school drawings and homework, 90% of which got thrown in the discard pile.  I take my motivation where I find it.  Rock on.

It’s the thirteenth day of the forty-third month of My Year Without Complaining.  I’m moving forward.  Life continues.


Hey Ma, ‘Sup

My mother died just two years after the first commercially available mobile phone hit the shelves.  Her poor timing does not inhibit my daydreaming about texting with my mother.

Hey Ma, ‘sup.  That’s me, trying to be cool.

[Auto-Responder]  I’m driving right now.  If this is my baby daughter,  go clean your room.

Two hours pass.  My mother gets home, takes off her bra, pours herself something cool to drink, and puts her work uniform in the laundry.  Clad in a house coat, sitting on the porch, she finally texts me back.

So, what’s going on with you?  

I hear a funny tone resound in my house.  I walk around trying to figure out what it is.  Oh, dang.  My phone!

Hey Ma.  Have a nice day?

A few seconds pass. Her answer bings:  Did you lose your grammar book?  I didn’t use a subject, verb, object construction.  I smile into the empty room.

It’s been a long day, starting with the steel-cut oatmeal that I gagged down.  Heart healthy, you know.  Then I worked nine hours, stopped at the grocery store, came home and made dinner, then did a load of laundry.

That’s nice, honey.  I wait for more.  Wait, you ate oatmeal?  I smile.

My mother used to taunt me by packing my birthday presents in oatmeal containers.  This joke spanned my late childhood years, when I was old enough to realize that I wasn’t getting breakfast cereal for my birthday but still young enough to have that brief moment of panic.  I despise oatmeal, as I think I’ve mentioned one or twenty times.  But a person who takes two kinds of heart medicine has to acknowledge that something with “Heart Healthy” stamped on every brand’s packaging might just be good for me.

Yeah, I did.  Gagatrocious!  I’m certain my brother Mark invented that word.  I picture my mother at her house in Jennings, smiling at the reminder of her favorite son.

So.  A pause.  What IS up?

How do I answer that question?  Well, Mom, since you asked.  In the 32 years between your death and this wistful conversation, I’ve married three times, divorced the same number, fallen in love five times, had a child, lived in two different states, traveled the country, nearly died, gained and lost the equivalent of my body weight, and recovered from a heart shattered into a million pieces.

To summarize.

The devil’s in the details:  The politics, the house-purchases, the California doctors, the blogs, the art.  My son living in my mother’s birth state.  The overgrown garden which nonetheless makes me feel connected with her.  The deaths — oh, the deaths!  Your baby boy, Mom!

Now it’s real, Mom:  Did you meet Steve in heaven?  

I no longer imagine my mother standing on the porch in the sweltering heat of July.  Instead, I see her standing somewhere serene, on the banks of the Meramec River perhaps.  I remember the summer we camped there.  My father brought a folding cot because he wouldn’t sleep on the ground.  My big brothers challenged me to wade against the current.  I kept my shoes on my spastic feet, rolled up my blue jeans, and plunged chest-high into the cold water.  The little boys ran along the shore line, cheering me, waving their hands.

I’ve stopped texting.  I can’t write fast enough to answer her questions.  I send a picture of my son, of the house where I raised him, of the art on the walls of my office.  I scroll through the emojis and pick a heart and a kissing face.

Oh, Mary, there’s your father. I better go.  I’ll talk to you soon, baby girl.

Wait — Mom — don’t go —  please!

I stare at the screen, then drop the phone onto the table.  Its clatter echoes through the the dimness of the house.  I realize that the sun sinks low to the west, over the neighboring trees.  The dog barks outside, forgotten, unfed.  Another evening passes with nothing constructive to show for it.  The piles that I made this weekend still occupy the dining room table.  The towels sit in the dryer, forming permanent wrinkles.  I’m no closer to paradise.

But I’m not complaining.  I’m not sure why, but I’m not.   I think my mother would encourage me to keep putting my best foot forward, just as her mother suggested that she do, that we do.  Neither of them ever quite explained which foot was my best foot, but nevertheless, I’m going to try.  Because that’s what the women in my family do.  We just keep trying.

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

Piles of smiles

I thought that going through boxes of paper would upset me but so far it hasn’t.  I’ve been examining old pictures of my son in childhood and thinking about everything that I’ve experienced.

I’ve only done two small boxes.  Several very large Rubbermaid containers of pictures and a long file box await.  I expect that by the end of these, my nails will be broken and bitten.  My hair will be frizzy and falling from its pins.  I’ll grumble, gripe, and scold myself for being such a packrat.  Then I’ll chide myself for complaining.

