Saturday, April 24, 2010

Saturday Musings, 24 April 2010

Good morning,

Saturday is but an hour old. The sentient beings in my dwelling all sleep, save me; and my wakefulness is like that of the Star Babies -- stemming from too much excitement, the wrong kind of food, or just natural stubbornness, on account of which they struggle against the drooping eye and the heavy head.

I wrap myself in the hand-woven shawl carefully and tenderly created by an old weaver in Newton County, more than two decades ago. I pull it close against my skin and think about her rough hands working the loom, swiftly laying the yarn -- the greens, the blues, the creams. I watched her creating the pattern -- warp and weft, in, out, over, under.

Music still resonates within me from the concert we attended tonight at the VALA Gallery, as though the singer has sought harbor in my living room, just beyond the easy reach of my remaining hearing. In my mind, I see an image of her thin frame resting on the brown wooden stool where I myself have perched, the window onto Johnson Drive behind her. She bent her head as she sang, and shut her eyes, and sent her voice gently into the room. You've ruined me for anyone else, she told a lover, in tones both urgent and passionate. It's too late for me; save yourself. I pressed a white rose against my face, breathed in its fragrance, and watched the other listeners, smiling, perhaps to myself, perhaps for the one who had extended her hand to me in peace as I came into the room.

I remember other rooms, other nights -- other stools on which other performers sat and serenaded me. I travel, in space, in time, in geography, and find myself in St. Louis, on a spring night like this one, with a Canadian expatriate behind whom is an expanse of glass beyond which cars travel on Euclid Avenue in the Central West End of St. Louis. He bends his own head, and croons to his own lost loves, while in the back room, dart players long past the legal limit toss tiny weapons at the circle on the wall and holler at each other. Beer sloshes out of their mugs, and the collective eyes of their girlfriends roll, while I sit, distant, detached, not long for the city and in some ways, already gone.

I blink, and between the inhale and the exhale, I find myself on Westport Road, outside of yet another bar at closing time, in the Kansas City of the 1980s, when we could not get enough of whatever they were selling. Summer nights offered only the unrelenting stretch of heat, and the rising noise of the unfulfilled, lingering on the sidewalks, jingling their keys, scanning the throngs for the shortest skirt, the skimpiest blouse, the tightest blue jeans. Street musicians provide a frenzied soundtrack for the crowd's desperate ritual. My back to the wall, I watch the watchers, and avoid their eyes. I am not interested. I am beyond their reach.

I turn, just for an instant, and find myself on a rough wooden bench outside of Joe and Cecille's place in the valley beyond the town of Jasper, Arkansas. Another guitar, another singer, and the long, lean stretch of my confident body in which there is just the tiniest spark of life. I ease myself back against the picnic table and close eyes, though they lie behind my Hollywood lenses. The heavy swathe of my uncut hair falls well past the middle of my back and plays against the thin cloth of my shirt. I do not know failure. I carry this child, and I carry myself; and the determined wind of autumn in the mountains cannot chill me. The song surrounds but does not claim me.

The wind shifts, and I am in my kitchen, in Brookside, fifteen years later. A rising whisper of music draws me to the door at the foot of the stairs. I tilt my head, uncomprehending. I feel the smoothness of the glass knob in my hand as I draw the door open, slowly, silently, trying not to reveal my presence. I stifle a gasp as I realize that the music comes from a guitar that has been gathering dust, an instrument that I have despaired of ever hearing my son play. I lean against the door frame, suddenly overcome. I hear his voice rise to meet the notes he plays -- faltering at first, then gaining strength, and I realize that I have stopped breathing. I know this song, I think. This is Lynyrd Skynyrd. This is something real.

Once more, I close my eyes; and when I open them, I find myself in a folding chair in the back of a classroom. A small clutch of students grasp their instruments, eyes on their teacher. My son raises a violin to his chin -- a violin, no less, which I did not even know he could play. He waits -- intent, hovering, waiting for his cue. As he draws his bow across the strings, my heart stops. This cannot be, I tell myself.

They are playing The New World Symphony, which provided the inspiration for the spiritual sung at my mother's funeral. The haunting melody that she loved, performed twenty-four years after her death, by the grandson she never met. Goin' home, goin' home, I'm a goin' home; Quiet-like, some still day, I'm jes' goin' home. Between the strains of the student orchestra's rendition of Dvorak's composition, I hear my cousin's voice, a Capella, as the pallbearers lift my mother's casket and process out of the church. When I can breathe again, the music has ended, and I go berserk with applause, oblivious to my son's embarrassment.

