Monthly Archives: October 2017

Talk To Your Children

As my son and I rode the train and walked over half of the Loop in downtown Chicago, we talked.  Or should I say:  He talked, and I asked questions and listened.  I couldn’t help thinking over and over:  My mother would love this kid.

Patrick understands concepts on which I have only a tenuous grip.  Political movements, economic policies, the rise and fall of various governmental entities and efforts: he discusses world events intently, with an astounding casual confidence.  He has me read from supposed news sites and articles purporting to be informational, then cuts through their nuanced offerings with ease, showing me how I can discern between objective accounts and propaganda.  He lays people and organizations on a graduated scale, from extreme right to extreme left, and then outlines why he chooses to gravitate closer to the latter.

His compassion, empathy, and regard for humanity overwhelms me.  He cares about people.  He walks, talks, and lives his connection to the world in which he finds himself.  He’s surpassed my hopes for him; he works his values and he honors every principle that I ever tried to help him internalize.

He has two jobs, works seven days a week, lives in Evanston because he likes the neighborhood, recycles, rides the train as though he’s been doing it all his life, and has a regular place he takes his car which checked the air in my right front tire without charging me for putting it on the lift to make sure it didn’t have a leak.  I’d say my boy has arrived.  At twenty-six, he’s more level-headed than I’ve ever been.  He’s idealistic in his goals for the world but realistic as to the potential of pulling America from its current lamentable condition to become a nation based on equality, which provides the same chance for each of its citizens.

We went downtown so I could ride the train and get coffee at my brother Frank’s favorite hidden gem, Hero Coffee at Pickwick Place.  We didn’t expect to encounter a protest, nor did either of us anticipate my emotional reaction to the line of women standing mute and strong against the loss of personal choice.  The experience put us in a contemplative mood.  Off and on throughout the day, we fell into rumination about the terrible regression of America; about misogyny, racism, and the erosion of the small gains toward equality made in the twentieth century.  He knew so much:  History, economics, sociology, political theory and practice.  By the end of the day, I found myself overwhelmed with awe at the quiet self-assurance and intuition of this manchild to whom I gave birth.  Not just a musician, not just a writer, but a citizen who understands why socialism has failed in the tiny country of Venezuela and how capitalism has failed Americans.  What a kid.  I have no complaints.  He’s done his lineage proud.

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

As a sixty-two year old who marched in a Take Back The Night rally in 1977 and celebrated the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, the sight of these brave women outside the federal building in downtown Chicago moved me to tears.


Going Home

I passed the dead Stuckey’s at exit 179 just after 11:00, driving hard for Wentzville and the first stop on the Great Road Trip of 2017.  The tire pressure warning light flashed at me ten minutes later and I thought, Good Lord, what now.  I made the QT in Wentzville five minutes before my dead brother’s first daughter Amy arrived with her husband Harlan.

I see him in her face so clearly.  She’s got a bit of her mother Sherry in her but the stamp of pure Steve.  Corley genes will out, I think, as I wrap my arms around her.  I love this woman.  I cannot account for the thirty-four years when we did not see her but will never forget sitting bolt-upright in bed and shaking my then-spouse.  Wake up, wake up!  I just remembered that my brother Steve had another daughter, a long time ago.  He looked at me as though I had lost my mind, which, it must be said, I’ve been accused of having done enough times to suspect it might be true.

Amy and I hugged over the collage of Stephen-photos that I had brought her.  I touched the glass in front of each one, explaining the occasion, talking about the father she never knew.  I told her that I had made two of these photo journals for his memorial service.  I gave the other one to his younger daughter a decade ago, so long ago that I assume it’s at the bottom of some closet.  Then I pulled out two boxes for her.  Tears stung my eyes as I explained what I had brought for her:  Little plates that had been on my mother’s vanity dresser for years; a Lucy Corley tea cup; an angel from my collection.

I cried all the way into town and nearly wrecked the car while the GPS lady yelled at me that she would recalculate the route but please, make the next safe U-turn.

