Monthly Archives: February 2018

No Complaints Today. Nada. Zip. Zilch.

While I stared at a giggling Stanford cardiologist twirling a wheeled office chair as he opined that I could take my heart medicine or not, as I determined, a nineteen-year-old with a legally purchased semi-automatic AR-15 massacred seventeen people in a Florida school.

I learned of the latest shootings while I rested at a Denny’s in Antioch, California.  I had gotten within 35 miles of home and been unable to go another moment without a restroom and a hot cup of coffee.  My son the writer told me about it.  I asked how his day had been, knowing he’d been facing a deadline.  Fine, except for yet another shooting.  I asked what he meant, and he told me, while my coffee cooled and the eggs sat unnoticed in front of me.

I know suffering is not a competitition, but the doctor’s lack of clarity on the issue of whether or not I need the two medications prescribed by my Missouri cardiologist suddenly seemed inconsequential.  (Do I need these drugs or not, I had asked.  He shrugged.  Maybe, maybe not.  Today’s EKG is normal.  I pried further, Because of the medicine or because nothing is wrong?  Another shrug.   I studied his face.  One or the other, was the unsurprising response. )

But my heart still beats.  My blood, thinned by Warfarin, rushes through my veins, flooding my limbs, feeding a brain which still crackles with electricity however imperfectly.  The fluttering in my chest, unexplained and mysterious, still wakes me in the night.

And this:  Unlike the sons and daughters lying in a morgue in Florida, my son still breathes at the other end of the telephone, in a one-bedroom walk-up in Evanston, Illinois.

So:  Here’s the weather report in Isleton, California, at Park Delta Bay:  Nothing about which to complain.  Nada, zip, zilch.  

It’s the fifteenth day of the fiftieth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Wonders to behold

I have huddled on the edges of mountain cliffs and stood high above the ocean while a frigid wind beat against my body. I have cast weary eyes on the face of my newborn son.  Many wonders exist in the world, a fraction of which I have beheld.

But yesterday, I came around a bend in the road and braked, stunned by what I saw.  In a long wide pasture, cows grazed, their heads to the ground.  Their charcoal hides dappled the pale surface of new vegetation growing under their feet.  A large flock of geese had landed in the field, white dots interspersed among the brown bovine bodies.  As I watched, the geese bobbed their heads downward, picking for grubs and tender shoots, I suppose.  They had no objection to the massive beings wandering near them, nor did the cattle bother the fowl.

I can’t say why this struck me as beautiful but it did.  I sat in my car on the empty country road.  I wished again for a real camera.  My cell phone could not do justice to what I saw.  I reached for it anyway, stopped only by the sound of a motor, a vehicle approaching from behind me.  Reluctantly, I put my car in gear and continued onward.

I heard the owl outside my house as I settled for the night, a polite sentry or a shrewd hunter, depending on your view.  His night-time call tells me that he has no concern about the tin boxes scattered across the park holding humans who think themselves in charge of their land.  I put out my light but he kept calling, in a language too old for me to comprehend.  I took comfort from his song, whether or not I should.

It’s the fourteenth day of the fiftieth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.



Taking the ups with the downs

I admit it: I get blue.  A few of my friends who’ve gotten emails from me this week can testify.

But then, this happens:  Yet another problem with the build of Angel’s Haven asserts itself into my day, and several Park Delta Bay residents rally to diagnose the problem and offer solutions.  As the last of them exits into the dark of a cool California night, a smile dawns on my face.

Yes, I understand: those emails constitute rank complaint and back-sliding.  They dripped with castigation of people who treated me poorly.  (I utter these words and Marshall Rosenberg spins in his grave.)  Let me try again:  Those e-mails represent a tragic expression of an unmet need.

What need?  Mine: To be cherished.  In the face of yet another round of people who chose instead to decline a chance to cherish me, I railed on people whom I believe actually do.  Once more, she utters that timeless lament:  Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

I could avoid this, by disdaining any quest for happiness.  If I lived life on a flat-line, there would be no chance for pleasure but also, no possibility of pain.

I’ll chance meeting people who will reject me, against the certain knowledge that my friends love me, that there are brilliant sunsets and fabulous vistas, of the heart as well as on land.  I embrace joy, even knowing that if I crash, as I did earlier this week,  I’ll suffer overwhelming heartache.  If knowing joy means keenly feeling its absence, the risk seems worthwhile to me.

Perhaps those who received the letters which I penned in self-pity would prefer that I keep my anguish to myself.  And yet, somehow, when those emotions threaten to destroy me, I need to talk about it.  I’d listen for them and have, for them and others.  It’s what we do.   However, this journey forces me to re-evaluate my tendency to wallow in lament.  I’m getting better at recovering from relapse.  I hope my friends forgive the occasional misstep.  