Dawn hovers to the east. Somewhere morning has already come, and the birds have already coaxed sleepy soldiers from their berths. Somewhere, a mother croons to the infant suckling at her breast, hoping for another hour of peace, in which she herself can lean back against the headboard, close her eyes, and let the soft sounds of her baby's breathing lull her back to sleep.

In the still of what remains of this night, outside my bedroom window, my drunken neighbors laugh with careless disregard for the time. Strains of music from their CD player barely reach into my room, obscured by the fan of an air purifier.

I have my own music, vibrant, strong, at times soothing. A rising, wild and raucous blend of all the singers, all the guitar players, all the mournful saxophones on all the stoops in all the cities where I have lived. I do not need a stereo. I need only close my eyes, and listen to every song that I have ever heard, in every pub, beside every campfire, in every dingy living room, over every phone line, down every open stairwell.

In these quiet hours, when the pill I have taken to dull the pain does not, and I am plagued by wakefulness, I let the melodies rise within me. I am never alone. I am never desolate. The music never fails me.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Maternal Musings: 18 April 2010

Listmates and others:

I promised myself that I would remain calm: I would not cry, I would not gasp. I would hold within me the pain of his birth, the pleasure of his growth from tiny being to tall man. For myself, it would be a way of managing the shock of realization; for him, it would be the gift of a mother's release.

And yet, when I saw him on the simple thrust stage for the first time, I did what I had vowed not to do, and did not do what I had vowed to do.

As I sit now, with my iBook where it was intended to be, where its name directs me to use it, the silence of the hotel room beckons me towards contemplation. My writer's genes urge progression from the personal to the profound. I hear the gentle, steady slipping of each car past this small hotel, the citizens of Greencastle en route to church, or Mama Nunz', where we will later break our own fast. I lift the paper container of re-heated Fair Trade coffee for a scalding microwaved sip and think about the cheerful faces of the young people in the hubbub of the room in which I purchased the cup yesterday. I think of the earnest profile to my right, at a square metal table, lifting his own cup to slightly shuddering lips. A profile seen at a distance, a cheek I have stroked, a chin I have seen tremble.

I held my shock within me until the Talk-Back. Even then, cast in their places on the stage, flanking the writer and the director, rapt audience in front, me and my companion second row, stage center -- even then, I waited. But then an audience member commented on the similarities between the actor playing "Ellis at 13" compared with the actor playing "Ellis at 43", asking, "They look and acted so much alike -- are they brothers?" I could not help myself. I don't think so, I blurted out, because the first one is my boy and I have never met the second one!

Everyone laughed, including -- I tell myself now, the morning after -- Ellis At 13, sitting in a life-like tree, the vantage point from which many of his lines had been spoken. The writer went on to address his reason for using the particular actors selected for each role, and I resumed snapping photos of each cast member. Though tears fell, slowly, trickling down the side of my face unheeded, I did not need to worry in the still-dim theatre with the safety of the borrowed apparatus to shield me.

Polvadera, an original play by Steve Timm, theatre professor at DePauw University, startled me with its intensity and its virtue. My son had not spoiled the script; I did not know, before the lights came down to signal the start of the first act, that he had one of two male leads; I did not know the plot; I did not know the ending. I certainly had been unaware that he appeared in nearly all of its scenes, and uttered the words of its most intense metaphor short of the metaphoric portent of its title. The little scamp had hidden all of this from me, even as he vacillated between wanting me to come, and fearing failure if he knew that his performance would be judged through his mother's eyes.

On Saturday, we had strolled through the campus with Patrick. We had started the day with two lovely hours at the charming apartment of his advisor, listening to her lilting voice, never quite shy of its Lebanese beginnings, describing her work, her life, her travels, and the passion of her profession. From there, three short blocks away, we found the student center, with its Green Mountain Coffee in reclaimable cups. We fidgeted for two hours -- or, shall I admit, I fidgeted while my companion patiently followed, holding the camera bag, the hot cup, the heavy handbag. And then, my companion's cell phone announced the imminent arrival of my progeny, as we stood a few feet from the famous boulder around which neither of us had run, clothed or unclothed.