I checked into my AirBnB, a classic 110-year-old house in Benton Park, then went to meet a home girl for lunch.  Ah, Jeannie Serra.  How can it be that I do not see you for something like 40 years, only to discover sisterhood in our middle-age?  As we part, she slips a little box across the table and tells me that the card has a poem written by her husband. I try not to be too jealous as we embrace and I head for Trattoria Marcella and my dead brother’s other daughter.

Chelsea Rae glows.  She runs out of the restaurant and throws her arms around me.  I know, all of a sudden, that I will never forget this road trip.  These young women, my nieces, the children of my brothers and my sister, carry the best of us into the future.  Though their own stumbles might haunt them from time to time, they have the goodness of their Corley heritage with as little of the darkness as possible.  I know it’s hard, being related to this motley crew, the Infinity Eight.  We take no prisoners.  We spare no mercy.  But we love as fiercely as we argue and that cannot mean nothing.

We stand on the sidewalk and talk.  She tells me about her school, her mother, her grandmother, and the father who raised her.  My heart aches but I say, I am so thankful for Mike Booker, and she smiles.  Again I think:  I see my brother on your face, but I don’t say it.  She knows.  She does not remember him.  She only knows what we have told her.  I would not blame any bitterness she might feel, but I see none, not now, and I hear only happiness in her voice.  It has nothing to do with me, or her family of birth, I know; but I’ll claim a tiny bit of it anyway.

Now I’m at The Vine, and I’ve opened the present from Jeannie.  I wrap the soft scarf around my neck, and open the card.    She’s nailed it.  I let it fall on the table and stare out the window.  I don’t see the passing cars.  I see, instead, a serious girl of eighteen walking on the city street.  She’s stayed too long at the fair and missed her eight o’clock class.  Her wild hair hangs in tangled waves down her back.  She stumbles.  She might be hung over.  She could even still be drunk.  But she keeps walking, because she promised her mother that she would.

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

The Great Road Trip of 2017

The only question which remains:  Will these boxes, a chair, and a lamp fit in the Prius?

After seven hours of sorting, considering, wrapping, and packing, I’m ready to take a fragment of my heritage and distribute it among the next generation of Corley Kids.  A few items will make their way to one brother and a sister.  But most of the soup cups, saucers, and whatknots which I brought from my parents home over the years have been allocated among my son, nieces, and nephews.  I’m packing the bulk of them and starting on The Great Road Trip of 2017 in twenty-four hours.

I’m tired, but not complaining.  Down-sizing has given me what I needed: closure.  Two months ago, I started the process with a solid forty-eight hours of nearly uninterrupted perusal of grade school papers, wedding pictures, and old scribblings.  A flood of tears followed twelve contractor bags to the curb, tagged and ready for the landfill.   I tucked a handful of soft memories and sweet souvenirs into small containers destined for a back spot in the under-bed storage of my tiny house.  A few photos went into albums for my son and my sister Joyce.  I let most of it go with little resistance.

The decluttering went faster after the pictures and old love letters.  I practically threw amfuls into cardboard boxes.  Miranda spent one afternoon helping.  She couldn’t assemble the boxes fast enough.  My dear friend Katrina asked how I could decide what to take and what to give away.  I had no answer for her except to gesture.  I’m moving from 1300 square feet to 313 counting the guest sleeping loft.  Ruthlessness guided my decisions.

But my mother’s soup cups!  Those couldn’t go to strangers.  The stove lot that I won in an up-round or down-round!  I couldn’t stop smiling, handling the little salt-shakers, thinking of my siblings and I walking through the house.  Youngest to oldest; oldest to youngest — we picked what we wanted in turns by birth order.  The middle children never got an advantage, but no one complained.

I have seven nieces, counting the two whom my family lost and later, many years later, reclaimed.   Three were born before my mother died; the other four know her only by legend. My son has heard his fill of stories.   I don’t know how he feels about the grandmother who died six years before he came into this world; but he knows her sayings.  He doesn’t take any wooden nickels, that’s for sure.

