Saturday, January 30, 2010

Saturday Musings, 30 January 2010

Good morning,

There are quiet moments when I think that I can hear my bones speaking to me, or perhaps, it is the voice in my head that measures the passing of my days. I shake my muscles and throw back my head, stretching, pushing for the depth of my strength, reaching for the limits that my muscles can endure. In the stark chill of an early morning rising, I bend, striving without success to lower my fingertips within whisper distance of my toes. I am content to reach my ankles and feel the strong pull of the reach against the muscles of my calves.

In the bite of wind on a Kansas soccer field, I watched a young man defend his goal last Sunday. He dove, as the goalie must; and at times he made the save, his lean arms snagging the ball, his sturdy, taut body sending it flying back into the field of play. I stood on the sidelines with his father, and on the playground, beyond another field, his brothers sent a merry-go-round on its endless flight. The goalie's father glanced backwards from time to time, checking on the little boys, then reverting his gaze to the game. A bungled play drew a soft, under-spoken word of encouragement; a clean save triggered a volley of praise into the cold winter air.

Afterward, we walked back to the cars, the tall father and the nearly-as-tall son at the front, the cheerful little boys coming next, kicking their soccer balls across the concrete walkway, and I a distant pace behind them. My muscles protested the hour spent in an inadequate coat without gloves, my hands stiff, my feet, in their cotton socks and low shoes, already starting to ache. I hugged them each, and watched as an earnest father and his happy sons rambled into their van, and kept watching, as the van made its way out of the soccer park and onward, to St. Louis, to their home.

A day later, I sat with another father in my conference room. This one had never lived with his children. On his own since age 17, once noted by the local paper as a teenager fighting to raise himself up from poverty and degradation, this father of two had come to me to help secure his rights to time with children whose mother had never disclosed their existence to him until she wanted child support. In front of me at the wide, round oak table, he nodded quietly as I explained an upcoming court procedure. Blue-tooth shoved in one ear, sincerity spread across his wide features, he narrowed his eyes and raised one hand as though to snag my words from the stale atmosphere of the office suite. "But when can I see my son?" he asked. "It's my daughter's birthday soon -- can I give her presents to her?" I met his gaze, then shifted mine away. I could not yet answer his questions. I stared instead out the window, at the billboard advertising a music release six months ago. I shook my head, feeling the high note of the stiffness born of age in my left shoulder. We finished our conversation and I placed my small, pale hand in his large dark clasp. "Don't give up," I managed. His nod did not reassure either of us.

The next day, I watched as a friend absently played with a tattered white scarf around his neck. "That scarf is too short," I told him, in the poorly heated old house on 39th street, where young Java barristas wear thrift-store fashions of my own youth and play too-loud cuts of 21st century rock. My friend shook his sturdy head of short, white hair and bent his lean old frame to confide that he had plenty of warmer scarfs, but this was the first scarf knitted by his youngest daughter. His long, rough fingers caressed the knobby surface of the tattered work, and I pictured the vibrant high-spirited filly that had sprouted from a sincere, intent child bent over knitting needles, struggling with each purl, each knit, each turn. My friend raised his head and our eyes met. "It's a lovely scarf," I admitted, as he pulled it around his neck and tucked its short length into his old wool topcoat.

Still later in the week, at my computer, in the still of my office, I traded messages with my son, eight hours to the east,as he struggled to re-write a short-story for the final assignment in his January-term English literature class. "What about this concept," he would ask, in the modern way we have of talking, words in a white window with its blue border, prefaced by pale notations -- "Patrick is typing. . . Patrick has entered text." That night, he sent version after version, each one with an added paragraph or a careful edit. "That's clever. . .that's maybe trite. . .re-consider that last" I would message, in the window at the lower right hand corner of the flat screen monitor on my desk, in the breakfast nook from which I have been addressing the virtual word for the last decade. On delivery of the completed story, the last punch of drama still resonating in the pit of my stomach: "Oh Buddy -- this is really, really good." Silence followed, ten or fifteen painful seconds of it, while the window told me nothing of what he thought, what he might say, until finally the pale notation -- "Patrick is typing. . ." preceded his simple reply: "Thanks, Ma."