I don’t really think we pay a price for joy.  Sadness has its own origins.  But even if I’m wrong, I’ll endure whatever trials come my way, if doing so helps insure the triumphs. I’ll take the downs with the ups.

It’s the thirteenth day of the fiftieth month of My Year Without Complaining.  My clumsy life continues.

The nanosecond between perfection and ruin

It’s six thirty, PST.  I stand at my three-burner propane stove, watching the yellow-tipped flames and idly remembering that the builder hasn’t responded to my query about the gas orifices.  I let the unpleasant thought pass, and reach for the butter.

The fat spreads.  I tilt the eggs into the pan with one hand while the other lowers the lever on the toaster.  Two halves of a gluten-free English muffin slide down to the burners.  Taking the spatula in hand, I keep one eye on the eggs.  There will be a precise moment to start pushing the unctuousness, folding it over and over until it becomes a billowy pile of silk.

The toaster snaps and I push the lever again.  It takes 1-1/2 cycles to get the muffins to the shade of brownness that I prefer, with crispness on the outside and softness beneath the surface.  Again and again I turn the eggs.  I lower the heat and push cancel on the toaster.  Suddenly, the stars align.  My breakfast comes together, as close to perfection as humanly attainable.

As I set my plate on the table, the dappled expanse of cloud over the neighboring trailer catches my eye.  I sit, lifting my fork to spread the luxurious yellow mass over the bread.  Sometimes I don’t get it right.  There’s a nanosecond between eggs done precisely this way, and eggs which in days gone by would get fed to the dog. I flash on other, recent failures and pause. Then I shake my head, pushing aside thoughts of egg as metaphor.  I raise my mug and savor the first sip of coffee.  A universal cure-all, this is — dusky coffee brewed from freshly ground beans, soft-scrambled eggs in real butter, and the sight of sunrise over the Caliornia Delta through the wide window of Angel’s Haven.

It’s the twelfth day of the fiftieth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Time it was, oh what a time it was

In a room full of writers, I found myself at the right table by complete accident.

I asked the person who had welcomed me to the monthly meeting of the California Writers’ Club, Mt. Diablo branch, if it mattered where I sat.  I have a passing ability to augment my poor hearing with sight-reading so I wanted a clear view of the Beat-generation poet who would be speaking.  She sat me at Table 1.

Oh my, what a delight!  The guest speaker and his agent did not do much for me, but three irreverent ladies surrounding me tested my ability to control my obnoxious and inherited uncontrollable giggle.  One, a librarian and poet, played WordsWithFriends under the table while shouting answers to rhetorical questions to the mild dismay of the guest speaker.  She wasn’t senile; she was just a seventy-year-old Board member with a wickedly detailed knowledge of all the names that dropped from the podium.

On  my right, another Board member sketched everybody at the table, with her left hand.  A heavy diamond flashed with each stroke of the pen.  I watched the caricatures emerge, stunningly accurate.  I whispered, You’re quite good, and she lifted one elegantly casual shoulder in a shrug.  Beyond her, another woman drew circles on the program around the speaker’s announced topic, from which he strayed in the first five minutes and to which he never returned.

I dashed away at the end, intent on meeting Kimberley and her lovely daughter Sarah in Walnut Creek for tea. But what a time it was!  I heard stories of writers whose poetry I’ve read and whose lives set the tone for the sixties, along with first-hand accounts of readings at Berkeley and U-Chicago.  All the while, women ten years older and light-years more confident than I am kept my funny bone tickled with their sotto voce commentary.

When I got back to Angel’s Haven, someone had planted two pink flamingos on my doorstep with an unsigned note indicating that I should keep them for a few days, then surprise someone else by secretly installing them at a neighbor’s stoop.  What fun, I thought, feeling thankful, once again, that I’d taken my gloomy old self to Northern California, an attitude which persisted notwithstanding the pile of problems which awaited me in the morning light.

It’s the eleventh day of the fiftieth month of My Year Without Complaining.  I’m still here.  Life continues.

Paul Simon: Bookends

Still Here

Kimberley calls and says, how are you girlfriend, and I say, “I’m still here.”

She says, We both are, and then a few seconds of silence pass before we continue talking.

It’s true; we both persist; we both push through; we both continue despite the challenges we face.

Night settles around Angel’s Haven.  The week has been difficult. I’m trying to find a job, make friends, figure out what to do about the rest of my belongings in Kansas City, and power through a fierce loneliness. Some days I don’t dare answer the phone because I don’t trust myself to speak without sobbing.