My mother often went ‘junking’, embarking on long drives in rural Illinois to find the little shops filled with other people’s dishes.  I grabbed as many of those gems as I could, twenty-six years ago after my father’s death.  Last evening,  I touched each bowl, every platter, every tea cup, thinking of my mother and the granddaughters whom she did not live long enough to see grow into amazing young adults.  I held delicate Haviland under warm water, wiping away the grime of two decades on my open shelves.  Nothing matches; but everything makes sense.  It’s all my mother:  Pure Lucille Johanna Lyons Corley.

This round favors the girls; I’m not sure what I’ll do for the nephews.  That’s a question for another day.

In a few minutes, I will throw on clothes, wash the breakfast dishes, and pull the car out to begin assessing whether  I have to make a frantic call to Enterprise and drop three hundred bucks on a rental.  Either way, I’m taking these boxes to the girls.  Each includes a note written to the niece whose name appears on the lid, telling her about the contents.  I’ve tried to give them a little flavor of the grandmother they never got to know.  It’s not enough, but it’s what I have.  I have no riches; I can’t introduce them to anyone famous.  But I can give them a glimpse of a woman who loved them, who would have loved the ones she did not get to see.  I can help them understand her tenderness and her determination.  She never had a set of matching Limoges, but she acquired enough to give a few to every one of the young women who, by birth or by choice, continue her legend of strength and beauty into the twenty-first century.

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

This pose might not flatter my mother, but it shows her quintessential nature. Classic Lucy.

Mysterious Ways

Let me pronounce it loud and clear right at the outset, for any who didn’t read the book and won’t wait for the movie:  I am not religious.

Though raised Roman Catholic, I found from an early age that nothing about that faith appealed to me.  My rejection of Catholicism began when I got in trouble for refusing to say the “Our Father” in fourth grade.  The nun who had noticed my stubborn silence sent me to the office, where I did get a chance to explain.

I already have one father; I really don’t want another one.  The poor woman either didn’t know the hell in which my siblings and I lived, or didn’t think our suffering should be blamed on God.  She banished me to my knees in the hallway.  I didn’t say my penance.  My resolve firmed.

Other, worse events deepened the chasm between me and the Vatican, lamentable events that perhaps the current pope might mourn.  By early adulthood, I had begun searching out other sects, still determined to give the earthly worship of a divine deity the chance as long as I could pick my venue.

I ran the gambit, save perhaps spending a Saturday or two at temple.  I never found anywhere that felt like home, which might be the curse of cradle Catholicism.  Eventually, God, the angels, and I made a kind of peace among ourselves.  I resolved to do the best that I could by them, and they continued to demonstrate their eternal vigilance over me.  I’m still standing, so we do know that one end of that bargain has been kept.

My lack of religion has not prevented my aiming for spiritual evolution.  “Salvation” doesn’t necessarily resonate with me.  The part of Catholic mass which most irritates me is the eternal chanting of our unworthiness.  I don’t buy it.  If humans formed in the image of God, then we are worthy by definition.  “God Don’t Make No Junk”  seemed right to me the first time I heard it.  I recognize human fallibility, though; so I wake each day asking whatever lies inside my heart how I can improve the way I relate to the world.  My feet hit the floor with determination, albeit sometimes a little clumsily.

I’ve seen the answering call from something spiritual.  Call it indigestion, hallucination, or revelation, but an angel often whispers in my ear.  When I’ve been most desolate, something  nudges me and keeps me moving forward.  My atheist friend (and I have a dear one) would give me all the credit.  She might be right.  But my gut suggests the existence of some form of eternal being, perhaps a single entity, perhaps a cosmic collection.  Call it “God”.  Call it whatever you like.  I’m here to tell you:  That entity works in mysterious ways.

Eight months ago, I traveled to Chillicothe to meet an appointed client in the stark visitors room of the prison where she lives. I carried a Consent to Termination of Parental Rights in my sad little lawyer’s folio.  I could go to trial to try to prevent the loss of her son.  But I have been doing this long enough to know that she would lose, and to understand what that would mean both legally and emotionally.