My best efforts, the push of my years of experience, have not managed to orchestrate a parenting session for the father desperately wanting to connect with a ten-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter. Not yet, not yet, I tell myself, But it will happen. My last act on Friday was to schedule a teleconference for Monday afternoon, with the guardian ad litem and the mother's lawyer, to confront her perpetual excuses for why she cannot bring the children to even a supervised visitation. As I terminate the call, I am reminded of my walk down that cold sidewalk last Sunday, and the sight of a father's arm briefly resting on the shoulder of a son of whom he is enormously proud. I remember my brother's quiet insistence that his youngest son finish one more spoonful of soup, at Panera's on 135th and Metcalf, earlier that day, and the long, slow look of child to father, measuring the sincerity of his father's words. My nephew took that last bite, and his reward came in the form of a hug from his father, and a tall cup of hot chocolate, which I later carried for him across the remnants of snow beside our cars, holding it as it grew cold, raising it to demonstrate that it still awaited him each time he glanced my way -- until we finally discarded it in the trash can next to the soccer field, just before my brother and three of his sons said goodbye and began their four-hour trip back out of my life.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Saturday Musings, 23 January 2010

Good morning,

Once again, I have awakened in the gathering light with a sense of thankfulness. Lying on flannel sheets, beneath a pitched, knotty-pine-paneled ceiling, a wide bank of windows surrounding me and the warm air from my furnace filling the room with gentle comfort, I drift in a haze of pre-consciousness. As I slowly shake away the grip of sleep, I sense the reassuring, familiar noises of the 1542 square feet that I call home. On the first floor, the dog snuffles at the closed door to my sanctuary; the boycat mewls in the television room beside his empty dish. I slide from beneath my mother's Ohio Star quilt and slip into a cotton robe, pulling a clip into my hair and pushing my glasses onto my face. With a flick, the stairwell is illuminated, and I trudge, tipping a bit to the side to brace myself against the rail, down to the kitchen, where I am soon rewarded by the strong scent of ground Arabic beans, and the steam of water hissing from the coffee-maker's mechanism into the pot.

My Friday has been spent as my Fridays often are: a brief court appearance, then back to the office to force myself to do some much-needed paperwork, which I abandoned before noon. I garnered a pleasant several hours with my artist friend Penny Thieme and her charge-of-the-day, a brilliant, beautiful nine-year-old whom I call Hanna Banana. We filled and re-filled our cups with Fair Trade coffee from Revocup, and I feasted on curry chicken salad, while at a high table behind us, Hanna ate a blueberry muffin and wrote a short story about an orphan who is curious about her parents' origins. The cafe slowly filled with the twenty-first century sound of clicking keys and low, murmured conversation seemingly thrown into the air, but really tendered to the flickering blue of the earpieces magically communicating to distant companions through small, flat rectangular objects innocently sitting beside mugs of cappuccino. Nibbling on one side of Alice's mushroom, the world grows smaller.

Later, standing in an Italian deli after seeing an early movie, I felt my stiffened legs shudder, and found that I could barely manage to take so much as one step. This phenomenon has plagued me for years, the result of more decades of spasticity than doctors believed my body would be able to endure. The funny thing about spasticity and me centers around our symbiosis: I cannot take an anti-spasmodic, because my condition, curiously, deprives me of the ability to strengthen myself sufficiently to stand. That is to say, my spasticity keeps me vertical.

The server placed my spinach salad on the table, and my companion brought water, silverware and napkins. As he quietly began to enjoy his pasta, glancing at me from time to time with the look that I have come to associate with gracious hesitance, the woman behind him caught my attention.

I first noticed her hands. Long, bent and blemished, one held a knife while the other attempted to manipulate a fork. I lifted my eyes to her face, seeing a fine bead of sweat across her brow, beneath the carefully curled hair. Her eyes, half-closed, focused on the food in front of her, the piece of pizza that she strove to cut. As I watched, a section of crust skittered off her plate, landing on the floor behind my companion. I quickly averted my eyes, hoping to avoid embarrassing the woman as she bent over to retrieve it.

My dinner companion noticed that I had not begun to eat. Is something wrong, he asked, though he knew that I felt poorly and might have assumed that my pain prevented me from enjoying my dinner. No, I told him. I was just watching the lady behind you, she seemed to be having dexterity issues, and I was sympathizing.