Tonight I am remembering a lawsuit in which I served as local counsel years ago, a case involving many attorneys from towns across Missouri.  At one point, a lawyer in St. Louis raged at me during a conference call.  He shouted, “I’m filing a motion for sanctions against you, Ms. Corley!”  I blasted back:  Sir, I’ve been shot at, run over, raped, robbed, and nearly died.  I think I can handle a motion for sanctions.

All of those trials occurred though technically, I was not “run over” by a car but, rather, struck on the left side by one.    An old story, a told story, a story noteworthy only because I survived.  And because it occurred on 09 February 1982 — thirty-six years ago today.

I feel lucky most of the time.  Blessed, even.  I drag myself out of bed, I stretch my aging bones, I wiggle my arthritic toes.  When the kettle boils, I pour water over grounds and close my eyes, breathing the scent of the rich roasted beans.  Even now, with a belly full of warm herb tea and a tiny lemon cookie, my senses tingle deliciously.

I’m still here.

I know I’m not a lot of things.  Not pretty enough; not tall enough; not small enough; not rich enough; not sweet enough.  I don’t say “thank you” often enough; I cry too easily; I groan too loud when I stumble on the stairs and drop the recycling or break a plate.  Technology befuddles me.  I can’t balance a budget.  I obsess, overthink, forget birthdays, and for the life of me, I cannot figure out how to remain calm in the face of indifference.  Men find me abrasive; women consider me cold.  I don’t have a sweet nature and I have it on excellent authority that I’m not “nice”.

But I’m still here.

My mother came down to my apartment in St. Louis to help me during an illness once.  I stood in the kitchen with tears on my face, in a rumpled nightgown, watching her clean my counters and put away dishes.  She simmered soup and bagged laundry to take out to Jennings to wash in her basement.  I buried my face in my hands, wailing about how much of a failure I felt myself to be.

She turned, gazing at me, holding a dish cloth in her hands.  Finally she spoke.   But you’re still alive, she reminded me.  So there’s room for improvement.  

Just so.  Just so.

It’s the ninth day of the fiftieth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

Changing Perspective; or, Through Squinted Eyes

These days, a pair of glasses costs me about $900 and lasts approximately six months. . . or less.  That has been true for several years.  Sometimes my vision changes between fitting and finish.  I’ve had glasses re-made multiple times due to the complete inability to get the prescription right despite the fact that I see some amazing specialists.

There is no point in doing surgery, not even for the growing cataracts, at least, not yet; nothing will get me to the point at which my sight provides a consistent, clear image even corrected.  I can see well enough to drive though not necessarily at night, in the rain, or when fatigue overtakes me.  Then I stay home, curl in a rocker with my tablet, and contemplate life.

The glasses that I’m currently wearing resulted from the collective wisdom of two different opthalmologists who disagreed both on what ails my eyes and how to address the malady.  I rolled the dice and went with the recommendations which came last, from a fancy, can’t-recall-his-area-of-(laugh line)-focus young guy at Children’s Mercy South in Overland Park.  How could I not follow the advice of a man half my age who sees adults in a clinic at a children’s hospital?

Two months later, I’m squinting again, pulling the frames from my face and peering through squeezed slits at the computer. I can still see to drive but I can’t quite make out my speedometer or the navigation panel on the dashboard.  I can read street signs, speed limits, and the license plates of the vehicles in front of me.  I can’t read without taking off the spectacles and pushing the book to my nose.  I can still see the stove but not the directions in the cookbook — not without using my bare face pressed to the page.

I’m safe to drive, people; but not to type.  Funny thing, for a writer.  So I put the laptop on a pulled-out drawer and lean down to its dimmed surface. I can see the words from that perspective.

Did the Republicans leave us a deduction for prescriptions?  Because at a grand a pop, I’ll need two this year, I reckon.

But I’m not complaining.  As I ruminate from the second floor of my tiny house, I hear again the sound of my twelve-year old, as I navigated the Blazer through the Needle’s Eye at Custer State Park.  When the car behind us repeatedly honked, Patrick rolled down the window, leaned out, and hollered, “Back off, buddy, our driver only has one eye!’  The guy came to a dead stop and let us proceed through the stunning rock formation.  An eye for an eye.

It’s the seventh day of the fiftieth month of My Year Without complaining.  Life continues.


A walk along the gravel

It’s a young person’s game, this walking, this talking, this commingling with people at card tables and over paper plates.  I step out onto the road nonetheless and slowly make my way to the rec room, carrying a plastic bag in which I’ve carefully stowed containers of hummus and vegetables along with a bag of pre-made pita chips.