At that point, I had been watching television programs about tiny houses and wishing that I could downsize for about a year.  When the laser ink froze on a print-out of my signed divorce decree in April of 2015, I began to look for ways to jumpstart the rest of a life that I had not believed I would ever lead.  Alone, truly alone, for the first time since my son entered the world laughing, I faced the daunting reality that my mother had been right about my eventual spinsterhood, assuming that a thrice-married and divorced woman can be thusly called.

I had heard that a couple east of Cameron had a little compound of cabins and that the man might be persuaded to build a tiny house for me.  My desire to divest  myself of 90% of what I owned drove me to believe that living in 300 square feet might be my style.  En route to the prison, I spied Country Cabin Village, and told  myself that I would stop there on the way back.  If nothing else, I’d get a cup of coffee for the drive home.

The rest, as they say, is history.  When asked how i picked my builder, I let it be known that I did so on the basis of the enormous charm and gentleness of his wife.  She welcomed me to her shop, held my arm as we picked across the gravel to tour the little house on wheels sitting beside her bakery, and told me that her husband could, and would, build one for me.

As I beheld my new home, nearing completion in a field beside my builder’s house in Lathrop, Missouri, I recalled that first day when I took the fork in my road towards this next chapter of my life.  My steps have not always been sure.  I stumble; I scrape my shin against the cliffs.  I clutch at insubstantial handholds.  This journey has not been easy, nor has it been certain.  But one thing I can say with absolute conviction:  Kevin Kitsmuller has built me exactly what I strained in feeble words to describe at our first meeting, on Holy Saturday, at the Perkins in Liberty, with his smiling wife Kim sitting beside him.  If you don’t take that as proof that God exists, allow me to try to describe something inchoate some time, to convince you.

I don’t know what lies around the next bend in the river.  But I know that when I lay my head down to sleep, to refurbish myself for each next day, I will do it surrounded by the angels and every lovely contour of a true master’s work.

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



The Body’s Betrayal

I used to be able to describe each encounter with a doctor who predicted my imminent decline or impending death.  They would use various medical expressions which all meant, Don’t buy any long-term investments.  Words such as, completely bedridden, peppered the sessions with me huddling in a chair and my mother’s grim face turned towards the white-clad men with half-moon glasses balanced on their foreheads.

In later years, my mother’s chair might be occupied by a husband or a friend, but the message echoed those sixties-era pronouncements.  In their view, I was doomed to spend my waning days lying in a bed with a typewriter by my side or to slip away before I had a chance to ruin my own life or climb my own mountains.

The folks at Stanford waved their specialist arms and sent those prognosticators scattering to the winds and waves.  I embarked on a three-year high, which only recently seems to have plateaued.

But I’m still kicking.

What business do I have, surrendering to this nasty bug which rides my DNA with unbridled glee?  I scroll through social media studying the faces of the 59 killed in Las Vegas, the 49 slaughtered in Orlando, the fourteen killed in San Bernadino.  I find a picture of Gabby Giffords and memorize the contours of her cheek and the sweep of her hair.   I look for photographs of the six who died that day, cut down by the same sweep of bullets.   Further back:  Columbine, Laramie.  I read the articles about the rise of police killings in the last two years; horrifying descriptions of service members dying on foreign soil as they have died for decades; stark accounts of  police officers ambushed at New York intersections and on the streets of Dallas.

I hear my voice echo through the house:  Get up, get out, get going.  Reject your body’s betrayal, because you have been allowed to live when so many have fallen in pools of their own blood, crimson pools seeping out to merge with the blood of other angels.

Yesterday a few of my more annoying symptoms interrupted the progress of my housework and the enjoyment of an evening’s concert.  But this morning, my mood has improved regardless of the ache, the rumble, the searing stabs of erratic neurons.  Fortune, or blessings, or dumb luck — that which has driven  me to pull myself from each cold concrete floor onto which I have crashed —  settles on my shoulders and scolds me: You’re still here.  Keep walking.  No complaining.

Four years ago today, my mother-in-law Joanna MacLaughlin slipped away, with her children and her husband holding her hand and whispering words of devotion and acceptance.  I stood behind my favorite curmudgeon, my own hands on his back.  A wave of  love emanated through him washing over me.  Whatever else might be true about my life, about my body’s weaknesses and my mind’s shortcomings, that I have been honored to know some fine people must also be noted.  Rest in peace, Joanna.  Your uncomplaining nature still inspires me.