I met his gaze. I cannot, with certainty, say what he thought at that moment. A connection flowed from me, to him, to the elderly, awkward diner behind us, and back, full circle. His compassion for me, for the predicament with which I have learned to live but which sometimes overwhelms me, inspired my compassion for her, for the strong young woman whom she doubtless once was, who still lives in the straight back, the deliberate hairstyle, the impeccable clothing. As I cut my pickled beets, and the tender, seasoned grilled chicken, I found my pain to be not less, but less bothersome.

And, then, today, in the quiet of my morning home, freshly brewed coffee within reach, I opened an e-mail from a friend, and read about his own reckoning, in a situation where he stood with a group of financially secure individuals and gazed upon a panhandling poor person. Caught between their self-righteous snickers and the mournful entreaty of the man on the corner, as he and his group crossed, my friend faced a choice: give, or don't give. I can only guess at his decision, because he told me the story and then admonished me: If you are faced with such a choice, please, throw a few dollars in the hands of the beggar. He did not tell me if he had done so. Rather, he noted -- If I did, and I tell you, I am bragging; if I didn't, and I tell you, I am a hypocrite. Point taken, my friend. Point taken. Another nibble, and the world shrinks again.

The blower's noise rises and the house grows even warmer. The grey of the morning sky has deepened, but I cannot tell if it will snow or rain. The earth of my county remains solid; I do not feel the hard rumble of after-shocks, the walls of my home have not suffered from relentless and insistent shifting of the ground beneath them. The cat sleeps in front of the grate, basking in the heat which emanates from it, oblivious to his impending appointment for shots. I am comfortable, in my house, in Brookside, with its poorly installed vinyl kitchen floor, its chipped door frames, and its hopelessly stained hardwood. In a few minutes, I will, with no small measure of reluctance, make a list of the day's chores. I will rinse the breakfast dishes, and wipe down the counters, my mind already tabulating the items on my Saturday to-do list. I'll get dressed, shove the cat in his carrier, and drive to the vet's office, where I will grouse under my breath about the cost of shots. I'll talk myself out of getting a scone at the Oak Street Bakery, and come back home, to an afternoon of laundry, and house-cleaning, and maybe a quick trip to Lawrence to learn about a grant for which Penny wants to apply.

But for now, I think I will pour another cup of coffee. I will prop my feet on the cedar chest in the television room, turn on a cooking show, and after a while, I might just fall asleep.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Saturday Musings, 16 January 2010

Good morning,

There is a slick across the cracked concrete of my porch, comprised of one part rock salt, one part melted snow, and one part accumulated dirt, the crud from the bottoms of Doc Martens, old sneakers, and the heavy, high-top workboots worn by our letter carrier, the Fed Ex man, and a few others who tramp across the slush that is our front yard. I haven't sat on my porch rocker in weeks, forced inside by influenza and the raging, persistent winter weather that lashed across Missouri and took hold of Kansas City with its gleeful, punishing grip. The snow shovel leans against the mailbox, beside the worn broom with which we doggedly clean the cars and rearrange what is left of the rotting leaves under the cruel crush of January's reluctant surrender to the leaded skies above us.

I feel the flirting promise of spring in temperatures hovering in the low 30's, ten times as warm as what we endured two weeks ago. On the coldest day of the year, I trudged out to my car despite the nauseating grip of fever, and made my way downtown to get a client divorced. With piles of snow pushed by desperately careless street workers into the handicapped parking spots near the courthouse, I chose instead the parking garage, and due to the lateness of my arrival, found myself parking on the eighth floor. Wrapped in a long wool coat two sizes too big, three scarves entwined around my neck and a bright green wool cap pulled over my barely-combed hair, I gripped my client's file between gloved-fingers and shuffled down the ramp to the elevator.

I stood under the heat lamps for five minutes before the hard slap of leather soles on the adjacent stairway penetrated the thick cloud of flu in my head. Glancing to my right, I saw a passable imitation of Nanook of the North, bearing a leather briefcase, barreling down the stairs. She flicked her eyes in my direction only long enough to break the news to me in breathless tones: "The elevator is not working," she said, and then rounded the corner, her head bobbing in dark felt, her shoulders disappearing in a descending blur of puffy down and knit.