As shocked as I was at my first glance of my son's pearly skin, nearly nineteen years ago, so am I surprised anew with each sighting after time apart. I know my reaction finds parallel in the breast of every mother. Did this creature grow in me? Did I cradle him in my arms? Is that the shin, once tiny, into which the rusty bolt of a playground had thrust itself? The skull that split against the marble window sill? The hands that had pushed against my mouth, urging me to stop singing, once, years ago, when I had not breath to sound the notes without coughing?

The chill of a perfect spring day surrounded us, its gentle wind raising the hair on my arms and lifting the edges of his curls. I tilted my head back to see the entire height of him, noting the slope of his shoulders, wanting to bid him to stand up straight but remembering my own embarrassment when my mother had done so, in reversed circumstances. He let me hug him. Then we walked, the companion keeping a gentle distance, letting me have my moments.

Other students passed us -- some stopping to be named, others calling from offshoots of the path we traversed. Great job last night, man, we heard, time and again. His smile widened. Your son did a great job, several gushed to me, on learning that I was Patrick's mother. I smiled, accepting my due, the maternal payback. Each word of praise affirms my procreational prowess.

The afternoon opened to receive us, and ultimately, my companion flagged, so we left him at the hotel as a reward for shouldering the Saturn's wheel for the eight hours across the flat Midwest. We made the obligatory trip to Walmart and the Verizon Store. Later, this cup of coffee now warmed and set before me then newly purchased, I listened to the quiet words of my only-born, spoken in the student center, words of wonder, words of worry, words thought or spoken by every actor, every child, every man, to every listening mother since time began.

I had feared the play would not be good. My son had said that the cast teased the writer about his words being poetry, but as a visiting parent of a cast member, I knew that I would have to utter words of praise regardless of the play's strengths or weaknesses. Ultimately, my biggest worry rested in the shared DNA with the actor I had come to see. My cursedly honest nature fought the age-old question: Should I praise him, regardless? He and I shared more than our genetic composition: we shared the same naked, mind-numbing, consuming fear.

What if he is no good?

If I tell you that I need not have worried, you will smile. You will sip your own coffee, glance over at your own oblivious children, playing on the lawn as you read, sprawled in front of the TV, romping on the worn living room carpet. You will push away the laptop and pull your own son toward you for a stolen hug, from which he will squirm, muttering -- oh come on Dad! -- and you will ruffle his hair before he gets away. Of course she thought he was good -- he's her son.

But therein lies the crux of it. I have acted, and I have written, and I have directed. I have been on both sides of the stage and behind its heavy curtains, dressed in black, moving the stage props into position, laying the marks on the worn floorboards. I have spoken lines and written them; I have moved through stage directions and given them. I know, ultimately, when the universe shifts, and clicks into place, that the characters on stage are actors giving them life, though at the same time, those characters have a life within the fluttering pages of the script.

After the first shock of seeing my son, after the first lines were spoken and the first scene unfolded, my mother's mind released him. Somewhere between the first joke and the last line, both of which he uttered, I forgot I had birthed this six-foot creature. And then, to my surprise, I forgot he was acting.

Polvadera disturbed me. Its words resonate. Poetry aptly describes the rhythm of its message. I will not spoil it for you -- because I believe it will find greater audience, and it should come unspoiled into the world. In the playbill of its first publication, the names of the first actors to perform it will appear, and in that list, one name will carry its simple message. I have arrived, Mother; and you were here to see it.

I have stayed too long at the Inn. I must pack my bags, and awaken the sleeping thespian, and buy him one last good meal. I must throw some of his belongings into my vehicle, and give myself one last moment to gaze at his form before I journey back to Kansas City, across Indiana, and Illinois, and then Missouri. I am comforted by the acquisition of a souvenir that I could not have planned on finding in the campus bookstore, or the little shop along the highway. As I lean my head against the glass of the passenger's window, I will carry that souvenir deep within me: the knowledge that, at last, my job is done, and I can rest.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Missing Musings

Good evening, all:

I will be in Greencastle, IN this weekend seeing my son in his first full-length theatre performance. I think it highly unlikely that I will get up on Saturday morning to write my usual Musings. Please forgive my remission. Watch for Monday Morning Musings and please, be at peace.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Saturday Musings, 10 April 2010

Good morning,

The heady, heavy air of spring rushed into the house when I opened the door to get the paper. I stood on the concrete pad of my porch and gazed upward, into the steepness of the cathedral ceiling with its carefully angled strips of oak and car siding. Through the openings to the south, I see the neighbor's roof and an early-rising squirrel watching me, while at my feet, the black cat signals his intent to enter, feast, and commence yowling to be set free again.