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

Joanna MacLaughlin and my favorite curmudgeon, Jay MacLaughlin

Everybody’s Saying

On the porch this morning I listened to the wind moving through the trees.  The occasional flutter of my two flags joined the squirrels calling through the stillness.  With my arms wrapped around my shoulders in lieu of the shawl left inside, I pushed the rocker and thought about song lyrics.

Somebody sent me a link to a Joni Mitchell song and that got me scrolling through her lyrics in my mind.  I got stuck in the chorus of Blue  before finally moving to Little Green and settling on A Case of You.  I got on the internet and played them over and over, thinking of the seventies, of my innocence which I had lost by then assuming I had ever had it.

Lately I have been bumping against people who seem to know my next move better than I do. I listen to their advice and gauge my own instincts against their knowing looks and disconsolate shrugs.  I stand around at gatherings wearing flowered leggings and a plastic smile.  I carry a pocketful of proverbs, pulling out lyrics whenever someone pauses in front of me.  Everybody’s saying that hell’s the quickest way to go, I don’t think so; I’m going to take a look around it though.*

People move away.  They glance down smug sight lines.  I can tell we agree that they’ve lived a better life than I have.  Look at them: With their wedding bands and their perfect teeth.  I’d rather be them, too, and I know that’s what they’re thinking.  Good God.  There, but for the grace of God, go I.  They scurry off, wallowing in gratitude that they have been spared the life I’ve led or the chromosomes which drive me.

But the graceful few linger.  We swap lines of poetry, Cummings, Teasdale, and maybe even Plath.  They tell me about the crystals with which their paths have been clumsily lined.  In wistful voices, they talk of their own  crinoline petticoats hung in cedar closets all these years.   I whisper that I put mine in the grab bag for somebody else’s prom.  But I folded it as I handed it over to Miranda. I gave it one last gentle touch.  I didn’t wear it under a high school dance dress.  I walked down a makeshift aisle in it, two decades ago, when someone loved me.

I’m not complaining about my journey, nor do I excuse my own complicity in its strange meanderings.  But still.  But still.

It’s the sixth day of October, 2017.  The long strange trip on which I’ve been for the last forty-five months continues into its forty-sixth.  My life, in fact, continues.



The Last Time I Saw Richard, Joni Mitchell

*Joni Mitchell, Blue.

Bitching and Moaning

You call it “venting”. I call it “bitching and moaning”.  Whining.  Complaining.

Yesterday I said to someone, “Ugh. And I’m supposed to be not complaining.”  The person replied, “Yeah, how’s that working out for you?”

I don’t think she’s feeling the groove.

I called a company yesterday whose modus operandi seems to be to send their worst people first, so that by the time their mediocre people get to you, the sense of relief is palpable.  I actually asked the service manager whether that business model was part of their written policy.  I didn’t laugh when I said it.  Though admitting that the first team sent to my house had failed to correct the problem at hand, the woman seemed unconcerned about the four-hour delay until the arrival of the guy who got the job done.

We ended the call on a pleasant note, and I remained calm throughout the conversation.  I tried not to make the exchange about “complaint”.  I strained to focus on “problem-solving”.  I practically channeled the late Marshall Rosenberg.  But I would be willing to bet that all she heard was “bitching and moaning” despite my best efforts.

Perhaps the answer lies in acceptance of human failing and seeing the good in every effort.  But does that get the drain unclogged?  Or compensate for the downtime?  I used the hours as well as I could considering that the Mutt and Jeff comedy hour played out in my kitchen, with a tall guy and a short guy who stood texting the whole time that his cohort sat on my kitchen floor staring into the cabinet.  They had not brought any tools into the house, so I don’t really know what he thought might happen in the 30 minutes that he stared and we conversed.

Him:  I don’t see a leak.

Me:  Do you see the puddle of water?

Him:  Yes.

Me:  That came from the leak.  Maybe you should run the water?