I stood in front of the tall expanse of the double-elevator bank for another five minutes, stubborn, hopeful, weary. An hour before, I had watched my son traverse the security checkpoint at the airport, then driven through a fast-food line for steaming coffee, which I had ingested with an eagerness born of that slightly dingy state in which the newly sick can only hope to dwell, ringing ears, detached air, consciousness waiting to yield to sleep if you merely lean against the back of your car seat. I had driven straight to court tilted carefully towards the steering wheel, one glove off, gloved hand guiding the car, the other orchestrating the careful sips of hot liquid, red-rimmed eyes scanning the quiet highway. Waiting for the hopelessly frozen lift technology to rescue me, I closed my eyes and swayed, slightly, shuddering within my old camel-hair coat that provided an illusion of warmth over the pockets of cold air created by the ironic juxtaposition of my thinning body and its unaltered contours. "Come on, come on," I muttered, but the elevator did not come, and in a few moments, I followed the stream of commuters down sixteen flights.

During my first marriage, I lived for six months in Little Rock. Just outside Arkansas's capital, to its west, rising a couple of miles above the Arkansas River Valley, Pinnacle Mountain provides a novice hiking experience. Half of one trail is paved, but beyond that, the climb takes you over rocks, between brambles, steeper and steeper until you pass the point at which your effort changes from a jaunty saunter to a breathless struggle.

Half-way to the top, casual climbers who had passed us on their way to the peak did so on their way back down to the parking lot. "Don't give up!" they called over their shoulders. "It's worth it!" I tossed a smile, a word of thanks, but did not turn; my success depended on momentum, and the firm grip of my spouse's hand, and the caution that I knew he would exercise, his care evident in the slight note of worry in his voice that morning, when he had expressed gentle reservations about the wisdom of mountain climbing on lily-white, spastic legs.

The last few yards of Pinnacle Mountain's trail to the top require you to stretch your legs over boulders worn round by the winds of time. In my case, I bellied down to their cold curves, slithered and strained, and then lifted my arm to hook myself on my husband's strong hands and allow myself to be pulled to my feet. My eyes met his. He steadied my body with his arms, never letting go, never losing the lock of our gaze. He knew, with the academic knowledge of the unafraid, that the real victory lay not in my painful traverse of the two-mile path but in my decision to make the trek at all, despite my intense, life-long struggle with acrophobia.

I slowly turned away from the center of the space on top of Pinnacle Mountain, and faced outward. A warmth spread from the clenched pit of my stomach upward to my chest, to the constricted airways; downward to my feet and toes tightly curled within my shoes. My eyes did not work, at first. I trembled, my knees cratering, my body slack against Chester's strong, sturdy frame. We did not speak. In a few minutes, my vision cleared, and I beheld an endless swathe of sapphire meeting an expanse of emerald, with the crystalline river snaking through it. There were no clouds, no wind: just the mountain, and the valley, and the shimmering sky.

As my foot struck the last step on the first floor of the parking garage, and my mind wrenched itself back to 2010, I closed my eyes to savor a memory of the sweet kiss of the sun's warmth, in Arkansas, on a spring day, in another life, another century, another world. And then a hurrying body bumped against me as I pushed the heavy, cold glass of the door to Oak Street, and the fumes of the city hit me, and I heard the repeated mechanical click of the accessible walk light, mixed with the diesel roar of a passing bus.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley
Brookside, Kansas City, Missouri

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Saturday Musings, 09 January 2010

Good morning,

I cannot believe that I, the relentless stoic, have been in bed since Tuesday at 6pm when I came home from an afternoon of depositions and a morning in court. The flu that had been eroding the quality of my life and threatening my tenuous grasp on common courtesy, finally drag me so far down that I admitted I could no longer function.

Being sick provides some relief from every day life. With a stack of books at my elbow, under warm covers on the second floor, a cat asleep at my feet, I ignore the rest of the world. I can't see the laundry room; I don't know about the piles of dirty dishes; I leave the radio off.

My son returned to college on Tuesday. His last night home saw the beginning of a vicious cold snap here in Kansas City, and, coincidentally, the last gasp of the cat-hair-clogged "induction motor" of the seven-year-old furnace at the Holmes house. I last changed the filter in May at the start of the hot season; with that episode, my case of specialty filters had been depleted and come September, I could not find a new one. I called a few places, but didn't pursue it; eight-hundred dollars later, you can be sure that I am regretting my decision.