I've clad my feet in thick grey socks that once belonged to someone else. Around my shoulders, I've snuggled a small robe, pale coral in color, tied at the waist. I stand for a moment, plastic-clad newspaper in my hands, and listen to the twitter and chirp of the other living beings who share this first burst of day. The sun rises to my left and the neighbors, not yet aware of the dawn, sleep in their sturdy houses, under their light blankets, with their children in other rooms, dreaming of summer.

My week passed almost without incident and ended with a mildly satisfying trip to Joplin and a more pleasant dinner in Lee's Summit. Now I am faced with the demands of the weekend -- breakfast with a friend later this morning, if he remembers; house-work; grocery shopping; and finishing my taxes. I close the door against the morning air and listen for the three short tones that signal the readiness of my coffee, and place the paper on the table.

As I move about the house, I am unable to ignore the signs of age. My left knee, the only one I have which came to me at birth, has developed a bright pain that I suspect is arthritis. Its metal twin is making what I perceive as a clacking noise, but which surely cannot be audible. A knot resides between my shoulders with smug insistence; in the small of my back, those pesky Tarlov cysts seem to wrench themselves every time I bend to tie my shoes or fold laundry.

That I can do these ordinary chores, with or without pain, still comforts me. In four years, I will be the age at which my mother died. On Easter Sunday, I had an idle conversation about ironing handkerchiefs -- which I still carry, lest my mother suffer post-humous restlessness -- and found myself breathless at the memory of sitting beside my mother, with a small toy iron that I warmed by placing it against hers, pressing handkerchiefs, and linen napkins, and other small items, on a folded towel laid over something -- a table? A wooden box? I close my eyes and strain, but I cannot recall. Something child-height.

A few days ago, I sat in juvenile court across from two drug-addicted parents and beside my client, the paternal grandmother of two unrelentingly adorable boys both of whom tested positive for amphetamines at birth. With downcast eyes and flagging bodies, the parents listened as their lawyers stood, one after another, to agree, on the record, to the latest allegations of continued drug use. Desperate to hold onto even a slim chance of reunification, these two had purchased hair from a salon and sent it to a private facility for testing. But their conduct had been discovered, and the juvenile officer's attorney had used the unspoken threat of prosecution for fraud to strong-arm the stipulation into which they silently entered. They are incorrigible, the Court had been told. Oh, the word did not appear in the amended pleadings, but others did, and the meaning could not be mistaken.

I had been called incorrigible just days before this sad tableau unfolded. A host, gesturing me to sit while others set the table, chastised me with a twinkling eye and upturned mouth. You are incorrigible! Sit down, I told you! We'll get this done! And sit I did, though not without the occasional foray for a vase, or to put ice into the goblets, or to straighten the table cloth. Each time I crept across the living room to lend a brief hand, the laughter of those present sent me scurrying back to my perch. You are incorrigible! they cried. It became the day's gleeful mantra. License to label -- liberty to laugh.

How very different from the incorrigible tendencies of parents who faced the potential, permanent loss of their children and, seemingly oblivious to the risk, still used the drugs with which they had poisoned their children's systems from conception. I shifted on the chair as the judge spoke her sharp words of condemnation, words tinged with disgust, flavored with a mild confusion, edged with anger. We were here six months ago, she snapped. What happened? Why are we starting from square one? Neither parent raised their eyes. I watched the bodies of their lawyers. I saw their muscles tighten; they shrank into their chairs, away from their clients, away from the stench of failure that hung in the windowless courtroom.

Later that day, I got a message from my son. What would you think if Little Girl lived in the House next year,he asked. "Little Girl" is our pathetic brown epileptic dog. "The House" is the fraternity house of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, which my son has pledged. Do you think that's wise, I answered, with the rapid clack of keys that characterizes our conversations now that he lives so far away. Maybe not, he admitted. But wouldn't that be cool? Indeed. I stared at the green indicator beside his name on my G-Chat window, and thought of the difference between my life and the life that I could have led. Let's talk about it this summer, I hedged. Now, about Winter term. . .and our discussion turned to the impending deadline for selection of next year's off-campus adventure. We talked about the upcoming performance which I am traveling to see, and the impending "workshopping" of his acting monologue, and whether he needed new shoes. Then he signaled the end of his present tolerance for our mother-son communion. We said our goodbyes, and I watched as his green light faded to grey.