In the wide expanse of the game room provided by the park, the manager organizes people bringing food.  An unassuming man whom I later find out owns the place rolls a cooler filled with water and soda to a spot in front of a covered pool table.  He goes out again and I say to the manager, What are you drinking? and she laughs.  Vodka and cranberry juice, she admits. I’m off-duty.  I smile.  It’s a good drink, one which I have allowed myself to enjoy a few times at Rotary meetings.  Drinking, too, is for the younger set.  Younger than me, with better bones and stronger stomachs.

Someone sets up YouTube television and we hear the band start.  Everybody clusters near the screen, murmuring about whether the windows should be covered, who’s bringing wings, will more people show.  I hold one end of a sheet that a couple of folks decide to tape over the broad expanse of the nearest window.  The man with the tape thanks me as though I’ve done something tremendous, but in a gentle voice which keeps what he says from sounding fake.

Then we all stop moving as Pink sings the national anthem.  We all look reverent, gazing at the television.  I cover my heart with one hand.  Somebody standing fairly close to me smiles and does the same.  I don’t think he would have otherwise but not in any kind of protest; more because he’s juggling a can and a plate full of food.

An hour later, I’ve drunk a bottle of water and eaten two squares of cheese.  I see that my house-made hummus has gotten a bit of play.  I worked hard on it.  I had to drive into Rio at 9:00 a.m. because my jar of tahini had mysteriously disappeared in the world’s smallest kitchen.  I made the stuff in three batches, using the little food processor that I bought for five bucks a hundred years ago in Arkansas.  I tell myself, for the hundredth time, that I got my money’s worth.

I leave at half-time, thanking everybody for a lovely party, walking down the gravel road towards my tiny house.  I see my neighbor Paul standing by his car.  A new couple, the folks in the Air Stream, are out for a walk and I introduce them to Paul.  I think to myself that Paul and his wife are about the age of this couple, whom I met and with whom I talked at the rec room.  They’re liberal, those too; the man has a Human Rights Coalition sticker on his water bottle.  I felt comfortable talking with them.  But then:  Everybody here has been so welcoming. Politics don’t seem to really matter much here at Park Delta Bay.

As the sun sets, I tell myself, this place feels like home.  I shake my head a little and think, Or something like it.  Then I go inside to make dinner, hearing the crunch of tires as one by one the park residents make their way back for the night.

When I awakened this morning, I instantly knew that it will be another beautiful day.  I smiled, rose, and crossed the room to open the front door.  I stood looking at the play of fog on the gravel road.  By and by, I put a kettle on for coffee — just as I would have anywhere, in Kansas City, in Winslow, in Jasper, in St. Louis.  It’s even the same kettle.  Some things never change.

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


From Home:

Top shelf: The little rain-stick that my son got at the Ren Fest two decades ago; and a butter press that belonged to my mother (flanking the speaker)

Middle shelf: A framed Anne Gedes from my sister-in-law Tracy Brady; a Colorado bell from Katrina Taggart; and a For Every Season rendering from my sister Joyce

Bottom Shelf: The Russian doll from Alan White and Lisa Bailey — missing the littlest one, thanks to a house-sitter who liked to take them apart; and a bowl from my parents-in-laws’ house which reminds me of them every time I see it



With single-minded focus

I’m a shameless purveyor of lessons learned by eavesdropping.

A few days ago,  I sat in a coffee shop and heard a young man on the phone with his mother, prompting me to send a note to a friend whose son, of the same name as the boy in the store, died several years ago. Later, two women sat at the bar above me sharing a dessert.  Neither weighed more than a hundred pounds; either could probably stand to have eaten a whole portion.  Nevertheless, they took delicate bites from opposite sides of the same small treat and gossiped while I kept an ear turned to their conversation.

One said, She gets so wrapped up in everything.  The other nodded.  Yeah, I know.  I mean, she takes single-minded focus to new heights.

Just like that, time tore my heart back to the sight of my mother sitting beside a hospital bed.  Under an oxygen tent on that bed, her own mother’s chest rose and fell, struggling for air.  My mother’s eyes kept downward, to an embroidery hoop in her lap.  She pulled each stitch through with extraordinary care.  Once in a while, she dropped the work into a bag next to her chair.  She’d stand, lean over my grandmother, and study her face.  She’d whisper, Hang on, hang on, hang on.  Then she’d fall back, pick up the fabric in its metal hoop, and continue where she had stopped.