We heated two rooms with space heaters. Patrick graciously agreed to sleep in the TV room, and I pretended not to know that he secretly preferred to be where the X-Box 360 lives. After replacing the 9-volts in the smoke alarm, we each retired, closing the doors, shutting out the cats and the little Beagle. We had kept a fire burning all evening in my deep stone fireplace, and as the night gathered around us, the thermostat in the living room had registered 50. I reckoned it was 70 in the bedrooms with their raging space heaters. I damped down the fire, closed the glass doors of the fireplace, set the alarm, and crawled under the heavy black comforter in my son's bedroom.

When I awakened, the bedroom still held a burgeoning warmth. Smug, happy, I pushed back the covers and made to leave the room. Short-lived my security: A blast of frigid air overtook me in the hallway. Above the watery-eyed dog in her tattered old bed, the thermostat needle had fallen below the lowest indicated number, 40. I set the coffee to brew and awakened Patrick, who had fallen asleep without opening the couch to its bed position and huddled, his near-six-foot frame in an accordion fold, on the short love-seat under a cotton blanket, the stronger of the two space heaters set to full speed.

Patrick stumbled from the TV room, bound for the shower. I nursed a cup of coffee in the chilly dining room, having quickly dressed in the lingering heat of the bedroom now bereft of its heater which had been moved to the bathroom. A breaker switch flipped and half of the house succumbed to the overload, prompting me to scramble for a flashlight and trudge downstairs. Like its owner, my early-century bungalow protests when its nerves are stressed.

A half-hour later, my son shivered as I handed him a steaming mug half-filled with coffee, the other half being soy milk. "Is this how poor people live?" he asked, and my world spun round, clicking into sharp focus. "Yes," I told him. "It actually is." He moved back into the still-heated TV room, leaving me to the cold -- around me, through me, in me.

Patrick got to Indiana ahead of the worst weather that Kansas City has seen in several decades, which canceled schools, flights, and garbage collections. My furnace worked again by the middle of the next day, and I only had to spend one more night living in a marginal state. I had help -- several sweet sources of it -- and firewood, and an unexpected client fee that could be partly co-opted to pay for the offending part and a replacement filter. By Wednesday afternoon, my house hummed with the strong force of the newly repaired furnace, though I no longer hummed myself. I hacked, and sneezed, and moaned, and mucked about with the worst kind of self-pity that only the fierce of spirit can engender.

I'm now sipping my first cup of coffee in five days. I've lived on tea, Earl Grey, hot, plain, brewed strong from leaves in an infuser given to me for Christmas by one of my oldest friends, someone who has demonstrated a solid understanding of my nature. I've gotten online and paid my electric bill; if I can figure out Missouri Gas Energy's website, I'll pay that too. I managed to secure a continuance of Monday's trial despite the warning of opposition by the other side. Hope hovers within my grasp; I let it ease its warmth around me. I might survive. I finally slept in that heavy way that only codeine can induce, and when I awakened, this malady suddenly assumed its rightful proportions as a passing ailment not really worthy of all this hullabaloo.

Icicles still hang from my neighbors window, stark and dreadful; the walk has been cleared, and my car, but mountains of snow bank our walk and bury my bushes. I've got a lot do around the house -- laundry, year-end paperwork, that bothersome FAFSA. I feel the energy returning to my body. Ideas that have been rumbling in my brain for several days spring to the surface now and then. I'm thinking about the way poor people live: their empty cupboards; thin, worn coats wrapped around their children; fires that consume their shabby apartments when old wires do that which old wires will do when over-challenged. My life has always been about finding a deeper meaning; I've struggled to make a difference, and often felt that I do not. It might be that part of "high time" which can be described as "too late", and, certainly, I have obligations close to home which I must not neglect, including a recent and sincerely-meant promise to take better care of myself and show a bit more gratitude to all those elves who flocked to my door when I groused about being sick and needing food or water or an extra blanket.

But when those obligations have been met, and the mechanisms have been put in place to insure that their fulfillment continues, I'll be out in the community, looking for someone who needs that which I am able to give. This city offers many opportunities for a determined person, and I am nothing if not that.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley
Brookside, Kansas City, Missouri

The Missouri Mugwump™

My photo
I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.