Him:  I could do that.

Me:  Would you like me to do it?

Him:  Were you by any chance using the dishwasher when the leak started?

Me:  [for the fifth time] No.  The sink and the faucet.  Just running water.

Him:  Maybe I should try that and see what happens.

Me: [Crickets while I tried to remember the Buddhist chant for keeping calm.]

This is a verbatim account of one tiny snippet of a twenty-minute conversation.  At the end of it, they called in reinforcements and left.

I remain convinced that people behave as described because they can.  These guys won’t get any instruction from their company.  If the outfit cared, those men would not act that way in the first place.  We tolerate this kind of behavior and so it persists.  Not in everyone of course; the cavalry did, after all, arrive.  But only after the supposed A-Team exited to go to lunch, logging themselves out, as I later learned, a full hour after they actually left my house.

On the flip side,  I understand that yelling at someone never accomplishes anything other than entrenching them in the position that they’ve taken which offends you.  I don’t like to have someone yell at me.  My least favorite admonishment is, “Damn it, talk to me!”  I’d cut out my tongue sooner than do so once that order has been barked.

So:  And no, Jane, I’m not just writing about what I’m not going to complain about.  (Pardon the dangling ‘about’.)  I’m ruminating on the question asked, “How’s that working for you?”

Not so well, as it happens.

The only way I can keep this task on track is to catalog my own sins, the many ways I’ve failed others, or failed myself.  I bring each incident to the foreground and recall those who forgave me or tolerated my incompetence.  I feel the love and acceptance from those who did not abandon me despite my inability in that moment to do or be what they wanted.  Those loyal souls model what I strive to attain:  Non-judgment, acceptance, empathy.  I’ve been the humble recipient of tolerance and compassion.  My quest remains the attainment of that state with respect to every human whom I encounter.

That I still fall short of a challenging yet attainable goal drives me to continue this chronicle of my #journeytojoy.

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


Dawn In Brookside

Because I’ve sold my table in preparation for selling the house, I ate breakfast on the porch before dawn.  Brookside seemed serene.  Only the squirrels and the noises in my head broke the silence before six-thirty when trucks started their circuit.  The fragrance of my eggs wafted to me through the sweet autumn air, mixing with the pungent odor of freshly brewed French Roast.

Last night, I realized that the square footage of my combined deck and porch approximates that of the tiny house in which I will soon be dwelling.  I sat on a chair in the eastern-most corner and studied the area, calculating the length (approximately 30 feet) and the width (eight feet on the deck, ten on the porch).  I flunked college math so many times that they waived the requirement to get rid of me.  But a little pigeon multiplication using my fingers and toes suggested that the area is (8 x 20)  + (10 x 10) = 260.  My THOW, with two lofts, will have 313 square feet.  Built on a custom 24-foot x 8.5 foot trailer, it stands 11.5 feet on one side of its canted roof, and 9.5 feet on the other.

I sat on my deck for nearly three hours last night.  I had two telephone calls, one of which lasted an hour and took me to intellectual heights of which I did not realize I might be capable.  I perused a handful of e-mails, shared a Facebook event about a concert that I’m attending Saturday at Prospero’s, and posted pictures of my cool new solar LED waterproof candles.

I loved every blessed second of it and have absolutely no trouble imagining life in a dwelling not much more spacious than the outdoor square footage of this home, a place where I find #mypeace any time of day or night.

A full ten minutes of the exhilarating hour-long call involved my explaining the incredible feeling of letting go of the accumulation of 24 years at this house.  After filling the first box, I couldn’t load the rest with sufficient speed to satisfy my longing to escape the weight.  I regretted making others live like this.  I analyzed the drive to accumulate — and not fancy technology or luxurious comforts, but stuff — old dishes, pocketbooks, pictures, love letters, scratched furniture, and broken lamps which I always expected to fix but somehow never even recalled buying.

Most of it has now been carted away by the world’s best secretary, Miranda Erichsen.  She and her mother plan a yard sale and frankly, I don’t care if they give the entire lot away to homeless people.  In fact, that’s a great idea.  But no more than one box per shopping cart, lest I foist my baggage on some other unsuspecting sad soul who will carry the burden for decades, as I have.