Whether the bright hope of our children's birth fades or grows depends upon our relentless pursuit of our parental obligations. I do not know -- cannot say -- what pulls one person in the direction of the kind of incorrigibility of which I am guilty rather than the doggedly destructive behavior that results in the quiet filing of a petition to terminate parental rights. I close my eyes, and once again, I am lifting a small tin iron to the hot surface of the Sunbeam, and my mother's liquid brown eyes, with all their love and confidence, encourage me to take the heated toy, and press it gently against the fragile linen of her embroidered handkerchiefs. And I do so, not fearing the knock on the door, or the stern voice, or the face of justice.

Now the sun is higher in the sky. Outside, the neighborhood dogs have begun their roll call, and the mockingbird calls to the robin. One cat sleeps behind me in my small wooden chair, and the other lies in his customary sprawl in a patch of light that warms the vinyl of our kitchen floor. What surrounds me is modest, but compared to the emptiness of a one-room flat in which the voices of children no longer resonate, my home is a palace, and I am its astonishingly contented queen.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Saturday Musings, 03 April 2010

Good morning,

After the gathering doom and deluge of Friday, Saturday's pale blue spans triumphantly over my neighborhood. Although the cold raises a smattering of goosebumps down my shoulders, I blissfully paddle around the house in my pajamas, feeling the sweet pull of the spring air as I step onto the porch to retrieve the morning paper. The sound of the news carrier's engine awakened me at 5:30, and I lay in the freshness of the day, beneath the steep pitch of my bungalow's roof, listening to the sounds of the sleeping house.

Last evening, I attended the opening reception at the new location of an artists' cooperative and gallery with which I have an affiliation. Compared with the VALA Gallery's former location, the facility it now occupies in Mission is palatial. Its founder and one of its artists-in-residence is my friend Penny Thieme, and the little I am able to do to support her is small repayment for the gift of her presence in my life and that of my son. Penny has struggled to establish the Gallery as a legitimate artspace, competing with the well-funded commercial enterprises in Kansas City's Crossroads district. Though many of the attendees at the reception last evening had direct connections with the featured artist, or with Penny or others connected to the Gallery, we did see new and unfamiliar faces, and the event received nods in the monthly listings for First Friday events in our community.

Elsewhere in Kansas City, poets gather to set a world record for poetry reading. I greet the endeavor by Prospero's Bookstore with mixed emotions. I hold a long-standing grudge with the place. The establishment's owners chose to move it from a perfectly respectable flat-surface storefront to its present, three-story non-accessible location some years ago, at a time when I struggled to overcome a worsening disability and the ravages resulting from my little pedestrian-car incident. Prior to its move, I had regularly haunted its aisles. As an addicted reader and inveterate purchaser of used books, I resented the wholesale ruination of one of my cherished Saturday morning occupations, especially as Brookside's Bloomsday Books moved downtown shortly after Prospero's relocated so that I was simultaneously stripped of two of my favorite Saturday pursuits.

The first time I stepped into Prospero's non-accessible facility, shock rippled through my body. It is not just a multi-story facility. It is doggedly obstacle-ridden; its downward stairs are steep, metal and open, sharply dropping to a lower region characterized by the sloping concrete floors of a turn-of-the-century basement. I complained to the city, the supposed watch-dog of all things ADA in the public realm, but the city would not act, due to the age of the building and the economic infeasibility of the requisite accommodations. The response of the store's owners gave little solace: They assured the city that a list of all of the books shelved in their basement could be reviewed by any customer, and the desired book fetched by store employees.

I am used to such solutions. Perhaps those who do not face the reality of encounter with insurmountable physical challenges consider that offering assistance suffices. It does not. Nor does the cold march of print on a page even weakly substitute for running one's hand down the length of a book's spine and across the crisp edges of its page. I don't choose books by their titles. I choose them by the flow of their words and the music of their language. I am a book-lover; I am a writer, and a reader, and a relentless pursuer of lyrically constructed paragraphs the content of which is sometimes irrelevant. A list of titles sits in front of me with cold impertinence, while a span of books snuggled together on dusty shelves draws me as surely as the pungent smell of the simmering fix entices a junkie.