But for now, I’m making piles of smiling versions of our younger selves.  I’ve looked with fondness on photographs of people who have drifted from my life, some crossing bridges which they lit ablaze behind them.  A little pile of scan-these sits to one side.  A paper bag stands on the chair, 1/4 full of discards.  Letters from a French foreign exchange student and my friend Diana in Utah could go in either stack; I’ve not decided yet.

I’ve been both blessed and cursed in many ways.  Fortune shone on me occasionally.  At times I drew my shades against its beam.  Other times the storm battered my windows.  I cowered in the corner, praying for the rain to pass.  All of that found its way onto the shelves of my basement.  I’ve never been one to persistently keep a journal other than my blog-writing.  I start and stop; I get a few days into a new effort and forget.  But I do keep letters and snapshots.  Every anguish, every joy, every triumph, every terror, gathers dust downstairs.

I’m going through it all.  I realized halfway into my first day that this is like therapy for me.  I’ll either emerge from the other side strong and triumphant, or sink into the morass of memory.

I’ve undertaken this task with an open heart.  It’s arduous, physically and emotionally, but I’m not complaining.  It’s my life.  Every second of it, every frozen pose, every tattered birthday card.  Whatever damage these events could do has already woven itself into the fibers of my being.  I’m looking for something else now.  I’m looking for the good.

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

My brother Stephen and my son.

My sister Joyce and my brother Stephen in the background; various nieces and nephews and my sister-in-law in the foreground.

Yours truly.

A tale of two loves

I have to admit that when I got an invitation to Jilli Nel’s wedding I did not want to attend.

My life had plunged itself straight into the murkiness of hell.  I had already avoided two weddings, and had no desire to drag myself to this one.  But Jilli Nel had done nothing to harm me.  She and her fiance Chris Myers deserved my respect, and had requested the honor of my presence.

The week before the event, I visited my sister.  I have to go to a damn wedding, I muttered.  I feel old, fat, and ugly.  Other than to work, and to cry over a salad at Panera’s, I haven’t been out in public in two years.   I’m too depressed to think about somebody else’s happiness.

My sister put her arms around me.  She said, Do you have something pretty to wear?  

That’s my big sister.  She knows.  We all learned that from our mother.  Feeling blue?  Wash your face, comb your hair, and put on something pretty.

Joyce loaded me in her car and we went to Kohl’s.  She pulled a bunch of clothes off of a rack and bustled me into the dressing room.  I peeled my clothes from my body and slipped into what she handed me without enthusiasm.  I stood in front of the mirror.

When I first “got separated” (I despise that phrase), I stopped eating for about three months.  I dropped below 95 pounds before my doctor mentioned anti-depressants.  So I started force-feeding myself.  By the time Jilli’s wedding came around, I had, unfortunately, overdone the “you’ve got to put on a few pounds” instructions and had crept far above the double zero where I’d been hovering.  Still a size small, but to my eyes, I looked hideous.

Joyce disagreed.  Oh, you look great! she crowed.  She guided me to picking a blue, ankle length cotton thing which at least didn’t show any cleavage.  She hugged me again, slipped a blouse into my cart, used her own Kohl bucks to pay for everything, and settled me in the car for my trip back to Kansas City.

I sat with Genevieve and Wes Casey at the wedding and distracted myself by taking photos of one of the more lovely brides I’ve ever seen, glowing and radiant.  When Chris took his jacket off to cover his shivering lady, everyone present gasped.  Did you see that?  Such tenderness!

Today I saw a little netting packet in the dashboard change holder.  I touched it; realizing what it was, I found myself smiling.  Another year has gone by.  I’ve gotten divorced.  I’ve lived alone now for three long and brutal years; and I’ve also watched Jilli and Chris prove to the world that their devotion can surmount all challenges.

As I pulled out of the driveway thinking about Jilli, a man stopped in front of my house and got out of his car.  I rolled down the window and asked if I could help him.  He gestured to a pile of cardboard at the base of my neighbor’s tree.

Are these your boxes, he asked.  I told him no, but that they’d been in the recycle bin and had gotten left behind by the city drivers.  Do you think they’d mind if I picked through them?  I shook my head.

The man grinned.  I’ll tell you why I need them.  I’m moving my girlfriend here from Colorado Springs.  He paused to accept my congratulations.  I’ll tell you a story, he continued.  We dated when I was sixteen and she was fourteen.  Then we went our separate ways.  We found each other again after 46 years.