After my mother died, years later, I found the piece in a drawer of her vanity still in its hoop.  I opened the hoop, slid the fabric out, and studied my mother’s stitches.  Then I steamed and framed it.  It’s been with me ever since.  It hangs here at Angel’s Haven.  You can still see the mar left by the hoop.  It reminds me of my mother, sitting at my grandmother’s side for hours on end, willing her to live.

It took only a few minutes for me to  recall another time when I witnessed such single-minded focus.

In 1981, Bradley Boan marched into Kansas University Medical Center’s emergency room, murdered a patient’s mother and a doctor, and fled.   The jarring sound of shotgun blasts drove everyone else present into rooms, under counters, behind walls, and beneath chairs.

In a treatment room, a group of us huddled where the SWAT team had directed us to hide while they completed their search.  On one side of the room, my friend Joyce and I helped a young mother calm her baby.  I fiddled with the bracelet bearing my name and date of birth, straining against the pain in my side which had brought me to the ER that night.  Across from me, a man in a white lab coat sat on the floor with his back against a wall.  He balanced a chart on his knees, clutching a pen in his left hand.  I watched as he wrote, presumably recording treatment, possibly mine.  He’d finish one chart, put it on his right, and lift another from a pile on the left.

The entire time, tears streamed down his cheeks.  He seemed unaware of them, steadfastly doing his job notwithstanding his certain knowledge that a colleague’s body lay under a blood-stained sheet just a few feet away.

I finished my coffee and left the shop before any of the people whose conversations had intrigued me.  As I drove from Lodi back to the Delta Loop on which I live, swans, cranes, and geese flew overhead, flocks on migratory trips.  They spend time in the marshes on the islands of the Loop.  They return each year.  I’m told one particular crane regularly  lands on the marina across from my park.  He studies the diners on the deck.  No one bothers the bird, and eventually, he resumes his journey.  He comes back every year, staring at those who dine outside, not bothering anyone, just watching while he rests.   When I hear this story, I cannot suppress my unexpected envy and admiration for that crane’s persistence, however instinctive it might be.

It’s the fourth day of the fiftieth month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.


It’s Complicated

Every time I wake to the low fog hanging over the creek, I know that I have chosen the perfect place to  live.  I rise to look through the big window, watching the sun glint off the wisps clinging to the willow.  This could not be more enchanting.  As the morning progresses, the fog will diminish until nothing remains but the promise of its return.  Dappled shadows will dance on the meadow, broken only by the occasional flit of a tail as some critter makes its way to the trickle of water lying below the bank.

The water which I pour through the filter drips over grinds to make the mild coffee that I enjoy in the morning.  In a little while, I will scramble eggs, chiding myself for my massive butter consumption.  But my scolding means nothing.  I have no problem with butter, nor with eggs, nor with the puckering sourness of the grapefruit which I scoot from a jar into a little Italian dish that once hung on my mother-in-law’s wall in Leawood.

I break my fast at the cherry table.  Sheldon crafted this table from a tree which fell in their yard.  As I touch its surface, I remember the unmailed birthday gift for Paula and idly wonder where I put the card which I bought for her and hauled back from Kansas City.  I think about the three hours spent online job-hunting last night; and the shakes which my legs endured as a punishment for the delicious apple fritter from the Rio Vista bakery.  My friend Melissa has had to abandon white sugar.  I strive to do so but my black moods push me to crave it.  I take another sip of coffee and forgive my backslide.

On the nearby shelf, I see the first little angel which I collected so many years ago.  She’s actually a fairy, I think; and she holds a star.  Under her, the word HOPE has been carved into the tree stump on which she sits.  Her lavender dress cascades over thin  legs.  She wears a sweet smile. Her eyes slightly cross,over a pointed nose.  She cheers me.

I do not doubt that the sun will find its way to the pinnacle of the sky and glow for hours.  I’ll drive to Lodi to buy some stepping stones and the grey mid-century shelf which I found at Secondhand Rose.  I’m still getting situated, here at Angel’s Haven. I ordered the jacks which I need to level the house and keep the tires from rotting.  The cabinet will go in the bathroom instead of some metal thing from  Home Depot.  I’ll move the heart mirror to another spot, one where my old eyes can actually see its contoured surface.  Not that I care how I look; not that anyone else cares.  But still — now and then, I at least need to be presentable.  I have an ambivalent relationship with mirrors. What can I say? It’s complicated.

The stepping stones will help me navigate the ground from the porch to my car.  The path needs grass; but until spring, the stones will keep my feet steady, my pace sure.  Or as sure as lily-white spastic feet can be.  That’s the goal, anyway.  Always.  Steady.  Sure.  Moving forward.

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