I have a long road ahead of me.  But the dawn has shown a glorious day beneath its healing rays.  I’m not complaining.

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

Walking My Truth Back Home

Somewhere along the line I got enrolled in a mailing list called “Dress Your Truth”.  The gist of it seems to be the promotion of some type of synergy between our essential natures and the fabric with which we cover our nakedness and adorn ourselves to face the world.  I watched a few of the videos but saw nothing that didn’t sound just like the “seasons of colors” popular in the late 1980s, and similar fashion marketing movements.

But the idea of dressing my truth appeals to me.  I struggle to find that balance between fulfilling my needs and offending people.  If someone volunteers to do something and does it badly, do I speak or silently fix the mess?  The person who clutches my arm and tries to drag me over the curb grimaces if I work myself out of the grip which rocks me off what passes for my balance.  My explanations sound feeble.  I’ve danced this number so many times over the years.  Here, let me.  No, really, it’s easier if I —  No, no, it’s okay, let me.

Then I struggle to keep on  my feet while the good Samaritan drags me at a faster pace than my synapses can fire or my muscles can regroup.  I grit my teeth and tell myself, It’s just a few steps, don’t say anything and whatever you do, don’t you DARE fall.

Or:  I shake off the hand which really isn’t helping, and try to redirect the person to something that might actually benefit me and ease the task of ambulation.  Here, take my handbag.   I guide the offered arm to a position at which I can actually avail myself of its strength.  But offense still settles on the person’s face more often than not.  I see it, then I hear it:

I was just trying to help!

If it doesn’t help, is it help?  And if it doesn’t help, should you let the attempt proceed until you manage to get safely to the other side of the highway despite that help?

It’s not just walking which affords a chance for this tense encounter, but the quandary confronting me in that setting illustrates the problem.  People step forward with all kinds of offers — discounts, cheaper rates, carry groceries, come by to do chores.  My ambivalence stems from experiences in the past where I’ve spent more time and money dealing with the aftermath of failed appearances, misguided methods, and the inevitable resentment when the task at hand proves more difficult than the price bid.  Let me help you, I have a friend who will do that for half-price, translates to, They’ll bid it cheap for me and then do a shoddy job.  

If it doesn’t help, is it help?  Is it only the thought that counts?  Is outcome irrelevant?

And what about my longing to try to take care of myself?  What if I just want help when I want help and not when I don’t want help?  Am I allowed to set limits?  Or can I only accept blindly, regardless of my fears as to the dubious result?  If it doesn’t help, is it help?  Kapish?

At Pigeon Point last month, I walked to the Point with two Park volunteers, husband and wife.  Ken and Gayle.  We went to see the whales.  Gayle said, Let me know if I can do anything to make it easier for you.  I stopped beside her and smiled.  I will, I replied.  And you do the same.  Then we continued down the steps and stood beside her grinning husband, taking the binoculars, joining the other tourists at the wondrous running of the humpbacks.  She took no offense at my decision to pick across the boards as capably as I could without clinging to her arm.  As for myself, I relaxed a bit, knowing that she walked beside me, ready to hold her body out for my lily white spastic hand to grab, should I stumble.

As the spray kissed our faces in the early morning air off the coast of the Pacific, I murmured a few lines of Sara Teasdale.  What was that? Gayle asked.  I tried to find all of the words.  Failing, I started scrolling on the browser of my phone, despite the weak signal.  When I finally found the poem, I asked, Shall I read it?  Gayle signaled that she’d like that, motioning her husband over so he could hear.  Then I read the lovely, lilting verses which Sara Teasdale wrote about the world after we exit from it.

When I had finished, the three of us stood there, not speaking, as the tourists scrambled to the rail.  The truth of my life gelled in that moment, stripped of all pretense, standing at the edge of everything.  Finally the laughter of a small child broke the  silence.  We shook ourselves, smiled at one another, and parted, I returned to the kitchen at the Dolphin house, wrapped in the intoxication of my own truth, which somehow came to me in the fragile moment between Gayle’s offer of help and my declination.