The aim of accommodation should be to provide a level playing field: My experience should be parallel to that of an able-bodied person. If an able-bodied person can gleefully browse the dusty environs of the paperback fiction section, so, too, should I be able to do so. My inability to safely navigate stairs should not diminish my shopping pleasure.

But practical realities prevailed. Prospero's did not have to meaningfully accommodate. My choice, then, came down to this: Browse their selections by list, and choose a book that the salesperson retrieved -- or cease to patronize their store. I chose the latter.

Last spring, though, I wandered 39th Street in search of divertissement after a quiet, solo lunch at my favorite bistro, Rm. 39. With the warmth of its luscious fare and hot Earl Grey in my belly, I broke the boycott, and stepped across the threshold of Prospero's for the first time in several years.

I cannot satisfactorily explain the convergence of place, time, and temperament that results in the unfurling of a turning point. Fragments of mood, and portent, and personality assemble in a mosaic of momentum and open a path; I set my foot upon it, and take a gingerly step, and the path invites forward motion. The sworls of life's avenue beckon; the swaying branches of the old, learned trees lining the road draw me onward.

Perversely, on that April day last year, I sought a certain mystery book which, if it existed in their inventory, would be on the slanting-floor-to-floor-joist-
ceiling shelves in the basement. I stood at the top of the most dangerous stairway, and glanced at the man behind the counter. How easily I could fall, I reminded myself. And the eyes of the Prospero's clerk caught mine, as though I had spoken aloud. Let me help you, he offered, and before I could snarl a surly declination, he had placed a hand on my elbow, and guided me down to its nether reaches.

I found a book, not the book that I had sought but a randomly chosen one that I later realized I had already read. I returned to the first floor to purchase it, and the man who had assisted me did so again, smiling with a gentleness that could not be met with vile response; inclining his head, just barely nodding, he told me that he had a friend in Oregon who liked the author of the book that I was buying. He's looking for a few from this series, I was told; and I admitted to owning several of the titles that his friend sought. We exchanged e-mail addresses, and I exited, finding myself back on the sidewalk, before I even had a chance to complain about the inconvenience of the store's facility.

For the rest of 2009 and into 2010, I developed a friendship with the man from Oregon. I learned of his own literary preferences; read his poetry; ate bagels and lox in his kitchen, shared coffee, and lunch, and laughter with him. Still, I resisted patronizing Prospero's, at which, it developed, my friend is actually a volunteer. He occasionally retrieved a volume for me; he would take my list and scan their inventory; and from time to time, I would venture into the place just to meet him before breakfast, or lunch, or some other pleasurable activity on which he and I planned to embark. I could not engage in any meaningful truce with Prospero's itself: I maintained my boycott of one, unknown though it might be to the owners. I had taken a stand, and my line-in-the-sand had been drawn to serve my own moral outrage.

My friend's gentle countenance became an integral part of my life's tapestry. He shared our table at Christmas; rang in the New Year with us; listened as I fretted over my son's Calculus grade. When I rejoiced, he rejoiced; when I bemoaned, he gently sympathized, urging me to analyze the situation and recognize its solution. And then, last month, my friend announced that he had decided to return to Eugene, and I faced a hard reality: His life consists of much more than merely serving as my satellite.

The shock startled me. How self-absorbed I had been, assuming his contentment; taking for granted that this sweet soul took sufficient satisfaction from living in his studio apartment, surrounded by his towering bookshelves; meeting the friends of his friends; waiting on his regular customers and later describing their idiosyncrasies over tea with me or one of the other people into whose lives he has come in the two years that he has lived in Kansas City. In the seventh decade of his life, could serving as adjunct to others' existences be enough? Stuck in the Midwest, far from his children, far from streets with which he has an easy intimacy, whose shops met his steps for so many years that the contours of their floors match the angle of his gait -- could he possibly be happy?

Last Sunday, my friend headlined Prospero's poetry reading. He invited me to attend the first public reading of his work, and I accepted. I asked others to join me. I haven't gone to a poetry reading for decades, and looked forward to the event. I put aside my trepidation, my disgust with the store's seemingly indifferent owners, for the sole purpose of pleasing someone who has become an integral part of my life.