He beamed from ear to ear, this portly man with a graying beard and grease stains on his fingers.  I wished him well and continued out to the street.  An unexpected feeling of goodwill settled over me.  Another smile dawned on my face as I turned on the radio and accelerated into the turn, on my way south.

It’s evening on the ninth day of the forty-third month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Not Complaining About Memories

It’s no secret that I’m “going tiny”.  I have not yet decided where I’ll park my tiny house.   I’m still weighing my options.  Expect me to occupy a dainty lot somewhere between the Beltway and the Northern Lights.  When I make my final decision, you’ll be the first to know — right after my son, my siblings, and the lessor of the plot where I finally choose to land.

I’ve downsized before now but not on such a noble scale.  I’ve moved and married enough times in sixty-one (and three-quarters) years to understand the process.  But I still cringe when I survey the boxes on the wide shelves in the basement.  In these dusty tubs, a child’s life unfolds on shiny squares shoved in loose-flapped envelopes with ads for obsolete film services.  Stacks of yellowed artwork and book reports nestle amid the T-ball group photos and three weddings’ worth of memorabilia.  Spiral notebooks fall open on dog-eared notes to and from a friend who worked off her legal fees cleaning my cluttered, neglected home.

I’m not complaining about the memories, nor about the hours which I will spend sorting through them.  I’ve promised myself to take it slow.  I have two months to get this done.  Near Kidder, Missouri, the tiny house takes shape under the capable hands of my builder.   Here in Brookside, my head slowly begins to lift itself as I hack away at the heavy veil in which I’ve long been shrouded.  Lightness of being beckons.

 I hold the memories in my wildly-beating heart.  I will keep two small containers of mementos. Anything more would weigh too much to carry.

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

Standards of Measurement

I hit 90 on I-435 at 11:40 a.m. today but cars whizzed past on either side.  My son’s voice on the hands-free  urged me to figure out what had happened when I shared this news with him.  Thinking of the eye doctor appointment scheduled for 3:00 p.m., I squinted at the speedometer and realized that somehow, it had been switched from miles per hour to kilometers per hour.

I had no idea my car had that feature!

A few minutes later, I put aside the oddness of the experience and focused on my client’s difficulties.  By 1:30 p.m. I had gotten back in the Prius and headed south on Noland Road, having found the button to switch back to standard American.

But the whole event got me thinking about the measures by which I assess myself and how easy it might be to push a button and change them.

Too fat?  Re-evaluate.  Can I sustain moderate exercise for twenty minutes, twice a day?  Do I avoid sugar and minimize carbs?  Perhaps what I weigh should not dictate whether I consider myself healthy.  Perhaps instead, I should look in the mirror and judge if my cheeks seem rosy, my hair shiny, and my stance straight and strong.  I never had a “weight problem” until menopause.  I doubled my weight and held at 190 for three or four years before slowly working off 90 pounds.  By 2011, I weighed 103.  Now I’m on the way back down after a tough two years.  I have to let go of a measurement which says that I’m only beautiful if I don’t tip the scales past 100.

A financial failure? Changing how I view myself in the area of money takes a bit more imagination.   I can find statistics for the average salary and savings of a 34-year veteran of the Bar.  I might need to revolutionize how I think.  Lights on? Food in fridge? Water flowing? Full tank of gas? Moderate monthly income?  Call yourself a success by mid-American standards and blessed by most measures.  I never wanted to be rich, and my health has prevented the monumental work effort that real wealth requires.  Why does this bother me so much?  Those of us who spend our childhood in lower-middle-class or even poverty have a skewed relationship to money, I think.  In my case, I know others expect me to be rich, and I’m not.  This is one over which I need to shake the holy water and walk away.

Here’s a nagging question:  What is the measure of the worth of a woman?  Is it the loyalty of the husband whose arm she held?  The children she raised?  The heads she turns? The friends who ring her phone?  The curve of her breast — the shape of her bottom — the arch of her brow?  If my eyes are the beholder, and the mirror provides the image, how do I judge myself?  As I think others see me?  Against my mother’s strong features and stubborn dedication?  The long career and enduring marriage of my big sister? The popularity of the women around whom I fall silent?

Before I realized that the speedometer had gone rogue, a hot flush burned my face. I glanced around for flashing lights and listened for sirens.  I had not thought that I’d been doing anything wrong, but still I did not question my initial assessment.  Speeding!  You broke the law!  I hadn’t, though; I leaped to a false conclusion.