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


Pain Scale: Reprisal

I read an article yesterday called “My Tired is Not Your Tired”, written by a woman with MS.  I get her point.  Chronic pain and chronic illness cause a level of fatigue in and of themselves which cannot be compared with “normal” fatigue.  Putting aside the neurologically based enhanced fatigue, the exhaustion of dealing with physical impairment and constant illness sends us reeling.

I thought of this article last night with enormous ambivalence.

I had spent twelve hours cleaning my house, which I would not have had to do had I not spent three years in a state of denial about my sadness; and several decades avoiding confronting my overall emotional decrepitude.  I get that.  Had I been in a better, more stable frame of mine, I would not have let my house get so dirty.  But:  I had just paid to have it “deep-cleaned”.  I paid the sum asked.  I expected the bid to be higher but I paid the bid without question and the check got handed over to the cleaner while I was out of town.

I’m not angry with the person who arranged the cleaning.  In fact, though I’m perturbed at the cleaner for doing an inadequate job, I take full responsibility.  I conceded control to others, and not in the thoughtful way of appropriate delegation.  Rather, I abdicated.  I threw my head and my hands into the air and said:  I can’t do this!  Somebody else take over!

So, if we assign blame, let it be assigned to me.  As JD would say:  I accept full responsibility.  You tell me how bad you want me to feel, and I’ll let you know when I get there.

I don’t think  that the assignment of blame helps.  I know I might seem to be blaming others from time to time.  Beneath the surface, though, I strive to look instead for solutions.  So I strive to let go of irritation and see beyond the moment.  I knuckle down. I pull on the yellow Playtex gloves, fill the bucket, and tackle the grit and grime.

In the resultant state of collapse, I thought again of the woman who proclaimed that her fatigue did not relate to that of other, “normal” people.  I get that.  But I also rebel against it.  I want my pain and my fatigue to be recognized as normal.  Maybe not for you.  But for me.  Normal and worthy of being taken into consideration.  By me.  By you.  It does not make me defective.  It’s just a fact of my reality.  I should not have to knock myself silly to prove a point to anyone, much less to prove that I’m worthy of respect, or admiration, or consideration.  Or love.

I lay on my bed with my face to the window thinking of this turn of affairs:  My emotional decline, and my confrontation with that condition.  I used to believe that my body could fail me but my disposition and my intellect would compensate for my physical shortcomings.  Now I see that to have been untrue.  I strained to be considered “normal” and ignored the definition of my normal, which needed different strategies than the “normal” of other people.

I tried to sleep.  I pushed all these notions to the background.  I opened my mind to calm.

My feet dangled off the side of the bed out of necessity.  My physiology no longer tolerates twelve hours of manual labor.  Every muscle cramped.  Every nerve screamed.  My hair hurt.  My fingers swelled and my lungs heaved with the specific, tragic torture that only chemicals induce in asthmatics.  My legs could not tolerate the pressure of resting on the mattress.   I would wake, repeatedly, throughout the night.  Once I woke myself with the rising volume of my sobs.

I have not suffered a night like that in several years.  Worse than enduring the agony was knowing that I brought it on myself by turning a blind eye to my surroundings for at least the last three years.

I’m not complaining.

The moon sent her softest beams to soothe me.  I can’t say this won’t hurt, she whispered.  We both know it will.  I can only promise that you will not die of this.  No other pain has killed you, nor shall this pain.  I’ll see you through.

And so she did.  I awakened, just before dawn, lying with my face still lifted to the caress of the watching midnight orb.

I can’t relate to most pain scales.  I can’t remember the time before my initial illness, which occurred at age eighteen months.  “Zero” has no relevance.  “Ten” equates to be running over by a car, or watching my mother’s long, slow death of cancer knowing that I would never, ever handle that much pain with a fraction of her grace.  But whatever the number you want to assign to the pain which I experienced last night, add this:  I survived.

It’s the second day of the forty-what?  Sixth?  month of My Year Without Complaining.  I’m still here.  Life continues.