When the phone rang Sunday morning, I recognized my friend's number and greeted him with an inquiry as to the presence of Lepidoptera in his stomach. I am so sorry to have to tell you this, came his reply. Sorry, shocked and disgusted. But the poetry reading is upstairs -- up a very steep and nearly impossible flight of stairs. I never thought of that.

So there it was, at last. My reckoning. What end would I serve -- the making of a social statement, or the honoring of someone who has become infinitely dear to me, in the very brief time that I have been gifted with his daily presence in my life? Did I honor my allegiance to those who cannot climb, or do I forsake our solidarity by climbing to the second floor, disrespecting my unity with those more impaired than me?

This might strike some as a ridiculous contemplation. Insignificant, even. But for me, declining to patronize establishments which persons of more profound disability cannot even choose to enter or disdain symbolizes my unity with my disabled brothers and sisters. I am neither fish nor fowl: I can walk, though with difficulty, and pain, and struggle. I can occupy a second-floor bedroom, though my child worries because I do, and my longtime friend and co-worker shook his head with astonishment when I decided to take over my son's bedroom upon his decampment to college. But while I am semi-able-bodied, still, I understand the stark realities of handicap, and I have long thrown my allegiance to the camp of the physically challenged.

On Sunday, at the appointed hour, I retrieved my companion for the evening at her home and drove to Prospero's. My friend met us on the sidewalk, and I could see his nervousness, in the cant of his head and the slight tremble of the hand he placed on my arm as he bent to kiss my cheek. Are you sure you want to do this, he said, unwittingly speaking the exact words that my brother Stephen had whispered to me as we walked down the aisle towards the preacher and my first husband in a country church on the side of a mountain in the Arkansas Ozarks. Yes, I am, I had said to Steve, and so I said, now, to Mark Alan Zorn, my able-bodied Jewish poet friend from the Bronx by way of Oregon.

I climbed the stairs, with Mark and my friend Paula ahead of me. I do not do well if I am first; the eyes of followers inspires a quickening of my trepidation and a stiffening of my limbs. They flanked the top of the steep stairs and guided my last step. Their smiles rewarded me, and warmed me as I gazed around the room. Large, and open, reaching into the unfettered rafters of the old building, the space mirrored many in which I heard poetry in decades past -- rough, expansive, unfinished, unhampered by pretense, or drywall, or ceiling tiles.

As I absorbed the room in which I found myself, a figure strode towards our group. I'm so glad you could come, the man said, urging me into the expanse of an outreached arm. Thus did I encounter my nemesis -- the store's co-owner, Will Leatham, on whose unwitting shoulders I had, for no small measure of time, heaped my disgust at the inadequacy of Prospero's and the dogged refusal of its management to recognize the injustice of its shortcomings.

I had resolved to detest him. Worse, I suppose -- I had decided to treat him with condescending coldness. I recognized that open hostility would disrespect my friend to whom the hour belonged. But I wore my dimmest smile and intended to resist expanding to true friendliness. I steeled myself, cold within my rigid body, while those who had come with me moved towards the circle of chairs and Mark hovered on the periphery of the encounter.

Will Leatham's quiet voice penetrated my indignation. I am really sorry about the stairs, he told me. We're trying to figure out how we can make this place better for everybody. We just don't have room downstairs for a function like this, or money to put in an elevator. He steered me a ways into the large upper floor, gesturing towards one corner. That's the logical place for an elevator, but structurally, we found out we can't cut into that area. But we're working on the problem; we'll come up with something. I really appreciate your coming; I know it means a lot to Mark.

Some of his words were spoken at the outset; some, after Mark's reading, on the first break. I wanted to disbelieve him. Even now, I can't say whether he spoke from sincerity or as a pre-emptive strike to my outrage. But at the time, I felt he wanted to be believed, and that his desire for me to feel more at ease arose from a genuine desire for my comfort, and for the friend of his associate to feel welcome.

A week has passed. Now I open my Saturday paper and see a picture of that same man holding his small son to a microphone as part of Prospero's attempt to set a world's record for continuous poetry reading. As I write, Mark Zorn is preparing to take the microphone at Prospero's for his twenty minutes of fame, and as soon as these musing are proofed and sent, I will open the live streaming and listen to him. My world has turned, and the sun has risen, and its gentle light has shifted the shadows.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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.