I find myself wondering, Have I unfairly condemned myself on other issues?  

Perhaps I need to start measuring myself by new standards.

It’s evening on the sixth day of the forty-third month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

                                                             – Rumi





How I Live My Life

It’s a funny thing about not having one of the two old computers on which I normally sit and write.  I find that I have been writing half as much.

Here in my upstairs room, the older of the two old laptops never leaves its perch.  I’ve learned that I did a lot of my writing on the first floor using the laptop that got ruined last week.  Its replacement has not yet arrived.  So the writing that I did on the first floor simply fell by the wayside.

Curious thing, this situational adjustment of my habits.  As a result, the dishes have been put away more often; I’ve gotten a lot of laundry done; and my yard has been divested of two months’ worth of weeds.   I’ve also read two novels by newly-discovered German authors.

The accident which caused the demise of that laptop impacted the way I live my life.  This prompts me to ruminate about other accidents which sent me on detours. I think of turning points, small and large:  Run over by a car; met someone unexpected; conceived beyond all prognostications; found a hundred-dollar bill; discovered a book on an unexplored library shelf.

Neurologists tell us that our brains experience neuro-pathway detours when we suffer extreme occurrences, such as violence.  My personal pathway reflects this same phenomenon.  My life and how I live it has not been a linear progression, A to Z, a steady unbroken march towards  the mortal stop.

I used to think of myself as fairly rigid, but I’ve changed that view. I realize that for decades I have been bobbing along, buoyed by the current but skittering left or right, bumping against rocks and driftwood.  I’m not complaining.  I have met some fabulous people; had some glorious experiences; seen some breath-taking vistas.  But the need for self-determination claims me.  I want to put each foot more surely on the road.  I yearn for a particular destination.  My #JourneyToJoy needs to be deliberate.

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


Two steps forward

This blog started as my homage to my mother-in-law, Joanna Mitchell Maclaughlin.  She died in October of 2013.  When he eulogized her, the priest at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church mentioned that he never heard Joanna complain, neither in the years he knew her nor in her final illness.  I decided to take Joanna’s inspiration and turn it into a Year Without Complaining.

In the months following Joanna’s death, I also weaned myself off of prescription painkillers after forty-five years of depending on the pills to dull the chronic neurological and muscular-skeletal pain which plagues me.  I succeeded, taking my last Percoset on 31 December 2013.  The next day, I did my inaugural entry here.  On 13 February 2014, my husband announced that he was leaving me, about which I still have not openly blogged — nor shall I.

In June of that same year, my favorite curmudgeon, Jabez MacLaughlin, received his cancer diagnosis, which led to his death in November,  The following April, my third divorce received an electronic signature and came to me via the e-filing system to which lawyers in Missouri subscribe.  I again joined the ranks of the unmarried, which I had pledged never to do in my wedding vows four years earlier.

Why am I telling you all of this?  Most of it found its way to passages over the last three years, and the rest of it could be gleaned from between the lines.  Surely you’re over all this, you might be muttering to yourself.

I am and I am not, a state which prompts this entry.

Yesterday while Catherine Kenyon and I pulled weeds and bagged the vine clippings, I told her that I did not think that I would be able to trust anyone again.  By this, of course, I meant “a man”, as in, at the ripe old age of 61, should any man ever chance to glance in my direction, I would rebuff his overture.  Not that i expect this to happen; I think I wear that cynicism on my bodice like a scarlet letter.  But giving voice to this mild bitterness prompted a long trail of contemplation ending in a rueful laugh tendered to the evening air as I sat on my lovely porch last night.

It seems that with all my efforts to live a joyful life, I’ve created a shell that surrounds my heart.  I ask myself, What  use, joy, if it only lights a tiny, shuttered space?  Not that I’d invite another opportunity for romantic mishap; but letting go of this festered anger would surely open the path to a personal contentment with even my solitary existence.  And as so many poets before me have remarked more lyrically than I, even the light from a single candle casts out darkness if it shines unfettered.

Healing takes many forms.  I started this blog to keep myself honest as I learned not to complain.  I also wanted to invite others to reflect on how their lives became enmired in the bitter bile of discontent.  In the tradition of being a good example or a horrible warning, I’ve let you see every step forward, every step backward.  This weekend, I think I took two steps in a direction towards my personal peace.  I owe the effort to a three-month accumulation of weeds and Catherine Kenyon’s cheerful disposition.  Both have my gratitude.

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